Thursday, August 13, 2009

Julie & Julia & Me

Sometimes life throws you better plot twists than fiction.

The other day I saw the new movie "Julie & Julia," which is about (among other things) writing and the satisfaction of having your writing efforts acknowledged. As most people probably know by now, it’s the dual story of Julia Child, the woman who brought French cuisine to a meat-loaf-and-jello-mold America in the early sixties, and Julie Powell, the aspiring writer who recently had the clever idea of blogging about her effort to spend a year making all 524 recipes in Julia Child’s cookbook.

In the course of her exhausting self-imposed mission, Julie comes to idolize Julia – as does any moviegoer who remembers "The French Chef" fondly and who sees her uncannily embodied by the amazing Meryl Streep. Julie conceives of her year of cooking as a kind of homage to Julia, finds inspiration in the older woman’s determination to overcome hurdles, and yearns to meet her. So it comes as something of a shock when Julie learns, through a reporter, that the aging Mrs. Child doesn’t actually think much of her endeavor.

My husband’s comment, after the movie, was that it would have been so much nicer if Julia had actually appreciated Julie’s project. Well, yes, it would have led to a heartwarming moment, perhaps even a teary-eyed meeting between the two women. And it certainly would have been more in line with our expectations as viewers.

But that’s the thing about real life: people don’t always act the way you’d expect them to. Who knows why Julia Child took a dislike to Julie Powell’s blog? Maybe she simply turned into a crotchety old lady – much as we’d like to avoid contemplating that possibility. It’s not clear, from the movie, that she’d actually even read the blog.

But one thing seems clear, at least to me: whatever else may have been fictionalized in the movie, this was one plot twist that wasn’t invented. It’s just too unsatisfying, too bizarre. (And, just having read one of Julie Powell's blog posts -- on this very site, no less --I've discovered I'm right about this.) But it leads to something of an epiphany. Once Julie gets over her disappointment and dismay, she realizes (with the help of her saintly husband) that she doesn’t actually need the real Julia Child, because she’s still got the Julia Child of her imagination in her head.

And that seems to me far more interesting than the tender scene that might have ensued had Julia embraced Julie as her disciple and spiritual heir. When you spend that much time thinking and writing about a real but remote figure, she inevitably becomes – at least to some extent – your own creation. She takes on two lives and two personalities: her own, and the one you’ve invented for her.

Once again, I’m led to contemplate the relative safety of writing about people who are dead and therefore unable to spout their scorn to reporters from the Christian Science Monitor. Although of course, writers do owe more respect and deference to the living, not only because they’re capable of complaining, but because they’re capable of being hurt. (Judging from the movie, though, there didn’t seem to be anything in Julie’s blog that Julia should have found hurtful or disrespectful – far from it.)

When I was in college, something spurred me to try to make Julia Child’s recipe for French bread. I waited 13 hours for the dough to rise. Sadly, it never did. But after we saw the movie, my husband urged me to go out and buy another copy of "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" and try the recipe for coq au vin (actually, he said HE would try it, but somehow I was the one who ended up doing it). The result was delicious (and why wouldn’t it be, with an entire bottle of red wine, a quarter of a cup of cognac, and a whole stick of butter in a recipe that served 4 or 5?). But I was completely frazzled and exhausted.

Julie and Julia, my hat is off to both of you.

Getting Beyond Chapter One

Anyone who's keeping track may notice a gap of several months between my last blog post and this one. I'd like to say it's only because I've been so busy writing a novel these last few months, but that would only be partly true. Given that this blog is ostensibly devoted to the interchange between history and fiction, and given that the novel I've been working is distinctly non-historical, I haven't really been in the mindset that would lead me into thoughts that fit the blog.

But that doesn't mean I HAVEN'T been busy writing a novel. In fact, after starting one at the beginning of May, I've just finished a second draft of 275 pages. I didn't quite make the "write a novel in a month" deadline, but I finished the first draft in about six weeks -- which, if I say so myself, is pretty amazing. Not that it was a polished piece of work, but I suppose that wasn't the point. What WAS the point, you may ask? Just to get words on paper, to get the creative juices flowing, I suppose. And to get to the end.

Like some other writers I know, I have a tendency to start every day's writing session by going back over what I've written before, revising it, moving a comma here or there, second-guessing all my previous choices. Taken to an extreme, this can lead to writing the first chapter over and over and over again. So after a few months you might end up with a really good first chapter, but no second, third, fourth, etc. So I'd have to say that forcing myself to write a draft this quickly was a good discipline.

And did it lead to a good result? At this point it's too early for me to tell. I did quite a bit of revising in the second draft, but I'm still at the stage where I'm not sure I have enough distance from what I've written to tell whether it's working or not. For that I'll be looking forward to the reactions of a few others, including the members of my invaluable writing group -- which I've roused from its semi-dormancy for the occasion.

But even if I end up deciding that this novel is one for the recycling pile, at least I won't have wasted years of my life on it -- months, perhaps, but not years. And time spent writing may never be truly wasted. If I've made mistakes in writing this partiular manuscript, I hope I'll be able to learn from them and not make the same mistakes next time around. In any event, I certainly enjoyed the experience of writing it (or most of it, anyway), and -- as almost always happens when you really put your mind to writing something -- I feel I gained a few new insights and made a few new connections between things along the way.

And now it's time to try to get back to the early 19th century.... I'm afraid the next first draft may take me a little longer than six weeks, but let's hope that after six weeks I'll at least have moved beyond the first chapter.