Scratching Beneath the Surface

My figure-drawing teacher once told our class an anecdote about being in a master class when she had been student. Her art teacher, at the beginning of the weeklong class, handed each student one piece of very large, heavy, handmade 22” x 24” drawing paper. For the entire first day, students labored with their charcoal, erasing, correcting, shading and listening to the teacher. She suggested strokes and pointed out ways to get better depth while also cheering them on. At the end of the class, the students displayed their drawings.

“We were so pleased with ourselves,” she said. “And then he had us erase our work.”

“Erase your work?” we asked.

“Yes. We wiped the images off of the page with a cloth. And we weren’t happy. The point was,” she continued, “he didn’t want us to fall in love with our work, at least not the first draft. He didn’t want us to be satisfied. He wanted to show us that letting go of our work is essential for making art.”

“For the rest of the week,” she said, “we erased every single day’s work until the last day.”  The teacher was able to show them how much better they all had become. Their work had changed.  The class wasn’t just about figure drawing, it was also about creating a new perspective on how to view their work; they had been given a tool to create some distance. Once they let go, they got better.

I think of this story often, as an exercise even, both when I am working on a drawing and more lately as I write. It’s very easy to be lulled into loving our own work. Who hasn’t met a child thrilled with their stick figure drawing? The satisfaction of creating something hasn’t changed too much for me. But I want to be a better writer and a better artist, and if that means erasing everything and starting over, then so be it.

The American artist Robert Rauschenberg, who in the early 1950s created a series of entirely white paintings, was curious to see if art could be created by erasing art: an erased drawing, a blank page. But it wasn’t really blank. He started by erasing his own drawings, but felt it was missing something. In 1953, another artist, Willem de Kooning, liked the concept of this technique, and gave him a very complicated drawing made with crayons, ink, and charcoal. It took Rauschenberg over two months to erase it using a variety of erasers. The end result was a blank, but obviously drawn-on and erased, piece of paper. It was framed with an inscription by fellow artist Jasper Johns “Erased de Kooning Drawing, Robert Rauschenberg, 1953.”  The frame and the inscription help provide the viewer with a context. The original art on the page is art; removing the art from the page is also art.

Artists have painted over and started over on the same canvas forever. X-rays can detect original work beneath a painting or drawing. The Mona Lisa for example, when examined by X-ray, shows that Da Vinci originally placed her hands in one position and then moved them to another for the final painting. In fact, at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, there are several paintings displayed side by side with an X-ray of the original work to show what is underneath. Both the paintings and the X-rays come with artist’s statements that explain how and why the work changed: more depth from the final angle, better proportions, a better model, etc.  All work has a past that can’t be seen.

As writers, we start over all the time. It isn’t that unusual to begin with a project or theme in mind and watch it take on a life of its own, one that is often unrecognizable. Was that really the intention? Is that really what I wanted to say? I had better start over.

Giving our work to others for erasing, correcting, or editing can also be difficult. I have to remind myself that there is something beautiful about this. Having my work “erased” by contemporary writers is an honor. Maybe if I move my Mona Lisa’s hands over two centimeters to the right, I will have a masterpiece. Maybe I need to completely delete the first page. Maybe my mentor is right and there is only one good paragraph in the entire piece. Beneath all of it, whether it’s visible by X-ray or you can see the dust of an eraser, the process of letting go and starting over draws out the best of our selves as artists and writers.

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One Night, Strunk and White

When my fifth-grader returned home Saturday after a week at Outdoor Science School, she brought a twine necklace strung with acorns and colorful beads, an endless stream of facts about the natural world on the mountain, and several riddles she learned from her counselors. Her week at OSS was the first time she’d been away from home, and so when she ran into the house she was overflowing with excitement about her first trip. The cabins (top bunk!); her meals (dessert every day!); the animals (baby frogs and a corn snake!); the owl pellet she dissected (a mouse skull and a shrew bone!). All day, until she was tucked into her bed and finally lulled to sleep by the tap-tap-tap of raindrops against the window pane, the house was filled with her lispy, delighted, never-ending anecdotes.

Custom LPS by Esme Orr photo ©2015 Arielle Silver

photo ©2015 Arielle Silver

 

I try to be an involved parent. I try to ask the kids engaging questions, encourage them to dig deeper into the events of their day, reflect back to them what they say so they can hear it for themselves, and then allow them to enhance or revise or elaborate. But on Saturday, juggling good parent practices with my overwhelming stack of spring semester work? Let’s just say that while she happily shared her OSS adventures, I alternated between listening and musing on the phrase “what you resist persists.” Open on the table in front of me lay Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. I had resisted it since high school.

