Guest Post on Change it Up Editing

I’m thrilled to be guest blogging today over at changeitupediting.com, where I reveal a few of my writing secrets, namely how I’ve wriggled out a few creative blocks. Come on over and check it out and share your own tales of creative inspiration. While you’re there, indulge yourself in the some wonderful writing insights of editor Candace Johnson. Here’s to a prolific 2014!

How I Forgave Jamie Oliver

Jamie Oliver's Sticky Chicken Thighs

Jamie Oliver’s Sticky Chicken Thighs

If you have the time and the patience, and room in your heart to forgive chef Jamie Oliver for referring to his Crispy and Sticky Chicken Thighs with Squashed New Potatoes and Tomatoes as a “simple pan-baked chicken dish” then I encourage you to try this recipe.

But for God’s sake, know up front that it is not “simple.” Okay perhaps, technically, it is “simple” but “simple” implies “quick.” Doesn’t it? To me it does. And quick it is not. The time alone that it took to de-bone and trim the chicken thighs of the cheesy fat clusters could have driven me to chase Mr. Oliver through his English potato garden with a pair of kitchen scissors. To say nothing of the time-consuming tedious task of individually stabbing, then peeling the skins off all those little cherry tomatoes. Peeling skins!

I typically have a rule in the kitchen never to cook anything that takes longer to prepare than it does to eat.

But alas, if I had stuck to that rule I would not have experienced this glorious masterpiece. Could I have skipped the tomato disrobing? Yes. But then I wouldn’t have tasted how “lovely and sweet” the tomatoes become when cooked stripped to their flesh, and the claim from Mr. Oliver that “their intense flavor will infuse the potatoes.” And after all, “Sometimes in cooking, you know what, it’s not all bish-bash-bosh, you need to put a bit of love in it, a bit of care, and it will taste fantastic.”

I got seduced into preparing this dish after seeing an episode of Jamie at Home. He looked tenderly at his ingredients, calling his potatoes “darlings” and “underground jewels.” Everything was “lovely,” from straining veggies to surgically removing the bones from chicken thighs. He even urged viewers to plant potatoes in their own backyard, claiming they’re super easy to grow and there’s nothing quite like using “freshly dug” potatoes. I’m sure he’s probably right about that. Though I have some pretty solid experience using potatoes which are weeks old−in fact, they’re one of the only vegetables that will last and last, even after they’ve practically grown a clone of themselves right there from their own skin. But maybe I should keep that to myself.

There was something charming about Jamie Oliver serving messy portions of his meals into chipped plates and pottery. And the sight of his charming country kitchen, a busy affair with brick walls and jelly jars cluttering counter tops and stacks of dishes and terra cotta, shelves practically leaning to one side. No granite or marble in sight. Not a stand mixer or cappuccino maker to be found. This cozy setting shouted “You can do this too! You American Food Network viewer, sitting on your overstuffed couch in the suburbs!”

Yes, he was talking to me. Thank God I was listening.

He told me to take the fresh oregano and “bash it up a little. Smash the oregano for butt-kicking flavored oil. You can’t chop it up and be nice about it.” It felt so comfortable, the spills and the clutter, the ruffled shirt. It was like I was cooking in the kitchen with my younger brother, if my younger brother could cook. (Of course you can cook, dear! That was just a little joke!) Did I mention the adorable English accent? Who can resist someone who pronounces oregano with the emphasis on the third syllable? Certainly not me.

I can’t explain to you why or how it happens that a mere six ingredients can produce an aroma transcendent. It leaks from your oven door when you least expect it. When you’re not even in the kitchen! You’re upstairs folding the laundry and bam! It finds you. And you go a little weak in the knees. Oh my gosh, you think to yourself, is that coming from my kitchen, from my oven?

Yes it is.

Thank you, Jamie Oliver. I forgive you.

Do Fiction Writers have an Obligation to Society?

photo by vpickering

photo by vpickering

As I write this, I ask myself if this has any validity. Do fiction writers have an obligation and responsibility to society and humankind? I’m referring to when writers create stories about atrocities which are not documented in history, but conjured and invented with all of its repugnant detail, by the author. A Huffington Post article I read yesterday made me wrestle my own thoughts for an answer to this.

The article talked about Tom Lonergan, the author of Heartbreak Hill (2002), his self-published book about, among other things, the attempted bombing of the Boston Marathon. “The novel was about a terrorist plot to set off a series of bombs during the race, killing and wounding spectators and runners.” In the novel the bombs were held off, diverting a disaster.

When Tom Lonergan first heard about the Boston Marathon bombings on Patriot’s Day earlier this week, he panicked. In an interview he said, “The bombing is especially troubling because ‘I could not help feeling as I saw the news reports on Monday that someone, somehow may have been inspired by my fiction.’”

This brought to mind a reaction I had in 1996 to the release of Daylight, a movie with Sylvester Stallone in which there is catastrophic explosion, due to a confluence of events, in the Holland Tunnel. I was incensed that anyone (actors, directors, producers, studios) could be so irresponsible as to practically hand over on a silver platter an idea so calamitous, to sickos at large who don’t have ideas like this on their own.

And what about the endless debate over song lyrics which give people, especially teens, ideas of violence and suicide. Like the song by Tupac Shakur, which is blamed for the killing of a Milwaukee police officer by two teens who were unwavering fans of the singer and his messages.

As I reflect on what Tom Lonergan grapples with as a writer, and how closely his novel parallels the very real travesty in Boston, I think about all the thrillers and horrors and suspense novels that have been written in the history of time. I think about my own novel, a thriller in which dark deeds are played out within a realistic setting. Do we as writers have an obligation to censor ourselves? I came across this post, Stop Blaming Music for Violence, written by high school newsmagazine, which mentions film, literature and the news media as sources for violent imagery and asks, “To those who believe that it is music causing violence in teens, ask yourselves this – does reading a suspense novel cause the reader to go out and commit murder? Does watching the news cause the viewer to go out and commit that same crime? No.”

