This is not the essay I wanted to write.
The essay I wanted to write was poignant, with one, maybe two tiny truths, a little inspiring and original, definitely original. Instead, I recycled thoughts without doing anything with them. I threw them onto digital paper, flat, not bothering to vary sentences or structure, or search for the right word. Why? Circle all that apply:
Anxiety over world events
Anxiety over sick partner / friend / family member
The Doomsday Clock is two minutes until midnight
Lack of inspiration / sleep deprivation / drained batteries
The threat of nuclear annihilation
Netflix / procrastination
Anxiety about whether or not this list is in parallel structure
I told myself, “Write!” Write while actively steeping in emotions, the very ones I’m planning to make my characters experience. I am in the moment, of the moment, living the moment. I need to record these feelings so they’re accessible to impart onto my unsuspecting characters when they need to be overwhelmed / anxious / stressed / sad / concerned / happy / distant / believable.
I told myself, “You keep saying the same thing! You’re bashing your head against the same wall!”
Instead, I read. Twenty or more cookbooks, cover-to-cover, lingering over the photographs and the author’s description of his or her larder. Then I cooked for anyone who wanted to eat, and some people who didn’t want to eat what I cooked. I tossed carrots in turmeric and curry, staining my skin yellow. I coated tomatoes in coriander and honey and roasted them until their skins blistered brown. I made the best goddamn lentil soup I’ve ever made, thick and glutinous like gravy.
Then I sat sated in one way, but starving, hollow, my bowl empty, the page blank, but (apparently and a little sickeningly) rife with metaphors.
I turned back to books, this time essays on food, eating, cooking, and they showed again, the same thing they keep saying, pointing directly, indiscriminately at what I need to do.
In Eat, Live, Love, Die, a collection of essays from her 50-year career, the food writer Betty Fussell wrote, “I’ve eventually gone around the world to all these different countries, and I’ve found that the great universal language was food. You didn’t need anything. You didn’t have to know Chinese to go to China and connect. This was a revelation to me. That’s when I started writing, and I found that I didn’t have to go abroad to discover…But I want to communicate that exploration. So I want to write.”
And: “Eating, it could be said, is our way of tasting images, as talking is our way of tasting words.”
And: “Anyone who has cooked, made love, or written down words knows that our rituals of food, sex, and language are bulwarks against loss, exile, pain, fear—medicine for mortality. Eating, like sex or poetry, is one way to seize the day. Our recipes, our menus, our poems are diagrams designed to stop time, arrest the moment, and by exploiting transiency transcend it. ‘Haddock and sausage meat,’ Virginia Woolf noted in one of her last Diaries before her suicide. ‘I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down.’”
I want to have a certain hold on sausage and haddock. I want to taste words. I want to go abroad. I don’t want to be empty.
Melissa Koss is a Senior Associate Fiction Editor for The Flexible Persona.