When I was a child, my mother said that she wished she could find me a book titled Ten Thousand Questions to Write Answers To, and Ten Thousand Answers to Write Questions To. She knew that with a book like this, a pencil, and a pad of lined paper, I'd be occupied for hours. No doubt there were afternoons when I complained of having "nothing to do," but, really, I was seldom bored. I loved to write and read and draw and craft. I always had projects under way or being planned. None of the adults close to me recognized my creativity--such a thing was beyond their experience. But they remarked that they didn't mind having me around, because I was no trouble; I was good at keeping busy.
As an adolescent I adored my art classes in school and my too-infrequent trips to the museums of New York City, only an hour or so from my Long Island home. Drawing with pastels, folding origami flowers, or getting to know Picasso's Guernica, I dared to think that I might call myself an artist one day. In high school I acted in plays and experimented with photography. I still drew, but literature and writing were drawing me away from chalks and paints. Something actually did bore me, though: trigonometry. I sat through my eleventh-grade math class knowing that my future lay elsewhere, and that I never would need to calculate the relationships among the parts of triangles. Luckily for me, I was right, because when I walked out of that classroom on the last day of school, every formula involving sines, cosines, and tangents went right out of my head. Did I call myself an artist, though? Not yet.
The time to focus came in college. I knew then that I was a writer foremost, so my studies concentrated on the written word. Also, I was finally old enough to look back on my life, and I saw that I had always been producing art of one kind or another. To be a person who creates--to be an artist--was never a choice. I had been one all along. Today most of my creative energy goes into my books, but I sew wall hangings and knit and cook and plan innumerable projects. I'm the same person I was as a child, and I still would love that imaginary book of questions and answers if my mother could possibly find it.
In a 1958 letter to a friend, Flannery O'Connor predicted that no biographies would ever be written of her, for the simple reason that "lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy." Writing is solitary work, and for some dedicated writers, springs fade uneventfully into autumns as they sit at their desks, putting words on paper.
It's true for some writers, but not for all. Others venture beyond home and chicken yard to engage in the world. Biographers love them, because their lives do make exciting copy. Moreover, they offer the chance to present history from the viewpoint of one participant. Walt Whitman, for example, stepped onto the world's stage during the Civil War, when he went to Washington, D.C., to search for his wounded brother. Witnessing the aftermath of battle and "what sick men and mangled men endure" impelled him to be a nurse in the city's wretched military hospitals. John Steinbeck became a voice for the Dust Bowl refugees of the 1930s, and he later spoke out against the government's persecution of suspected communists in the 1950s. During the period of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, he traveled to Southeast Asia to see the fighting there for himself. The experience transformed him from an unqualified supporter of the war to a doubter of his nation's ability to achieve success in it. "If I could shorten this war by one hour by going back to Vietnam, I would be on tonight's plane with a one-way ticket," he said. For Ernest Hemingway, experience was a necessary part of writing. He came under fire in three wars and found the inspiration for a novel each time. Clearly, these were lives of action.
Yet for every Whitman or Steinbeck or Hemingway there is a retiring writer like O'Connor, or like me. To an observer our days may pass uneventfully as we study and care for our birds, or marry and raise a child, but we live active and satisfying lives of the mind. Thinking, researching, and wrestling with words are daily challenges, sources of frustration at times, but also of joy. We make our mark on the world through our work, battling ignorance and intolerance every single day. At least I hope we do. We try.
In the end, Flannery O'Connor was wrong. Books have been written about her, and good ones, too.
This mighty urge to cook--this week it had me stewing chicken and giant corn on a hundred-degree day, and it still wasn't satisfied. So it had me baking and icing Italian lemon cookies, poaching pears in red wine and pomegranate juice, and whipping up the goat-cheese gougeres that I discovered on chef Nancy Vienneau's website: http://nancyvienneau.com/blog/recipes/goat-cheese-chive-gougeres/
. (I'm lucky, because Nancy is my cousin!)
I'm a hardworking writer married to a natural cook who takes pleasure in serving up restaurant-quality meals every night of the week. He makes it easy and agreeable for me to forgo cooking and instead slip into the kitchen shortly before mealtime to keep him company while he adds the finishing touches.
Yet every once in a while...
It last happened about a year ago, after I saw Babette's Feast.
In this great Danish film, the longtime cook for a pair of pious, life-denying sisters reveals her life-affirming culinary gift. I felt no hunger for Babette's turtle soup or quail in puff pastry, but her feast left me with a craving to make one of my own. And so I did--in partnership with my husband, John. Pumpkin soup topped with toasted seeds and whipped cream, boneless pork rolled in herbs, peppers stuffed with rice and tomato and savory flavors, a salad of fennel and oranges, mango cake, walnut pie--we did it all and more. The eleven people who dined on our feast were the most ever to gather around our dining table.
And that's what it's ultimately all about: people. Whether the urge strikes at Thanksgiving or Christmas or New Year's Eve, or on an otherwise unremarkable day, while cooking I think of the family and friends who will come together to enjoy the dishes I craft. I want them to be surprised and delighted, to take pleasure in one another's company, and to be nourished. Body and soul.
Painted in gold letters above the window in our dining room is a well-known Italian saying: A tavola non s'invecchia mai.
At the table one never ages. I hope it is true, especially at our table.
It changes. If asked in my early teens, I would have said Emma, because Emma Woodhouse was inclined to get into mischief, and I would have wanted her for a friend. If the question were repeated a few years later, I might have mentioned Sense and Sensibility, because Marianne Dashwood's free-spiritedness appeals to young women, even though it leads Marianne ultimately to be chastened. Who doesn't go through a spell of wanting to signal, "I'm different; I don't necessarily conform to society's rules"?
Today I would choose Pride and Prejudice. It's as refreshing as a sparkling stream--an enchanted one that reflects human nature when one peers into it. In her second published novel, Austen got everything right. The plot glides smoothly forward; the light, inviting tone pulls the reader along like a steady current; and not a word is wasted. Humor abounds and is evident from the first sentence, which only a literary genius could have composed: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." This opening promises so much--the single man, the schemers who hope to marry him off, and an abundance of fun. And Jane Austen delivers.
In Pride and Prejudice Austen created some of her most memorable characters. Chief among them, of course, is the captivating Elizabeth Bennet. Austen gave Lizzy Bennet intelligence and wit as well as vigorous good health and a beautiful expression in her dark eyes. Elizabeth is "alive to the very tips of her fingers," noted a critic in 1898, and more than a century later, readers agree. Proud, wealthy Fitzwilliam Darcy is attracted to Lizzy in spite of himself.
Minor characters can seem one-dimensional in other Austen novels, but not in Pride and Prejudice. Whereas Mr. Woodhouse is never more than a caricature of a worrying hypochondriac, the cynical Mr. Bennet emerges as a real man with a genuine affection for his second daughter. Mr. Collins would be nothing more than a buffoon except that Charlotte Lucas sees some worth in him.
The scholar Patricia Meyer Spacks has called Pride and Prejudice a Cinderella story. A woman of Lizzy Bennet's station would never have had the slightest chance of marrying a man of Darcy's wealth and stature, she has said. This may be true, but it doesn't bother me a bit. Fairy tales endure because they help us understand our dreams and motives, and this wouldn't be the first time one has found its way into great literature. Think of a story that begins once upon a time, long ago, when a king divides his kingdom into three parts. Sound like the stuff of storybooks? It's King Lear.