A Few Essential Ingredients for My Writing Stew
It’s the same with my writing. I can only write books that I know I’ll want to read. I’ve been writing for sixty plus years—since at least third grade, when I remember writing my first short story. After eleven middle-grade realistic fiction, historical fiction, or biography novels, and numerous magazine stories later (not to mention hundreds of newspaper feature stories, weddings, engagements and yes, obituaries), I realize that some of the same basic ingredients in my chicken vegetable stew are also present in my literary stew.
First I must have the right pan in which to prepare my stew—the steel bottomed brown Dutch oven style one. For my characters I also must have the right pan—aka setting—in which to place and prepare them. What happens to them is dependent on where their experiences mainly occur, like Gumbo Grove, SC; Raleigh, NC; Harlem, NY; Nutbrush, MO. Raisin Stackhouse, Big Boy, Big Head, and Celeste wouldn’t be who they are in my books if I placed them in some other town and state, and neither would my stew.
The spices, vegetables, and bits of chicken bubbling in my liquid are what make my stew juicy. It’s not just tomato-flavored water. Renowned storyteller Jackie Torrence, the “Story Lady,” called this leftover liquid in the pan “pot liquor” in her landmark book of tales The Importance of Pot Liquor. Pot liquor was a “southern staple” during the days of enslavement, Torrence wrote. Enslaved people, having mostly only scraps of fatback, ham hocks, and collard greens, mustard greens, turnip greens and beans for their meals, cherished the leftover liquid for its nutritional value, and saved it to initiate the next meal. Pot liquor helped to keep people alive in the face of from “can’t see” in the morning to “can’t see” at night after unbelievably debilitating toil.
Meaningful juices, too, must flow through my characters’ veins to make them come alive during their experiences and to hold the story together.
One might call these literary juices themes.
Ms. Torrence, by the way, was one of the world’s most respected and accomplished storytellers. She captivated audiences merely by the sound of her voice, choice of words, and facial expressions. Storytelling aspirants should study her performances. Oral storytelling (orature) is not gyrating around the stage, dressed in costumes, shouting and howling.
Got to have cornbread with stew, for sopping up the last of the juice, crumbling into the stew, satiating my needy taste buds either way. In writing, that cornbread might be my regional vernacular—phrases I use in narration or in dialogue reflective of where my characters live (that anybody living there might reasonably use), and at least one relative who advises my main character.
Regional vernacular isn’t jargon that imitates phonetically in print how I think my characters are “supposed” to talk according to stereotypes of race and ethnicity. “But they said it that way!” some writers wail. Having heard it said in real life doesn’t make it right or appropriate to write down for publication.
Human cornbread in my books are the comfort kin—a grandmother like Mary Elouise’s grandmother, Celeste’s father, or Zambia’s Aunt Limo. They were folks who loved their young relatives unconditionally and will let them curl up beside them when times were tough.
I begin cooking my chicken with the meat still on the bone, and let them simmer until the meat falls off the bones. Then, of course, I remain the bones. To me cooking with the bones on help to give my stew body. The marrow gleaned from the inside and the calcium from the outside enrich the stew and me. In my books body could also mean substance, and character. My little Black Girl warriors must have spirit, determination, intelligence, common sense, humanity—i.e. character—to enrich their lives, too. Though Mary Elouise in Thank You, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.! and Zambia in A Blessing in Disguise might not be smart or show common sense at the beginning of the story, they will have learned something about consequences and common sense—enriched—by the end.
I like a variety of vegetables in my stew—red and green peppers, green peas, red homegrown tomatoes (or tomato soup), brown, black, red and green beans, white and red onions and garlic, orange carrots, yellow corn. They each serve nutritious, tasty purposes. I don’t just throw them in.
I don’t “throw in” characters of color into my books, either. Each character has a purpose (and so does the ethnicity). I believe in conducting sufficient research to make it so. My stew is not a meal I cook just to be doing something and my books are not “art for arts’ sake.” I don’t believe in “casual diversity” and I don’t believe in being a “culture vulture” who the late beloved storyteller Mary Carter Smith warned us about. Writers who write about cultures foreign to them have the right to do—even the right to write about them poorly, but they don’t have the right to squawk when their terrible efforts are justifiably criticized.
Like cayenne pepper, paprika, onions and garlic, turmeric, Kitchen Bouquet, basil, bay leaf and other flavorings in my stew, humor, metaphors, similes, and description in my writing spice things up. When used selectively humor can have a place in even in the most dreadful situations. Humorist Eddie Murphy spiced up his early stand-up comedy routines by stringing together hot words to describe objects and people. I borrowed his technique in my Front Porch Stories at the One-Room School chapter “Possum in the School.”
Here’s my description of Smokey, a Chihuahua who the teacher thinks is a possum:
“Smokey was a pointy-nosed, swaybacked, fat-bellied, bald-headed, bug-eyed, white-haired Chihuahua with a long, skinny tail. Smokey had scratched so much over the years that he didn’t have much hair on his little head, those little legs, or that stringy tail. And those few little patches of hair on the rest of him? They stayed gray and speckled with black dirt from where he rolled in the mud to relieve the itching he had everywhere else.”
When Smokey waddles out of the storeroom of her one-room school the teacher shrieks, “Get your bad-luck, snaggle-toothed, grave-robbing, garbage-eating, rat-nosed self out of my school this minute!”
A “Spicy” Tate Tip:
When I conducted creative writing residencies for elementary school students I used Front Porch Stories’ possum chapter to inspire them to write stories about something in their classrooms that they had to try to remove. Of course, the students alleged that they didn’t know how to write about anything. I told them to first identify a couple of specific animals, places and/or objects in their own classrooms. Then they created lists of spicy (succinct) modifiers of those subjects, according to taste, smell, touch, sight, sound and/or personal opinion.
This warm-up writing propelled them into producing great passages and eventually some fine original stories. It was harder for their teachers to visualize their classrooms like this until they were prodded into releasing inhibitions.
Another “Spicy” Tate Tip:
Read Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, her spectacular 2011 National Book Award winner. In this epic chronicle about an impoverished Mississippi family facing and struggling through Hurricane Katrina in the bayous as told in the present tense through pregnant teen daughter Esch’s eyes, Ward’s metaphors and similes are riveting, like these similes: “Even though we are in the shade, the heat is worse in the shed, like the inside of a hot fist.” (99) Esch looks out into the storm through the open roof of a shack on the hill where she and her brothers and father had swam after raging waters had destroyed their own: “The sky was so close (with the low-hanging clouds) I felt like I could reach up and bury my arm in it.” (238)
Ward actually lived through Hurricane Katrina and so knew whereof she wrote. That doesn’t mean that one must experience everything that one writes about, but in many cases it certainly helps. It’s good to sample the stew; experience from having cooked stews in the past tells me exactly what to add.
Metaphor and simile addicts should analyze Ward’s book to study her techniques of craft. But remember, just because Ward did it doesn’t mean everybody can write like that—or should. There’s more to my stews and certainly more to my writing, but I’m full right now. Enjoy!
Happy eating! Happy reading!
I am so hungry now.
Love your analogy! You are speaking my language. Great work. Can I come visit you? (that's a serious question–not just because you can obviously cook)
Please please bring the full recipe to the July residency! It's cold here in Boston and I wish I could savor your stew for lunch. Of course, your books are delicious, too!