During a recent visit to my parents, my mother asked me to help her make grape jelly. Back in the ’70s, she planted some clippings from her father’s concord grape vines under a small arbor and has been making batches of Jack’s Jelly every since.
Making jelly is a messy, time-consuming job. First, I needed to pick the grapes which meant holding my hands above my head far longer than was comfortable. It had rained that morning so water and rotten grapes dripped all over me as I plucked the ripe grapes from the vines. By the time I filled the three giant pots, I was covered with grape juice and exhausted. This phase was very much like writing a first draft – messy and exhausting. Many of you are four days into Nanowrimo right now. It’s a messy process of false starts and confusing departures from the outline, but you end up with the raw material to make something delicious.
Once back in the house, Mom had me do a first edit, otherwise known as picking out the stems and rotten grapes. This step seemingly took forever. Editing a book also takes a tremendous amount of time. Whenever I talk with a writer working on their first novel, I try to impress upon them that the editing phase always takes more time than they think it will. Editing and rewriting aren’t glamorous, but they are necessary if you want a palatable finished product. No one wants stems in their jelly.
Once I had picked through and washed all the grapes, it was time to start cooking. We added a bit of water to the grapes and let them simmer into a fragrant slurry that we pressed through cheese cloth. The result was a beautiful jewel-colored liquid that was beginning to resemble jelly. This phase reminded me of the resting phase of writing a novel. I am a firm believer in the value of putting a manuscript aside and letting it steep in the back of my brain while I work on other projects. When I come back to the manuscript, I can see if it is going to be edible or if it is destined for the compost heap.
After adding some sugar and pectin, the jelly was ready to simmer until concentrated and able to be poured into the jars. While I was watching over the juice, I was reminded of the process of strengthening the themes in a novel and refining the prose. You can’t rush this step. A manuscript needs to be skimmed through over and over until it is ready to be put in it’s pretty packaging and shared with the world.
Do any of your everyday tasks remind you of your writing life? If so, which ones?
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