california life writing

Sunny October, I Begin Again

21 October 2011


[San Francisco, October 2011.]

Fall: utterly, truly. The light is fantastic, slanting against San Francisco’s buildings in the late afternoons and curling around the cyprus trees in Alamo Square Park. Last Saturday I picked roma tomatoes and early girls, the very last of the season, from my parents’ neighbor’s garden (Linus the cat keeping us company), and basil, and lemon cucumbers, and so this week my fridge is full of roasted tomato and garlic soup, homemade tomato sauce, and pesto. The other night I baked my ‘make everything better’ cookies (oatmeal chocolate chip) and the house smelled deliciously of caramelizing butter and sugar, with a sweet under note of roasted cauliflower. Season’s change.

I love fall. I love October.

It’s not just because it’s my birth-month. October in California can be heart-breakingly beautiful. It can rain a lot, and some years it does, but if we’re lucky it’s a year like this one when the sun shines almost every day, the sky is that deep October-blue (I swear it’s only this particular shade during this particular month), and the breeze is mild. I remember an October about six years ago when I was spending time in Northern California as a sort of hiatus making the decision about whether I would finally pack up and move from Washington DC. I was training for the Marine Corps Marathon, my first, and spent hours and hours outside in the cool (and not-so) sun running up and down the back roads of Sebastopol and in the Point Reyes National Seashore. It was one of the Octobers we’re experiencing this year: not a drop of rain, the sky that inimitable blue, the days stretching long and full of sun. I don’t miss that time at all, because it was not a particularly good time, but I do miss the empty days a bit. I miss being outside so much.

Still, time has expanded again for me, and I am grateful for it. And so I chew over what to fill it with — running, of course; writing letters, yes; mailing off a few small packages, absolutely; contemplating the upcoming holidays, um, gulp; considering what to cook next, always. Also this week I made a sort of quinoa risotto with (frozen!) peas and chopped red onion and wilted chard and sharp cheddar cheese that I must, I really must, make again. It was delicious. I made it for dinner the day after my birthday — a treat to myself — and then I further treated myself to the cupcake my friend had procured for me from Miette as a belated birthday present:


[Chocolate cupcake from Jerilee, October 2011.]

I need to make a homemade batch soon, as well as more of that risotto ….

And I want to make

cauliflower soup
roasted butternut squash with maple syrup and sea salt (sorry, husband, but I must)
white bean and kale baked in the oven with parmesan
apple and pear ice cream
a tarte tatin
the perfect loaf of bread
vegetable-laden pizza from scratch
homemade ricotta cheese, and yogurt


[Milk and cookies, October 2011.]

But there are other things on my mind this October, when I’m not playing with the Thanksgiving menu (!) and dreaming about more roasted vegetable gratins. Specifically, writing projects and the reality that it’s time to dive back in. I wish I could show you the number of drafts I have in various folders and states of completion; suffice to say there are a lot. A very lot. (OK, maybe it’s better that you can’t see them. I would rather not see them myself.) Some are food-related, some are California-related, some are related to neither one of these things — but all of them are waiting not-so-patiently for me to pick up the thread I dropped during the last six months.

Truth is, I’ve been trying to work on a book proposal for … oh, let’s say it’s been a quite awhile. I wrote one a few years back and it seemed promising and even made its way out into the world but then there was that whole market crash and the publishing world sort of froze and alas it slunk off quietly to be retired as yet another one of my projects that didn’t go anywhere. It took me a bit of time to work up the mental energy to start another one, but I did … and then insecurity got in the way. (How writers are plagued with insecurity. I can barely even call myself a ‘writer’, even, it’s that bad.) What have I got to say, after all? So much has been said already; can my voice bring anything important to the mix? Or am I just contributing to more background noise? I don’t want to do simply to do — I want it to matter, to have meaning (see also why I got into journalism all those years ago).

I could write about vegetarian cooking; I could write about vegan baking; I could write about California and San Francisco and coming home and venturing out and about all the beautiful places I love in this state; I could write about how I cook not because it is this hugely meaningful thing but because it makes me feel good and I like to feed people (yes, please) and there is a peculiar satisfaction that comes from turning ordinary vegetables into something marvelous that transcends description; I could write about the bits and pieces that make up a life, punctuated by the meals created and consumed; I could write stories about living in this particular corner of the world — Northern California, but my Northern California — and the food that is grown and made and cooked here. But … does anyone really want to read any of that? Can you make that into something … more?

Lately I’ve been reading books about the West — the west as it was once, all forest and granite and desert and shore-into-sea, which is the same but different from the way it is now — written by Timothy Egan and Wallace Stegner and Steinbeck (I’ve even contemplated revisiting Norman Maclean, though he wrote not of the coastal west but of rivers and pine trees) because of the spare cleanliness of the prose, the images there. I fell down deep into “Angle of Repose” this summer and wanted never to climb out — I brought it along on our Yosemite trip, lugging the heavy tome with me as is my backpacking tradition — and I can imagine myself writing in a similar vein about San Francisco as it was just before the earthquake (well, I guess I have done this, but that draft also ground to halt due to my insecurity that I have no idea what I’m doing when I try to write fiction). Or the little towns across the bridge and up north; I long to write about them, too, all that history and magic that still exists (just go out to Pierce Point Ranch on the edge of Tomales Bay and tell me you can’t see the children who went to school there, probably slightly sullen they weren’t allowed out into the crashing day to run down to the ocean below but instead had to read about the Revolutionary War). California is my place, as you know, but dare I even hope to fit myself into the legion of writers who have and do write about it so well?

Well, we all know this is not a train of thought to let continue down the track. The ‘muse’ is nonexistent in my opinion, and instead of waiting and wishing for her you must just get going. Hard work and perseverance makes a writing life, and a bit of luck, and a bit of time, and maybe a small amount of talent, too, but for the most part you just have to work work work. And push aside the lingering feelings of self-doubt that your idea is tired and that even if you had a good one you couldn’t explore it fully. That may be the most difficult bit of all.

(I am putting this here to remind myself, in the sunshine of late October 2011, that the only way to get over oneself is to keep going.)

Spring is often touted as the season of renewal and beginning, when the earth stirs from its long sleep and bursts into bloom and brush. But for me, despite the time change, the shorter days, the cooler temperatures that make me wistful for summer, fall has always been my time to start things. I may not be settling my pack onto my shoulders and lacing up my boots before planting my feet firmly on the John Muir Trail to hike its entirety but perhaps I can do it metaphorically, this beautiful October. I can sharpen the proverbial pencil, square my shoulders, take a deep breath, look ahead, set off. I can take up the work I’ve let drift, and begin again.

And so I will.

  • denise (chez danisse) 28 October 2011 at 11:27 am

    You are ready. Thank you for these inspiring words. I needed them today.

  • Heidi 25 October 2011 at 2:20 pm

    Thank you for expressing so bravely and articulately what we as writers (yes; I too shudder to call myself such, expecting I don’t know what–damnation??– to rain down on me) struggle with on a constant basis.
    Your writing is clear as a bell and so evocative…please don’t let the anti-muse suffocate your voice.

    Good luck!

  • EB 24 October 2011 at 1:04 pm

    Happy new beginning.

  • Sharon Allen 23 October 2011 at 3:18 pm

    Just keep writing!

  • Elizabeth 21 October 2011 at 8:09 pm

    This is inspiring, thank you. I can’t wait to read your book(s) about California, food and everything in between. You are a beautiful writer.