That I have not ever read this slim volume is a bit hard to justify. It takes a day to read, and afterwards not much space on the bookshelf. It’s available for free online in pdf format. Most importantly, though, for an MFA candidate with an affinity toward writing, teaching, and editing, it’s an essential tool that cannot be ignored. Eliminate three out of those fourMFA candidate, writer, teacher, editorand it is still necessary. When I recently began serving as Blog Editor here at Lunch Ticket, I realized I cannot continue to ride on my grammar and copyediting intuition. I need the vocabulary to explain my editorial suggestions. I need clear reasoning for my choices. I need cold, hard, plain, simple, black and white—Strunk and Whiteguidance.

Dry, right? Elements of Style, though, is not as much about boring rules as it is intelligent advice. All writers of any genre need to craft clear, effective, engaging, bold sentences. Whether novelist, memoirist, or blogger, not having a handle on these tips is a liability.

In E.B. White’s introduction, he quotes from Strunk’s principle #17 (omit needless words):

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

“That every word tell,” I reread several times. It is a compelling statement. With the drawing and machinery comparisons, it hits home. Unnecessary words and unfocused structure are part of the first-draft process, but a discerning reader can tell a first draft from a polished piece. First drafts hem and haw. They clear their throats and hesitate over ideas. They meander. A discerning reader—an editor, say—may wade through, but a non-discerning reader won’t spend the time traversing rough spots to mine the gems. They will simply move on to another story. Strunk and White’s statement is, in four words, an argument for careful revision. The Elements of Style provides the writer a checklist for that process.

The book begins with basic punctuation and grammar rules that any writer should inherently know, followed by a list of composition principles I wish every blogger, essayist, reporter, memoirist, novelisteven Facebook poster, dare I suggest—would consider. Structure of the parts, and of the whole. Clarity of expression. Parallel construction of ideas. Economy of words. Verb tense agreement.

faces

Normalcy ©2015 Arielle Silver

While I scratched notes into the margins, my kid bounced off the couch.

“Do you like riddles?” she asked, stopping her dance mid-twirl, arms spread out wide. At ten, truly, all the world’s a stage.

She is an effervescent joy to our family. She has super powers, has been writing a book since third grade, and has well-timed, absurdist humor. It seems, while she has watched her older sister navigate teenage dramas, she dug her heels into childhood, determined to hang on to simple pleasures until life insists on the inevitable next phase. I can’t say if it’s her jokes or her giggles, but at least once a week we alleven the teenagerend up laughing till we’re in tears.

Here’s one of the riddles she brought home from OSS:

Q: One night, a king and a queen went into a castle. The next day, three people came out. What happened?

A: One knight, a king, and a queen went into a castle. Obviously, the homophone is the key. Night/Knight.

Half-listening to her and half-studying Strunk and White led me to consider this riddle from a craft perspective, and I found two other tricks within it that are meant to confound the listener. Sleight of hand is a puzzler’s prized tool, and a riddle’s only goal is to hide an answer in plain sight. When this teaser is spoken aloud, you can almost hear the lack of comma between “a king and a queen”. A serial comma, as I inserted in the answer above, further helps to reveal the three people who emerged from the castle.

The most cunning tricks, though, are the most subtle. As I turned this teaser over, a topic covered in Part II of The Elements of Style came to mind. This is a principle Strunk and White call “express coordinate ideas in similar form.” They write:

This principle, that of parallel construction, requires that expressions similar in content and function be outwardly similar. The likeness of form enables the reader to recognize more readily the likeness of content and function.

Exactly contrary to Strunk and White, this riddle utilizes non-parallel structure to help mask its solution. One k/night is followed by a king and a queen. This use of non-parallel structure is meant to trick the listener.

Until now I’d never dissected a riddle. I suppose if you are a riddler, you might consider using non-parallel structure as a tool to disguise the solution. For other writers, however, our goal is not to confound the reader, but to write as clearly as possible. We puzzle in our process so there is no confusion in our final manuscript. We should always strive to give a reader the clearest expression of our thoughts. For parallel structure, we would write one knight, one king, and one queen or a knight, a king, and a queen. Parallel structure. Clarity of expression. Concise writing.

