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Notes From Our Fall Newsletter

new book projects this month

  • A business history of an iconic Vermont diner that counted the website Roadfood, Gourmet Magazine and most of Bennington among its fans. We’re thrilled to dig in to this one!
  • A journal-based memoir commissioned by a daughter to commemorate her mother’s remarkable life. We’ll be working from a trunk full of illustrated journals, letters and archival material bequeathed to her children — what a treasure trove!

from our desks

Caitlin — Our newest memoir project has spurred me to think about a boxful of my old diaries, some dating back to when I was 25 and working in Latin America. I can’t bring myself to burn them, nor do I want my sons reading them cover-to-cover once I’m gone. There’s plenty of stuff there about old boyfriends and the confusion of growing up. Nothing they need to read. But there are also descriptions of the jungle, impressions of reporting the Contra war and of riding in helicopters down the Amazon. Our latest project suggested a solution — whittle down the diaries to a single condensed version that I’d be happy to pass on. If that sounds interesting, The Story Project has an Assisted Memoir service. We’ll edit or co-author your manuscripts, but we can also edit your journals as much or as little as you like, all the time keeping your voice shining through. Contact us if you’d like to discuss your writing project with us.  

Kathy — I’ve recently shared my love of editing and coaching by working as a volunteer mentor for Girls Write Now. Girls Write Now, is based in New York City and mentors underserved young women, helping them to find their voices through the power of writing and community. For more, visit https://www.girlswritenow.org/

Roheela — It was my daughter’s fall wedding that prompted me write my first blog for The Story Project. I wasn’t sure how she would feel about me sharing her special day, so I sent her my draft.  “I really love it. Great job mom! I will be keeping this,” she wrote back. I felt as if I had just given her a gift. The Story Project’s Short Takes services are like gifts too, capturing the many special moments and stories in our lives.

Peter — This month I have a photograph included in the Bennington Museum exhibit Vermont Utopias: Imagining the Future. I’m one of 25 artists invited to submit a work that reflects a personal vision of Vermont’s future as a utopian ideal. The show opens Nov. 27 and runs through Dec. 28. To view a virtual version of the exhibit, visit benningtonmuseum.org

November is national writing month

It’s a whole month dedicated to encouraging people to write about themselves and their life, from family stories, memories, traditions, family recipes and more. Here are a few of our book recommendations  to inspire you to write:

  • Set in the year 2053, Kevin Barry’s novel City of Bohane tells the story of a group of underworld characters inhabiting a city in the west of Ireland. The plot is secondary to Barry’s exquisite and inventive language.
  • “Every year I bury a couple of hundred of my townspeople,” is the opening line of a brilliant compilation of twelve essays by Thomas Lynch, poet and funeral director. The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade is quirky, compassionate and beautifully written.
  • And for anyone looking to write their own life story, read and reread a copy of Writing About Your Life by William Zinsser, the renowned author of On Writing Well.

Here’s a holiday gift idea

It’s that season again and chances are you’ve already started wondering what gifts to give. If you’re looking for something unforgettable that will last a lifetime, why not commission a book? Our services include stories of romance, family, business and special places. The Story Project offers gift certificates and can help you choose the kind of book you want to give. Contact us.

Wishing you and yours a Happy Thanksgiving!

The Haunted Attic

Father and daughter ghouls march in the annual North Bennington, Vt., Halloween Parade.

For a brief time my sister Honor was famous.  It wasn’t her wit, her sense of adventure or even her heavy blonde hair that drew the crowds. She had the good fortune to be born the day before Halloween and to live in an old Victorian house with a raftered attic, creaking floorboards and a reputation for strange occurrences — all of which collided to spark the ghoulish imaginations of three of her siblings.

For as far back as I could remember an invitation to her birthday party was the hottest ticket in town. Kids scrambled for them, knowing what their parents didn’t: that this wasn’t a child’s Halloween party with Casper-like ghosts and hovering adults trying to pass off a bowl of peeled grapes as eyeballs. This was a test of nerves and a chance to be scared. Really scared.

I can’t claim to know how my two brothers and oldest sister took control of the attic tours — an event that quickly eclipsed all other games, even a prize-laden scavenger hunt — but every year they got progressively more creative. It began with a story, inspired by my grandfather the sea captain. But it was my oldest brother Marty’s artistry that fictionalized and embellished an already dramatic life.

