Category: writing

fare la scarpetta

Full-leafed trees criss-crossed the Tuscan countryside, interspersed by flat fields of green. Every now and then the land was punctuated by grape vines.  There were hints of red leaves scattered in ribbons across the hills, and the taller cypress trees lined the roads to buildings or villages; first planted as landmarks to help find your way home. I read that cypress trees have been used as a symbol of immortality to signify sacred space and a detachment from the everyday mortal world.

For every meal, the truffle or porcini that accompanied meat or pasta was picked just that morning. “It’s mushroom season,” the locals would declare with a smile. Their happiness was infectious, as if they knew a secret. And share it with us, they did.

I return often to Pico Iyer’s reminder that our greatest aspirations and virtues have always relied on a measure of inner equanimity. Some of the best moments were sprung upon us without plan — the ones that, for example, found us gazing at a lightning storm during an otherwise calm night, all of us trying to take photos or video. Despite our varied success in capturing the lightning with our various cameras, the best success was watching it in each others’ company under the open night sky. 

Though we still had the occasional everyone-sitting-around-on-their-computers moments, there was something about the remoteness of where we were staying that reminded us to be present, to sleep in, to look up at the sky.

***

For our final meal, Francesco created delicious dishes that were served during sunset. A friend used his last slice of bread to sop up the juices of the mushroom broth. Francesco came outside at that moment and grinned while watching the sopping. “That’s precisely how to do it,” he said admiringly under his breath. “Scarpetta!”

I have heard “Scarpetta” used as a restaurant name and I don’t know enough Italian to know what he meant. I’m not sure anyone else heard him say it, but I noted it to look up for later.

The next morning at an earlier hour than we all preferred after several bottles of wine, we wiped away sleep as we said goodbye to the countryside and rode towards Florence. We watched the sun rise over the Tuscan hills, our eyes sweeping over the landscape one last time. The pink-bottomed clouds leaned against the edges of horizon and even the freshly-tilled dirt looked golden.

I remembered the word from the night before and looked it up:

“Fare la scarpetta” is a phrase in the Italian language that’s close to the heart of everyone who has enjoyed a delicious plate of pasta with sauce. Meaning “make the little shoe,” it refers to the small piece of bread used to mop up the last of the sauce on your plate.

It’s not only an essential part of an Italian meal, but it is seen as a way to extend the pleasure of the repast.

***

At the airport, we hugged each other as though we were scooping up the very last bit with all our might. Fare la scarpetta, soaking up every last drop. But also, we hugged like we knew that we’d be seeing each other again very soon. Our friends around us like cypress trees, their presence meaning we have already found our way home.


cheryl strayed on memoir-writing

There is nothing easy about doing all you have to do to make people and emotions alive on the page or screen while also scooping out the truth of your own heart, while also making a serious attempt to tell it like it actually was. And I couldn’t agree with her more about a good memoir being the opposite of narcissistic.

I’m so bored with arguments against memoir. They’re almost always simple-minded and ignorant. I tend to know people are in trouble when they speak in categorical terms about anything like an entire literary genre. Yes, there are memoirs that are narcissistic and awful! Just like there are novels that are narcissistic and awful and there are poems that are narcissistic and awful and there are plays that are narcissistic and awful. Narcissism and awfulness has absolutely nothing to do with the genre itself. I think some people are threatened by the idea of memoir. Like “how dare someone who isn’t famous get to write about his or her life and expect others to read it!” But the truth is, we’ve been using our lives as material since the dawn of literature, in every genre.

— Cheryl Strayed on memoir-writing via Lit Hub

memory, ongoingness, and goodbye, vitamin

 “I realized that I could remember something and he could remember something different, and if we built up a store of separate memories, how would that work, and would it be okay? The answer, of course, in the end, was no.”

I just finished reading Rachel Khong’s new book, Goodbye, Vitamin. Mostly I related to the details the narrator remembers about specific days, the introspection and doubt that occurs after heartbreak, the strange closeness you can feel to family members while also feeling alien amongst them, the lies you tell under the pretense of protecting the ones you love, the dichotomy between how you remember something versus how the other person in a romantic relationship remembers something.

At the time she was reeling from a breakup, contending with the way a tanking relationship exposes a chasm between each partner’s memories of seemingly joint experiences. How can a person trapped in the morass of imperfect recall identify true north without signposts? “I’m terrified of forgetting. If I could remember everything, I thought, I’d be better equipped; I’d be better able to make proper, comprehensive assessments—informed decisions. But my memory had proved itself unreliable, and I needed something better.”

I have a strange habit. Maybe I fool myself into thinking that it’s a writerly habit: I devote a lot of my life to observing and remembering details. I comb through the past when I’m writing vignettes, but this sometimes prevents me from living fully in the present.

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Notes on writing

(a brief summary of) things I’ve learned so far today:

On writing every day: Serious runners run regularly. Writers should try to write daily to get to the story. Do what you need to get to the story (even if it means throwing away 800 words of exposition) and then commit yourself to the form you choose. Once you commit, you’ll need to make more choices within that.

On being deliberate: Poetic lyricism operating at the expense of clarity needs to be deliberate. But probably, you should be clear anyway.

On the reassurance that it’s okay that I gain a lot of inspiration from the poems I read: “Literature is a conversation between writers that crosses the boundaries of genre and time.”

On practicing fluency in multiple genres: The more genres you master, the more freedom you gain no matter what you write. (I liken this to dance: the more forms of dance you master, the more freedom you gain no matter what kind of dance you end up doing.)

On when to write myself into a poem: Poetry is a last resort — in the sense that when you realize you cannot express something in any other way, a poem will be the thing you can turn to. If we don’t have a name for a thing, a poem can help name it.

Ocean Vuong is interviewed by Yen Pham for LitHub and speaks about speaking from the point of view of someone else:

In writing poems like this, Vuong seeks “not necessarily to speak for anyone, but to offer a rendition—in a way a phantom—of what could have been . . . Every attempt to speak is also a grieving of the voice that never arrived.” Speaking for someone who never spoke is also a way of paying homage to the absurdism and surrealism of the myriad mythologies that inspire him, tales which “ignore all rational sense” because they come out of a “nonsensical” world. “I think I stand firmly as an inventor and a mythmaker.”

He also talks about winning prizes in writing:

“Competition, prizes and awards are part of a patriarchal construct that destroys love and creativity,” he recently told The Creative Independent. “If you must use that construct, you use it the way one uses public transport. Get on, then get off at your stop and find your people. Don’t live on the bus, and most importantly, don’t get trapped on it.”

Stephen Burt writes on Literary Style and the Lessons of Memoir:

Yet experiments in the genre continue, many of them, like Maggie Nelson’s breakthrough book, “The Argonauts,” from 2015, intimately connected to the drive toward new forms, and the use of fragments and white space, in contemporary poetry. These memoirs take cues from prose poems and lyrical essays, like those in Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen.” They also use the devices of poetry—interruption, compression, extended metaphor—to pay book-length attention to individual real lives, and, not coincidentally, they come from independent publishers known for their poets and poems.

postscript

I was also reminded that:

– it’s very handy to stash emergency jamón ibérico in the fridge.
– Vietnamese pho is delicious even in the summertime.
– the sky is the color of sapphire only at a very specific time of day; therefore, describing it as such should only be used when you really mean it.