One of the many problems with writing is that its long, long lulls can give you an awful lot of time to overthink it all. You eyeball other peoples’ careers and achievements and feel your own pale in comparison; you look at the long list of projects and feel yourself quake at the prospect, all that time, all that effort, for what could well be nothing. You start to worry about money, you self-impose deadlines, you notice fresh white hairs and you find yourself awake at 2 am wondering why you ever started all this in the first place, you’re never going to make it, you’re turning yourself inside out when you’ll never be more than a mediocre writer at best.
Yesterday I had three rejections in one day; I also realized that one of my stories that I had already sent out doesn’t actually work, it’s flat and cliched and just plain wrong, only I was too caught up in the rush to submit to admit it to myself. All of which capped off a bad week on every front, and nudged my mild blues into full-blown depression.
So today—that is, when I could finally get myself out of bed—I made ketchup.
If you want to immerse yourself in process; if you want to be reminded of how much work goes into the most basic things; if you need to relearn the lesson that the best things take a vast amount of energy + patience: make ketchup.
I love ketchup. I was a brown food child: I would eat anything as long as it was battered or breaded and came with ketchup. We didn’t eat out a whole lot, but when we did sometimes the ketchup would be a house recipe, not the Heinz I was used to, and those variations seemed to me the height of aristocratic dining. Homemade ketchup! That you could make that magic substance yourself, with all kinds of subtle variations, never ceased to amaze me.
It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve learned how much freakin’ work goes into this particular condiment. The pan above is a fraction of the 4 pounds of tomatoes I cooked down today, and I was making a half-batch. Pounds of tomatoes, onion, pepper, cupfuls of vinegar and sugar, heaping spoonfuls of spice. The cooking down, the relentless milling of the vegetables to coax a knuckle’s height of precious puree from a morass of skins and seeds . . . and then more cooking, so much cooking, the little pan steaming and simmering and slowly thickening. All to produce 6 4-oz. jars.
A pointless exercise, when you can just go to the store and buy any ketchup you can imagine. A waste of time, of energy—think of all the work I could have done this afternoon. And yet when I open one of these jars it will taste better than anything store-bought, and our meals will be a little more special for having it.
So too with writing. The weeks, months of work vanish when I reread something I’m proud of. All the unwritten backstory, all the possibilities carefully considered and eliminated, all the details that need to be imagined—they all fade into that satisfying whole. It is a supreme act of funneling, evinced by the six, eight, ten versions of even the shortest flash that pile up on my hard drive. I don’t know any other way to do it, just as I don’t know how to get that rich red-brown concoction in forty minutes instead of 4 hours. But I think, now, as I mop up the tomato splatters and lick out those last sweet-tart smears from the pan—I think I am overdue to accept my pace. Otherwise it truly will be wasted time.