As my joyful kid twirled her way through the afternoon, and I made my way through The Elements of Style, I found myself siding with past teachers who once waved their copy of this book to the class. Anne Lamott writes in Bird by Bird, “the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”  She goes on:

You need to start somewhere. Start by getting somethinganythingdown on paper… [But] the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.

Another joke from OSS:

The present, the past, and the future walk into a bar. It was tense.

With all those mixed tenses hanging out together, I am sure it was. Luckily, this and other things are covered in a beautifully quick read: The Elements of Style.

What, you don’t have a copy?  Get a copy here (or wherever you like to get books), or download a pdf version here.

©2014 Arielle Silver

©2014 Arielle Silver

Gerardo Garduño, Intervention of the Space, 2013. Acrylic paint, ink, and pencil on paper, 28 x 20 in.

Fabric of the Cosmos, & Other Paintings

A collection of surreal ink drawings inspired by sacred geometry exploring the relationship between human perceptions and impossible worlds…

Writing: The Toolbox

Writing for twenty-five years for a living, I have always written for the reader, for the audience, the assignment, the producer, the director, the co-author, the publisher, the agent, and—as is the case with most writing for hire—almost never for myself. For twenty-five years I have faced those who have paid for my writing services with one question: “Who do you want me to be?” and never asked, “Who am I?”

Writing personal essays in the Antioch MFA Creative Nonfiction program, in addition to my ordinary deadlines of scripts, proposals, treatments, and books, has forced me to face that mirror I usually throw up to others. Revealing my identity is like blowing my cover and imperiling my security clearance. It’s like stepping into the sunlight after years in Plato’s Cave. See how bright the sun really is? Out in the light, I squint, I cringe at my pallor; at a loss, facing a gaping audience, asking me, “Who are you?”


Generally, when I find myself in unfamiliar territory, I do have one advantage: I reach into my toolbox for the tools I have collected over time. These tools have remained the same for over twenty years and they have gotten me through when the going gets ugly. And it always gets ugly.

These are some of my tools of the craft:

1. Forget Needing to Know

I have faced every writing assignment, whether self-imposed or professional, with the same question every time. How will I write this? What on earth will I say? Only after years of asking the same anxious question have I learned not to worry. I don’t have to know. I will figure it out when I get there. I won’t know before I sit down. I won’t know before I think it. I won’t know before I research, before I dream, before I see it, before I start talking to myself and it starts talking to me. That’s when the work truly sparks and animates on its own. I have learned to trust in the internal voice, the dream state, the secret spirit, the program that runs in the background of our daily life, quietly saving information. When it is called to action, it delivers.

I may know nothing about “hockey,” but I know that by the end of a writing project on the subject, I will know everything about hockey. And then I’ll forget it all again, but it’s what we do as writers. We take in life. Run it through our processors. And put it back out, organized into sense and meaning.

 

2. Remember the Reader

For a word to have meaning, it must be read. For a book, a play, an essay to change the fabric of the world, it must be read, and it must want to be read. I spent my early years as a reader of scripts, and after a year of reading the fledgling attempts of inexperienced writers, I came to resent, even hate, every word, every page, every shortcut, every “good enough” effort, which was never good enough. Couldn’t the writer have worked a little harder to grab me from the first line? Have tried a bit more to make this description clear, engaging, and vivid? Couldn’t the writer have bothered to research this a little further? Tried to make the reading a pleasure? To dazzle me, even?

Billy Wilder once said that he had Ten Commandments, and the first nine are “Thou Shalt Not Bore”.

I believe, if you write, you write for a reader. Your meaning doesn’t enter the electric universe until decoded in the mind of another. So make your words count. Make them sing. If you write only to please your own artistic sensibilities, you are missing out on the most magical part of the process: the interaction of your words with the emotions and intellect of a reader. I’ve known enough writers and friends who spent years toiling at their writing, only to put it away in a desk drawer, satisfied with their artistic expression. Untested and unengaged, they’d rather choose to leave their work unedited than approach their writing from a reader’s point of view. You’re certainly free to do that. Ideally, pleasing the reader begins with pleasing yourself. But I say it isn’t truly written until it’s read. So remember the reader, and be kind.