Born in 1844, my grandfather went to sea at 17, a Yankee cabin boy in the Civil War. By the time he was 25 he was captain of his own three-master schooner, building and sailing six more in quick succession. He built the house where my siblings and I grew up for my grandmother, his fourth wife. Thirty years younger than her husband, she gave him four children, the last born when my grandfather was 80.

Marty and my sister Megan knew a great story when they heard one and used the bare bones of this one to craft their own grisly yarn. The sea-captain angle was irresistible and they concocted a tale involving a lost leg, a tragic death rounding Cape Horn and a ghostly return to the only home Captain Randall ever knew. Marty got to play the Captain, hidden in one of the attics shadowed alcoves with a wooden peg leg and a mariner’s costume that got more sophisticated with each passing Halloween.

Guests were led one by one up the vertical staircase, some retreating before they reached the top. I can still remember standing on the last step, the late afternoon sunlight gleaming through the oval attic window, it’s colored panes turning the dust motes a sinister shade of red. It was Megan’s idea to add sound to the scene by playing an old recording of King Lear on slow speed. The voices, more like moans, were as good an imitation of a ghost as anyone could imagine. Kids were led from station to station, where they pulled on a “corpse’s” leg and heard the gory tale of how they died. When they reached my oldest brother, they would duly pull his peg leg, only to have it come off in their hands to ghastly howls from the ghost.

Once they’d been at it for a few years, a new recruit was brought in. Jim was our nextdoor neighbor, one of four boys, an extraordinary athlete and a reckless daredevil. It was his inspired idea to drop down from the rafters with a noose around his neck, scaring one girl so badly she famously leapt down the attic stairs all in one go. That was the year, and presumably the antic, that brought the haunted attic to an end.   

Stories of Honor’s Halloween parties have been fodder for our family narratives for decades, following a script we’ve all practiced since childhood. As the youngest of the six kids, my recollections tend to be heavily discounted. I look back on those events through the eyes of a six-year-old, in awe of what my siblings were capable of creating. Was that attic as terrifying as my memory still insists? Probably not. But even if the physical details are blurred, the emotional power of that haunted space stays with me, a story that never dies.

Happy Halloween!

A Wedding In Complicated Times: From Blow-Out Event to Minimony

As the mother of three daughters, two of whom had been planning their weddings before the pandemic started, I never imagined we’d see the first ceremony staged on our back porch. We come from a family that loves big parties and a tradition where weddings can go for days with as many as 300 guests. My own wedding boasted around 200 guests. So how could I guess that we’d have to whittle down my eldest daughter’s guest list from 130 to only seven people in attendance, a number that included the bride and groom.  

Clearly, the pandemic has turned our lives inside out, challenging expectations and putting plans on hold. When life demands a compromise that’s what you have to do. Or, as the Chinese proverb puts it: “The wise adapt themselves to circumstances, as water molds itself to the pitcher.”

My eldest daughter’s wedding was to be in mid-October but she postponed it to next year as many of the guests would have been traveling from overseas and from across the country. She and her fiancé didn’t want to compromise anyone’s safety. Their big wedding might be delayed until the pandemic was over but they decided not to delay moving on with their lives. A ‘minimony,’ or a mini ceremony, was what they chose to do. It would be a special day no matter what!

My daughter wanted to keep her original wedding dress for the big celebration next year so we scrambled to find something suitable for this event. The search began online and we were soon inundated with boxes arriving and being returned. Finally in desperation, she and I donned our masks, and made the one and only visit to the mall. It was as if the dress was just waiting for her – a simple but elegant dress in a delicate opal grey. To me the dress was my daughter personified – understated but beautiful.

@kneadtheeats

Their wedding florist arranged flowers, in soft hues of white and champagne interspersed with eucalyptus, for this much-abridged event. My youngest daughter who has turned into a baker-extraordinaire through the pandemic, announced she would make an elderflower and lemon wedding cake – inspired by Megan Markle and Prince Harry’s cake – a responsibility I would have balked at, but she jumped at the chance.

