I’ve never been a great editor. I work hard on my first draft. It’s tough to cut those carefully crafted sentences and judiciously selected words. Going back and slicing, dicing and re-ordering feels wasteful in my bones. And growing up in a family that was climbing the class ladder, we couldn’t afford to be wasteful. So much so that we regularly had Garbage Salad for dinner. Garbage salad consisted of all the bits of vegetable matter starting to brown and wilt in the fridge, usually smothered in ranch dressing. Sometimes it was lettuce, carrots, tomatoes and radishes. Sometimes it was lettuce, cucumbers, radishes, onions and celery. Sometimes it was lettuce, broccoli, cucumber, mushrooms and onions. And radishes. I remember a lot of radishes.
The dinner was fine, but never great. I didn’t look forward to garbage salad night—not when other dinners were spaghetti with rib sauce and garlic bread, pan-fried pork chops with rice and mushroom sauce, chili dogs with crinkle cut french fries, and steak with sautéed mushrooms and onion with giant baked potatoes. We called it garbage because that’s what it was—garbage. Dinner was all the bits leftover tossed together, not a cohesive collection of flavors and textures composed as a meal. Sometimes you’d get carrots, broccoli and all those damn radishes and have to chomp your way through dinner. Other times garbage salad was a one-note flavor palette—lettuce, cucumbers, cauliflower. It was a meal of frugality and convenience, not intended to spark joy.
For the record, I also hate buffets. You just can’t convince me that random, disjointed piles of food are a meal. You just can’t.
Truthfully, writing is like this, too. Each sentence can be carefully constructed, dynamic and intriguing, but a story doesn’t just materialize from a few dozen random, albeit first-rate sentences stitched together. And I’d argue it’s because, just like a good salad, a quality story doesn’t emerge from fresh ingredients, but profound intention.
I perfected my first truly intentional salad in college at The Cactus Grill and it changed the way I think about writing. I had a meal plan. They had a salad bar. I had a wide margin for trial-and-error. It took me a few weeks of tweaking and changing—nope, even though I like olives, they don’t belong in this. Nope, leaving the cheese out is a depressing mistake. Nope, nope, nope hard-boiled salad bar eggs are just never a good idea.
Each day, I’d follow these steps: Establish a mixed bed of lettuce—half spinach and half iceberg (for the crunch). Then, add diced tomatoes, cucumbers, black beans, red onions, red and orange bell peppers (but not too many), topped with roasted corn salsa and fresh avocado. Sprinkle three cheese blend liberally. Then, a light drizzle of ranch across the top and add a squeeze of lime.
I ate this salad every day for the next year. I cherished the way each ingredient played its specific role. I marveled at the way spicy, sweet, acidic, crunchy and refreshing elements came together to create a larger experience, like a symphony of flavors. And like a good novel, I could return again and again and appreciate a nuance I had missed before. I left feeling full, buzzing with satisfaction. And that is what I want to achieve with my writing. Of course every element should be great, but the sum of the parts should be transcendent.
Now, when I set out to make any salad my first step is to lay out all of the ingredients. My counter gets crowded—fresh vegetables like red peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions and lettuce crowd together with cans of black beans, garbanzo beans, various olive oils and vinegars, cheese and bags of random vegetables from the back of the freezer.
Only when I can see everything my pantry has to offer can I effectively explore the combinations of flavors and textures for my salad. Do I need the dressing to bring acidity? Or, are the ingredients trending acidic and the dressing’s role is to bring creaminess to cut through the brightness? Do I need to sprinkle sliced almonds on top for some finishing crunch or will the carrots I’ve already got do the job? The tomatoes are perfectly ripe and smell delicious—should I make them the center of the salad instead of a secondary player?
I approach writing the same way. I lay out all the bits I might want to include in a piece—every anecdote, connection point, scrap of dialogue, analogy, sometimes down to singular, painfully excellent words. Then for days, sometimes weeks, I explore the combinations. I’ll order and re-order the sequence of events. Stretch out a scene. Rehabilitate a terrible metaphor. Send a story packing. Over time, the path to the piece emerges with the right pacing, connections, and turns of phrase. I can reread a piece and think—oh, it needs a little more sweetness to cut through the acid of the vinegar in the dressing—and go back to my original notes, like a pantry, and select just what I need.
And, when I’m being entirely too precious and just don’t want to cut that side-story, I think about how distracting mango would be in a traditional Greek salad. A lovely fruit—rich and ripe and juicy—and so wrong. Then I hit delete.
That’s not the only writing lesson salad has offered me. Teachers, beginning in elementary school but well through college, offered polite constructive criticism about my lengthy, lengthy sentences. As a young writer, I’d link together thoughts and ideas and lists that were unreadable strings of commas. Reading them now, I’m winded. And lost.
Even though they may have been excellent words (arguable), there were just too many. Too much of a good thing is still too much. This lesson was reinforced by what I can only call an unfortunate incident involving ranch dressing. As a teenager, one of my go-to after school snacks was a gigantic wedge of iceberg lettuce, drenched in ranch dressing. I’ll admit, I loved this meager salad so much that when there was no iceberg in the fridge, I once tried to quell this craving with ranch alone. I figured that lettuce was essentially just a crunchy delivery mechanism for the creamy, herby ranch delight. I could kick the craving with ranch alone. I flung open the fridge, unscrewed the bottle cap, and upended the bottle over my head. As I squeezed the bottle and gelatinous, thick, salty dressing filled my mouth, I immediately regretted my life choices. Ultimately, too much of a good thing is just a bad thing.
When I’m writing, I find myself struggling with this a lot. I’ll get in an alliteration groove and read back a paragraph that I thought was truly great writing only to realize it sounds like a children’s tongue twister. Or, I’ll get deep into a scene and look up to find I have four pages of dialogue with no exposition—enough to lose any reader. And I’ll remember the overwhelming glue of ranch in my throat and get serious about editing.
In the years since my Cactus Grille salad days, I’ve refined my salad technique a bit. I’ve come to realize that in the kitchen quality matters and not all lettuce is the same. A few years ago, I spent weekends volunteering on a farm. I remember Diana, our farmer, telling us volunteers that local restaurants paid $12 for small bags of her lettuce and my penny-pinching brain could not imagine why. Skeptically, I nibbled a sample. These were my first spicy mustard greens and they changed my lettuce worldview. No longer was lettuce a delivery mechanism for the exciting salad bits. No longer was it the green stuff you begrudgingly ate because it was “healthy.” Nope, this lettuce was a game changer. A spritz of olive oil, and it was ready to be a salad in its own right. It added a level of spicy sophistication to every plate.
Diana’s greens give me the editor’s backbone I need to critique my own work. Sure, that sentence is functional like a reliable iceberg, but could it be something more? Sure, that character description works, but if I tweaked it could the whole story have a deeper resonance?
Some days, the garbage salad struggle is real. The poverty-stricken Sicilian grandmother in me threatens to whack my knuckles with a wooden spoon if I toss that broccoli that’s about to turn bad in the garbage instead of in my Mexican-inspired salad. But, the reassuring thing about writing is that those scraps won’t spoil. There is no looming expiration date, so I can tuck those phrases, thoughts, scenes and ideas away to ripen in the dark pantry of my notebook until I find the right moment in time, the right character, the right recipe for my treasured syllables.