 

3. The Blink

People make decisions in the time it takes to blink an eye. Intuitive judgment happens without our knowing, before it has a chance to reach the processing part of the brain. Malcolm Gladwell discusses this at length in his book Blink.

Your first line is as important as your entire work. Any reader, whether positively inclined, cynical (as I became in those script-reading days), or critical (as any publisher or agent will be), will most likely decide whether they like your writing upon reading your first line. First line, and first page. I spend as much time writing and crafting the first page of my work as I do the working on the dozens of pages that follow. This also applies to the first line of dialogue in a screenplay. The first page of your novel, essay, screenplay, or short story must be perfect, or you’re toast.

Ideally, the first line of any work is not only fresh, engaging, surprising, and compelling, it also evokes the essence of the entire work. It can be subtle, hidden, implied, and only come across by hint. But the opening line of your work should hold within it the germ of your entire idea. Data analysis has determined that a YouTube video only has six seconds to grab and retain the attention of a viewer. Our world is moving ever faster. Attention spans are growing ever shorter. Grab your reader while you can.

 

I will share more of the technique and habits and rules of writing that have worked for me in upcoming blogs. In the meantime, take from this whatever you like and just remember a few things: Don’t worry. Start and you’ll find the story. Grab the reader with the first line. Work hard to earn their attention. Your reader should be treated kindly for making the effort to read your words. Good enough is never good enough.

 

All images courtesy of Bettina Gilois

Shaking Up Your Writing Routine

Driving_03

This past holiday season, instead of the customary trek to the Midwest from California by plane to visit my parents, my husband Dylan and I opted to stay closer to home. Since Dylan recently switched to a new job, in recent months his schedule had been unpredictable. Also, my December residency for the Antioch MFA Creative Writing program was scheduled later than last year, and finished up just a few days before Christmas. Considering these travel-planning idiosyncrasies, we opted to take a road trip to Northern California from Los Angeles for nine days with stops in San Francisco, Humboldt County, and Napa, in that order.

I recently watched the classic holiday film, Planes, Trains & Automobiles, starring Steve Martin and John Candy, in which Martin goes through a series of mind-boggling obstacles to get back home from a work trip in time for Thanksgiving dinner. It occurred to me while watching the film that there is an element of truth behind that commercial, consumer-driven insistence the holidays are a time of love, family, giving, holiday cheer, and goodwill. If you aren’t taking a plane, train, or automobile to get home for the holidays, anxiety begins to descend; you become an anomaly, a rogue, an outlaw, rather than a family values-oriented kind of individual.

Last Thanksgiving, Dylan and I flew through the designated holiday hoops. We booked a flight to visit my younger sister in Cincinnati, Ohio, and at the last minute because of work, Dylan had to change his to an overnight red-eye. He was awake and conscious in Ohio for approximately eight hours before we flew home to L.A. that Sunday morning. As much as I missed them, traveling to visit my parents in my hometown of Mt. Carmel, Illinois (population 8,000), can be an odyssey of connecting flights, inevitable cancellations, and delays. And then, we would have had to rent a car and drive in the snow and/or ice for a few hours after the flight. On a couple of unfortunate occasions, the travel time because of flight delays has rivaled that of going from L.A. to New York, and then back to L.A.

The obvious, cushier alternative was to stay in California and enjoy sailing through the drive from L.A. to San Francisco, an easy green line to follow on Google Maps the entire way. I was struck by how the holidays were less stressful, once the mind-numbing factor of travel time is taken out. A stern phone call from my mother, you need to be here next year, Erin—confirmed my hunch we had indeed “gone rogue.”

Driving_04

Mixing up my “holiday routine” ended up having an effect on my writing routine. Although I would not say I have a writing routine I adhere to on a day-to-day basis, since I have been in the MFA program, I have been trying to find one. That in itself becomes its own routine—the routine of trying to find a routine. As a writer, I also find getting out of a routine (much like getting into one) is just as beneficial for the creative process. To mix up the ideas rattling around in my head until the best ones make themselves known. Yet, shaking up a routine is hard to do—it wreaks havoc on a comfortable mindset, until some kind of re-ordering or semblance can be made out of new information.

