I recently checked out Hervé This’s Building a Meal: From Molecular Gastronomy to Culinary Constructivism. In its pages, This opines about a dizzying array of things, though one must admit he plays fast and loose sometimes with some of the quotes he makes. (The quote from Plutarch that adorns the sidebar of my teaching subsite, for example, he attributes to Aristophanes.) Likewise, the book could have stood to have more specific, practical explanation of how its general and broad concepts might be applied in practice, though I suppose this book represents Hervé This in a sort of manifesto mode.
Even so—or maybe because of this?—a lot of the useful things he has to say about food and cooking I also found quite applicable to the challenges of writing fiction. For example, at one point he tells a story about watching his colleague, Pierre Gagnaire, painstakingly composes a menu through draft after draft, never quite satisfied and for reasons that wholly mystify This as he looks on (and as he is included in the process over the following few days). He concludes as follows:
… amateur cooks can’t compete with professionals. Why should they even try? Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) distinguished between black envy, which leads us to destroy what we do not have, and white envy, which kindles a desire to improve our abilities, out of admiration for the talents of others. This story [about how Pierre Gagnaire meticulously composes his restaurants’ menus] inevitably cuts those of us who like to think of ourselves as cooks down to size, but it can also help focus our efforts and inspire us to do better. As far as the technical aspect of cooking is concerned, we are all capable of achieving a satisfactory degree of competence, with a little reflection and the sort of scientific knowledge that molecular gastronomy provides. As for the artistic dimension, it is only by studying the work of the great artists that we will progress farther. And as for love? Here, there is no alternative to looking inside ourselves, in order to find ways to give happiness to those whom we feed. What a fine task for us to undertake! (page 118)
Probably any writer can grasp the authorial parallel immediately: black envy is the crippling bane of a writer. that which proceeds from comparing yourself to others too much in a negative way, when it convinces you that you’ll never catch up, that you’ll never finish your book or your current story, or it won’t sell, or it won’t get read even if it sells, or whatever. It’s the thing that drives writers to distraction, to surrender. (Not that black envy always leads us to the wrong conclusions; but there’s a whole emotional dimension to it that inevitably distorts any kind of self-evaluation we attempt when black envy’s there to taunt us.)
Meanwhile, white envy the spur to greater effort and finer output. It’s that you get when you read work you love, and instead of discouraging you, it inspires you. That’s different from learning the lessons such a work offers, of course: you need to turn on another part of your brain, and pay attention in a different way, to achieve that. But the inspiration itself can be a useful and a powerful thing for many of us. Technically, most of us can learn to construct tolerably good sentences, paragraphs, characters, and plots. The artistic dimension, everyone concurs, depends on imagination but also on reading great books—however you define “great”—and reading widely. Often, when people say “Garbage in, garbage out,”
they also imply that the opposite is true, too: “Good stuff in, better stuff out.” But how this happens looks more like, “Good stuff in leads to aspiration to write good stuff leads to perhaps better stuff out.”
So, yeah, Borges’ notion of black and white envy parse pretty easily.
I have not often heard about writing fiction as an act of love. Occasionally, yes, but not often… certainly less often than I’ve heard of cooking spoken this way. Maybe this is because nobody spends the time alone in a room making markings on a paper without some kind of passion for the work, without some kind of love. But love of writing is not the same as the expression of the kind of generous, giving love for one’s audience that This seems to be talking about.
I’ll admit that while I think about audience, I don’t always ask myself whether or how am I giving happiness to my reader. I don’t always ask myself whether I can give happiness to different kinds of readers in the same story, the way so many classic writers did so well. Perhaps I ought to consider it more closely, this question of the process of distilling joy from imagination and words into the audience’s heads. My stories, when they’re not centered on outrage or the disconnect between big systems and the individuals who resist them, tend to be centered on big ideas, or on metafictional/metahistorical reference games. That’s already a lot of plates to spin, of course:
… but just as a story can be enriched by having more connections woven through it internally, I imagine stories can be improved when an writer manages to figure out how to spin plates on even more levels than I’m usually trying to manage at once.
In other words, it’s not like I’m totally unaware of the Aristotelian directive to instruct and delight, but I rarely think of it in quite so grandiose terms as “giving joy”… and maybe I should, even if the joys are sometimes black, or some other shade we label pernicious. (Green, once, was the color of envy, after all.)
I think I’ll spend some time this week pondering that. The mandate of giving joy in fiction, I mean, not the color of envy.
Of course, the question of practical application is worth considering… so here’s a concrete exercise you can try, just to consciously feel out the limits on how many plates you can actually pull of spinning at once. Not that one should try spin all of them at once in a single scene in writing one does for someone else—that’s stupid—but as a technical experiment it might be interesting to try.
Pick any three of the following “plates.” Try to write a scene or a series of scenes during which each of the plates gets spin, either momentarily or continuously. (When the plate effectively spins, the emotional or mental reaction you’ve chosen is effectively evoked in the reader.)
Then pick two more “plates,” and rewrite the scene (or series of scenes) so that none of the plates already spinning stop, but the two new plates are added to the array of spinning plates.
Repeat by adding one plate, until you hit your limit. Then put it aside for a day, and when you come back to it, don’t stop reworking the scene till you make it work, or surrender and declare that you have found your (current) limit. (And then you’ll know what to expand beyond.)
- grudging sympathy
- patronizing empathy
- anxious trepidation
- sexual arousal