When you publish a book, if you’re lucky, people will ask you lots of questions. They‘re curious about what you’re reading, your writing space, your life. There’s a sudden demand to be thoughtful and present about your habits and attitudes. In thinking about how I spend my time, writing, reading, cooking, I realized that the essential thing these activities have in common is the desire to connect.
“Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve.”– Carol Shields
Why I read: Hooray! My daughter returns from her first year at college. After her initial exhilaration at seeing us, at reuniting with her dog, she disappears into her bedroom for hours on end, to read. She’s terribly lovesick, lonely for her beau and so she vanishes into a novel. When she looks up it will be dusk. From her childhood bed, she will have journeyed with another person, felt their pain and loss and joy. She will know that she is not alone in her suffering. If she learned to love to read by growing up in our book filled home, then I did something right. Reading in your own bed is the best place in the world to keep loneliness at bay.
I know what she feels, both the pining for the boy you love and the need to escape to someone else’s world. There’s satisfaction in identifying with another’s longings and frustrations, with characters who get in the way of their own best intentions. When I was in college, unhappy in my marriage and major, trying to learn to make decisions that weren’t reactionary, there was a character, Rhoda Manning, in the stories of Ellen Gilchrist, that helped me. She was wild, spent money she didn’t have, slept around, drank too much, beautiful and sometimes cruel, I loved her. In loving Rhoda, I was loving and forgiving myself for my bad choices. That’s why I read, to cultivate compassion, for the people around me and for myself. I read to feel less alone.
“The need to write comes from the need to make sense of one’s life and discover one’s usefulness.”—John Cheever
Why I write: The first story I remember spending a long time with, meaning I wrote more than one draft, I wrote in my sophomore year of high school. It was a mean girls drama, set in a closet. A gang of stiletto heels ruled over and tormented all the other shoes, including a docile pair of kitten heels—the point of view character. The pages are long since lost, but the reason I wrote that story is true to the reason I write today, to make sense of something hard. In my sophomore year I was the recipient of some girl bullying. One day I came to school to find my locker full of dog kibble. Writing about it was a way to make something true, well, at least my truth, out of the yuck of life that year.
Like then, my writing (my collection and the novel I am currently working on) is a way for me to make sense, to find my place. Not through exact things that have happened to me, but through the experiences I dream up for my characters. I never nursed a stranger’s baby on a plane, or stabbed with scissors my friend’s inflatable pool, or dropped LSD and skipped my finals, but I have experienced the emotions that motor the choices my characters make. I write to explore the overlaps between me and others, because then I feel less weird, less lonely. The incredible value-add to this act of writing—I might, I hope, touch a reader’s heart.
“To feel safe and warm on a cold wet night, all you really need is soup.”—Laurie Colwin
Why I Cook: Like literature cooking is two part, the making and the consuming. How lucky for me that I love both. Cooking, like writing, is an act of generosity, to yourself with the opportunity to express your creativity (Why not roast the chicken with tarragon and basil then bake it on slabs of crusty French bread!), and to the lovers, children and friends around your table. Cooking, unlike writing and reading, is a communal act. In my kitchen I am never alone; cooks have forever been roasting chickens to feed the people they love. Delicious smells bring family to the room, to wash lettuce, nibble, set the table. The real glory of cooking a meal is that the creation and comfort come about in one evening, not the weeks, months or years it takes to get a story right. And, you can witness the pleasure taken.
Slipping into a stranger’s skin in a novel, writing to make sense of the world, offering tangible love in a roast chicken, ultimately they all have the potential to make us feel safe and warm; hot soup on a cold night indeed.
Serber received her MFA from Warren Wilson College. Her work has appeared in The Bellingham Review, Fourth Genre, and Gulf Coast, among others, and online at Hunger Mountain, where she writes about her experience publishing Shout Her Lovely Name and where you can read the title story. Serber lives in Portland, where she’s working on a novel “about the geometry of family life, the families we are born into and the families we create and sustain by choice.”
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