Detouring out of conventional routine—like taking a road trip for example, instead of a tried-and-true plane ride home for the holidays—can also have an effect on the unconscious, as well as the conscious, mind. If, like me, you have read (or at least skimmed) dozens of craft books and writing websites for advice, you have picked up on this well-known tip: keep a trusty notebook on your bedside table. If you have a dream, write it down right away after waking up, or else it will disappear into the night and become a trail of moonbeam and stars. What this advice does not always explain is what if inspiration strikes in the middle of the night, when there is someone else sleeping next to you? Out of good manners, I prefer not to switch on the light and start writing, forcing Dylan to wake up and stare at me in confusion. I try to leave a notebook in an easy-to-find place, so as to avoid rummaging around for it in the dark, sounding like a burglar or small animal. It’s then easier to steal away to the restroom and scribble in the muted hours of the night.

During our trip, I had three dreams. The first dream carried a complex storyline—it was impossible to get it all down in the middle of the night—and took place in first-person point of view. I was startled into waking up, in thinking that the events of the dream were happening to me in real time. After I woke up from the second dream, I was able to render it into a short story the next morning, almost frame by frame. This dream happened in the perspective of third-person point of view. The second dream was more as if I was watching a story unfold, instead of inhabiting it. It was still vivid enough that I was able to have a pow-wow with my unconscious while I was asleep, and decided that I could remember enough information to sleep a little longer and would write it down later. If I had woken myself back up again to retrieve my notebook and record the second dream, I might not have missed details I wouldn’t have missed otherwise. But sometimes, just getting the gist of how a story is unraveling can be productive in the process of writing. Minute details are not always relevant details.

Why did I have story-telling dreams during our trip, vivid enough they could be rendered into fiction? Where does this kind of inspiration come from? In short: getting out of your head (and your routine) might send you back into your creative process faster than you think.

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*The third dream happened after we returned, post-road trip, and was the result of watching the Twilight Zone-esque, hyper-surreal British show, Black Mirror, which I highly recommend—although, some of the episodes are darker than others, and can cause nightmares. But, if you are so inclined to the genre, it’s critically acclaimed.

 

Selling Death & Bodies of Water

Selling Death

Even on 5th avenue, it costs money to die.
Especially if you die in a Taco Bell drive-through

or in the kitchenware aisle of Macy’s; it costs
money to die even if you flop down dead

in your own flower garden. I once chased a cat
into a bed of carnations and fell down in the scraggy

twigs, afraid of bees. I could have died but didn’t:
not enough money to. But back to the point: the dying.

Donald Rumsfeld said that death has a tendency
to encourage a depressing view of war. But why stop there?

Death has many tendencies. We’re selling death
short. But if you’ve got the money, why die

just once? I’d pay to die nine times—Think about how
many funerals you could throw with Meryl Streep’s

money. Get Eleven Madison Park to cater, buy
those fancy hand towels for the bathroom. But

will they think of the hand towels when they go
outside to get some air, hands still tingling

on the back porch, and the stars all turning
themselves on like the ends of ecigarettes?

Fuck the stars, they have no money. They live
to travel, and it takes so long. The real stars

are human and could pay to have their name
assigned to any orb of gas they’d like.

 

Bodies of Water

Erica says our bodies aren’t quite canyons,
aren’t lacks or voids where silt has slowly left us
inch by inch. But if not that, then our bodies
are just aquariums for grief. Our bodies are just
containers for material things like water or wine.
I make an appointment to see my doctor. I show her
my body and ask her questions about it.

They make machines to see inside our bodies.
I ask my doctor how much of me is water, how much
of me is salt. There is a way that the water can touch
everything. I have two hands but they keep nothing
inside me. I know that something hatches in the heart
on April nights when voices echo in the alleys.

Brett Elizabeth JenkinsBrett Elizabeth Jenkins lives, writes, and teaches in Saint Paul. Look for her work in Beloit Poetry Journal, Drunken Boat, Potomac Review, Paper Darts, and elsewhere.

Wild Greens Ring in the New Year

Long years after my great-aunt Nora and great-grandaddy Herman passed, a patch of greens grew wild behind their duplex houses, inherited by my mother. The collards showed up earnestly, in broad clusters of green, some summers a little tattered for the sun’s wear.

In the back of my mind, for a few years now, I’ve rolled an image-memory again and again of this old greens patch. We writers tend to do this—carry images, memories, ideas in us until we can find words or page to root them. We carry them with us for miles in our everyday lives, waiting for them to mature, to land, to live somewhere outside us.

“Mama, what’s this growing?” Always, in my memory, Mama asks Granma about the wild patch of greens growing.

