In a Jam

Strawberry Jam

Everything becomes a “son of a bitch” when it is hot outside and you have just scalded yourself for the fifth time while making jam.  Earlier in the day, it had seemed like a good idea to take on yet another culinary project, since as of late I have neglected my domestic goddess.  Matt, ever the practical one, was a bit concerned:

“How do we know it’s going to turn out?” he asked.  He eyed the canner as if it were a homemade bomb.

I gave him my very best “honey do” look and said, “How hard can it be? Mash the berries! Cook them! Stick them in the jars,” I said.

Thirty minutes into the jam-making experiment, I was singing a different tune.  It sounded a lot like “It’s a Small World,” but with a whole lot of swear words added in for good measure.  Our kitchen had transformed itself into the bowels of hell as the steam rose like an eerie fog, lit from beneath by the flickering light.  On the stove, boiling water popped and hissed.  We ran frantically from counter to stove a factory conveyor belt of two.

“Lid!” called Matt.

I dunked the metal clamps into the boiling pot, shielding my face from the steam and cursed as another splash of water scalded me on the wrist.  As I hopped across the floor and dropped the lid onto the jar, I wondered what could have possessed me to make jam on a hot summer day.

Meanwhile, Matt fished around in the canning pot for another jar.  “Shit!” he said, as a jar slipped out of the tongs and splashed into the water.  “It’s like bobbing for apples, but with third degree burns!”

We laughed.  Yet another ridiculous kitchen experiment gone awry…

It wasn’t until we had filled all of our jars with strawberry jam, its ruby contents gleaming in the sunlight that we had a terrible realization.

Matt hunched down to eye-level with the jars and wrinkled his nose.  It was a disapproving sort of wrinkle.  “What’s that white stuff?” he said.

I bent to look at it too.  “Google it,” I offered.

But Google didn’t have any answers.  Suddenly, the kitchen was cloying, the air seemingly evaporated leaving only a hot, sticky mess of crimson splayed across the walls, our shirts and the floor as if a massacre had taken place.

It was looking grim, to say the least.

Matt shrugged.  “Just keep going, I guess.”

“It’s not safe!” I said, “Botulism does not make a nice gift!”

“It won’t be botulised!”

“How do you know?”

“I know.”

“But HOW?”

We both eyed the strawberry jam.

“I guess we’ll have to take a chance,” said Matt.

I sighed.  “Fine,” I said.  “But if it’s poison, let’s say you made it.”

Another twenty minutes of processing and boiling (and cursing) later, the jam jars sat out on the counter.  They looked innocent, peaceful, like rubies in a forbidden temple.  (You know, before Indiana Jones removes them only to release a giant crushing boulder).  We both just kind of stared at them, unsure of whether or not the jam would be awesome of poisonous.

And then something miraculous happened: there was a click.  One lid had sealed, meaning it wasn’t going to turn into poisonous muck in my pantry.  More clicks rang out through the kitchen—the sound of success, tiny rounds of applause.  Success at last! We’d made jam, not poison!

Is it possible to relate jam back to writing?  I think so.  You see, lately, I’ve been shambling around in the drift of my latest story.  It’s felt weird, because I haven’t exactly known whether or not I was on the right track.  There have been some tense moments, too, where I wondered if I would have to start all over again and scrap what I had written.  But when I think about the jam jars and that satisfying pop that they made when I knew that they were just right, it struck me that plotting a story (when writing in the drift) is a lot like making jam for the first time.  There are a lot of times when I have no idea what I’m doing, but I keep on muddling through the drift until the story…clicks into place.  So what do you do when you’re in a jam for plotting?  Keep on wading through.  It may be a son of a bitch to get through, but it sure as hell is sweet when it all clicks into a place.

Lost at Sea, or How to Make Plot More Exciting

Surfing at Sumner Beach, NZ

I don’t know about you, but I like to avoid being uncomfortable.  I like being in control of everything.  So when my New Zealand roomies suggested that we go surfing a few Christmases ago, I could think of all kinds of reasons to stay out of the water.  What’s that you say? Sharks and jellyfish and undertows? To say “oh my” would be an enormous under statement.  But when I watched them out there, skimming along the sun-dappled waves, I felt a tug of curiosity that led me to a board rental truck.  Before I knew it, I was floating in the icy water with a board attached to my foot and feeling a little bit like a package of shrink-wrapped fish in those briny wet suits surfers wear.

Paddling out into the waters was fun; the moment when I turned my board around and felt the swell of waves rush up underneath me was scary.  Blinking back the burning salt water, I rushed towards the beach face-first.  There was still the matter of standing up.  Shakily, I attempted to pop up onto the board like everyone else, but instead slipped under the waves.  For a few seconds, I was tugged side to side as I clawed my way back to the surface, the leafy hills and colourful houses shrunken and far away.

I was thinking about this moment the other day when I found out something that made me realize I’m not always going to be in control.  It wasn’t a horrible moment.  Nobody is dying here.  But it was a moment of discomfort. Because everything eventually circles back around to writing for me, I began to think of something that I have been starting to realize: writing a story can be uncomfortable in a similar way.  To make readers feel the excitement as if it is really happening to them, we have to feel it first when we are writing.  This doesn’t always happen when we “begin with the end in mind.” Instead, we have to focus on getting lost in our writing—drifting towards ideas we didn’t plan.

Like washing ashore after a bout of being trapped underwater, when you reach that moment where you land on an exciting plot twist it feels like warm sunshine, sand and a cool breath of fresh air.  Yes, it is scary not to know where you are going, but it makes for some damn good suspense, doesn’t it?  It’s okay to be uncomfortable.  It’s just the way life—and writing—happens.  But it’s not so bad.  Let yourself get swept off in the drift and see where it takes you.  I can’t promise you won’t get swept under the waves, but I guarantee it will be one wild ride.

The Road Not Taken: Plotting Excitement

Foot Path in Reykjavik, Iceland.

The roads in Iceland look more like winding, gravel foot paths than, well, roads.  Amidst the moon-like lava rock there are plenty of places to wander off the track and fall into a hole (or something like that); this is why they tell you to stay on the main roads and don’t go off the path.   So when we began driving around the outskirts of Reykjavik, we were being careful, but also we didn’t really expect to get into trouble in the city.

Wrong.

It had been a few hours already when we saw the lighthouse in the distance.  Letting our curiosity be our guides, we started driving towards it.  It was a pretty drive—the water was on our left and the puffins were out fishing.  In the distance, was an island with unusual looking houses on it.  Transfixed by the mystery of the lighthouse, we wound along various roads, trying to find a way to the pier where it stood.  And slowly there started to be some unusual sights for a road: suddenly we were much closer to the water than we had been and now instead of grass on one side there was grass on two sides.  A team of soccer players jogged by.  One of them gave us a strange look, which I think roughly translates into “look at those morons on the walking path.” A moment later, we saw a sign depicting a car with a big red “X” through it followed by a little stick person walking.

Being that we were in the middle of a park, there was no place to go but forwards.  So we did.  We got a lot of weird looks, but we laughed like crazy when we finally got back to the road.  That’s the thing with straying from the path.  Sometimes, you have to step away from your plans—or outline—and follow that mystery, because you never know what great story will emerge from the adventure. Sometimes, the best discoveries when writing come from following the unexpected twists in our imaginations.