Process: Words and Pictures and Walking
Dear RoR (Readers of Roden) —
Welcome to the final issue of 2019.
If you’re new here — HELLO. I’m Craig Mod, and you signed up for this monthly newsletter on my website, craigmod.com. If you were forced to input your email address by a kidnapper or had recently attended an Ambien and vodka party, if you subscribed amidst a fog of war, or if you’re just tired, so tired, and the thought of deleting another one of these next month is too much, then unsubscribe in one click. Otherwise, welcome to the ever-growing crew.
Last Roden I linked to my pizza toast piece over at Eater. Today, I’d like to discuss the process of putting that together. It’s a little bit sausage-behind-the-words, so skip this Roden if that’s not your thing. But hopefully revealing a little bit of the gestation behind a 5,000+ word essay is instructive/useful to someone out there.
But before we get into that ramble, I’d just like to say THANK YOU for your support and encouragement, responses and kind words this year. This year was pivotal for me on a number of fronts, and having you readers out there, enthusiastic and generous made all the difference.
If you like Roden, you might also like Ridgeline — my weekly newsletter ostensibly about “walking (mainly) in Japan,” but really about “walking as a platform” and what can be constructed atop the act / rhythm / structure of a walk. That sounds way more hifalutin than it is, but that’s the best distillation I got.
And if you like any of this stuff I produce, consider joining my Explorers Club membership program. It makes this financially possible, verging on the sustainable. I’m still about 100 members shy of a “safe” line of monthly / yearly membership numbers. That is: a line that gives me a bit of breathing room. Paying for all these services adds up (email for these newsletters alone costs me $2,400 a year; there’s quite a few of you out there), as does running these experiments in publishing and walking, photography and writing. We’re coming up on the 1-year anniversary of launching Explorers Club — I’m going to refresh the program next month with extra perks and other goodies. So now’s a great time to join. For those of you already members, THANK YOU.
Alright, alright. I’ll shut up now.
Onward, to toast and kissaten:
I first thought about pizza toast as a potential piece years ago. Pizza toast was a kind of “gateway” food for me, always struck me as a somewhat Japan-specific curiosity worth digging more deeply into.
But it wasn’t until April, about a week after my Nakasendō walk began, that I properly pitched / sold the piece to Eater. By then I had visited a handful of kissas and started to interview and photograph the owners. Based on the few conversations and meals I had had, I was convinced I could do a decent job telling their story.
Why pitch to Eater? I had written about pizza for them before, so they were familiar with my Neapolitan tendencies, and this seemed like a way to complete some imagined perfect pizza circle of the mind.
Walking and Photography
When I began that Nakasendō walk, I set a number of arbitrary rules. One was that I had to take someone’s portrait by 10 a.m. each morning. Or else what? Or else I was a dope, a hack, and I would be forced to self-flagellate my way through the rest of the day. This turned out to be a great forcing function.
9 a.m. would roll around and if I hadn’t completed the task I’d begin to frantically look for someone interesting, forlorn, oddly dressed, buoyant, whatever, along the road. Each day was different. Each day I was as much a stranger, a random apparition in the villages and towns and roadsides, as I was the day before. You could make a fool of yourself over and over again, and the next day it all reset. That’s what the long walks feel like — daily resets, each day another chance to be a better version of yourself for the strangers who know nothing of your sins.
The longer I walked the further I got from my starting point, and therefore the more intriguing became my story. “You walked from where?!” Good ice breaker. Then I’d ask for a picture. Many refused and I never pushed. I snuck some shots simply because to have broken their own spell would have ruined the image.
But the result of this “forced” act of creation before 10 a.m. is that it got my “humanity muscles” working, primed the creativity pump, and despite my lone-wanderer status, by the time I had landed in a kissa later in the day I was chatty, had taken the portraits of several people. It was like doing facial warm-up exercises before going on stage.
There’s a high to getting a good photo, to finding a certain shot out in the world, to extracting it from the landscape. A tangible chemical high. I love it. My pack suddenly weightless after a ten minute chat with a farmer or craftsperson, slanting morning light, soft light filtered through the shoji of some workshop, the mechanics of photography making “real” a moment, adding edges to something otherwise fleeting. A photo doesn’t capture everything, but it places a tiny anchor in the mind back to that place, that split second, the air, the dust, the tension or ease in the room.