In some memories Granma picks a few leaves to carry home, a few blocks down the road. In other memories, Granma doesn’t pick the greens. Either way, she stands there musing about the leaves, her hands on her hips, pocketbook hanging from her left wrist, sunlight pouring through the triangles between the sides of her body and her arms. The light is warm orange, glowing with L.A.’s afternoon haze.

Flowering  Hon Tsai Tai Greens

Flowering Hon Tsai Tai surrounded by Swiss Chard and Cauliflower. © 2015 Kiandra Jimenez

“Nora and Daddy’s greens.” Granma bends over, rubs the leaves of the wild-growing collard plant between her fingers. Always, in all the memories, Granma identifies the plant as aunt Nora and great-grandaddy’s greens.

I’m not sure which memory is right, or if they both hold pieces of the truth. It is likely the memory loop has been chopped, reordered in the miles I’ve traveled with it.

A few things I am sure of—it was the middle of summer; Granma, Mama, and I were standing in the backyard of Mama’s house waiting for Papa (my grandfather) to finish his remodeling work for the day. He had just pulled all the walls and floors down off the back house, exposing the old wooden beams. These houses, moved just a few miles from their original foundation to make way for L.A.’s 110 freeway, had been in the family for decades. Once aunt Nora and Grandaddy’s houses, now they were Mama’s houses. Granma would tell us aunt Nora bought each house for a dollar; the only real cost was moving them through the city and putting them on land.

When I notice I’m carrying an image-memory I mull and ruminate, in an effort to guide it to the page. How do I honor this, why do I hold and carry it, how do I want this memory-image to live outside of me? I push myself to find the memory’s purpose in my life.

These years, aunt Nora, great-grandaddy, Granma long gone, I walk my own garden, tending our food, observing what’s wild-growing, what the bees are feeding on, where the aphids, cabbage loopers, or slugs have migrated, looking for what’s ready to harvest. I come from many generations of farmers—Grandaddy and Big Mama were sharecroppers in Tennessee when Granma was growing up, and all generations before them were farmers. When my family migrated west, and settled in California, they brought their gardens, their ways of growing and raising food. I’ve come to believe my blood is green.

Red Giant Mustard Greens

Red Giant Mustard Greens © 2015 Kiandra Jimenez

In fall, Red Giant mustard greens grow wild in my garden; they are stately, regal, growing tall well into the deep heat of our inland summers. In August they rest till October. They are everything their name implies—giant and violet-red and green. Along the leaves’ edges, they scallop and fold in grooves and hills, often causing the older leaves to curl inward, as if the mustard greens are hugging wind. Its ribs are loud, neon green, stunning against its moody, sensual merlot skin. Its under-skin, the side beneath the burgundy mounds, is covered in a complex pattern of maroon veins on broccoli-green skin. When pricked with a nail, the leaves smell of fresh cabbage and broccoli—slightly sweet, hints of sulfur, but nothing speaks of their raw, peppery bite.

I’ve come to believe gardens hold a piece of our souls in the soil. When we toil, we spill sweat, spit, blood, our energy and intentions into the ground; we give ourselves over to the work and life of Nature, and in return, she feeds us. I like to imagine Nature takes what we offer of ourselves and adorns what grows with those pieces of us. It’s how I’ve started to understand a part of my purpose in Nature’s cycle.

Is writing not like a garden? We toil ourselves over the page, spilling sweat, blood, tears, our energy and intentions into our stories, poems, memoirs. We deliver ourselves, our lives to the page, and in return, she feeds us. She adorns what readers read with pieces of us, they feed, and in a twist of synergy, for a time we writers and readers become one. Not unlike us gardeners becoming one with our food, and us consumers becoming one with our meals.

New Year Greens Harvest

New Year’s Harvest (Mustard, Kale, and Collard Greens)                     © 2015 Kiandra Jimenez

Thursday I picked greens from my garden—collards, kale, mustards, and turnips for our New Year’s dinner. Granma kept with tradition making black-eyed peas, greens, cornbread, and yams for New Year’s, so I do too. Keeping both her and tradition alive. The peas symbolize luck, the greens bring money, the cornbread represents gold, and the sweet yams are for love and health.

My garden, like my food and writing, tells you who I am. Traditional, thoughtful, yet wild around the edges, colorful and soulful. I carry Granma, my people, and a touch of the south in my mouth. Like Granma I muse over collard and mustard leaves in the sun. Like great-aunt Nora, and great-grandaddy I grow wild greens.

