Hacking and whacking the way to writing clarity — and pie
An author and freelancer contemplates story craft as she tames and harvests the blackberry brambles on her land
They are sweet, tart, succulent and tangy. Summer on the tongue. The mighty blackberry: as big as your thumb; a deep, inky sheen with purple highlights; a nuanced flavor with earthy undertones and hints of Pinot Noir that lends itself equally to ice cream and balsamic vinegar, to muffins and salad greens. It is the height of season here in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, producer of 90 percent of all the blackberries you will find in the freezer section of your grocery store.
I should be rejoicing, my basket full, my lips stained purple, my kitchen the scene of jams and cobblers. I am not.
To me, blackberries are a noxious weed, a thorny, brambly, pernicious, injurious invader. I do battle with them every year, all year, not just during the height of the berry season. And every year, I lose. My arms above my elbow-high protective gloves, are scratched and scarred. The meadow in front of my house is rimmed with the invader; it will shrink by several feet by summer’s end if I don’t hack away at the near-impenetrable thicket. It is a strenuous task. They are not called blackberry “vines.” They are blackberry “canes,” fat, woody, solid, like a walking stick (if you wanted to lacerate your hands).
But…here’s what I like about blackberries: They are persistent. They do not know when to quit. It doesn’t matter how much you curse at them, how violently you attack them with clippers, how close to the ground you lop off the canes — they keep coming back. Like me. Like all of us reporters, freelancers and authors, whose brilliant ideas get nixed, passed over, squashed. You pitch to your editor. You send a query. You write a proposal. And it’s nipped, lopped, discarded, rejected. But you come back with another. And another.
Here’s what else I like about blackberries: When things are going poorly inside, when I am standing clueless in front of my computer screen struggling to bring sense, order, structure — anything — to whatever I am working on, the encroaching perimeter of blackberries is out there, visible from my window, beckoning me with hours of distraction. Many years ago, before my blackberry life, I bought a vintage refrigerator, the kind with the little freezer box inside, just so I could lose myself defrosting it — a meditation with hot water and ice pick, procrastination with a purpose, a time-out when reportorial challenges threatened to overcome me.
But here’s the challenge: Hacking at blackberries to take a break from the rigors of writing can remind me too much of my craft. As I whack my way through the thicket, bloody but unbowed, I am presented with thorny insights, self-teaching moments big and small. I don’t always lose myself in the task, as I did defrosting that 1940s Crosley. Instead, I find myself ensnared in the writing issues that face me, that face all writers…
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Lauren Kessler’s two most recent books, “Grip of Time: When Prison is Your Life” and “Free: Two Years, Six Lives, and the Long Journey Home,” are deep dives into the worlds of incarceration and reentry. She continues to correspond with and edit the work of the men in the prison writing group she founded in 2016, and is mentoring two of the previously incarcerated men.