17,000 words. I stared at the scrap of paper in disbelief and checked my calculations. Yes, the number was 17,000 and a conservative estimate at that. Panic began forming itself into a knot in my stomach, twisting and squirming. I had to produce 17,000 words of coherent writing in the next month. 13,000 of these words required solid research, 3,000 required fieldwork* and the final 1,000 required comedy. For the love of Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus, I thought desperately, I’m screwed.
Let me explain. I am taking a master’s degree in the anthropology of food in London. The English higher education system is different from the States. First, a master’s is only one year-long. Second, there are two terms during which you are expected to do little else but read till you’re eyes fall out. This is followed by Easter ‘break,’ during which you write essays for each class and study for exams which take place in May and June. Finally, you write a dissertation over the summer.
Last week I finished my second term. Classes were over and I spent Friday night carousing with my classmates. Naturally, we ate. A lot. Then I woke up Saturday morning and realized, after listing all the essays I had to write and all the articles I’d agreed to produce, that I was in over my head. 17,000 words over to be precise.
When this realisation dawned, I did what I usually do in moments of panic, I boiled the kettle for coffee. Then, not sufficiently reassured, I ate a piece of chocolate. This gave me confidence and I sat down in front of my computer, a mound of books to one side like the leaning tower of Pisa. There’s no time like the present, right? Everything is going to be alright, I reminded myself, watching the screen of my laptop flicker to life. I opened a blank document. Alright, this was a start. I typed my name in the top left hand corner. It looked smart, official. Unsure of a title, I typed the word ‘Title’ in bold at the top of the page, as a reminder. Then I paused, fingers poised over the key pad, my mind as blank as the bright white page.
There should be a name for this moment, the one all writers know and dread. My mother calls it ‘The Crucifixion,’ to my mind an apt description of the unadulterated hell of that vertiginous border where you stare at a blank page. Suddenly all those brilliant thoughts you had, all those sharp insights and profound reflections disperse like a morning mist, leaving you naked and lost.
Perhaps a cup of tea will help. So I walk to the kitchen and lean against the kettle as it warms. I hate writing, I declare untruthfully to myself. I hate it. Come to that I hate reading as well. Why am I even a student? Why the hell did I decide to do this program. Masters in the anthropology of food, what?
There’s a copy of Lonely Planet magazine on the kitchen table. I flick through: Paris, Venice, Istanbul. I’m heading east. It looks like heaven. “I’m soon walking through the narrow cobbled streets of Tünel and Karaköy to my favorite place for breakfast, Karaköy Güllüoglu, where I order a freshly baked spinach börek (fried pastry) and a glass of tea”. . .Bitch, I think, glaring at a little box to the side of the article in which the author smiles above her bio. Why does she get to eat spinach pastry in Istanbul while I sit facing 17,000 words.
I sigh, grab a packet of digestives, and shuffle back to my computer. Realizing that it might be a good idea to do some research before tackling ‘the policy implications of the weak correlation between per capita calorie availability and undernutrition,’ I open a book and the packet of digestives.
It wasn’t until recently that I realized my propensity to nibble biscuits while writing is common. In fact, it seems to be an English ritual. No sooner had I told my woeful tale of 17,000 words to a handful of people than they’d responded with curious accord.
“That’s a lot of tea and biscuits,” said one.
“My daughter used to munch biscuits all night while she was writing,” said another.
It was a relief to discover that I’m not alone in this wheaten ritual, to know that I’m not exceptionally greedy or lacking in moral fibre. Somehow a packet of biscuits makes the ordeal of tackling a mound of difficult writing more bearable. Plain digestives are my sustenance of choice although I will make my own knobby oaten rounds if it’s a particularly horrid day. I turn to biscuits for moral support; they are a solid bolster of carbohydrates against the emptiness of the page. Perhaps it is because biscuits are such an unobtrusive food. Like toast or porridge or muesli. They are there, dense and stalwart, requiring no attention yet offering maximum comfort. And so I sit, reading and reading till my eyes lose grip of the words. Then I pause, taking stock of my thoughts and the still blank page. In desperation I break off another corner of biscuit.
They say a watched pot never boils; for me a watched page never fills. And yet at some point it happens. I forget myself, the 17,000 words cease to exist, and out of the morass a thread appears. And then the words begin to come, trickling not flowing, but filling the page bit by bit. Digestives abandoned and tea tepid I lean into them, finding my balance like an inexpert surfer into the arc of a wave.
When I look up it is getting dark and I think about Istanbul again, mosaics and the meeting of seas. But it’s alright. I don’t hate writing. And anyway, who needs spinach pastries when you’ve got digestives and a page half full.
*Admittedly this ‘fieldwork’ consists of, ehem, visiting chocolatiers, bakers, farmers markets, and attending food festivals. Such is life.