Soup & Story

Many people–I among them–have used the image of a giant soup pot for the writer’s mind and stories.  Everything around goes into the pot, the pot bubbles along, and at some point out comes a bowl of something good.   I notice increasingly though that what comes out depends on how the writer conceives of story…should it have structure or not?  Should it be innately appealing or not?  Should it go down easy and feel good, or should it challenge the reader with something bitter, something with a rough, unpleasant texture?

I’ve seen chefs take some of the same attitudes at times…there are food fads that depend on challenging the eater with not just unfamiliar but downright unpleasant flavors, textures, spice levels.  That includes the minimalist writer (and chef) who wants to present a striking pattern that doesn’t actually include much to satisfy the hungry reader or person at the table.  The plotless story about the basically dull character, for instance, or the plate of tiny amounts of food presented in streaks or spots.  (I came out of one fancy dinner hungry and appalled at the cost, desperately wishing for a good hamburger and fries after basically tasteless (to me) food in tiny amounts.  It was decades ago, not telling you where, or when.)  People pay money for both books and food, to extend the metaphor…and they may choose (with or without knowledge)  books with more or less nourishment without realizing until they leave the table or the last page still hungry (not for more of that but for something that feeds them more) that it wasn’t worth the cost.

After many years of cooking, I find it easy to make a soup (more than one type) that tastes good and fills all those empty spots in the stomach…that will last.  You put in enough flavorful components for the volume: strong flavored ones that will be the background for the others.  You can’t get good chicken soup from a nekkid raw chicken in water alone.  (you can’t get good chicken *stock* from that, either.)   Too much water, too little of the components  leads to weak soups, weak flavor.  All heavy ingredients (beans, grains) leader to heavy, single-flavored soups that are quickly dull and boring.   You need a variety of ingredients, the more the merrier your taste buds,  balanced across sweet/sour/salt/bitter/umami.  Ingredients that mix well but retain their own character.  Flavorings beyond the vegetables, to keep it bright: acids and spices and the strong herbs.  People who don’t like soups because they’ve had heavy dull ones or watery flavorless ones usually like my soups.   The summer soups are lighter, the winter soups are heartier, but there’s always a strong, definite, complex flavor.   Many soup recipes I’ve seen on line are far too minimalist in their amounts of ingredients for a really tasty soup.  (A half cup of diced celery, half cup of diced carrots, half an onion, diced?  No.  MORE.)

But stories come out of writers’ internal soup kettle, also made of everything that the writer has experienced, and their reactions to it.  We’re not all alike, in either experience or reaction.  Some produce milder flavors, some are influenced to add more diluting “water” by not reacting.  Some produce strong flavors in reaction.  And because cooks know not to use that potato that’s sprouted and green because it can be toxic, we’re saved from solanine poisoning (and other toxins)…but things in a writer’s mind can rot, fester, produce off-flavors at every level from “This isn’t one of this writer’s best books” to stories that actually damage readers’ emotional stability.

A writer’s mind, like a soup kettle and the soup in it, needs refreshing by constantly putting more in it.  Experience, reading, new skills learned, old skills improved.   If not, it turns to the sort of heavy sludge in the bottom of a soup pot after days of simmering without anything new being added.   In a bean soup pot, the bottom sludge can turn into excellent bean dip with the addition of some hot pepper, diced, and maybe some  diced raw onion…or form a layer in a platter of nachos.  In a mind, the sludge needs the addition of water and deep, forceful stirring, followed by plenty of new stuff before that writer starts in again.  Keep your soups (and your mental kettle) freshened and rich, and your family & friends will like both your soups and your stories.


2 thoughts on “Soup & Story

  1. HI – I keep checking out your facebook page but I guess your computer has not figured it out.

    I am glad you can do at least two things to keep a roof over your head. If writing does not pan out you can always open up a soup restaurant. The only thing I can cook is soup out of a can. And while I would like to be able to write – the plain fact is that I just do not have the imagination for it.

    But stay safe and sane,

    Jonathan up here in warmer New Hampshire.

    1. Nope…I’m here, probably until I finish NewBook and open up some time to tinker around and think harder with the computer.

      On cooking…do you *want* to cook? I have a friend who does not like to cook, and now never cooks. If you don’t want to cook that’s fine. But if you kinda wish you could, then I encourage you to experiment. There are easy entrance points and being able to cook is very handy when the shelves of canned soup are bare and you want soup.

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