and why you should build up enough muscle so you can carry it with you
Many of us, most of us, know Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter. My sister Lee found this three ingredient sauce within the 700 pages of Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking1 when her kids were small. Lee called it ‘slow spaghetti.’ A can of tomatoes, butter and a chopped onion simmering slowly on the stove was the aroma of her home for years. She tossed it with spaghetti, spread it on pizza dough and spooned it over gnocchi. Soon all the sisters were doing it. We still are.
“I have known people to skip the pasta and eat the sauce directly out of the pot with a spoon,” writes Hazan in the headnotes of the recipe. Lately I’ve been slurping it. I add a few cups of water to the recipe along with a sprig of fresh rosemary and a big pinch of salt. After forty minutes of simmering I whizz it all together and serve it as soup. Regardless of how we interpret it, this sauce is part of our kitchen toolbox - ready to be pulled out when needed.
I thought about Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce as a toolbox ingredient as I walked through the park this morning. I had Stephen King in my ears, reading his memoir On Writing2. As I trudged up a hill, my boots weighed down by snow, he told a story about his uncle’s toolbox. It was a heavy thing, wooden and full, and his uncle - always in a white t-shirt and khakis, hair buzzed short and a cigarette hanging between his lips - carried it around the property, even when he only needed a screwdriver. If you don’t carry the whole thing around, he told young Stevie, “you’re apt to find something you didn’t expect and get discouraged.”
King uses the toolbox story as a teaching moment for us writers. “I want to suggest that to write to your best abilities, it behooves you to construct your own toolbox then build up enough muscle so you can carry it with you. Then, instead of looking at a hard job and getting discouraged you will perhaps seize the correct tool and get immediately to work.”
His uncle’s tool box had three levels. King thinks writers should have at least four. Common tools go on top, like vocabulary and grammar, followed by elements of style. As I wove down towards the ocean under pine branches weighed down by snow, King took out each tool and explained their use. I remember:
Use the active voice:
The snow is slippery under my feet.
My feet slip on the snow.
When it comes to possessives, think about what to put at the end of a sentence:
With a spoon she stirred the soup.
She stirred the soup with a spoon.
Cut back on the adverbs:
Stir the soup, lovingly.
Stir the soup.
King is talking about simple things - speaking clearly, being straightforward, trusting your instincts and finding the discipline to write often. This is how a person gets better.
“At its most basic, we are only discussing a learned skill, but do we not agree that sometimes the most basic skills can create things far beyond our expectations? We are talking about tools and carpentry, words and style, but as we move along, you’d do well to remember that we are also talking about magic.”
Marcella Hazan’s sauce is magic. The ingredients are simple. The method is straightforward. She does advise to stir the soup occasionally. Adverbs are needed in cooking. How else do we learn?
Standing here in the snow surrounded by the footprints of those who arrived before me, I can’t help but wonder how King wrote that scene in The Shining, when the boy was chased into a labyrinth by a crazed Jack Nicholson in the midst of a snow storm. The boy escaped by backtracking into his own footprints then hiding in the hedge walls of the labyrinth leaving Jack Nicholson bewildered, and frozen. What writing tools did King employ? Did he use the active voice? Could we feel the icy snow on our faces and sense the boy's terror? Were there adverbs?
I’ll have to leave it at that; I’m too scared to read it or watch it again. It’s no wonder. Stephen King’s muse is a man who lives in a dark basement smoking cigars while reclining in a lazy boy. My muse is a kitchen in the quiet of the morning with a yellow lab swishing her tail back and forth across the floor. Sticking to your style is another important tool in the toolbox.