On the day of the minimony the house was filled with the seven of us. The bride and groom were present – check. The florist arrived with gorgeous flowers to deck the porch – check.  The cake was finished and decorated – check. The table was beautifully set for the wedding dinner – check. And all completed before heading over to the mosque for the imam to officiate the mini ceremony.

Back at home we had some lovely photographs taken of our tiny wedding party and then we cozied up for dinner on the porch and cake cutting. A Zoom call with the grandparents and the extended family would further mark this celebration, even if a few relatives were muted as they talked over each other.  Surprisingly, we were having a good time. The intimacy of the minimony allowed us to relax and have fun in the comfort of our home. I watched my daughter and my new son-in-law as we all lingered at the dinner table. Despite the chill in the air and the darkness descending, their faces shone with love for each other and sheer happiness. The joy around the table was palpable. It was a day we’d all cherish forever.

As the first of my daughters got married I wondered how she would tell the story of her special day. How would all the countless couples who have postponed 2020 weddings to then concoct mini ceremonies and impromptu events record their wedding-day memories?  My thoughts turned to reflections of my own wedding, looking back after thirty years of happy marriage. Most of us remember vividly what happened on our big day, but to describe our feelings from that moment takes more effort. I know from my work at The Story Project that even young couples, eager to describe their courtship, need gentle guidance to help them fully capture their story. As I think about my wedding and my daughter’s mini ceremony, I’m reminded that it’s worth the effort to remember, to piece together the memories and emotions of one of the most precious moments in our lives and record our stories as they should be told now and for the future.

Infinity Photography

The View From My Window

Wasting time recently on Twitter, I saw Ursula Le Guinn’s writing schedule pop up and quickly grab 50,000 likes. It was, admittedly, pretty likeable. The highly regarded and immensely popular author claimed a charmingly chill workday:

5:30 am – wake up and lie there and think

6:15 a.m. – get up and eat breakfast (lots)

7:15 a.m. – get to work writing, writing, writing

Noon – lunch

1:00-3:00 p.m. – reading, music

5.00-8.00 p.m. – make dinner and eat it.

After 8:00 p.m. – I tend to be very stupid and we won’t talk about this

 “I see you Ursula Le Guinn and raise you a Hunter S. Thompson,” one wag couldn’t resist commenting:

3:00 p.m. – rise

3:05 p.m. – Chivas Regal with the morning papers, Dunhill cigarette

3:45 p.m. – cocaine . . .

Midnight – Hunter ready to write

Famous writers’ day-to-day work habits are the stuff of hundreds of articles and more then a few books. And I confess, I’m one of the many who reads them with guilty pleasure. But my real interest lies beyond writers’ daily agendas  — what intrigues me is the view out their windows.

I hold two people responsible for my fixation: my father the architect, who loved a good view, and my husband who harbors his own secret obsession — visiting the homes of dead authors. Together, we’ve chalked up an impressive list of house visits. Yeats, Keats, Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Conan Doyle, or at least the house where he dreamt up The Hound of the Baskervilles, Rudyard Kipling’s Vermont retreat and my personal favorite, Tolstoy’s winter home in the outskirts of Moscow.

Tolstoy’s study, where he wrote War and Peace and Anna Karenina, looks out over a tended lawn crisscrossed with footpaths. It wasn’t always that way. When Tolstoy brought his wife Sophia and their 13 children to the house in 1882, the garden was “as dense as a forest,” according to the author, who described it as a tangle of strawberries, gooseberries and rose bushes growing in and among apple and cherry trees.

The writer’s desk faces the window. His hardback chair is oddly stubby, the legs sawed down to accommodate Tolstoy’s refusal to wear glasses and his insistence on reading his manuscripts on the desk. He purposely chose the most remote room in the house, wanting his study far removed from the hubbub of the household. Even his children’s shouts were muffled, no easy task when on grey winter days the gang was often found sledding down the carpeted staircase on metal trays.

There is something thrilling about being in that room, imagining the great author at work. Inspiring in a very different way is the tiny writing table, cornered in a busy living room, where Jane Austen drafted Pride and Prejudice; thegarden vista as enticing as some of her descriptive passages. By contrast, the Brontë parsonage sits in the wild moorland of west Yorkshire with bleak views that clearly inspired both Charlotte and Emily.   