In the end I wrote more than 12,000 words for a piece that was originally commissioned as 2,000. In case you’re wondering: this isn’t a nice thing to do. No editor is going to be psyched to get that many words.
Taking a step back, why even push through a publication like Eater? Why not just publish the giant word-mass, here? on my website? A few reasons.
- Getting paid is helpful to avoid homelessness and/or malnutrition
- Bylines in good publications bestow what could be construed as “social capital” or the “p” word (prestige)
- Articles in larger publications will help your story reach more readers
- But (for me) most importantly: Getting to work with a great editor changes everything
To Eater’s credit they paid fairly (although without the support of my Explorers Club membership program, I couldn’t have done it; not at the expanded and obsessive scope I ended up tackling).
If one were to place a “stock price” on Eater’s social capital, it would have probably 10x’d in the last few years. (What was up with that weird “Morning Show” Eater name drop?) I’m delighted and honored to be published there. And, bonus: Their website looks fabulous.
And! double bonus: They have a vast and engaged readership.
But!! Eclipsing all that, I got to work with Lesley Suter, who is kind and brilliant and incisive and was fully on board with my somewhat superficially idiotic quest for “toast with cheese” (as she kept calling it). Credit for all final coherency in the story goes to Lesley, and for any lingering incoherency I happily shoulder the guilt.
As I walk I take notes (when working on a piece or more generally, as a diary). I use Apple’s Notes.app for capturing location and interview details, and for snapping reference photos — in the case of this piece, photos of each kissa and meal. It’s the best, simplest solution I’ve found for quickly doing this kind of note taking with images, and syncs well between laptop and phone.
Notes.app also works fine with Siri’s dictation functionality, so I dictate even more notes as I remember details throughout the day.
The editorial goal for Lesley was to produce a solid draft before I finished the walk, but — surprise! — for a number of reasons, that didn’t happen. While I didn’t have a draft, I did have about 3,000 words in pidgin notes, had visited several dozen kissa, and had written several false starts to the essay by the time I returned home. (We’re into June now.)
Considering my trove of collected background, I broke out some index cards, writing on each one the name of a kissa or owner worth mentioning, grouping them into various hierarchies of remarkable or delicious, placing them up on my giant blackboard with magnets into two groups: “to-do” and “drafted.”
To minimize the work paralysis of immediately turning these twenty or so note cards into a single cohesive narrative, I set about simply writing vignettes for each card, moving them from the “to-do” pile to “drafted” group. As I worked through the vignette, themes began to emerge: Showa design, shutter towns, depopulation, the creation and dissolution of … uhm … cultural emblems? Stuff like that.
I then made note cards for those themes, placed them up on the blackboard as a reminder to weave them into the larger narrative, or at least explain them, somewhere, somehow.
As for introductions, my god, I wrote so many (10? 15?), all of them duds.
From the doofy:
Pizza toast is perfectly boring until it isn’t. It’s exactly what it sounds like: Toast transmuted into a pizza-like object, tomato sauce, cheese, green pepper, and perhaps, onion.
To just plain incoherent:
Morning service. Were we to shed all western notions of Christian liturgy, perhaps we’d end up where Japan landed some sixty years ago: thick toast, a hardboiled egg, a small salad. All for free — “service” — when you order a hot cup of strong coffee.
There’s a strong component of “ok let’s just fart this stuff out” mode of working that I find really useful (and is clearly evident in the above).
Which is to say, there are many more introductions which will stay locked up in a horror drawer, never to be shown daylight.
But that liturgical note stuck with me.
And where did things end up? Here a snippet of the published intro:
The pizza toast was like liturgy, like an old friend comforting me as I wept into my hands. The pizza toast was everything I needed it to be at the very moment it arrived. You see: I was in the middle of an epic walk across Japan. On this trip I was following the old Nakasendō historic highway, and would go on to walk more than 1,000 kilometers in total. On this particular day I was grappling with an eight-hour stretch of scorched asphalt that I had nicknamed “Pachinko Road.”
