Saturday, June 25, 2011

Where I'm Writing From: On an Island of Disarmament

Normally I write in the stratosphere of prestige. From an office building in New York, I tend to scrawl story ideas into the Notes function of my iPhone, thoughts on essays or articles that I think will find an audience. These ideas don't always come from my own curiosity, but often from what I think other people will want to read about. Every day the debate wages on about whether writers work to satisfy themselves or satisfy their audiences--a valid debate, given how many times writers seem self-satisfied. But when you're writing nonfiction, and especially when you're writing about food, you feel a need to feed your readers. Much as a friend visiting my apartment might be forced to eat a plate of cookies,me urging on "Ess, ess, you're so skinny!" I write to promote, to push, to watch someone else devour it. This is what one hopes for every time they blog--that hungry readers pounce, that things go viral.

But today, I write in a place of suspended cynicism. Three weeks ago, I left the confines of Manhattan, the steel towers of self-proclaimed importance, and decided to test my skills as a fledgling cookbook editor in a working kitchen. The restaurant I work for is also on an island--on Orcas, one of the San Juans, off the coast of Washington State. Its area is nearly twice the size of Manhattan, yet like Manhattan, it's the largest of its neighbors, and the biggest attraction in the area. Instead of an apartment in Morningside Heights, I live in the loft of a cabin at The Inn at Ship Bay. It's a kitchen committed to local ingredients, in all the crunchy ways you might expect, and beyond.

Farmers and fishermen stop by to shake our head chef's hand and swap stories. They carry crates of hot strawberries, dripping sea urchins, flats of broad, brightly-colored greens. The vegetables I wash, chop, and chiffonade arrive with dirt and sometimes slugs hiding in their crevices. The oysters I shuck, careful to keep my hand glued to the counter for fear of driving a knife up into my face, release the briny juices of their seaside homes. The flowers I pick to garnish our desserts come thorny and pale-petaled from our garden--I use my fingernails to shred bachelor buttons into plastic containers, where they'll later be scattered around slices of velvety chocolate ganache. Nasturtium blossoms sit precariously atop salads tossed with blue cheese and roasted hazelnuts. Lettuce leaves get stacked like Jenga blocks.

Deer wander close to our front door, nibbling at the fruit trees and only running when we threaten their lounging space. As dusk sets in, music from adjacent houses wafts over our grounds. Campfires of burning cedar and locals smoking pot routinely fill my nostrils. I'm sung to sleep by birds that sound like belching bullfrogs, and am awoken by cawing turkey vultures. I wake up and walk into town, where store managers initiate friendly open-eyed conversations before I'm fully caffeinated. I slip and fall on gravel-covered roads, and SUVs stop to inquire if I and my newly shattered phone are OK. I nod and smile in response, and thank them for their concern.

I've spent the last five years in a community where your strength is partly defined by your ability to disdain the unnecessary: if you can keep your focus off the subway crazies, the noises outside your first-floor apartment window, the other twenty-somethings competing for a slice of the rapidly disintegrating pie, you might just make it in this town. Blinders are useful in a big city, and help to narrow your vision to notice only what you deem important. But, as the African writer Binyavanga Wainaina wrote, "Seeing is almost always only noticing." And when you've spent most of your writing life narrowing the lens, you manage to cut out quite a lot.

After a night of easy cooking, light still pours into the valley that surrounds the Inn. The chefs gather together after service, open a bottle of wine, fill their dinner plates with leftover vegetables, rice, mashed potatoes. I slather heavy butter on the ends of bread loaves, let its sweet saltiness meander over my tongue. I strip off my rubber gloves, which serve to cushion my first major chef injury, just starting to heal after two tender weeks. My finger will be abbreviated for at least a few more months, and forever just a little bit strange-looking from what it's undergone.

I wander back to my cabin, the leftovers of my gratis wine poured into a Mason jar. I park myself in an Adirondack chair, notebook in hand, and watch the night's wedding party pour out onto the lawn, ready to play a round of bocce despite the impending nightly descent of fat black flies and mosquitoes. The bride pads out in her cream- and rose-colored gown, her feet cushioned by Japanese slippers, bearing a glass of long-anticipated wine in her hand. One of the guests, toying with the groom, says "Doesn't it make you even a little bit excited that you could damage something so valuable?"

He could be talking about his new marriage, or his status in the bocce game, but there's also something for me in this. My current "status" is valuable: I live according to certain aspirational parameters of a successful life--the stability of a great job and the continued awesomeness of great friendships and relationships. But even so, as my jar of wine empties, I feel something spread thick and sweet across my mind, cloying my certainty that what lies back in New York actually carries value.

If I write for page views, for an invisible audience whose approval I desperately want, I will immediately strip the complexity of my thoughts. To communicate how much this island has disarmed me, and to do it in a manner ready-made for a DIY-inspirational tale starring Amy Adams, is to reduce it to a series of melodramatic highs and lows. I would have to make villains out of my mentors, and love interests out of my co-pilots. The members of my community would be stock stereotypes, played by character actors with fascinating faces and limited dialogue. My dive onto the gravel would become an action scene, my knife mishaps a horror film. I'd reduce the moments that have surprised and delighted me, and the things I've learned that have proven me woefully uninformed, to plot points instead of the slow unfurling discoveries they actually are.

In Tweeting out my latest entries, in disseminating them across my various media-world connections, I fear cheapening my subject matter, and I fear a writing process that makes the mountains around me into paper moons. I fear the self-promoting impulse that might make me the protagonist when, in fact, I am the least interesting character. In short, I fear being a successful writer, or executing any of this in a manner that seems too readable. I aim to capture a story, but I fear doing it for anyone other than myself.

I told myself long ago that the goal of this project was not to become a chef. It was not to become an editor in the acquiring sense, or a writer in the published sense. It was, whatever its side effects might be, designed to be something I did for myself, for the opportunity to shake up my daily life. And as I write each day, jotting down notes on the things that have moved me with my wounded yet proficient fingers, I aim to be self-satisfied, if nothing else, in the truths I put down.

No comments:

Post a Comment