Today I made a red lentil dahl, an Indian dish composed of lentils with spices cooked in oil. The recipe didn’t call for them, but I added onions because I like them, and used minced garlic instead of garlic powder. I also used red lentils instead of brown. I like brown but I didn’t want to wait for them to cook. I’m not very knowledgeable about Indian cuisine, but I like to experiment a bit. The recipe, which I found online, was quite tasty even though the poster said it wasn’t strictly authentic. Not all my culinary adventures turn out well, but this one did. Now my house smells like cumin.
It’s good to try new things. Writing in different genres and forms is the only way you will discover which ones fit best. Some experiments might not be successful, but where would we be if we didn’t try?
Poetry, for example, isn’t my strong point, but every once in a while I do come up with something. I envy those who write strong verse, whether it rhymes or not. Good poetry has a rhythm, a power to it that goes beyond the words. You can feel it in the best stuff even when you read it to yourself, and it’s spectacular when spoken. I’m afraid mine isn’t that good. Yes, okay, here’s an example.
Shining like a new penny, in pocket black
Tell me where the hiding place is
For your deepest feelings.
Tell me what is lurking in the darkness of your soul
Or do you even know?
Is it worth the copper glow?
Or is it dull and ordinary, telling by its smudgy worn texture
How many times you have taken it, and worried it,
And tried to give it away?
How many times was it returned to you, and
Did you polish it again
Before you tried to give it to me?
I don’t know or care who held it or how long it wandered.
I’ll take it and hold it,
If you give it freely,
If you love with all your heart.
That was the result of a writing exercise using a cliché, in this case “new penny.” The point of the exercise was to use words in a new way, ascribing meaning to them through metaphor or interpretation, and made them fresh. For me, poetry is playing. I don’t know if I succeeded, but it was fun.
New forms and expressions enrich your work, and trying new things in life do the same. There is research and there is doing something or experiencing something firsthand, like making dahl. If I were to write about an Indian woman cooking for her family, I would need to know not only how her food is prepared, but what it smells like, how it tastes, its texture and color. If I have never experienced Indian cuisine, I would not know these things. Telling readers about the recipe is fine, but no description beyond that doesn’t give the writing any real flavor (pardon the pun).
Not all writers work this way. Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, wrote authentically about Transylvania without ever having been there. For some people and subjects, research will suffice but for others, knowing is better. I prefer to have a little feel for what I’m writing about. I have a story lurking in the back of my head about a mountain climber. I’ve learned a few things about climbing but have never attempted it. It’s something I would like to try, if I could get over my fear of heights, but given that it’s an expensive sport and there are no real mountains where I live, this one is going to have to wait. The sport is simply too technical to describe without attempting to learn more.
Besides authentic detail, trying new things enriches you. It keeps your brain working and stretches your emotional range. All this makes your writing better. You don’t have to be a closeted recluse to write. Get out there and live.
Please share in the comments how your experiences have translated well into your art.