One wouldn’t consider me terribly gifted in culinary arts, though I have had stints where I’ve enjoyed experimenting with flavors and colors in the kitchen. (I even wrote a blog post about it once, singing the praises of fresh ginger.) Cooking; I’m not half bad at that. But baking … let’s just say I can’t even get it right when I’ve got someone standing in the kitchen with me, guiding me step-by-step, literally saying “Do this. Now do this.” Seriously. It’s happened. And I failed. So that’s why this blog post was inspired by mushrooms, not macaroons.
Though I’m not a culinista, one of my favorite recent movies is Julie and Julia. I loved Meryl Streep’s depiction of Julia Childs’ attitude, determination, independence, and verve. I so totally related to her search for the perfect passion: though I’ve never taken up hat making or cribbage (or whatever mind-numbing card game it was that she’d hoped would slake her restlessness) I have dived into the wonders of painting, pastels, pencil sketching, crafting, woodworking, sewing, and knitting – each time convincing myself this was my true passion, the way I would express my creativity and share my soul. It wasn’t until I began writing that, like Julia when she discovered cooking, I knew this was my perfect passion fit. No convincing was necessary.
So, back to the mushrooms. The most memorable line in the movie, for me, is when Julie is explaining to her husband that Julia Childs suggests not crowding the mushrooms or they’ll never brown. WHY this is the most memorable line for me I still haven’t a clue. Maybe because up until I heard that line, my mushrooms never browned. (You’ll be happy to know I give them lots of space now. And they do brown.)
So, aaanyway, as memorable movie lines often do, this one comes back to me from time to time, and not only when I’m cooking mushrooms. It came to me this morning while I was walking to work. (???) And since I had some time, I got to thinking: crowded mushrooms don’t brown. Why? I really have no idea. But I’m guessing that there’s too much moisture leaking out of the too many mushrooms as they’re cooking, and the moisture doesn’t evaporate fast enough thus not allowing the mushrooms to brown into firm, russet-colored, delicious little morsels. They just become scrawny-little-feeble-grey-turds. (You culinary artists may know the correct reason, but I’m going with this one since it works for what I’m getting at here.) So, assuming you want firm, brown mushrooms instead of pale turd-like ones, you’d better do like Julia Childs suggests and give them some elbow room.
Thus was the catalyst to the epiphany that hit me somewhere between the crosswalk and the train tracks: It’s the same way with the ideas I have when writing. If I don’t give my ideas some space, if I make them simmer in my brain all crowded together, if I spew them all into my WIP because I love each one and want to consume them all NOW, they’ll never brown. They’ll never have the chance to become what I want or need them to be. They’ll drown each other. They’ll make each other weak and pale. They may even start to resemble ugly little turds.
All that to say: I have a hard time keeping it simple. (No joke.) By “it” I mean everything. And it’s evident in my writing. My editor has consistently told me that less is more. To not overcomplicate things. But I always want to pack as much into the story as possible for fear of the reader becoming bored. I AM writing for middle-graders, after all. I must keep their attention! When I finally got so overwhelmed with my own ambitiousness, I decided to listen to her and step back to take an objective look at my story. It didn’t take long for me to realize she was right: my hero indeed did not need fifteen million magical items with which to accomplish his task; he didn’t have to navigate through a labyrinth of plot points to find his destiny; he didn’t need an overly complex backstory to make his quest valid, either. I had been crowding the mushrooms. And they weren’t doing what I wanted them to do.
Keeping it simple is a hard writing tip for me to keep a hold of and apply. But though I struggle with this concept I do believe in it. It’s better to give the story room to breathe. To give the readers room to breathe. To infuse the plot with enough air to create consistent (s)pacing. To remove the extra verbage, the extra information, the extra plot points so they don’t start working against each other.
To allow the story the space that it needs to become delicious.