While picking greens yesterday I began to get a sense where the image of aunt Nora and great-grandaddy’s wild green patch lives—in my own garden and kitchen. As I go through the process, yearly, of tending what grows, feeding my family recipes passed down generations, I’m also feeding them story and history of who we are. And, these stories matter. My image-memory will become story, passed on, but it will also become a way of living in harmony with the land, of eating close to Nature, of culture and tradition, too. It will become a way for my children to understand who they are, how they relate to Nature, and the generations that have come before them.

New Year Harvest

New Year’s Harvest (Nero di Toscano/Lacinato Kale, Giant Red Mustard Greens, Green Lance Kale Florets, Collard Greens, Herbs–Rosemary, Mexican Oregano, and Thyme.)   © 2015 Kiandra Jimenez

New Year’s Day is steeped with legend, tradition, and history. It is like the pricked mustard leaf. With bravado we bring it in amongst loud neon signs, merlot nights. Everything is slightly sweet, crisp in the midnight air, hints of bitterness may linger if the passing year was particularly difficult, but nothing in the falling confetti speaks of the bites next year will hold. We are none the wiser of how we’ll grow or fail, if we’ll surrender or stiffen, if we’ll soar or resist success—however we define it.

But, what we do know is who we are, who we’ve been, and who we want to become. We know this by the stories we tell, the image-memories we carry around with us, for miles over our lifetime. Who are we? Who are we a part of? How do we honor their lives, our lives? And, how can we live outside of our own skin?

My answer is Nature, story, food, and family folktales and lore; what’s your answer?

 

New Year’s Black Eyed Peas, or Hoppin’ John

 1 lb. black eyed peas, soaked overnight

1 medium, mild onion (or 3 stalks of celery), diced

1 bell pepper, diced (red or green—I prefer red, but green is traditional)

1 lb. of bacon (turkey or pork), cut into pieces (you can substitute a couple of ham hocks, or a smoked turkey leg for the bacon, but you don’t need both bacon and hocks/smoked turkey)

1 qt. of broth (chicken or vegetable), plus extra water

1 piece of Kombu* (optional)

1 clove of garlic (optional)

Salt and Pepper, to taste

1. The day before you plan to eat your peas, sort through the peas, pulling out any rocks, debris, or bad peas. Cover peas with cold water in a large bowl, cover, and soak overnight. In the morning, drain the water from the peas, and rinse well under cool water. Set aside to drain.

2. While the peas are draining, cook bacon pieces over medium-high heat until they release oil. If you are using turkey bacon, you may have to add a bit of oil to the pan. About halfway through cooking, add the onions (or celery) and peppers, cooking them till they are soft, and onions are translucent. Add the garlic, if using, turn down the heat to make sure it does not brown. Alternatively, if you are not using bacon, put a little oil in the pot and sweat the vegetables in the same manner.

3. When the vegetables are done, add the peas, Kombu, ham hock or smoked turkey (if you are using them), and stock to the pot. Add extra water to fill the pot to desired consistency. If you like your peas soupy, add extra water, if you prefer them thicker, less water. Make sure there is lots of water, as some of the water will cook off.

4. Turn the heat to high and bring to a boil. Once boiling, cover, turn the heat down to medium-low and let the beans simmer until soft, about 1 – 1 ½ hours**, stirring from time to time. Season peas with salt and pepper to taste, about halfway through cooking, and again at serving, if necessary.

Serve over rice, with a side of greens, candied yams, cornbread, and a protein of your choice.

 

Vegetarian/Vegan New Year’s Black Eyed Peas or Hoppin’ John:

To make vegan, omit the meat and proceed with recipe, using vegetable stock. To deepen the flavor, add hickory liquid smoke, and soy sauce/tamari/liquid aminos to the stock about thirty minutes into cooking. Additional flavor and texture can be added with imitation bacon bits.

*Kombu is a sea green you can find in natural stores, or online. It helps to tenderize the beans, aid digestion by minimizing gas, and seasons the broth with an umami, savory flavor. It is salty like the sea, high in minerals, but lacks any fishy flavors. This isn’t traditional, but it does enhance the recipe, in my opinion.

**I’ve found cooking time can vary widely, depending on the age of the peas. Begin checking at about an hour in, and every fifteen minutes until done.