Monday, November 12, 2012

Letting the Stew Simmer

June Pair Kilpatrick

Writing a memoir is like making Brunswick stew. You throw in a little of everything, but you must let it simmer until the flavors blend. Perhaps that's why it took me nearly a decade to finish my book about growing up in and around Richmond during the Depression and World War II--I was just letting the stew simmer. Sometimes words flew to the page as fast as peeling and dicing potatoes; sometimes they came slowly, like skinning and cleaning the squirrel before throwing it in the pot. (No, I never did that, but my grandfather used to.) Then you turn the fire down low and step aside for a while.

Come back later with your tasting spoon and see if it's ready. For a moment it tastes wonderful. But no, let it cool a bit and you can tell it needs something more. Another stalk or two of celery? Another pinch of salt? Scroll down your screen and read. Listen. Oops, clearly more rewriting is necessary. Read your manuscript today and you think for sure it's ready for the publisher. You're on the verge of hitting the upload button. Read it tomorrow and you want to hit delete.

Sometimes, after tasting the stew (reading and editing my manuscript and reading and editing again), I had to let it simmer for several months before I could face it one more time. That distance enabled me to hear it objectively again. Then I'd throw in another pinch of pepper, stir it, taste it. My mind, once more, could drift back to rewind and catch the memories, the places, the long-ago smells. I could board the clanging street car, walk the halls of old John Marshall High School, eye a new skirt at Miller and Rhoads.

Often I wondered (to desert my metaphor), Why am I doing this? Who will read it? And the answer was always the same: For my parents, who struggled so hard during those plain and simple but very difficult times to keep a roof over us with food on the table and clothes on our backs. Someone will read it. It's more than a family story: It's history.

Did I let it simmer long enough? Is it the best I could make it? Probably not. But the stew can't simmer forever. At some point it has to come off the fire.

Am I glad I wrote it? With all my heart! My hard-working, wonderful parents, I believe, would be pleased that they have been remembered, that full appreciation has come at last, and that someone in a century they never saw now marvels at their struggle and their humble triumph.

The stew is served.

--June Pair Kilpatrick, Wasps in the Bedroom, Butter in the Well: Growing Up During the Great Depression (318 pp., 40 photographs)

You can learn more about June by visiting her website:


  1. June, what a great take on writing and how to let the ideas and story simmer in order to get the "delicious" meal.

  2. June, what a great metaphor throughout this comparing writing to cooking! Very enjoyable, and this really showed your ability to write!

  3. Love this. Yes, writing is like cooking--it is all about the ingredients added.


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