In my writing classes, I often have beginning writers create a list of all the things they want to write about, things as small as the description of the aroma of a morning meal prepared over a campfire to an epic, 500 page poem detailing the migration of Asiatic folks across the Bering Strait.
My students list sunsets, first loves, Autumn leaves, romances, conversations with school friends, the birth of children, the sidewalks in their home towns. The lists are detailed and then, sometimes simply generic: love, joy, sadness, grief, confusion. War, peace, politics, the environment. They want to write various genres, too: poetry, fiction, screenplays and scripts, memoirs, autobiographies, biographies, essays.
Throughout the class, I ask students to go back to that list, mining it for topics as we write. It is a list that never stops giving, and students have told me that years later, they were still chipping away at it.
I sure am, though sometimes, the list provides more questions than answers. On my list is the literary equivalent to umami, which means "pleasant, savory taste" in Japanese. In literature, this is the feeling you get when you've read something that has encompassed all the tastes and flavors, a story savory and satisfying. This umami doesn't only exist in happy stories--we can be satisfied with the sad, too. But the book or story or poem that provides umami leaves me with such a swell of sensory experience, a whole body tasting.
So here are a few examples:
Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver
The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffeneger
Dream Boy by Jim Grimsley
As for a poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot always left me with a profound sense of umami. The first time I read it, I actually didn't know what it meant, but I had the feeling. Same with Fern Hill by Dylan Thomas. I tried to explain to my professor what "sang in my chains like the sea" meant to me but I couldn't. It just made me feel something. All over. In my mouth. And heart, too.
I could never write a paper about this topic, as there is no proof for umami in literature. There's no way to gauge taste buds, no way for Fern Hill to be a hamburger. There's no one line, really, in anything that has all the umami, but you know what I'm talking about. There you are, at the end of something, holding it close to you still, thinking about it, wanting to actually roll around in it, whatever it is.
That's what's on my list. That's what I want to write.
Causes Jessica Inclán Supports
Women for Women International Goodwill Industries Lindsey Wildlife Museum Freecycle.org