The Slow-Cooked Sentence

Making raspberry jam while reading Anaïs Nin

Rachael Conlin Levy
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Weighing fruit and words.

“I write,” the prolific and perceptive diarist Anaïs Nin once said, “because I have the desire to write–not because I feel there are any brilliant thoughts in my head which I think worthy of preservation.”

I considered Nin’s words as I crushed sweet berries and their teeny-tiny golden seeds, stirred in sugar and pectin, and brought it to boil. This sentence was one of a number underlined as I slowly read the third volume of her early diaries, this one focused on her years as a young wife from 1923 to 1927.

“I shall try to give diary writing a definite character and a definite place in life, and for the sake of the practical people who have wept over the wasted hours, I shall demonstrate the uses, the purpose, the visibly beneficial effects, of the much deplored habit,” she wrote.

Diaries, like homemade jam, might be dismissed by some as a luxury, an indulgence, and, therefore, dispensable–but not by me and not by Anaïs Nin.

Nin began keeping a diary in adolescence and maintained it for much of her life (1903-77). Her journals are an introspective and insightful record of her personal life and relationships with a number of authors, artists and other figures, among them Henry Miller, John Steinbeck, and Gore Vidal.

 

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Preserving.

I ladled hot syrup into two dozen jars and sealed them. Preserving fruit (in jars) and thoughts (in this blog) are as routine as summer itself. Season after season, I’ve made and written about jam–raspberry, strawberry, blueberry, rhubarb, plum, and apricot–in order to savor a moment, to share the bounty with neighbors, to top a future piece of toast. Stockpiling a little of summer by bottling up sunshine and sweetness, and transforming thoughts into sentences helps me through the Pacific Northwest’s dreary, wet winters.

It turned out that this summer’s jars have been filled with fruit paste so thick it takes muscle to push a knife into it. It’s certifiably unspreadable on toast. It refuses to be stirred into yogurt. And any and all effort to smear it on a peanut butter sandwich ends in violent destruction of the bread.

 

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Writing in fruit and foam.

It’s been suggested by my children that I patent it. Raspberry-flavored paste for the glue-eating preschooler! Biodegradable wall putty for the eco-conscious dorm resident! But even when the end result is good for a joke and not much more, I don’t regret my effort. Buying a jar from a store saves time but eliminates the chance to stir, boil, and wrestle jars of fruit and bottled emotion. You see, in a month or two, three of my four children are leaving home for college, and maybe for good.

“Now and then my hands grow roughened and scratched, and my fingers worn with needle pricks,” Nin wrote. “These are only the pains attending creation. When I write, my fingers also ache and my body grows weary and my head burns and my eyes are filled with mists. Yet I would not give up my writing. Neither would I abandon the creation of our home, in which our love exists.”

My volume of Nin’s early diary focused on her new marriage. Later journals (which I’ve yet to read) provide a female author’s point of view into group of male celebrities she associated with–an important historical and literary perspective, according to Wikipedia. But these experiences were yet to be lived; in 1923, she was still a young housewife and aspiring writer.

 

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Nin called this section of her diary “Journal of a Wife.” 

“I do not care at all, by contrast, whether my dull writing betrays a dull mind,” Nin wrote. “I do not care if what I see through my moods reveals weakness, bitterness, envy, vanity, or discouragement. Here I stand and interpret myself; that interpretation itself may be a farce. Do I know the truth about myself?”

I grip the knife stuck in a jam pot, lift it off the counter, and wait for the knife to slide, the jar to drop, the jam to splatter. Instead, the three–jar, knife, jam–remain an intact unit; and as seconds pass I identify the wish and symbolism in this jam.

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