Stage 1: Panic
It didn’t take long for the euphoria of signing a book contract to transform into panic and anxiety about how impossible it seemed to actually write a book — i.e. “a new and original nonfiction manuscript…containing approximately 75,000 words.”
To give you a sense of scale: an average blog post is about six hundred to eight hundred words, maybe a thousand words. In any case, 75,000 words = a lot of blog posts. But the length of the book was less daunting than its scope. My contract said:
“The Work shall be about the Author’s decision to get in a taxi every week, ask the driver to take her to his or her favorite restaurant and chronicle her adventures from Buenos Aires to New York to Berlin.”
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Amorphous is more like it. Writing a memoir, writing anything at all actually, I remembered reading somewhere, is as much about what you leave out as what you put in. In other words, every single element of Driving Hungry had to advance the thread of the larger story I was trying to tell. Gulp.
Stage 2: Hunkering Down
Discipline certainly isn’t the only thing you need to write a book — but you can’t write a book without it.
Anne Lamott says: “It’s so hard to keep your butt on the chair. Bird by Bird [her magnificent book about the writing process] can probably be summed up in about three pages: Keep your butt on the chair, you do it at the same time every day, you never wait for inspiration — it’s ridiculous, it will never come, it’s another way to keep you from writing…”
So that’s what I tried to do: get up in the morning, never at the same time, though, and write 500 words first thing. 500 words a day was doable. And focusing on 500 words a day was a lot less terrifying, not to mention a lot more productive, than being intimidated by 75,000.
Stage 3: Writing badly
500 words are all well and good, you might be thinking — but what if those 500 words are awful? Well, yes. I blush when I read the first drafts of my chapters now. So melodramatic, so flabby, so unclear.
Anne Lamott has something to say about this, too: “Everything that anyone has read that they loved began as awful. Everything I’ve written that anyone might think was helpful turned out was four pages longer and very purple and overwrought.”
In other words, it was only in writing those terrible chapters, and getting constructive feedback on them from a writer(s) whose sensibility that I trust, that I was able to shape them into something better. You can’t make something better from nothing. You have to write badly before you can write well.
Stage 4: Writing through Doubt
And it’s not enough to write badly — you can’t let yourself be demoralized by your bad writing. How easy it is to write a weak chapter and use that as an excuse to stop writing altogether!
But you have to keep moving. Forward momentum is crucial when you’re writing a first draft. That’s why a lot of writers hold on to their first drafts for a while before they show them to anyone. Your first drafts are like infants — if you expose them too early to the elements, they’ll die.
Stage 5: Writing in Scenes
To start a chapter, I’d go back to the working outline in my book proposal and remind myself what the chapter was supposed to be about. Then I’d map out the chapter in scenes — more or less three to five scenes per chapter. Going from scene to scene — versus getting caught up in rambling exposition — was how I kept the story moving.
Let me show you what I mean. Chapter 1 of Driving Hungry is about coming to the realization that I’d spent the better part of a decade working toward the wrong dream (I wanted to open a restaurant in San Francisco), searching for a new vocation, and deciding to move to Buenos Aires, a city that was then emerging from its own existential crisis.
This is what Chapter 1 looks like, broken down in scenes:
Scene 1: Cab ride from Ezeiza airport — dialog w/taxista about what I’m doing in Buenos Aires, which leads to…
Scene 2: Flashback to The Night of the Inviolable Oysters, one of my disastrous shifts as a line cook at a doomed French-Asian restaurant in San Francisco
Scene 3: Back in the cab. The taxista tells me to forget Borges and food writing. He plays me a tango by Julio Sosa and tells me I have to learn the dance…
Stage 6: Deviating from the Outline
As deliberately as I mapped out each chapter and each scene, once I started to write, I would often veer off course. In the beginning, I got anxious about changing my route, and I’d often try to steer myself back to my outline.
But the further I got into the manuscript, the more I learned to go with the detours, which almost seemed like commands from my subconscious, which is the best place to write from anyway. Sometimes a detour was just a detour. But often it would turn out to be a better path through the story.
Stage 7: Returning to the Scene of the Crime
Some writers are able to write about places they’ve never been, or invent cities, or write from notes and memories. I am not one of those writers. And by the time I got around to writing about Buenos Aires in book form, it had been three years since I’d lived there. Three years since I’d taken a ride with a taxista, danced at a milonga, eaten a sanduche de vacio at El Litoral.
So I decided to go back to Buenos Aires in August, 2012 and revisit every place I was writing about in Driving Hungry: Parrilla Pena, where the bife de lomo was as perfect as it had been on my first taxi adventure, Spiagge di Napoli, where I’d eaten hand-made sorrentinos on my first and only adventure in Buenos Aires with a lady cab driver. I returned to La Catedral, where I’d had my first (catastrophic) tango lesson, to Las Violetas, the century-old cafe in Almagro where I liked to start my taxi adventures.
In retracing my steps, I fleshed out my memories, and I gathered new sensory details. Buenos Aires became concrete again.
Stage 8: Writing in Paradise
Contrary to what this picture might suggest, there is nothing glamorous about the writing process itself. Let me repeat that: There is nothing glamorous about the writing process itself.
Even if you’re sitting on the edge of the Mediterranean, notebook in hand, it’s still a slog. It is rows and rows you have to hoe, hacking away at rocky soil. But there are moments, though they are few, when you unearth an idea or a turn of phrase, seemingly out of nowhere, or from somewhere divine, and these are the moments that make it worth keeping your butt on the chair.
I had more than my share of these moments in Sicily, where I went to finish the last chapters of the first draft of Driving Hungry in a cottage in an olive orchard.
I did go through internet withdrawals at first, but after a few days, it was a joy not to have to struggle with the temptation of going online, to contend with the distraction of the phone, or guilt about chores I wasn’t doing. It was just me and my notes and my laptop and my books and the sun and the sheep passing by in the afternoon and the village market where they sold sheepsmilk ricotta and capers from Pantelleria and Trapani salt for 40 Eurocents.
Those flavors, that light — initially it did feel strange to pamper myself with these things as I was finishing my first draft. Surely I should have been doing something more masochistic, or at least more ascetic.
But after three weeks in Sicily, I was no longer feeling overindulgent. I’d accomplished what I’d set out to do. My final chapters were finished. I had a 100,000-word manuscript. I was eating gelato every day. Pleasure, I discovered, could lead to productivity. And indulgence could be inspiring.