ralph robert moore
the official website for the writings of
Copyright © 2008 by Ralph Robert Moore.
Print in HTML format.
Return to lately 2008.
that scary emptiness we always knew was there
august 1, 2008
The second most common question I get asked as a writer is, Where do you get your ideas?
It's a good question (it must be if it gets asked so often), but most writers, including myself, really don't have an answer.
For one thing, I don't get an entire idea all at once (meaning a full plot, all the characters in appropriate wardrobe). I get one tiny idea while I'm making coffee, then a few days later, Mary and me driving into Dallas to go to one of Mary's doctors, I get another tiny idea. A week after that, I'm loading the dishwasher, bent over with the white rubber feeder cap of a blender in my hand, and another tiny idea suddenly pops into my head. (This is really the way it works.)
A "tiny idea" could be a line of dialogue, a metaphor, a plot twist. Or anything else. What I want to emphasize is that each tiny idea comes to me on its own, without me actively trying to produce it. A tiny idea comes when I'm in a passive state. I'm not at my desk, working on a story. I'm not even thinking about writing. I'm watching a movie, or mowing the lawn, or cutting up lobsters. Big ideas (the plot to a story, the full realization of a character, three pages of dialogue), occur while my mind is focused. Tiny ideas occur while my mind is drifting.
Tiny ideas are always superior to big ideas. Big ideas are about building something. Tiny ideas are about seeing something.
My first responsibility is to make sure I write down a tiny idea, so I don't forget it. Because it's easy to receive a tiny idea, then lose it because the phone rang, you fell back asleep, or a cat bit your ankle.
My second responsibility is to try to figure out where each tiny idea fits.
Is it part of the story I'm currently writing? The story I plan on writing next (that I'm already starting to think about, subconsciously)? Or the blue iceberg tip of an entirely new, unmapped story?
That's how stories appear to me, and I suspect, to most writers. You don't see the elephant. You only see the tusks, then a week later the ears, then a month or a year later the trunk.
So I write down all these tiny ideas on strips of yellow legal paper, then try to figure out how one idea might relate to another. Like doing a jigsaw puzzle. (I just bought a Metaphor Mixer 2000, and am taking it out on its shakedown cruise.)
Eventually, I see how three of the seven recent tiny ideas I had all relate to each other (the other four tiny ideas relate to something else.)
The tiny ideas are inspirations. You know how you read a story, and most sentences are good, but every once in a while you come across a memorable line? It might be memorable because of its grace, or because of the truth it contains. It's the type of sentence you stop to reread, maybe even remember after the story is finished and the bus ride is over. Those sentences are tiny ideas, small white stars in the black sky of the story.
The trick for you as a writer is to wait patiently for other inspired ideas to float over, from God knows where, and figure out where they fit in the jigsaw. When you have enough tiny ideas, you plot out your story. The story you write will not be fully inspired. It will have inspired moments in it. Some of these will be the tiny ideas you started with; some will be inspired ideas that occur to you as you write (which always gives me a thrill of excitement, the greatest thrill I ever get as a writer, to begin a new sentence, thinking it's going to be plain, nouns and prepositions, like meat and potatoes, seeing it born above the blinking cursor on my monitor, watching words appear, and suddenly, with a quickening pulse and straightening spine, I restudy the sentence, feel the ghost of something greater in the words, add and subtract, rearrange, until that sentence is no longer another tall black hat, it's a white rabbit with a wiggling pink nose.)
Once you finish a story, you rewrite several times, trying to weed out as many uninspired ideas as possible, substituting better ideas. But most of your story will remain, in the sense we're discussing it, "uninspired." A story is essentially beads of great little ideas strung together by long stretches of technique. Like a rosary. You learn how to keep the reader's attention during the "uninspired", but technically adequate, parts.
The ability to write sentences that web together the inspired little gems in a story? That comes from practice. Technique is your greatest friend, your only friend, when there's a sway to the next great tiny idea that has to be crossed.
Beginning writers often fail because they don't wait for enough tiny ideas to gather before they start a story, and/or because they don't know how to entertain the reader like a good black-mustachioed emcee between the red curtain partings for the tiny ideas.
And that's what Art is. Inspiration and technique.
Art can never be all inspiration. It just doesn't happen. It can be all technique, but that's failed Art. I wouldn't even call it Art. I'd call it Notes.
One of my favorite Arts is cooking. (Did my skates slip on the ice with that admittedly clumsy segue?)