My desk, an old kitchen table, sits perpendicular to my study window. The result is when I look up and over, I see little more than treetops and sky. Writing for me is a series of stops and starts. I shuttle between ideas of what could be, the scratchings in my notebook and the blank screen on my computer. When I do stop, it’s become a habit of mine to get up and lean on my windowsill to take in the view I can’t see while seated — three tall yew trees and a beaten path winding up hill and into the woods. It’s in those moments, gazing out my window, away from the distractions of my desk and reminders of unfinished work, that I’m often at my most clearheaded. I can pause, watch the way the light hits the trees, and breathe. Ready to start again.

Off My Bookshelf

How to write an autobiographical novel: essays by alexander chee

I interview people for a living — helping them discover and record their own stories — and so am easily enticed by personal narrative.  Favorites cram my office bookshelf, from Stephen King’s On Writing to Alexander Masters’ Stuart: A Life Lived Backwards. I recently added another to my stockpile: Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel.

How To Write An Autobiographical Novel: Essays by Alexander Chee

A collection of autobiographical essays, Chee takes the reader on a wild ride through a breadth of topics: his teenage adventures in Mexico, unearthing repressed memories of sexual assault, catering parties for William F. Buckley, and even a stint as a Tarot-card reader. Together, the stories elegantly reveal Chee’s journey as a writer. They also lay bare a few prized lessons about writing.

Some of the essays are pure memoir with Chee barely alluding to his writerly life. A mysterious chapter on the art of Tarot is among them. In others, he is unsparing about his struggles to launch a career as a writer and the hard work serious writing demands. “PhD, MFA, self-taught,” he writes. “ — the only things you must have to become a writer are the stamina to continue and a wily, cagey heart in the face of extremity, failure, and success.”

But it’s the essays where he dissects his writing, skillfully detailing the artistry of the craft that left me dazzled and longing for a redo of my student days. Two of the chapters, wryly arranged in lists, are bound to amuse and intrigue wannabe writers and old hands alike. In “The Writing Life,” which chronicles his literary nonfiction class with Annie Dillard at Wesleyan University, he unpacks the writing process explicitly:

The passive voice in particular was a crisis. “Was” told you only that something existed. That was not enough. And on that topic, I remember one of Annie’s fugues almost exactly: You want vivid writing. How do we get vivid writing? Verbs. Precise verbs … By the end of this moving collection, Chee has unified memoir and his chapters on writing in a deeply considered account of what drives an artist to create. In the final pages, Chee reflects, “…I needed to teach writing students to hold on — to themselves, to what matters to them, to the present, the past, the future.” He’s talking to young writers, but holding on to yourself — passing on your memories and stories — is a lifelong practice that gives all our lives meaning.

The Ripple Effect

The author in Costa Rica, circa 1986.

Photographs convey an immediacy that compels us to respond. A photo can transport us back to a precise moment more rapidly than words. But words — journal entries, letters, hurried notes — take us beyond simple visual memory. Words have the power to replay history, stirring recollections of who and what we were along the timeline of our lives.

I was reminded of that recently when I uncovered a snapshot stuffed in a file of my old news clips from Central America. The picture, a casually composed Polaroid, gives little away. The only clue to where or when the picture was taken is scrawled across the bottom: 1986, El Pueblo. How the group knew each other and what brought us together in that particular bar is left to the viewer’s imagination. I knew the photo was taken in San Jose, and could still identify the group. But it was the scrap of a story clipped to the photo — a grad school assignment written years after I left Costa Rica — that brought those years tumbling back.

Seated around a wooden bar table, leaning against each other and across a stained plastic mat, the six of us look happy. We were friends of a sort, brought together in a strange and difficult place where we lived and worked for a brief time and then moved on. When I look at the photo all these years later, I am almost fooled into thinking we were the best of friends. In truth, I was never a part of their group, a select few bonded by one overriding memory that forever defined their friendship.

It was death that brought them together. The bombing made news around the world not so much for who died, but for who didn’t. The narrow escape of Eden Pastora, a Nicaraguan revolutionary turned rebel fighter, filled the column inches. The brutal death of an American reporter, wife and mother of an eight-year-old boy, was judged less newsworthy. But in San Jose, Linda Frazier’s murder left a long shadow; not just over her grieving family, but over the Costa Rican paper she was a part of — the paper where the six of us first met.