Of course the answer is “no.” Someone of sound mind doesn’t feel propelled to execute malicious acts drawn from literature, or any art form. But is there a message here for writers? Is there an invisible line over which we shouldn’t cross? Should our conscience be our only guide? Are there taboo subject matters which are unspoken as untouchable and off-limits?

What do you think?

Advice Martha Stewart Gave Me On Living and Lemons

Martha Stewart's Vodka-Thyme Lemonade

Martha Stewart’s Vodka-Thyme Lemonade

I have a confession to make. Years ago, I was semi-obsessed with Martha Stewart. “Semi” in that while I did drive past her Connecticut farmhouse, I didn’t peer through her windows with binoculars (forgot them at home) to see if her magazine living room was in fact her real living room. I did collect every paint chip from her interior paint line, I attempted (or planned to, or fantasized about) every craft project and Good Thing, and to this day I own many years’ worth of Martha Stewart Living magazines, mostly the mid 90’s through the early 2000s. I ate up her advice like whipping cream, the essential rickrack, frosting windows, cornhusk crafts, pressed seaweed, chintz, decoupage! Tomato aspic! Don’t know what half those things are? Just wait!

The one thing I rejected like curdled goat’s milk was a monthly feature called, Martha’s Calendar−her personal daily to-do list. It was mostly chores and house maintenance tasks that “she” planned to do and wanted to remind others about. Who needs Martha Stewart to nag them about doing drudgery? That’s what family is for.  Plus, her to-do list was a far cry from the rest of ours. Did she intend for this to be a peek into an elitist farmer-collector-decorator-entertainer lifestyle or was she trying to inspire? It ran for a short time. After all, who but Martha Stewart has winter and summer curtains to switch in and out?

I recently had the urge to pull out a vintage MSL, and fell upon Martha’s Calendar with the same fascinated voyeurism I had years ago. Here is a compilation of some of the best Calendar entries. I’ve provided a handy-dandy how-this-might-apply-to-your-life translation.

April 1, 2001 – Count canaries. This was a stumper. Martha owns canaries, but doesn’t know how many? That’s a lot of canaries. But why count them? The closest thing I have to birds is a roast chicken in the fridge and a down pillow for overnight guests. Tally: approximately 2.

April 2, 2001 – Wash and seal stone floors. Wow, this sounds awful. In lieu of stone floors, remove nail polish from white bathroom tile floor where daughter has dropped a shocking shade of fuchsia.

April 4, 2001 − Sow tomatoes in greenhouse. Plant herb seeds for a clay pot herb garden. If they don’t germinate, buy small herb plants from Home Depot. If they die, buy basil at the grocery store. If you’re too busy counting canaries, use the dried stuff.

April 5, 2001 − Begin transplanting seedlings; apply horticultural oil to fruit trees. Drive your seedlings to school. Moisturize their arms and legs before leaving house.

April 8 – Organize linen closets. Be happy you have clean linens and go make a terry cloth rug out of old towels!

March 4, 2002 − Finalize tax returns. Ah-ha! Just figured out why Martha’s Calendar was canceled.

April 10, 2001 − Open pools in Westport and East Hampton. Order a Slip ‘n Slide from Target.com. Have it shipped in time for Memorial Day.

April 1, 2001 − Take final test for pilot’s license. Hmm, another toughy. If you want to feel like you’re flying, go get some dental work done and ask for the laughing gas.

April 9, 2001 − Return from Japan. Order sushi for dinner and pick it up. Return from Japan(ese restaurant).  

December 13, 2002 – Wash all light bulbs. If you have the time, desire or inclination to wash your light bulbs, you have bigger problems than I can help you with.

January 22, 2003 – Rotate mattresses. You’ll need assistance for this, so be sure to ask your husband 3 days in advance, so when he says, “I’ll be right there,” it’ll be done exactly when you intended.

June 8, 2001 – Clean behind washer and dryer. Barring the possibility that you are a contortionist, weight-lifter, or wizard, let the dust bunnies be and go decoupage a side table!

August 19, 2001 – Go rowing. Here’s one you need not feel guilty about unless you have a canoe, some oars and a body of water handy. Hey, if water is handy, consider making pressed seaweed art instead!

April 17, 2000 – Clean chicken coop. …I guess you could clean out your refrigerator…another job I dread. My rule: never clean anything that’s bound to get dirty again. Waste of time. Instead, take all the cheese and veggies you have in there and cobble together a sumptuous quiche!

Apirl 2, 2002 – Climb Mount Kilimanjaro again. Again? That sounds pretty boring. Decorate a wall with a bunch of empty mismatched tag-sale frames. Nestle some smaller frames into larger ones for a fabulous effect! (You’ll need a step ladder to get some frames up high. Be careful, the air thins out up there!)

April 6, 2002 – Take down and wash storm windows. Come on, Martha−we know you’re not doing this! Skip the windows and make a gorgeous lampshade out of sheets of birch bark−beautiful when light shines through!

April 7, 2002 – Scrape and paint chicken coop enclosure. Enough with the chicken coop! Fix yourself a Vodka-Thyme Lemonade and be thankful it’s someone else’s urge to raise chickens.

November 13, 2002 – Wash cats and trim claws. Oh, a cat bath sounds fun and easy! Everyone knows cats love water! Remember, “claw” is a noun and a verb. My advice: get used to the way the cat looks and smells. With the time you’ve saved, make a Grasshopper Pie−Martha’s recipe is to die for. And watch your family’s claws come out!