Asparagus and the Paranoid Writer

Several years ago I was attending what the Brits would call a posh party. It was a warm summer evening and the event took place on an attractively furnished, covered patio.   I wasn’t an invited guest; I was there with the hired band that evening, not as a performer, but as a guest of one of the musicians. Nevertheless, the host welcomed me and made me feel comfortable.

As the evening was wrapping up–and most of the guests had departed–the close friends of the host gathered around the fire pit for intimate conversation and a last drink. It was definitely not appropriate for me, a stranger, to intrude on that group. I found myself at loose ends while the band packed up their instruments and rehashed the evening.  To avoid feeling awkward, I went inside the house and wandered into the kitchen, where the catering staff was also packing up and cleaning.  I asked if there was any coffee. There was; they poured me a cup and motioned for me to sit at the counter.

Grateful that I had something to do to fill the interval, I complimented them on the delicious, tender asparagus they’d served and asked how they prepared it. One of the women responded.

“Nothing to it. The trick is blanching. Drop the spears in boiling water for a brief time, and I do mean brief. Take them out and toss them in ice water. Oh, and we always have ice cubes floating in the water.”

Surprised, I said, “But I thought I had to steam asparagus until it was soft, so it wouldn’t be stringy and tough?”

She gave me a pitying look and said, “My dear, nothing is good if it is overcooked.”

Early this morning, after a visit to our local farmer’s market, I prepared asparagus according to that caterer’s direction. In no time, I had a plate of tender, green spears that promised to be a joy to the palate.

Kitchen duty out of the way, I pulled up the novella I’d started a year or so ago. I decided it was time to finish it or forget it. I wanted to review what I’d written previously–especially important since it’s a mystery, and I needed the chronology clear in my mind. I didn’t get past page two before I decided I needed to print it out so I could read slowly and make notes.

Then, as usual, I began thinking I needed to rewrite something on nearly every page: a word here, a phrase there, a conversation that needed to be expanded. Before long I was bored (yes, my own writing can definitely bore me the fifth time I’ve gone over it), disheartened, and ready to find something more interesting to do, like make fresh coffee and have a snack.

I went into the kitchen, turned on the coffee maker, and rummaged in the refrigerator. Staring me in the face was my perfect asparagus. Chiding me was the memory of the caterer telling me, “My dear, nothing is good if it is overcooked.”

Overcooking. Exactly what I was doing to my manuscript. Call it overcooking, over-rewriting, over-criticizing, over-editing. The result was that I’d abandoned it again when what I’d really wanted–and needed– to do was produce another chapter. At the rate I was going, I’d never complete the project.

I think the act of writing brings with it a certain paranoia. While it is true that writing, perhaps like no other discipline, exposes who we are and how we think, it is also true that what we reveal is under our control; we can invent characters that are nothing like us, and situations and plots that bear no resemblance to our lives or circumstances. So, then, why are some of us prone to overcooking our work. I can only assume it is the fear of criticism. But, if that is the case, who are we are really afraid of?

Most readers are not that critical, unless they live to write unsolicited, negative reviews on various web sites. I doubt if anyone takes these critics very seriously.

The truth is that most readers are forgiving, generous people who just want a good story and, if they like how you provide it, will come back for more. While readers might appreciate some aspects of my writing style or plotting, or, conversely, dislike the main character or the ending of my novel, they probably do not notice whether I used the word lovely, or beautiful, to describe the sunset. They probably don’t care whether I sorted through a dozen words to describe a shrill noise, or a glaring light, trying first one and then the other.

You know the routine. Should I substituted grating for shrill? Maybe blinding would be better than glaring? Oh, wait, how about rasping instead of grating?

So a new chapter doesn’t get written, at least not until I am satisfied that I used the correct adjective. If I look at it tomorrow, will I want to go back to grating? And, would the reader rather read the finished work, or are they going to quibble and criticize me for using blinding instead of glaring?

The real question is who are we afraid of if not the reader? Maybe other writers? But then, if we are all in this together, why are we afraid of our colleagues’ opinion? Maybe for the same reason people agonize over trivialities: someone may notice a weakness and think negatively of us. Should we let that impede our progress? Not if we want to produce material for appreciative readers; not if we want to record a time or event for future generations; not if we think we have something to offer to others that may be enlightening or comforting or amusing; not if we believe in what we’ve written and want to share it.

I’ve concluded I need to heed the caterer’s words and say to myself at least once each writing session, “My dear, nothing is good if it’s overcooked.”

Note to self: Maybe I need to rewrite; did I use the word overcooked too many times?