Like many creative nonfiction writers, I’m afflicted by a certain twisted optimism. Whenever I experience something difficult and painful, a thought will cross my mind: “At least it will make a good story.”
But it’s not like I can dump it into a document and call it a day. I’ve come to realize that to write well, I need to give my ideas time to ferment. When I’m working on personal essays, I can’t just throw a bunch of sugar on a bad experience and gulp it down right away: I need to give it time to transform.
In other words, I don’t make lemonade out of lemons—I try to make preserved lemons out of lemons.
Preserved lemons are more like an art project than a cooking project, at least the way I learned to make them from a recipe I found. You need a cutting board, a mason jar, a knife, a wooden spoon, lots of salt, and more lemons than you think reasonable.
Turn each lemon on its end and make two or three slices, so they bloom open on the cutting board. Then mush the lemon into the bottom of the jar with the end of a spoon and sprinkle salt liberally on top. Each layer the same—cutmushsprinkle—until you reach the top of the jar, and all of the lemons are submerged in a pale yellow salt bath.
And then: put the whole thing in a dark place for three months and wait.
A year after I married my first husband, I realized I needed to leave the marriage. My timing could not have been worse. We’d just packed up our life and moved halfway across the country to a city where I had no friends or family.
I felt profoundly alone and ashamed. I shuffled to my job, then to our marriage counselor, and then home to bed. I withdrew from my friends but sometimes I would call my mother. I would weep to her on the phone, so bereft that I could barely form intelligible sentences, my words tumbling from my mouth with a propulsive, sickening force.
When I would stop speaking, my mother would tell me she loved me and she was so sorry I was in this terrible place and then she would share some advice: “Keep a journal.”
Of course, I didn’t listen. I had no energy for creativity, and no desire to explore my misery. I was living moment-to-moment in the worst possible way, living every raw feeling with no time for documentation, let alone reflection.
But once we filed for divorce and I moved back to the East coast, something awakened inside me. In the months that followed, I began to write about my failed marriage, tentatively at first, and then picking up steam. I wrote in notebooks and in the notes app of my phone and in Google docs. I went to writing workshops and responded to carefully crafted prompts with half-ideas and stream-of-consciousness paragraphs that trailed off mid-sentence.
At that point, my writing about the divorce was full of too-clever phrases, all sharp edges and no introspection. I was finally writing about the things that I never thought I’d write about—the pain I felt and had inflicted, my own bad behavior and weakness, all of the ways in which I was deficient as a human being.
At first, it was exhilarating to put it all out on the page. But over time, the process became unsatisfying. I kept circling the same ideas, writing and writing and producing no meaning. I grew frustrated and stopped working on the essays, tucking them away inside nesting folders on my Google drive.
A few months later, I was in a writing workshop with a looming deadline. Panicking for inspiration, I began to open the documents I had abandoned. As I picked my way through my words, there would be a few sentences or a wisp of an idea—something bright and acidic that cut through the jumble of bitter pain.
I opened a new document and began again, and a new story started to emerge. I found that when I wasn’t paying attention, my perspective had changed.
Over the intervening months that I had left the writing alone, I had conversations with friends, read books, and worked on other projects. In the dark, a remarkable fermentation had occurred: my anger and pain had dulled, and I was able to dig beyond a narrative of personal agony to find something more universal below the surface.
It only took a few months of setting the project aside.
When I’m making a batch of preserved lemons, I can’t check on them every day: I know I just have to wait a few months so they can do their thing when I’m not looking. The rind of a fresh lemon is tough and bitter and has the texture of oiled pebbled leather.
But under the right conditions, it becomes pliable, golden, salty, delicious. A great preserved lemon will taste like it glows. It will illuminate every dish that it touches.
And I know I can make that happen. All I have to do is just let it be.
Kat Read is a writer and fundraiser at GrubStreet in Boston and a graduate of its Essay Incubator program. Her essay “The Whale” was a finalist in Hippocampus Magazine’s 2019 Remember in November Contest for Creative Nonfiction. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Manifest-Station, GRLSQUASH, The Sun – Readers Write, Pangyrus, The Hunger, Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, and Punctuate. Kat lives in Cambridge with her husband, their dog, and their truly excessive cookbook collection.