Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

How to write like your grandmother

with 3 comments

Yesterday, I made the radical observation that everyone’s grandmother tends to be a good cook. (I also can’t resist the chance to quote, completely out of context, one of my favorite lines from Bertolucci’s The Dreamers: “Other people’s parents are always nicer than our own, and yet for some reason, our grandparents are always nicer than other people’s.”) It isn’t hard to figure out why: by the time most of us are old enough to really notice what our grandparents are like, they’ve had a head start of something like fifty years to find their way around a kitchen. By definition, barring some kind of time travel—which never goes well for grandparents—we aren’t around to see what our grandmother was like in her twenties or thirties. And I think most of us would be startled to see how little she had figured out, about cooking or anything else, well into middle age.

And that’s true of art as well. One of the curious facts about art is that nearly all of a major artist’s works fall into oblivion, with only a few left standing in libraries or anthologies. In general, although not always, these are works of the creator’s most mature period, which means that we see artists at their most developed, like our grandparents, and with a similar lack of context. In his amusing novel The Anthologist, Nicholson Baker points out how this is true of poetry:

What does it mean to be a great poet? It means that you wrote one or two great poems. Or great parts of poems. That’s all it means. Don’t try to picture the waste or it will alarm you…Out of hundreds of poems two or three are really good. Maybe four or five. Six tops.

The same holds true for novels, movies, paintings, and any other medium you can name: we’re left with a handful of the good stuff, and the rest tends to disappear. And for an artist, this can be simultaneously daunting and liberating—most of what you produce be forgotten, but if you can generate one masterpiece along the way, it won’t matter.

For the rest of us, however, it can be risky to draw conclusions from those remaining works, especially when it comes to making choices about how to plan our own artistic lives. What we see, in our libraries and museums and movie collections, are a handful of end results—and not even all of them, but a selection of the best—with the earlier stages either invisible or accessible only to real enthusiasts. As a result, we tend to imitate the wrong things: we copy the product, but not the process. We try to paint like Picasso without remembering that Picasso not only started by painting like Raphael, but often went through the same procedure, layer by layer, in many of his works. Or in literature, we imitate the result of a long artistic and personal process and end up writing bad Hemingway.

Fortunately, in art, we have the chance to time travel in the way we can’t in our own lives. Except in a few exceptional cases, we don’t have access to discarded drafts, but we can always go back to early published work and see how an artist ended up where he did, and, more importantly, why. And along the way, we’re reminded that it’s impossible to separate a masterpiece, if we’re interested in doing good work ourselves, from the larger process that generated it. Here’s Nicholson Baker again:

All the middling poems they write are necessary to form a raised mulch bed or nest for the great poems and to prove to the world that they labored diligently and in good faith for some years at their calling. In other words, they can’t just dash off one or two great poems and then stop. That won’t work…But it’s perfectly okay, in fact it’s typical, if ninety-five percent of the poems they write aren’t great. Because they never are.

And the same is true of your grandmother. Ninety-five percent of the meals she made probably weren’t all that great, but luckily for us, they were clustered disproportionately toward the beginning, so only your grandfather knows for sure. But she did it every day, and she got better. So keep cooking. Your grandchildren, and your readers, will thank you for it.

Written by nevalalee

April 25, 2012 at 10:23 am

Posted in Writing

Tagged with ,

3 Responses

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  1. You make some wonderful points. It all comes down to experience. The more you do anything, even if it’s wrong at first, the better you’ll eventually get. I have found that to be the case for writing. I still don’t feel like I’m where I want to be, so I learn, and I write. Perhaps, one day, I’ll be satisfied. Until that day, I’ll have to keep typing away. Hopefully it’ll be before I’m a grandfather!


    April 25, 2012 at 12:17 pm

  2. My cousins and I were talking about our grandmother’s cooking last week. Nana was German, came to the U.S. at age nine. She was a good cook all right, but it was meat, potatoes, white bread, overcooked vegetables, canned peaches or pears, and never a raw green salad in sight. Salads were made of jello. We remarked how our cooking and tastes had changed over the years. My cousins and I have evolved into good cooks ourselves, but aside from her date nut bread, we don’t emulate her.

    I’m discovering my writing has to evolve as well, to take in new insights and experiences. Enjoyed this post…I am way more relaxed about cooking less-than-wonderful than I am with my writing failures. Good analogy!


    April 25, 2012 at 1:04 pm

  3. Thanks, everyone! (@speculativemartha: I suppose cooking is like writing in at least one other way—you need to be careful about what you imitate!)


    April 25, 2012 at 7:50 pm

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