When I was in graduate school, I wrote a 24-page research paper in just under 6 hours. I sat down at 8 am to type on my roommate’s computer, since my hard drive had crashed the night before. I stood up at 1:45, creaky and feeling a little shaky, scattering the popcorn on my lap onto the floor. As the printer began spitting out the pages, I shook my head, dazed. Outside, I saw hazy sunshine falling on the water towers. I hadn’t looked to see the weather all day.
For the past few days, I had been reading cultural theorists Jean Baudrillard, Fredric Jameson, and Jacques Lacan, underlining and taking notes. Slowly, ideas had formed in my head, some semblance of something to say. I had taken pages and pages of notes in Pilot blue ink, scrawled fast and stained with coffee rings. My brain had been chugging along, like Charlie Chaplin tightening sockets rapid-fire in Modern Times. Still, I hadn’t written anything yet. The night before the paper was due, I paced, drank some coffee, called friends, organized my sock drawer, and finally sat down to type. My computer died within a few sentences.
Frustrated, I went to sleep to dream feverish anxieties of missing trains and printers not working. When I woke up the morning the paper was due, I bolted up into anxiety immediately. And then I wrote, in a focused panic. I wrote, and wrote some more, and paced around the room, only to sit down and write some more. Even though I felt the entire morning that I might have a heart attack, and the only sound repeating in my head was Ah shit, I’m not going to make it, I’m not going to make it, I wrote. Somehow the adrenaline and my hunched body in the tiny room of a tight deadline made it happen. I did it. I caught the subway, the printed paper still warm in my hand, and made it down to NYU in time to slip the paper into the professor’s mailbox.
I did it. (Does it make this story even more ridiculous that the entire paper was an analysis of the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland through the ideas of those theorists?)
And at the end of the day, I swore to myself I would never do it again.
Except, I did it again and again, for years.
My brother came up with the right term for this: breaking out of your own prison. You procrastinate and sit around, thinking about working, promising yourself you will work soon, and then you don’t. You clean the house or you call friends or you finally organize all the photos on your computer. When the train is approaching fast, you finally climb up off the tracks and start moving. And then, when you do it, you’re the hero of your own story. I did it! Look at me!
I used to think I would always do this. That this is what it means to be a writer. I wrote my first book in four months. I cut 8000 words from the first draft in 3 days. I started writing our cookbook after our daughter had nearly died in the ICU, turned it in before she was six months old. I planned a book tour on the fly in a week, emailed everyone I knew, showed up smiling and hoped the rooms wouldn’t be empty. I kept breaking out of my own prison.
But this time, it’s different.
I’m 45. I have a 3-year-old. We have adoption papers to complete. We’re moving to a new house soon. And our cookbook is due in less than five weeks, with Danny at the restaurant most of the day.
I’m breathing pretty easy right now.
Am I overwhelmed? Sure. But I also know that at less than five weeks before a big deadline, I’m always going to be a little overwhelmed. The mild signs of a heart attack push me to work every day. I adore our book editor, who kicks my ass kindly when he cuts into the words. This time I feel comfortable sending him the best draft I can, instead of thinking it has to be perfect. It’s not going to be perfect.
So today, after I cooked and typed all day, I picked up Lucy from her preschool, happily. We put on Caspar Babypants and we danced around the living room. “Spin me, Mama!” she shouted, and I took her hands and twirled her in a circle. The room blurred, and for a moment all I saw was the color on the walls and her smiling face. I didn’t think about the cookbook for hours.
(Besides, a 3 1/2-year-old gives you plenty to think about besides the sound of your own words. If I survive this age, I’ll be even more calm about deadlines.)
Maybe I’m finally growing up.
This month of being quiet online (except for bantering with my friends) has really helped. Hearing hundreds of voices at a time makes mine too quiet. I’ve missed you, and this place, but I’ve loved this time. I’ve learned a lot. I’m not sure I even want to say much more about it. I just know this: if you are interested in this idea of internet respite, take it.
But it’s more than that. There’s something about the work of making a cookbook that I love deeply. There’s no way to create 120 recipes in less than six hours. It’s hard to create 3 in less than six hours, if I want them to be of use. The only way to make a cookbook good is to work on it every day, quietly, taking notes, writing as I go.
My fingers are still stained with Pilot blue ink. And I still spend too much time organizing my sock drawer and cleaning out files. But hey! Since we’re moving 2 weeks after the book is due, at least I’m productive.
Written on the blackboard in our living room is this: slow and steady wins the race. Except, tomorrow, I’m changing it to slow and steady crosses the finish line. That’s all I need, really. I don’t need to win anymore.
You have to peel a lot of onions to make a cookbook. It’s the humblest task I know.
Writing a cookbook is also an enormous leap of faith.
My hope is that these recipes Danny and I have created with mine the main voice this time will end up as food on your table. I don’t care about awards or accolades. I just want this book to be food-stained and open on your counter, often.
And yet, at this moment, it all feels like a dream. Right now, I’m in the cave, chipping away. The light is pretty dim in here and I’m by myself. But as one of my friends wrote yesterday: “Stalactites! Stalagmites! And maybe some bats! Being in the cave is pretty all right. Just remember your headlamp.”
So I popped up to say hi. To let in a little light. To wave to you all. To tell you that I took this photo too late in the day to see much at all, but the caramelized four-onion soup in that image is worth every onion I have peeled.
I hope you’ll make it and 119 other meals sometime next spring.