A writer’s mise en place - Getting ready to write

The art of slow writing - Louise DeSalvo 2014

A writer’s mise en place
Getting ready to write

Several times a year my husband and I visit the New York apartment of Michele and Charles Scicolone. Michele is a cookbook author specializing in Italian cuisine; Charles is an expert in Italian wines. An invitation to their home, with its view of the Empire State Building, is always delightful because Michele cooks for us, often trying a dish she’s discovered on a recent trip to Italy, while Charles finds the perfect regional wine to accompany the meal.

A few weeks ago, Michele cooked pasta amatriciana for a first course. The main course was a cottechino—a sausagelike delicacy—that Michele served with lentils. For dessert, Michele made a simple tart with a combination of fruit jams. And, of course, the food was magnificent in the way that simply prepared Italian food can be—clean, clear, rich flavors; every mouthful a treasure.

I was struck by how calm Michele is in the kitchen. She moves slowly and deliberately, attending to the meal in progress with total focus. And like all good cooks, she prepares a mise en place with her ingredients prepped, measured, and organized. When she’s ready to cook, her ingredients are at hand, ready for when she needs them.

I love to cook. But as my memoir Crazy in the Kitchen describes, my kitchen is often a place where tempers (often mine) flare. That’s because I usually adhere to the rule of “Fire, ready, aim.” I’ll start a soup without checking whether I have onions. Or the pasta will be ready to drain, but the colander will still be wedged in the back of a cabinet. But today I decided to work as Michele does to make an Umbrian lentil soup, with my ingredients prepped, measured, and ready by the stove. Cooking that soup was a pleasure, and it’s sitting on my stove, ready for my lunch.

I’m now writing a chapter of my book about my father’s life in World War II, dealing with Japan’s surrender, mop-up operations on the island in the Pacific where he was stationed during the war, and my father’s journey back home several months later. It’s a fascinating and, I think, important story—this glimpse of what bases in the Pacific were like after the war was over, how the men and women stationed there felt and how they behaved, what shutting down a forward base in the Pacific entailed, how personnel disposed of wartime matériel, and how they awaited their turn to go home. I have many juicy tidbits to recount that I’ve never read in other WWII accounts, so I’m psyched.

I’ve been at this chunk for a few days, and although my writing seems to be fluid enough, still, I’ve been doing the equivalent of searching in the back of the cabinet for a colander while I’m holding the steaming pasta pot over the sink with one hand. I’m writing about the day news about the Japanese surrender came to the base, how the radio announcers there reported that news, and how soldiers and sailors reacted.

I’d write a few sentences, run to the closet where I store my materials, unearth the right notes, find a first-person account I needed, find my notes from my interviews with my father, run back to my desk, leaf through the accounts and the notes, write a few lines, until I’d learn that I needed further documentation. So back to the closet for yet another search.

Not a good way of working when you’re using documentary material or when you have earlier drafts to consult or when you have notes from interviews with people you’re writing about. As Twyla Tharp writes in The Creative Habit (2003), “A writer with a good storage and retrieval system can write faster.”

While thinking back on our wonderful day with Michele and Charles, I realized that if I always approached my cooking as Michele does, I’d be better off. Then I started thinking that if I approached my writing like Michele approaches her cooking, I’d be better off. If I think about the writing I’ll be doing on a given day, search out the ingredients for that day’s work, and put together a writer’s mise en place before I begin, then maybe I’ll be able to maintain my focus without those interruptions that take me away from the work.

Any way of working, no matter what it is, has costs and benefits. One challenge of having a mise en place for a chapter might be that my work might become overly source driven and that the voice I’m using will stop being authentic and start sounding derivative, and that’s not a good thing. Haven’t you read biographies or historical novels where you feel as if the writer has put her or his notes down next to the computer and written without synthesizing the information that was there, without giving the material any flair, or providing a narrative drive?

The benefit, though, is that with notes assembled, sources checked, earlier drafts reviewed, we might write more freely and spontaneously. What truly kills the flow of my writing, I’ve learned, is having to stop in the middle of a sequence I’m building to find, say, how bomber pilots behaved when they learned the war was over and they wouldn’t be flying any more missions. (Samuel Hynes tells the story of how, after hostilities ceased, two pilots, still hungry for action while awaiting discharge, took two fighter planes into the air and pretended to engage in a dogfight. They swooped and climbed, and dove and leveled off, and crashed into each other and died.)

I want details that only a first-person account can provide in my book. But for my work to proceed as well as it can, it’s best for me to think ahead, figure out what I need, find it, and set up my writer’s mise en place. Then I can work without those constant interruptions that interfere with the process of writing in my own voice.

Many of Peter Carey’s novels—True History of the Kelly Gang (2000), about the outlaw Ned Kelly; My Life as a Fake (2003), “inspired by a notorious Australian poetry hoax”; and Parrot and Olivier in America (2009), a reimagining of Alexis de Tocqueville’s journey to America—required a substantial amount of research, although Carey does not strictly adhere to the historical record in his work. In order to write Parrot and Olivier in America, for example, Carey read and studied more than forty works, among them, Hugh Brogan’s Alexis de Tocqueville, Max Doerner’s The Materials of the Artist and Their Use in Painting, and Doris S. Goldstein’s Trial of Faith: Religion and Politics in Tocqueville’s Thought.

Carey prepares for his novels by using index cards and divides them into chapters. He thinks of each chapter as a room, and he asks himself “what happens within each room.”

Carey has drafts of his novels “bound into what he calls ’working notebooks,’” his personal version of a writer’s mise en place. He highlights the places in the work “where further research is necessary.” In the margins, Carey affixes “chapter plans and plot points, calendars and timelines, and occasionally pasted-in postcards—anything relevant to the story in progress.” The notebooks permit Carey to interweave his research with “his own richly invented worlds.” Because everything he needs to rewrite and revise his draft is at his fingertips, Carey doesn’t need to spend time looking for necessary materials. Even so, Carey uses his sources judiciously: “For a writer,… the greatest thing is to be able to pare away.”