This winter witnessed the death of many great writers: Christopher Hitchens, Christa Wolf. Russell Hoban. At times an adman, an illustrator and novelist, Hoban was perhaps best known—in my household, at least—as the author of children’s books, most notably as the creator of the picky-eating badger, immortalized in Bread and Jam for Frances, and so this post is a tribute to him.
My daughter is a lousy eater. She eats nuggets and gloppy heaps of mac-n-cheese, a few other things. It is frustrating. It is also frustrating to hear parents of more adventurous children offer unsolicited strategies on how to better M’s habits, including “just don’t give her a choice.” Of course, I wish my kid ate the full rainbow, but I can’t help but shake that scene from Mommie Dearest which played on cable throughout my youth, where Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford forces that cold bloody steak upon her daughter, Christina, meal after punishing meal.
M eats what she eats. She may not fit in with her artisanal pickle and wheat-germ munching classmates, and most likely won’t sprout to pro-ball height, but she is doing just fine. We leave her to her palate, crunching dry cereal at the dinner table while the rest of us slice into our chicken and fish. She knows options are there if she wants them – all she has to do is reach.
At times my writing has fallen into the same lazy rut as M’s appetite. Parameters have been kind to me – they have helped to establish a writing practice that accommodates my kids’ schedules – but I am guilty of relying on a certain mix of ingredients, repeating what’s worked in the past long after the blend’s gone stale. I’m not here to knock my work. I don’t make a habit of looking back, but much of my fiction shares similar structural elements, most glaringly in terms of length (nothing longer than 3K, often shorter than 1000.) Call it signature, call it whatever you want, the truth is when stories start to echo the same narrative beats, the result can feel one note. (This can be a downside of short story collections, which I love and admire, but which I prefer to savor slowly, one story at a time interspersed by other books instead of in a sustained sitting.) Sure, we all have our obsessions. Themes manifest. Subject matter is one thing. But when a reader comes to expect the same old handful …. do you hear what I’m saying?
What I am is tired of jam.
Lately I’ve been experimenting. Who knows what’s gotten into me? Call it wild and crazy. I’ve been trying to challenge myself more with fundamentals like point of view, to stretch my staunchly realist scope into the occasional magical realm. My stories have started to push past the 5,000 word mark, and there is the potential thread of a novel I do not know how to tell. My habits, too, are shifting. I used to work one piece fastidiously until it felt finished. Now, I’ll weave back and forth between the unraveling bodies of many. Is this some new form of ADD? Should I worry? I have no clue. Everything is unfamiliar. I have drifted so far outside of my comfort zone—that sweet spot of 1,800 words—I can’t help but feel lost in narratives half-told, convinced I am failing.
As unsettling as this is for my Virgo personality it’s also exciting. My son ate dry pasta every day for three years; now, he’ll go for anything from seaweed to hearts of palm. His taste buds are alive and blooming. With my daughter it has taken four years, but finally, the internal impetus has struck. Like Frances sluggishly skipping her rope and chanting, “Jam for snacks and jam for meals, I know how a jam jar feels – FULL…OF…JAM!” M is growing weary of her few go-to foods and starting to branch out. She, too, is proving to be wild and crazy as her mama: Last month, she tried ketchup. Today – wait for it – a slice of an apple.
Discussing his literary motivations, Hoban wrote in 1992: “The most that a writer can do—and this is only rarely achieved—is to write in such a way that the reader finds himself in a place where the unwordable happens off the page. Most of the time it doesn’t happen but trying for it is part of being the hunting-and-finding animal one is. This process is what I care about.”
Maybe I will discover that all I’ve got in me is bread and jam. Surely, many of these efforts will flop but at least I’m having fun trying. Consider these baby steps. Right now, like Frances, “I want spaghetti and meatballs… May I have some, please?”