My mother would often recount the story of how I took a job on that paper, stepping in after a woman reporter was killed. She saw my decision as rash and a testament to my daredevil temperament. She was partly right, as mothers often are. But what she didn’t understand was why I wanted to work there.

The paper was run out of a ramshackle colonial house in central San Jose. It was painted Pepto-Bismol pink and housed an assortment of stray cats, a family of rabbits and a crew of underpaid, young journalists. We loved it, knowing we were at the heart of a big story — a guerrilla war bankrolled by Washington and fought along Costa Rica’s northern border. Journalists from media outlets around the world would drift in to write about the Contra insurgency, hiring us to book interviews, translate or take notes at press conferences. “Fixers,” they called us.

It was one of those fixer jobs that first brought me to the Nicaraguan border. We travelled up river along the San Juan for hours, passing near the rebel camp where two years earlier, a bomb exploded at a news conference killing seven people, including three journalists, one of them Linda. Night had fallen by the time the reporters assembled, packed into a wooded shack on stilts above the muddy river. Pastora had just begun answering questions when the bomb went off, sending shrapnel in all directions.

Despite the trip, despite coming so close to that reality, for me the tragedy remained a distant event. And when the others would recount the long night waiting for news of friends that lived or died in that ill-fated press conference, when they would mull over every detail and obsess about the identity of the still-unknown bomber, I would only listen…

When I saw Pastora’s obituary last month in The New York Times I thought of my time in Central America, and my writing of events there. Not long after the snapshot was taken, I interviewed Pastora. By then he’d abandoned his war against the Sandinistas, but still reveled in telling tales of his adventures — the dangerous, wild life he led as a revolutionary hero, Contra guerilla and finally, shark fisherman. It’s the back story to a photo that truly resonates, the complicated stuff that we can’t see. And it’s those stories that cause a ripple effect, evoking in us wave after wave of deepening memories.

The author in Managua, Nicaragua.

Remembering What Matters Most

I ’ve done a lot of thinking about my own mortality these past few months, in the thick of the pandemic. Like most people, I’m not easy with pondering my own demise, and even less comfortable planning for it.

But I’ve discovered that thinking about death has forced me to consider what matters most in life: family, friends and long-held passions.  It’s been an unexpectedly comforting meditation, unearthing old memories, untold stories and life lessons I’ve picked up over many decades. It struck me, not for the first time, that while we often define our lives by the material treasures around us, it’s the life lessons we learn, the wisdom we gain and the stories we pass on to the next generation that truly define our legacy.

My musings got me thinking about ethical wills, a particular kind of storytelling where the focus isn’t on the timeline of a life, but the values that bind us together.

The ethical will has been around since Biblical times. In fact, there’s a reference to the tradition in Genesis 49 when a dying Jacob calls his sons to his tent, determined to give each of the 12 some very specific advice.  

One of the most famous early ethical wills, written in the 11th century, comes from a Spanish doctor, Judah ibn Tibbon. The document, which runs over 50 pages, is packed with detailed advice for his son Samuel on an slew of subjects, from telling him to study medicine and the Torah, to ordering him to honor his wife. Apparently eager to leave no stone unturned in Samuel’s life, the anxious father even spelled out how his son should care for the family library:

Never refuse to lend books to anyone who has not the means to purchase books for himself, but only act thus to those who can be trusted to return the volumes. Cover the bookcases with rugs of fine quality and preserve them from damp and from mice, for your books are your greatest treasure…

Modern ethical wills have come a long way from those ancient scrolls. To start, they come in curiously creative packages — films, digital recordings, handwritten letters, illustrated books, a collage of beloved photos, a laundry list of ideas — and can be addressed to anyone the writer thinks should read them. I heard of one case in which a young mother, diagnosed with terminal cancer and longing to leave her two daughters her best advice, bundled together a packet of letters for each girl to read on the most important days of her life — 21st birthday, graduation, wedding, becoming a parent.

Recognizing the emotional clout of ethical wills, lawyers are increasingly adding them to their estate planning toolbox too. As the Vermont attorney William Deveneau explains:  

For the most part we leave the decision to write an ethical will up to the client, but we do tell them that if they want their values, life lessons and advice to be passed on to the next generation, they need to put it in writing or it’s unlikely to ever happen.

