I was reading a great passage from chef Gabrielle Hamilton’s memoir this morning, taken from her time as a graduate student at Michigan. At the time, she was trying to become a writer and complete her escape from the kitchens she’d been working in since she was twelve years old. She still cooked on the side during her pursuit of a M.A. in writing, and she writes about driving off-campus to enjoy a meal with one of her coworkers: “Their home was a hundred-year-old brick house with rough-hewn beams exposed in the basement, surrounded by farmland and a land conservancy started by friends and neighbors…there was a hand-me-down tractor sitting in the driveway and the spring night air smelled of tilled earth. There were budding fruit trees scattered around the fields, flower beds surrounding the house, and there, sprawling out behind the shed, was a garden two mules shy of a farm.” She goes on to describe a simple meal with friends in such incredible detail that I almost felt jealous for not being there to smell and see the food served, the pantries full of home-made things, hear the conversations had and the stories told.
A few paragraphs later she contrasts that scene with the writer’s workshop she had to attend a day later for class, and all of the pretentious bullshit involved in being around “writers.” As she listens to a typical grad student recite her poetry, she notices all of the affectations to make it more “authentic” or “beautiful,” from the heavily rehearsed emphasis on certain words to the overblown figurative language. Hamilton writes that “I wish we could just read the words out loud and let the stories speak for themselves, but somehow…we all know to sing-song, and to load the thing up with ‘tropes,’ to spend whole paragraphs describing an old man’s hand, and to bow our heads and close our eyes when listening…….Awwwww, fuuuuck, I think to myself.” What she comes to discover is that the kitchen was her natural home, what she loved, and that her desire to be a writer and storyteller could only truly work through that love.
I like that. As I read it, I looked up from the page and said to Brittany “This book rules.” We talked about it, and she said something that stuck with me: that ‘good writing’ for her comes from a compulsion to write; that you don’t just sit down and say ‘I’m going to write a book,’ and then try to generate one. You have a story or a thought inside you that needs to be related through writing, and you refine it as best you can. I thought about that for a bit over my coffee, and realized that so much of my favorite writing is very much like that: people who were passionate about one thing or another, and took to writing about it as a form of sharing it with the world.
Jim Wendler and Dave Tate are two of my current favorites. They were dedicated strength athletes and embraced intense physical experience for years before they were moved to found a company and then finally to write. Hamilton and Anthony Bourdain put words to their crazy journeys into good tastes. Henry David Thoreau spent his year alone at Walden, and then wrote about it. Even for JRR Tolkien, there was Middle Earth, fully conceived with its ages and thousands of years of history and cultures. He once wrote of the dreams he had as a thirteen year old boy, in which one of the chief apocalyptic moments of his world came to him, related in a language of his own invention. While on the march, serving with the British infantry in World War One, he frantically jotted down details of the last days of Gondolin in his mud-stained journals…. There was a world dying to have its story told, and he was the only living person who could tell it properly.
When I thought of these things, I realized that my impulse to write anything of mine that I’ve ever liked has almost always come from a similar spot. There are some things only I can say, and they rumble around in my brain and get pissed off if I don’t find a way to say them in the best way I know how. Hopefully it makes an impression when it gets out there, you know?