God, how I love food.
There are some dishes I've eaten in my life that are absolutely wonderful. The smell, the taste, the texture-I'm biting into the perfectly-seasoned crust of Heaven.
Most dishes use technique, but are uninspired.
But every once in a while, an inspired dish does come along.
Fettuccini Alfredo is the perfect noodle dish. Hot, flat noodles coated with heavy cream, butter, salt and black pepper, parmeseano-reggiano, and egg yolk. Lift and mix in the skillet, serve.
A couple of weeks ago, we tried a fettuccini alfredo recipe from Patsy's Cookbook, Classic Recipes from a New York City Landmark Restaurant (Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 2002), the cookbook compiled by Sal J. Scognamillo that includes many of the recipes Patsy's Restaurant has served over the decades to Frank Sinatra and a lot of other fifties celebrities. Patsy's was considered one of the premiere spots for Italian food.
The recipe was okay.
But not as good as I've had elsewhere. Maybe Frank, Joey Bishop and the gang were so boozed up by the time they got to Patsy's they really weren't in a state of mind to notice a lot of nuances.
Or maybe our taste is just different. That's the thing. It's not enough just to follow a recipe exactly. You also have to have the same type of taste as the man or woman who wrote the recipe. If they like spicy or rich or salty and you don't, you're going to think they're a terrible recipe writer, even though the candlelit couple next door may be swooning.
Anyway, we decided to tinker.
Here's our version of the perfect fettuccini alfredo. You may love it, or you may throw down your wooden spoon thinking, That's the last time that fucking asshole Ralph Robert Moore convinces me to try one of his recipes.
Boil the fettuccini in a Dutch oven until it's al dente.
Drain the cooking water, put the Dutch oven with the fettuccini over low heat.
Add the half and half, butter, salt and black pepper. The mixture will be soupy. Stir for five minutes.
Add the cheese. Stir until the cheese is melted. (And by the way, use real parmeseano-reggiano. The back rind should have part of the words parmeseano-reggiano stamped across it. When you bite into the cheese, there should be a sensation of biting into cheese with crystals in it. Seriously. No crystals, no good. Do not buy parmesan that comes in a green cardboard cylinder, or pre-shredded in a plastic bag, or sold in a small, hard, rubbery triangle. That's not parmeseano-reggiano. Those products are bets by large food corporations like Kraft that you're so stupid you'll buy crap. It's like buying a Jackguar instead of a Jaguar.)
Remove the Dutch oven from the heat.
Plop the yellow egg yolk atop the hot noodles. Quickly stir it into the noodles, lifting and incorporating.
Place the Dutch oven back on the low heat burner. Stir another minute, until everything is mixed together.
So what do you serve it with?
An hour and fifteen minutes before you start the water to boil the fettuccini noodles, take a bundle of fresh asparagus, snap off the lower, fibrous ends. Place the asparagus spears and the snapped-off fibrous ends in a skillet, cover with water, and place a two-tablespoon lump of unsalted butter atop the log jam of asparagus spears. Cover the skillet. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer. Keep simmering until you remove the Italian sausage from the oven (I know. I didn't say anything about Italian sausage yet. See below. And stop calling me an asshole.) Discard the fibrous ends. Transfer the spears to a dinner plate (to my taste, asparagus is best when it's warm or room temperature, rather than hot.) Turn up the heat in the skillet and boil down the cooking water until it's almost a syrup (but not sticking). Add two tablespoons of butter, and swirl the skillet until the butter is incorporated into the syrupy cooking water. Drizzle over the asparagus spears. (You won't need to add salt, because the syrupy cooking water will have an intense flavor.) You can use this same method with canned asparagus. Open the can, pour the liquid in the can into a small skillet, slide the canned asparagus onto a dinner plate. Heat the liquid, reduce, swirl in the butter.
Forty-five minutes before you start the water to boil for the fettuccini noodles, heat your oven to three hundred and fifty degrees. Place four Italian sausages (mild or hot, depending on your taste) in an au gratin pan. If you don't have an au gratin pan, place them on a cookie sheet. If you don't have a cookie sheet, place the sausages in the palm of your hand, squeeze your eyes shut, stick your hand in the oven, and think happy thoughts.
Bake the sausages for forty-five minutes. Remove them from the oven, let them sit for fifteen minutes on top of the stove so their juices redistribute. Trust me. This will produce the juiciest, most flavorful Italian sausages you've ever had in your life.