This is especially true, Deveneau says, if there’s potential for a quarrel when the legal will is read.

If there’s the possibility that the [legal] will might infuriate people, I suggest including an explanation. I’ve found that explaining the values and emotions behind the decision can help soothe conflict among the descendants.

Sometimes an ethical will goes well beyond a family legacy, posing instead as a speech that powerfully addresses the writer’s hopes and dreams for the next generation. In this month of cancelled graduations, I’m reminded of Steve Job’s poignant commencement address at Stanford. Standing before the Class of 2005, believing in that moment he’d survived cancer, Jobs bequeaths the graduates his lessons on life. Emotional and inspiring, the man who changed the tech landscape forever told the crowd that coming close to death had forced him to look at what was most important in his life. Don’t settle, he urged them, do what you love.

…Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition…

The speech ends, as any will should, learning from the past and looking toward the future: “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.”

I Wish I’d Asked

Megan Johnson Randall in her Vermont kitchen.

As I grow older, my hair gets frizzier, and there’s many a morning when I like to pull it back and up into a cheap facelift. As I anchor it with a few bobby pins and a claw clip, I often think of Grandma Randall. She had smooth silver hair, not at all frizzy, and she’d sweep it up in one deft twist which poufed naturally in front into a slight pompadour. As a young girl, I admired her gesture of careless elegance, and marveled that the twist stayed put all day long.

Grandma was from Louisville, Kentucky, a southerner and a farm girl who did most things with a certain dash. She was also cranky and fundamentalist. You avoided getting into a long conversation with her; you might end up, as I did once, being forced by guilt into memorizing the first chapter of the Gospel of John.

Maybe Grandma’s critical nature prevented us from prodding her for more stories, or maybe we took it for granted, as children will, that we already knew all there was to learn about her life, but I regret not asking more, now that there’s no one left to witness or explain. I’m left with her pretty old hands on the silver twist of her hair, the wonderful peach cobbler she threw together one hot summer day when too many peaches ripened at once, her slightly bow legs she said were from horseback riding, and those delicious molasses cookies she made from memory.

Oh those cookies! How many times have my sisters and I said to one another, “I wish we had Grandma’s molasses cookie recipe!” But I never saw Grandma work from a recipe. Her molasses cookies were as big as my palm and a half-inch thick, soft and cakey, an aromatic dark brown. Did she use the sorghum she sometimes brought us from down south? I wish I’d taken the time to learn how she made them, to show my love that way. As I twist up my hair, I think of the small things we leave behind us, and the importance of witness. As the Gospel of John says, “In the beginning was the Word.” Words save memories; be sure to leave some behind. Be sure to collect them. Especially now while we’re all stuck inside with so little social interaction with those we love, get them to make a video of each other making the treasured brisket recipe, the family favorite O’Henry bars, mom’s inimitable pie crust. Tell us about your results.

And while memory plays tricks and makes many things impossibly delicious, here’s a challenge for you. Can you replicate Grandma Randall’s large, very dark, cakey molasses cookies? Maybe it’s regional?

What follows are two not quite it molasses cookie recipes. One is from The Silver Palate Cookbook. They’re addictive, but too flat and too chewy to be Grandma’s. The second is an old standby from Joy of Cooking, too small, too light colored, just not Gram’s. Neither can replicate Grandma’s recipe, put together by handfuls instead of using a measuring cup, by guess and by golly, from her long practice of 80 plus years. Got another offering?

Contributing writer Megan Johnson Randall is a retired English teacher who holds a master’s degree in creative writing.


Molasses Cookies

The Silver Palate Cookbook By Julee Rosso & Sheila Lukins

24 large, flat cookies

12 tablespoons (1 ½ sticks) butter

1 cup granulated sugar

¼ cup molasses

1 egg

1 ¾ cup unbleached all-purpose flour

½  teaspoon ground cloves (I adjust to ¼ teaspoon as cloves can be overpowering)

1 ½ teaspoons ground ginger (I adjust to 2 heaping teaspoons)

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon baking soda

  1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
  2. Melt butter, add sugar and molasses, and mix thoroughly. Lightly beat egg and add to butter mixture; blend well.
  3. Sift flour with spices, salt and baking soda, and add to first mixture; mix. Batter will be wet.
  4. Lay a sheet of foil on a cookie sheet. Drop tablespoons of cookie batter on foil, leaving 3 inches between cookies. These will spread during baking.
  5. Bake until cookies start to darken, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from oven while still soft. Carefully slide foil off baking sheet. Let cookies cool on foil.


