Eleanor Sullo

Eleanor Sullo
So it's 104 in the shade and you want me to smile?

Thursday, February 16, 2012

More about The Writer’s Vortex and the Writer’s Craft

In analyzing the writing of Louise May Alcott, and from her own experience as a novelist, biographist and memoirist, Susan Cheever writes that:
“Writing is a craft like anything else. Much of it can be taught; practicing writing makes writing better. There are rules for good writing and ways of reading that foster good writing.”
Those of us who write, or try to will most likely resonate with Cheever’s words. Rules for good writing pop into our minds, starting with the basics: effective vocabulary; acceptable grammar, eg., “He doesn’t listen well,” not “He don’t listen well” (except as appropriate dialogue);  good rhetoric, such as putting the most important, flashiest word or words at the end of a sentence, not the beginning (try it); strong verbs and fewer adverbs and adjectives make for stronger narrative; the effective use of hooks (grabbing the reader at the end of chapters, pages, paragraphs) and twenty-five other techniques we try to improve on. Knowing our characters, and our own voices, laying out a sharp plot with timely pacing, and creating effective settings and moods go without saying into our writers’ grab bag of tricks and necessities.
But what Cheever goes on to say in the paragraph started above adds an important kick to today’s commentary:
            “At heart, though, there is a mystery to what brings sparkle and power to something as simple as a line of words on a page. Writers often write their best when they are feeling their worst. Sometimes subjects they would rather avoid elicit their finest prose. Writers rarely know what alchemy of time, place and mood will find their truest voice. If they write every day, it’s because they do not know which days are the ones that count. Louise May Alcott was no exception.”
Alcott didn’t write what might be considered her best book, the blockbuster of its time, “Little Women,” until she was in her mid-thirties. Yet it was a book she fought putting her hand to, for years.
Remember to read seriously if you seriously want to write and write well. You could do worse than starting with “Louise May Alcott: A Personal Biography.”

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Writer's Vortex

In her admirable biography of Louisa May Alcott, Susan Cheever, daughter of renowned author John Cheever, and herself an author of multiple and successful memoirs, biographies and novels, talks about the writer’s craft, and the writer’s source of great fiction—two different things. Her discussion of the writer’s trance, or vortex, seems to a writer like me to have the touch of genius in it, and I for one will verify its presence and its power in the writer’s life.

All writing, she says, is an act of obsession, but fiction writing requires a higher level of intensity. To write fiction, a writer must let the subconscious bubble up into full view and then tame and shape the images into some kind of coherent theme. The descent into the subconscious can be terrifying and time consuming

For a novelist, the real world falls away and the world of the novel takes on a vividness and fascination hat can’t be matched by people or happenings in the pale, ordinary, slow-moving world. The characters of the imagination seem to have a mysterious claim on the writer’s time and attention. In this kind of trance (or vortex)” Cheever writes, “ it is extremely hard to perform as a good wife, (husband), daughter, (son), or mother (or father).(Parentheses mine).

If you’re a writer, you have most likely experienced this “claim on…(your) time and attention” that Cheever calls, in many places in the biography, the writer’s vortex.
How do you deal with your vortex? Are you there today? Or did you pass it up to shop,
play in Facebook, or write in your blog or just plain be?

Responses welcome.

More on the Vortex and the Writer’s Craft next Friday on my blog..

Friday, February 3, 2012


Being in Florida on vacation, and camping out right next to the Inter Coastal Waterway, makes me drool for fish and seafood of every kind. Some sea-borne meals I’ve had in the last few weeks have been both different (for a Northerner like me) and delicious. While I don’t have specific recipes, I do have the general make-it-yourself ideas I’d like to share.
First is Branzino, a sea bass-type Mediterranean fish I’ve heard about on the Food Network many times but never had access to in New England. Branzino is generally smaller than Chilean sea bass, and a bit more delicate to the taste. When we found some down here in a favorite Italian market, we bought a whole fish, about two pounds, and had the fishmonger take off the head.
We rinsed the fish, salt and peppered the inside and lined it with lemon slices and a pinch of chopped garlic and fresh thyme, then closed it up. We heated the outdoor grill, then prepared the outside of the fish with more salt and pepper and brushed it with olive oil. Since cooking pans are in short supply in our home away from home, I doubled a large sheet of aluminum foil, crimping up the edges all around, dotted the bottom with a few more drops of olive oil and placed the fish on the foil.
We grilled the fish about 8-9 minutes, then gingerly turned it over to get the other side as crispy as the first side. After 3-4 minutes the fish seemed done. Linguine with pesto made a great side dish, and the reviews were in the rave category. I’ve begun to realize that whole fish keeps its flavor and moistness better than filets, and I’m keeping on that path for now. The two of us knocked off the entire branzino and have been watching the markets to find more before we leave the Sunshine State.
Last night’s dinner at Calypso, one of the top but not fancy “Caribbean” restaurants in our town, rates a positive comment, too. My choice was a good chunk of dolphin fish, a dense, delicious white fish stuffed with a crabmeat dressing perfectly seasoned and baked to perfect doneness. Sometimes baked fish can become dry in the oven, but this one had an unctuous, juicy quality in every bite. If I can get dolphin fish back home, I’ll definitely try making it in my own kitchen. Bluefish most likely would make a good substitute, and maybe Red Snapper, too.
Finally a delectable seafood-pasta dish we enjoyed at le Bistro, one of Gordon Ramsay’s well-known do-overs on the Kitchen Nightmare tv show, deserves mention. First of all, I don’t how this new-French style bistro could have needed improvement when it’s so good as it is. The “Seafood Decadence” dish is unforgettable: a lobster tail, mussels and several huge shrimp composed over a heap of cappelini pasta in a creamy, chopped tomato sauce.
Fortunately, I was served a small soup spoon with my meal, because I needed it to scoop up every drop of that superb sauce. That sauce was in fact my dessert, and I can taste it still, in the recesses of my sensory mind. I’ll try to recreate it at home, but doubt I can compare to the English, French-trained chef back in his miraculous kitchen.
Florida has delighted me in the seafood department this year--good news for a Pisces like me.
Eat your fish, get smarter.

Next Week: Some thoughts on writing and writers, and why we are the way we are.