This needed to be quirky enough to catch someone’s attention and (hopefully) indicate this wasn’t going to be your run-of-the-mill piece about “delicious food in Japan!!” It also had to setup the fact that I was on a historic walk, but that we wouldn’t be focusing on the pretty, old temples and shrines — hence, Pachinko Road. It also had to acknowledge that an entire article pivoting around pizza toast was … absurd? and hyperbole is a fine way to emphasize that. Is pizza toast sacramental? an old friend? would it comfort me? I mean, no, of course not.
And yet, it was like an old friend, as I explained a few hundred words later:
And so I took solace and sanctuary in a small old-style Japanese cafe — a kissaten — near my university in Tokyo. It was there that I first encountered “pizza toast.” The name intrigued, and what was presented seemed like food you might serve a child. Perfect. For me, it became a bridge between where I had been and where I was to go.
And the liturgical component? Well, the walk was inherently ascetic, and by setting the religious note up high, we could point back to it, “resolving” it down low, reminding the reader of Pachinko Road once again at the very end:
Sitting in the dark and chilled Kumata kissa, surrounded by stuffed animals and a fake fireplace, I felt healed, like the great walking liturgy was resolving itself, and though there’d always be more Pachinko Road to walk, for the moment it felt like a lifetime away. I was grateful to be looking at what remained of kissa culture straight in the eye. It wasn’t long for the world, and I certainly couldn’t save it. But at least I was bearing witness. That felt like something.
In the end, Lesley and I batted back and forth a few Google Docs with hundreds of comments and thousands of edits, chopping and slicing into, as Lesley puts it, “someone might actually read this size.”
Who knows if anyone actually read-read it — the web is a notoriously bad platform for maintaining attention and focus. I have a little follow-up book project that I hope to talk about in the next few weeks that aims to address this failing of medium.
As for vignettes that were removed, I’ve been publishing them on Ridgeline — Pizza Toast Tales: Thompson and ALPS.
Even More Process
If you like reading about writing processes, John McPhee’s Draft No. 4 is an excellent book, and also an excellent New Yorker essay, but my favorite of his on process is the essay Structure, which begins:
Out the back door and under the big ash was a picnic table. At the end of summer, 1966, I lay down on it for nearly two weeks, staring up into branches and leaves, fighting fear and panic, because I had no idea where or how to begin a piece of writing for The New Yorker.
And the push for my index cards came from reading this very essay years ago:
When I was through studying, separating, defining, and coding the whole body of notes, I had thirty-six three-by-five cards, each with two or three code words representing a component of the story. All I had to do was put them in order. What order? An essential part of my office furniture in those years was a standard sheet of plywood—thirty-two square feet—on two sawhorses. I strewed the cards face up on the plywood. The anchored segments would be easy to arrange, but the free-floating ones would make the piece. I didn’t stare at those cards for two weeks, but I kept an eye on them all afternoon.
Other recommended books: Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life is a gem, as is the other Annie — Lamott’s — oft recommended Bird by Bird.
For a less nitty-gritty guts, more macro-level discussion of writing processes, more specific to fiction than non-fiction, look no further than Alexander Chee’s essential How to Write an Autobiographic Novel — which is not about how to write an autobiographical novel, but rather a lens into the evolution of Chee’s writing life through richly observed essays. (Chee promises a “Really, Truly This Time: How to Write an Autobiographic Novel” sometime in the next year or two.)
And more on the fiction front, this recent George Saunders interview in the Paris Review is … it’s probably the most underlined / noted thing I’ve read this year. Gems and insights into process galore. My print edition is almost more notes than text. I love Saunders — his work, his mode of moving through the world — and will write more about this particular interview soon. But reading this essay was a wonderful way to end the year — he’s a beacon of grace.
So there ya go. 2,500 words that should really only be about 1,500 words to finish out the the Roden year. Thank you all again for your support. It’s 10pm. I am sleepy. We are all tired. It’s OK. Embrace the tired. Soft bed, buckwheat pillow, hard futon, whatever your jam may be. I walked 20km today. I have some superb movies queued up for tomorrow, and a ’fridge full of veggies. A stack of books by my side. People I love nearby. Sunlight and warmth are both promised. I will happily disconnect. Perhaps you can disconnect, too. I look forward to us reconnecting, in this so-called new decade. Thank you, thank you.