Old-Fashioned Molasses Cookies*

The Joy of Cooking By Irma S. Rombauer & Marion Rombauer Becker

About 40 2-inch cookies

  • Beat until soft: ½ cup butter or shortening
  • Add gradually and blend until light and creamy: ½ cup sugar
  • Beat in: 1 egg ; ½ cup molasses
  • Have ready: ½ cup buttermilk
  • Sift together: 2 ½ cups sifted cake flour ; 1 teaspoon baking soda ; 1 teaspoon each cinnamon and ginger ; ¼ teaspoon cloves
  • Add sifted ingredients in 3 parts to the sugar mixture, alternately with the buttermilk. Beat the batter until smooth after each addition. Add: ½ cup chopped raisins

Drop the batter from a teaspoon onto a greased cookie sheet. Bake 8 to 12 minutes.   

*Please note that this recipe is a perfect illustration of Rombauer’s injunction to always read the recipe through before beginning. But never fear: no buttermilk? Cake flour? See her invaluable chapter on Substitutions.

Beating Boredom In Lockdown

Diary Pages, Michelle Phillips © Peter Beard

A friend of mine emailed me an article today on cleaning house for the coronavirus. Armed with sprays and wipes I vigorously scrubbed all the high-touch surfaces I could think of while trying hard, as instructed, “not to be neurotic about it.” Fifteen minutes into my manic marathon, my stress levels rising, I shelved the wipes and reached for tea and shortbread. I was gonna need a better project.

Hunkered down at home, we’re all scrambling to find ways to get through this crisis and maintain our sanity, our spirits and our sense of self. And while being stuck inside is hardly an opportunity any one of us would have wished for, it does give us time to do things we might never have considered. Sure there’s binge-watching Mad Men or re-reading Jane Austen, but for me neither stretches the boundaries of novelty. And as the world spins wildly around me, I’m not inclined to file photos or organize my kitchen cabinets. So let me suggest a project that will set your imagination free, throw you back into the past, or jolt you into the future. A project that’s all about you: creative writing.

One of the first and best books I ever read on the subject, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, talks about writing without any expectations, “to give yourself the space to write a lot without a destination.” Let go of your paralyzing constraints. What will people think? How do I begin? My spelling is terrible! And instead, dive in:

  • Forget your computer, use paper and pen. There are plenty of options: a repurposed notebook, a yellow legal pad or a brand new journal, if you want the thrill of getting a package delivered.
  • Find a private space and commit yourself to a few minutes, a half-hour or even an hour.
  • And as Goldberg says: Don’t get logical, don’t think … lose control.
  • She offers a wonderful array of starter questions to get you going, among them, begin with “I remember,” small memories or big, just keep going.
  • Write about the street you grew up on, the walk you took this morning, your first love, a meal you cooked, going home.
  •  Stephen King’s masterful writing memoir, On Writing, advises that the most interesting story lines can be conjured asking “what-if questions.” He writes: “What if vampires invaded a small New England village (Salem’s Lot)? … What if a young mother and her son became trapped in their stalled car by a rabid dog (Cujo)?
  • Of course not all of us have the King’s strange, you might say tortured imagination, but letting your own thoughts wander unrestrained can kick off some fascinating ideas.  What if a virus shut down America? …. Maybe not.
  • Finally, there is visual journaling – the new rage.  Surrounded by artists most of my life, including a son in art school, I’m not surprised the world at large has adopted the idea. These are essentially diaries with both images (usually drawings or collage) and words. They can take the structured, often stiff, task of keeping a journal into a whole new imaginative realm, tapping into your creativity in an entirely different way. Be inspired and don’t let your inner critic get in the way, you might find the process liberating and fun.

If nothing else, letting your creative side run free might take your mind off the world outside the window. Remember, some of our most treasured writers were witnesses to the toughest times.

Diary Pages, Khadija and ’78 Diary © Peter Beard