When the fettuccini is ready, twirl a big twist onto a dinner plate. Add two Italian sausages, and a dark green raft of drained asparagus.
The cream complexity of the fettuccini alfredo, combined with the earthy, greasy mouth feel of the Italian sausage, paired with the rich, vegetal taste of the asparagus, sets up a perfect balance of flavors.
We have our homeowners insurance through State Farm. We set it up to pay the premium annually, rather than monthly or quarterly, because it's easier for us. The past month our policy came up for renewal, and I thought, Why not check and see if we can get a lower premium through another carrier? So I obtained a quote from Allstate, and after some discussion with them, got them to lower the quote to where we get the same protection we had through State Farm, but at half the price. Which is kind of cool. So we switched. One night while Mary was roasting Anaheim chilies under our broiler to give them that great smoky flavor, prepatory to peeling away their blackened, brittle skins in the stainless steel sink, I sat at our breakfast nook table, pushing cat tails away from my face, and went through the entire Allstate policy, page by page, just to confirm we were covered for all possible catastrophes. Which we are. Including, and I'm not making this up, falling space craft. Now that's a homeowner's policy.
Back in the eighties, while Mary and I still lived in California, we were in a large department store, the type with multiple floors joined by escalators, buying stuff for our move cross-country to the East Coast.
Laden with shopping bags, we stepped onto the descending escalator on the fourth floor.
A middle-aged workman was at the head of the descending escalator, using a white rag to polish the silver side of the escalator. He smiled at us.
We rode down one floor, and there, at the bottom of the disappearing steel steps, was the same guy, polishing the silver side.
How could that be? I have no idea. It's just one more weird thing in our lives (much like the weird things in your life) that can't be explained. Were they twins? Possibly, but I doubt it.
That puzzling incident always reminds me of the story Descending, by Thomas M. Disch.
Mary and I first read the story about thirty years ago (it was part of Disch's short story collection, Fun With Your New Head.)
In the story, a man down to his last dollar, shopping at a department store, picking up extravagant food items he can't afford, finds himself descending floor after floor of escalators, without ever arriving at the street level floor, so that he can leave. He's doomed to keep going down escalators, which of course is bad, but the fact he is trapped in that descending loop means he's able, over the days of his descent, to eat the gourmet food he probably would not have been able to get past the cash register if he ever did reach the street level floor.
It was a simple story, but well-written. Like all of Disch's work.
Disch was always someone who, to me, stood out from his contemporaries. He wrote in a lot of fields, including science fiction, horror and fantasy, but his stories were always so much more literate than most of what was being published in those genres.
I never really kept up with his career, but he was one of those few writers where it was nice to know they existed. There was another story in that collection about a group of friends who have an apartment full of colorful balloons, and it was really a beautiful, beautiful story.
His most highly regarded works were the novels Camp Concentration, 334, and On Wings of Song. In the eighties and nineties he wrote a series of best-selling horror books: The Businessman, The M.D., and The Priest. His novel for children, The Brave Little Toaster, was made into an animated film by Disney. His poems, criticism, and writings on opera appeared in Paris Review, The Nation, Partisan Review, and a wide range of other venues.
The critic John Clute called Disch "perhaps the most respected, least trusted, most envied and least read of all modern first-rank SF writers."
Disch lived in New York City, sharing an apartment with his partner of thirty years, the poet Charles Naylor (they also had a home in Barryville, New York.)
And then things went wrong. Things always go wrong in life, that's part of life, maybe even a good part of life, it forces us to grow, but when too many things go wrong in a short space of time, it can detach us from our regular life, our hands no longer holding onto anything except that scary emptiness we always knew was there, and that's what happened to Disch.
Naylor became sick. Expensively sick. Disch went through his life savings, trying to keep his lover alive.
It didn't happen. It rarely does. Naylor died in 2005.
Disch had to abandon their home in Barryville. Which, anyway, had flooded.
Their New York City apartment was heavily damaged by a fire. Although the apartment was under rent control, after Naylor's death the landlord started eviction proceedings against Disch. Disch, who had lived in the apartment with Naylor for decades, fought the eviction, but the landlord's advantage was that the lease agreement was in Naylor's name only. Yet another reason why gays should be allowed to marry.
This past month, on Independence Day, July 4, Disch put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. He was 68.
I wonder what his final thought was, as his right index finger curled.