A a teenager, I read a ton of fan fiction.
If you didn’t share in my indulgence, let me explain. Fan fiction is a genre of writing about celebrities or other obsessions, written by the more rabid parts of a fan base. Where musicians and actors are involved, the typical fanfic narrative might feature a celebrity moving in next door to – and falling madly in love with – a female protagonist, who is modeled after the story’s author. Or, our teenage protagonist might attend a concert and end up backstage, where the lead singer sees her through the crowd love-at-first-sight and whisks her away, happily ever after. Teenage dreams, with lots of adjectives.
Fanfic authors and food writers are the same kind of beast. We like certain narratives and crutch descriptors – and we like to reuse them.
His eyes were deep and swirling chestnut pools. The pork belly was unctuous and toothsome. Food writing is fanfic, with the pig starring as Justin Bieber – not to say that Bieber is unctuous or toothsome or local/organic.
About 90 per cent of the time, I would like to strike certain words from our food-writing arsenal: decadent, authentic, assertive, rustic, complex, sinful, artisinal, aged, cloying, elegant… I’ve missed many in this short list. And not to throw stones – I’m guilty of using all these words just because they fall effortlessly into sentences. Like a smear of red lipstick they are striking, yes, but only when worn just so, which makes them difficult to pull off.
It’s true, there’s a finite pool of words in our language that combine to create a memorable image. Even more so when writing about food, which demands descriptors that have a certain built-in aesthetic quality. No one wants to describe dessert as just good or nice or tasty. A word like cloying is loaded with meaning – sweet, almost too sweet, syrupy, tooth-achingly over the top… we get what it conveys instantly. And the overused word is better than an haphazard thesaurus replacement, especially when the new word’s meaning is almost-but-not-quite-right for a given context.
Narratives are even more challenging. As with fanfic, we have only so many storytelling formulas – based in nostalgia, the seasons, comfort, memory, heartbreak, suspense.
And some of these narratives are necessary, if overdone. The local/seasonal/organic storyline, for one. These words are thrown around often and without care. Just the other night, I saw “fresh local summer tomatoes” on a respected Toronto restaurant’s January menu. But when handled with care, this is an important story to keep telling. We are keen to address where our food comes from, and how our cooking reflects the seasons. I’m at once exhausted and invigorated by paragraph-long menu item entries that list each ingredient’s origin. To concoct another narrative – one involving hothouse tomatoes and Costco mesclun mix – is not just unromantic, it’s against what we love about eating.
Formulas are not all bad. Certain plot structures just work, which is why writers recycle. Words become crutches out of good intention, because at one time they were startling and meaningful. But it takes just a little effort to be more thoughtful, critical of cliche, and aware that words strung together are the mental pictures I create.
Fanfic kept me reading when I saw myself in the girl next door, who was just like me in the best way, but found herself in an extraordinary circumstance. Food writing keeps me reading when I see myself in the girl next door’s dinner, whose ingredients and rituals of eating are mine-but-different, whose words tell something new about otherwise-ordinary circumstances.
[Photo, with thanks, via]
Ms. Dagg was my grade ten English teacher. She was just as an English teacher should be: a bit crass, dressed all in black, with a penchant for nice shoes and cat-rimmed glasses. She read Don Delillo and Graham Greene and didn’t roll her eyes (at least, I never noticed) when 15-year-olds made sweeping statements about human nature. I idolized her.
One day, in the most complimentary way, she called my writing purple prose. I had never heard this expression, so when class ended, I ran to the library for an OED, as keen 15-year-olds do. (This whole act strikes me as funny now, trying to recall the last time I physically opened a dictionary.) I pulled the tome from the shelf and flipped quickly to the letter P. Dear reader, I was a frequent dictionary flipper. I was awesome at landing on just the right page.
Purple prose: n. extravagant or flowery writing, especially in a literary work.
It’s funny how the slightest, most innocuous comments shape us. Since that day, purple prose has hung over my head. It’s followed me like a hazy violet shroud. Crept up behind me as I type sentences and craft paragraphs. See, that there? I just did it. “Hazy violet shroud” is a very purple-prosey way of saying purple prose.
And here’s the thing: it makes me cringe a little. Purple prose is a real burden to carry. Whenever I return to my writing, old pieces I’ve crafted, I see the (sometimes unnecessary) embellishment. That I get hung up on the tiniest visual details. That I spend whole paragraphs teasing out a memory just so, replicating it with my fingers across the keyboard. I spent my university years slashing passages out of papers, ridding myself of my purple plague. Concision and clarity – adjectives be damned!
But then I think about writing I love. I think about the paragraphs I collect, because they make my insides tingle (does anyone else do that, collect nice paragraphs like treasures?). Writing and reading is so wonderful because it is vast and disparate. There is not a right way to write or right thing to read. If I choose one reason why I love blogging, it’s the exposure I have to other people stringing words together, trying to make something of their days. Blog posts are unfinished, by necessity – it’s up to the author when to press go, not an editorial team or publisher. These pieces are never really finished, polished, perfect. And the messiness is often so good.
My writing has evolved since I was 15-years-old, wielding a pen and some lined paper, trying to make sense of the world. As I keep writing, I see subtle shifts. I delete words, and sharpen sentences where I never used to, not because I should, but because I’ve changed. My eyes are wider to experiences and how I will document them (though probably with a flowery phrase thrown in for good measure). I’m still making sense of my hazy purple world.
“What sort of diary should I like mine to be? Something loose-knit and yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace anything, solemn, slight or beautiful, that comes into my mind. I should like it to resemble some deep old desk or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking them through. I should like to come back, after a year or two, and find that the collection had sorted itself and refined itself and coalesced, as such deposits so mysteriously do, into a mould, transparent enough to reflect the light of our life, and yet steady, tranquil compounds with the aloofness of a work of art. The main requisite, I think, on reading my old volumes, is not to play the part of a censor, but to write as the mood comes or of anything whatever; since I was curious to find how I went for things put in haphazard, and found the significance to lie where I never saw it at the time.”
- Virginia Woolf
P.S. – Aren’t carnations pretty? They get such a bum rap as the-flower-bought-by-inexperienced-highschool-boyfriends-on-awkward-dates, and it’s a shame. My mom would fill vases upon vases of carnations when I was little, and maybe that’s why I’m soft for them. Gosh, carnations, full of life.