I am a creative speller. That is, I’m awful at spelling words correctly. My misspellings aren’t the common ones that get the dander up all over the internet, such as the “There, it’s your homophone” problem. There/they’re/their, it’s/its, and your/you’re (but not yore, for some reason) are the subject of many a rant. But not from me. I live in a glass house. If there was a believable way for me to misspell glass or house, I might have already done it.
No, my misspellings range in time and type from “rot iron” when I was in the fourth grade (and I am forever grateful to have learned the correction, “wrought iron”) to a recent misplacement of gate (portal) for gait (stride) and gaff (sound equipment) for gaffe (blunder). I also wildly mispronounce words. I was in eighth grade before I discovered that “deny” was not pronounced “denai” not “denny,” which meant that there wasn’t an archaic “denny” for the meaning refusal, and it was, in fact, the same “denai” sounding modern word that meant… refusal.
The cause is the same for both: me. I live in my own head a lot. I’m not paying full attention, usually. I have a significantly large frequent-usage vocabulary, and I enjoy reading classic and literary works. I write poetry. To tell the truth, I have the same problem with math. I don’t dislike math, but I am sloppy about it. When math doesn’t have a scribbler’s full attention, it simply does not work. Language, however, will work with letters missing and grammar broken; it will function with worn out phrases and awkwardly posed syntax.
I know that I am a reckless speller. There are so many words; I can only learn to spell them correctly a few at a time. The internet provides a readily accessible dictionary for the ones of which I am unsure. The spelling checker in my word processing program snags on the ones with extra and misplaced letters. Many others get the wrong word as stunt doubles.
That is why writing is like sculpting. It is an art of construction, like sewing clothing. It’s like making soup from scratch.
It’s the most like making soup. I adore the line in the movie Gross Pointe Blank
where Marcella yells at her sister over the telephone, “it’s not going to be a boring soup! It just, that’s just the base! You put the chicken in, you gotta add other flavors. Carrots and celery are just a base of a soup!”
It’s a favorite line because finishing is a process, whether the creator is sculpting art or making soup. The miracle of soup is that a delicious broth starts as plain, clean water. It does matter a bit how good of water that is. The soup maker might want to filter it if the plumbing gives an unpleasant metallic taste to the tap water. Nevertheless, what makes the soup fabulous is how much else goes into it. With soup, you don’t just dump it all into a pot, heat it to boiling, and call it done.
Take, for example, chicken soup. That’s the soup for the season, right? There are as many ways to make chicken soup as there are grandmothers to pass along the family recipe. In rough terms, they are all made in layers. The soup needs time to simmer, and a great soup has a garnish, such as freshly minced parsley, that finishes the fullness of its flavor. A soup can be simple or complex, consommé (not “consume”) or chowder, hot or chilled. Most recipes start with a base, let us (not “lettuce”) say onion, celery, and carrots sautéed in butter. Add fresh garlic. Add a bit of tomato paste. Add vegetable stock…
Writing is the same. I’ll cover my counters with the ingredients of my story (the first draft), busily simmering stock in one pot while chopping and measuring and putting the components into little bowls. The stock might be considered equivalent to my theme. It’s something I use often, something that has simmered and cooled with its flavor agents to give it body. The theme will give the story fullness, as stock give fullness to a soup.
At first, it’s all there, but it’s something of a mess. The parts that don’t improve the soup will be cut away. If they are nice parts, such as the stems of broccoli when I just need florets, I’ll save them for use in something else. The timing of when to add the ingredients matters. Garlic can’t go in too soon before the stock, or it will burn and wreck the flavor. If forgotten earlier, tomato paste can be added as late as a minute before serving. Salt should be added near the end, when the flavors have come together, and the soup maker can taste the soup to know how much to add. When I edit a first draft, I often move sentences or whole sections around for improved clarity and flow. I read the story aloud to help with the editing (tasting the soup for salt), which allows me to hear the actual sound of the prose.
One of the best things about soup is how it improves with sitting overnight. I have found that if I leave a story alone for a while after I think it is done, when I come back to it, I can better see the parts that I like as they are as well as the places to polish. Maybe I’ll add some lemon juice, which works so well in my minestrone with collard greens. Maybe I’ll finished the red curry shrimp soup with coconut milk to tame the heat and some fresh cilantro for umami. The potato cheddar soup is always best thinned with milk to help it warm and served with an addition of more cheese, a blast of freshly ground black pepper, and some toasted bread.
The difference between soup and story is that once the soup is eaten, it’s gone. Also, that there is a limit to how much honing can be done to a soup. Stories are great, that way. There’s a limit to how much can be done to improve a sculpture or a suit of clothes, too. A story can always get better. It can grow, contract, or split. It can be set aside, picked up again, and reborn. A story wants to be made better. It wants to be the best that it can be.
So, I love fixing my mistakes, because corrections are part of completion. The story isn’t finished at the first draft. Every draft is a layer to add nuance and shape, color and texture, and flavor.
It’s not going to be a boring soup.