National Writing Project


By: Kim Stafford
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 3
Date: 2004

Summary: How does a writer make a happy story warm but not saccharine? Kim Stafford writes that the way to achieve this balance is to stay alert for images and details that create edge or contrast.


In college I signed up for the class called "Camp Cookery" just because I was curious and had Wednesday nights free. It turned out to be a required course for all geology majors, and we twelve men rolled up our sleeves, put on our aprons, and were instructed by Miss Pelch in the mysteries of mock apple pie and the secrets of the stove.

Imagine a row of eleven pies baked golden brown, and then my cinder.

One night Miss Pelch told us a private trick, which I have never used in cooking, but which has saved my writing often from lapsing to the simply sweet: pepper in the apple pie.

"The tongue is fooled," she said, "if you sneak a pinch of pepper along with the cinnamon and sugar. Fooled to a deeper bliss."

Is that true in cookery? I know it's true in writing. Pepper in the prose, pepper in the poem can make the sweetly sentimental return to life and vigor. I guess we could call this edge or contrast, but I prefer to think of it as pepper. It is that secret ingredient in the arts that intensifies the sense of the particularly beautiful in the real. The photographer Joel Meyerowitz, in his portraits, seeks what he calls "life's jewelry" on the body: freckles, birthmarks, scars. These, with the light of spirit in the eyes and the grace of tired slouch or dancer's balance, authenticate the beautiful. As my sculptor friend says of her injured nudes in Carrara marble, "My work is beautiful, but it is not pretty."

My own reminder of this trick resides in the following set of notes I made when visiting the parents of a writer-friend up near Battle Ground. The visit was a sweet one in many ways—the wild rabbit haunting the garden, the cherries spilling crimson along the branches of their fertile tree, the rose bush seeming to prop up the old barn, and in the kitchen, canaries singing in their cage. But all this was made more powerful by the hard things that worked against easy pleasures and deepened their flavor:

  1. Mr. Caldwell, old Irish, is sitting in his chair sucking on a cigarette at eighty-seven. He wears the suspenders and the powerful body of a working man, a hero. He does not recognize his own son:

    "Hey, old man, do you know me?"

    "You look familiar."

    "I'm Keith!"

    "Do you know the best trade?"

    "I'm your son!"

    "Of all the trades a going, your begging is the best, / For when a man is tired, he can lay down and rest."

    "Mom, he doesn't know me."

    "He knows you're familiar. He likes you."

    "Dad, tell my friend a story—about your logging days."

    "Well . . . it was always easier to carry a dead man out of the woods, but when they were still alive, you had to be careful how you held `em."

  2. Outside, at the pasture's edge, an old oak straddles the sunlight, magisterial.

    "There's the oak where my great-great-grandmother dropped dead of a heart attack carrying a pail of water to the workers in the field."

  3. In the hymn silence of the barn, on a shelf over the threshing floor, a sheaf of wheat lies bundled where it was cut by horse-drawn combine fifty years ago. Beside it, the old man has nailed to the hand-hewn beam a withered possum's foot.
  4. "Yeah, Mom loves her canaries. She kept breeding them, until she got about three hundred, and then it was odd for a while."

  5. In the late afternoon sun, the cows are moving slowly toward the barn.

  6. "You know, there are three kinds of dairies: Grade A, Grade B, and Grade C. They never made much ice cream out of our milk."

  7. The family cemetery is a calm refuge, drowsy with shade.

    "He told us to plant potatoes on his grave, so whenever he got hungry he could reach up and pick one. He also told us to pour whiskey on his grave now and then. We said, `Sure, we'll pour whiskey on your grave, but we're going to drink it first.'"

I savor these details fragrant with pepper, curry, bitter herbs. When I cook up a story, an essay, a poem now, I want to spare the sugar and shake the hot paprika with the generosity of my true biography. Carl Sandburg called one of his books Honey and Salt for a good reason. Sugar and spice and everything nice just doesn't cut it any more—for woman or man, adult or child. We need the truth of pepper.

About the Author Kim Stafford is the director of the Northwest Writing Institute and the Oregon Writing Project at Lewis and Clark College.

"Pepper" is reprinted by permission from The Muses Among Us: Eloquent Listening and Other Pleasures of the Writer's Craft by Kim Stafford (University of Georgia Press, 2003).

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