When you write books for a living, you get asked a lot of questions.
Some of these questions are: where do you get your ideas?
How did you become a writer?
Did you always want to be a writer?
And: why do you write?

A few weeks ago, I was asked to answer a different sort of question, a very specific sort of question: What was in your lunch box when you were a kid?

I began my answer by saying what wasn’t there.
There were no Twinkies.
There were no Ding-Dongs, Ho-Ho’s or Suzy Q’s.
There were no Fritos, Cheetos or Ruffles.
There was no Peter Pan peanut butter. There was no Skippy. There was no Jiff.
There was no Marshmallow Fluff, no grape jelly, no strawberry jam.
And perhaps, worst of all, there was no Wonder bread.

My mother (bless her) was a health food nut before they learned to make healthy foods taste good.

What was in my lunch box?

Bread . . . earnest, heavy, dry whole grain bread, difficult to chew and even more difficult to swallow. It tasted like it had been constructed not of grains, but of twigs and gravel and sawdust.

This bread was spread with unsalted, un-homogenized peanut butter. On top of the peanut butter, there was a modest amount of (unsweetened, of course) apple butter.

My extras were: raw cashews, carrot sticks or dried apricots.

I remember sitting next to Mike Field in the lunchroom one day in third grade. I watched in fascination as he opened his bag of Fritos and then unwrapped his cookies (Chips Ahoy) and, finally, unveiled his sandwich: peanut butter and Marshmallow Fluff on Wonder bread. Mike held this work of art in both hands; and I stared, open-mouthed, as all ten of his fingers sank into the bread.
It was as if he were holding a cloud.

“What?” he said when he saw me staring at him.

I looked down at my sandwich

“What?” said Mike Field again.

I shook my head.

What I wanted to say was, “Where’d you get that bread?”
But I knew where the bread came from.

There was a Wonder bread factory in Orlando. We drove by it all the time, and when we did, the odor of white, fluffy bread being called into existence suffused the whole station wagon.

What I really wanted to know was not where the bread came from, but what life was like with Wonder bread.

I wanted to know who made Mike Field’s sandwich.
Was it his mother? His father? His older brother? What did their kitchen look like? What did the people in his house say to each other in the morning and at the end of the day?

I imagined the wallpaper on the Field’s kitchen walls, a pattern of chefs in tall white hats bearing platters heaped with food. I imagined the darkness of early morning and the light from the refrigerator illuminating Mike’s mother’s face when she opened the door to get out the Marshmallow Fluff.

I imagined his father coming into the kitchen, hitching up his pants and then turning on the radio and grabbing hold of Mike’s mother by the waist and twirling her around the room.

“Frank, would you stop?” she kept saying.
But he didn’t stop.
They danced around the wallpapered kitchen, laughing.

I imagined myself there, sitting beside Mike Field, watching his parents dance, and knowing that soon I, too, would get to eat a sandwich made on Wonder bread, spread thick with Peter Pan peanut butter and piled high with Marshmallow Fluff.

This is what you get to do if you write.

You get to go into other people’s houses and sit at their tables and imagine their conversations. You get to watch them dance.
You can rest your hand, for a minute, on their beating hearts.
You can construct a sandwich out of anything you want.

Why do I write?
I write because I was a hungry kid.
I was hungry for Cheetos, Fritos, Wonder bread, Marshmallow Fluff.
I was hungry for comfort.
I needed to wonder, imagine.
I still do.
Posted by elena at 10:10 AM Link to this post

"'The key,' I told Rachel, 'is not to bet your heart.'"
-- Alec Soth, "Las Vegas Birthday Book"

"Patience is not very different from courage. It just takes longer."
-- James Richardson

Telling stories is hard work; the stories that I like, the ones that seem most powerful to me, have an ineffable quality of one word seeming to do the work of ten words. I don't know how to explain this, really. But what comes to mind is a huge piece of road machinery designed to drill deep holes. The machine has a long drill and when it swings into action, the drill goes down into the ground and the whole machine goes up, off the ground, so that its weight, all of it, rests on this one slender thing.

One word for ten.

How does a writer do that?
I think it has something to do with resting the full weight of your broken, battered, hopeful heart on every word of the story you are telling.

The key, then, is to bet your heart.
This takes courage. And patience.
And a great deal of foolhardiness, because, after all, you are taking a risk, exposing yourself, throwing your heart up into the air.

Every morning when I sit down to write, I say this prayer: please make me brave enough, patient enough, stupid enough to bet my heart one more time.
Posted by elena at 11:10 AM Link to this post
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