I don’t know about you but I’m a big fan of Masterchef on the telly. It always seems to me that the chefs that get the most enthusiastic and throw the biggest variety of ‘stuff’ on the plate get voted off, while those who make something utterly delicious out of a small and carefully selected number of ingredients get through. Only today I watched Tom get through to the next round with his simple asparagus and hollandaise sauce. It’s the same with writing.
Ian and I have just spent a few days in Sicily and I knew that the trip would provide me with something inspiring for this newsletter, I just wasn’t quite sure what that would be. On the first morning we set off to visit the Greek and Roman amphitheatres for which Syracuse is famous. Within seconds I had stopped in my tracks.
“What’s that smell?” I asked. “It’s gorgeous. Like honey.”
“Oh yes,” Ian responded with more enthusiasm than I might have expected. “Where is it coming from?”
I looked around and noticed that the grove of olive trees at the roadside seemed to have been planted in a meadow of little white flowers. The flowers looked like the alyssum that Brits like to use in their rockeries. “Maybe that’s what gives local honey its flavour?” I wondered and we walked on, vowing to check it out on Wikipedia later*.
Less than an hour later, in gardens that have been created out of an old quarry I saw what would be the first of many lemon trees. I remembered that Sicily is famous for its lemons.
“Honey and lemon!” I said out loud to no one in particular. I could see a theme for the Inspirer was emerging. But then we visited the amphitheatres and I became enthralled by the deep pits that had been constructed beneath the stage for the ‘machinations’. More than two thousand years ago the theatre sets revolved, rose from stage doors and dropped away. Machinery was hidden from view but had a crucial part to play in the performance. I could feel a metaphor coming on and thought that maybe the machinations could represent the editing and punctuation, the rules and the conformities that turn the ‘shitty first draft’ of a piece of writing into something fit to be shown to the world.
So now I had a lemon and honey theme and an importance of behind the scenes theme for this piece. Already I knew it was too much, and as the holiday progressed I began to see typical ingredients popping up in Sicilian cuisine. Pistachio nuts, blood oranges, wild fennel, ricotta cheese, sundried tomatoes, capers, olives, basil, swordfish, pumpkin, pasta, of course, courgetti, aubergine, aubergine and yet more aubergine and golly those lemons were enormous – almost as big as rugby balls. There was no way I was going to get away with cramming all those different ingredients into one dish. If I did, I was bound to get voted off (aka unsubscribed).
But it was obvious wasn’t it? The lesson I learned in Sicily and that I am sharing with you now is that of selecting the finest ingredients and then stopping. The lemon and the honey belong together. The Greek and Roman history in another. The aubergine, capers, courgette and tomatoes can be set aside for caponata. They cannot all go on one plate nor in one dish. It’s the same for a poem, an article, a book. The finished piece will be better for being made with fewer, finer ingredients so that each element is the star of its own show. Better still, as you live your life, paying attention and foraging for inspiration you can collect a host of ‘ingredients’ in you metaphorical basket and use them not for one piece but for several clear and simple pieces rather than a larger muddled one.
“A painting is never finished, it simply stops in interesting places,” said artist and teacher Paul Gardner. Writing is like that too. We can fiddle and add to it forever, but we must learn to stop and remember less is more and that sometimes just lemon and honey is enough.
*the flower did indeed turn out to be alyssum maritima (sweet alison) and yes it does smell of honey, though most Sicilian honey takes it flavor from orange blossom.
This month I want to introduce you to someone with whom, tragically, it is no longer possible for you to connect with. I first ‘met’ Lindsay de Feliz in 2011 when she contacted us to see if we might be interested in publishing her memoir called What About Your Saucepans? At first glance I thought it was a bit of an odd title, but when Lindsay went on to tell me it was about her move from a high-powered, well-paid job in England to become a lowly diving instructor in the Dominican Republic and how she had fallen in love with her life, the island and a local called Danilo. I was intrigued and asked to see a sample of her writing. I soon learned a number of things: this woman had a story to tell that was stranger and stronger than fiction; that she needed my help as a mentor and Jane’s help as editor to knock it into shape; that I really liked her and wanted to work with her; that “What about your saucepans?” was what her mother had said to her when Lindsay told her she was leaving the UK almost two decades earlier.
Over the next year or so she worked like a beaver on the manuscript while her real life began to get curiouser and curiouser. She had married a handsome local and became a generous and loving mother to his children, some of whom were very young indeed. Not only did she open her arms and her home to a new family but soon a four-legged family of stray cats and dogs joined the fold. Danilo became involved in local politics, ran for major and the two became affected by so much corruption the they were forced to run for the hills and into hiding. The book came out and we kept her quirky title, soon realising that Lindsay was embracing social media big time and many people now talked fondly of the Saucepans Lady, like me, they had never met but came to consider a friend. Her online marketing was second-to-none and sales were steady. By 2017 a sequel was inevitable as we followed Lindsay to her half-built Pink House in a tiny village beside the woods. Life After My Saucepans was published in 2017.
Her life was always complicated and chaotic but Lindsay, who temporarily lost her voice after being shot in the throat during a break-in in book one, continued to see the funny side of life and her readers loved her more with every word and blog she wrote.
This post is in tribute to a dear author who was brutally murdered in December. Lindsay's body was wrapped in bags used for pet food and buried in a shallow grave in the woods beside The Pink House.
I want to thank Lindsay for the joy she was to work with, the joy she gave to her many readers and the love she gave to so many.
And if I have a takeaway for you, learned from the last eight years with Lindsay it is that a bonkers title is not always a stupid idea. If it is catchy, or ‘sticky’ as Malcolm Gladwell describes in his book The Tipping Point, then that is always a good thing.
In memory of Lindsay, Summertime and Springtime authors will be funding a one-time bursary towards publishing an expat memoir. Further details to follow in early 2020.
Jo Parfitt's Monthly Inspirer