Like bread dough, my writing seems to require time to rise in a warm, draft-free place. The long proofing period is necessary; turn up the heat to hurry the rising, or don’t leave it long enough, and I get a stodgy, dense loaf.
Under ideal conditions – solitude, free time and excitement about what I’m writing – the words pour forth quickly. It’s exhilarating. But normally, I write when I can. I like to have control over an essay or story as it forms, and I edit as I write, considering each sentence as I put it to paper – does it say what I want it to say, or does it imply something else? I read what I’ve written aloud – does it have the right rhythm?Is my translation of Vietnamese dialogue as true to the original as possible? Does it sound natural?
The second proofing of the dough is as important as the first. Even when the writing happens quickly, I know from experience that it’s best to put it away overnight before taking another look at it, and then to put it aside again for at least a few days, or better yet, weeks. Sometimes it takes years. My essay Floating Life began as a food and travel vignette about visiting a family in the Mekong Delta. It worked, but it was bland. The recipe was missing something.
I kept looking for directions in which the essay might develop. I didn’t find the core of the piece, the defining ingredient, until a few years later when a friend read it and asked me how flooding in the delta affected the farmers. Coincidentally, I was reading about how the delta is one of the areas most adversely affected by sea level change in the world. I realized that this was what I wanted to write about. The words flowed and the essay doubled in length. The anthology that was to publish it, Foreign and Far Away, limited submissions to 1,200 words, but time had given me the distance to recognize that some of my words added nothing and stole space from important details. Rereading my essay with fresh eyes, I was able to see what needed to be added or culled.
Sometimes, the needed words, the mots justes, can be stubborn. They elude me; they won’t be forced out. I need almost as much time away from a piece, not writing it, as I need for writing it. As with a crossword puzzle, I put it away for a while, think of something entirely different, walk by the lake or try out a new recipe, and suddenly, the words come to mind.
When I’m struggling with a piece, wondering if it will ever be ready, I remind myself that the long proofing time that frustrates me so much is often just what my essays need to rise properly, to develop their best texture and to emerge from the oven tempting and toothsome.
Chris Galvin divides her time between Quebec and Việt Nam. She writes mostly about food, travel and nature, and sometimes pens short fiction. Her writing and photography have appeared in various anthologies and literary journals, including Descant, PRISM International, Asian Cha, The Winnipeg Review, and others. She has written in Vietnamese and English for several Vietnamese publications. Chris is currently working on a collection of essays about living in Việt Nam.