FROM J. SIGAL
Good Morning John;
I have written to you a few times in recent years, requesting your feedback on my work.
While positive and encouraging in giving such, you also advised that I keep writing. I have, but for the imposition of life and its various crises, not to the extent I would have liked. I am including with this a piece I have just completed and had rejected as an entry to a “Christmas Story” competition, with the focus being food and family. The rejection was due to a misunderstanding on my part of one of the requirements for submission.
I looked up your email from the last time we chatted, and decided to send it to you for your thoughts, and to ask if I have improved according to your critique suggestions shared at that time.
I look forward to hearing your feedback once again.
MARIAN and CHARLIE
My attention was focused on the tips of gramma’s flour covered fingers as they stopped a hair’s breadth above the hot bursting bubbles of the boiling water, where she calmly urged from that old wooden spoon each glob of the sticky yellow caraway-seeded dough into the aged copper pot, which would soon render the most succulent dumplings ever to grace a platter of roast pork and sauerkraut.
It was certainly Christmas day.
My view of this creative process was made possible through the well-worn seat of the high-chair of my earlier years, and which by the age of five-and-a-half, my bottom could hardly, any longer, be said to fit. Still, there I sat absorbing consciously perhaps for the first time, the unfolding of what was to become a cherished and fondly remembered holiday experience.
Whether Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day, or Easter, it didn’t matter much. To one degree or another, they were all very similar, holidays were. Unique, but similar. The guest-list such as it was, was not so much an official list of invitees, but more an open-door policy welcoming whomever could be there if only to drop by to say hello, and “oy, maybe, since I’m already here, just a nibble, yes”, even if they didn’t need it.
Uncle’s, nephews and nieces, cousins, brothers and sisters, great grandparents, second cousins and, every once in a while, the neighbors from two streets over that you barely even knew, but just yesterday bumped into at the West twenty-fifth street market while arguing with your friend Radich the poultry vendor over the price of the turkey now pleasantly stuffed, basted and roasting ever so slowly in the oven.
Sure, everyone was welcome back then. Especially on Christmas day.
While I watched those dumplings come to a boil, gramma stooped to pull open the oven door for a peek, and decided it was time to place the pineapple slices and brown sugar on the ham, giving them just enough time to brown nicely before pulling it from the oven to allow it to rest.
As I sat next to the stove in that old high-chair, watching my grandmother carefully tend to every detail of the Christmas feast, I was unaware of the myriad sights and sounds being joyfully and indelibly catalogued in my brain would be so easily and readily available, now sixty-one years later.
My grandmother, a first-generation Croatian immigrant, and the youngest of a family of nine, and my grandfather, a native Ohioan were not only married, they were co-workers as well, employed by a large clothing manufacturer just to the west of the city, where large numbers of post-World-War II Slavic immigrants also earned their wages, as they raised their families, attended churches, became U.S. citizens, and close friends. The war-torn fabric of their ethnic origins bonded and provided them with cause for great celebration during the holiday season, managing somehow to adjust, interpret and respectfully communicate through the many dialects each of them brought to such gatherings, where such interpretations were frequently, if surreptitiously, assisted by several shots of Slivovitz or Rakija and a couple of good Cuban cigars, of course.
In those days, had the word “geek” existed, it would’ve well described my grandfather. Throughout the house, he’d hidden speakers and microphones, and all were connected to a large reel-to-reel Ampex tape recorder secreted in the basement, there recording for posterity I suppose, much of the content of these gatherings. When finally played back years later, and sufficiently present under all the people chatter as the soundtrack to the gathering, you could hear Bing Crosby crooning I’ll Be Home for Christmas from the record player in the dining room, while on the television in the living room, Dicken’s Christmas Carols’ ghosts could be heard frightening the bejeezus out of poor Mr. Scrooge in his large four-poster bed, shivering in fear as he crouched on his knees under the blankets, drapes drawn, effectively imparting his fears to the kids gathered to watch, chins upon hands lying on the floor.
By this time, the arrivals had slowed to a crawl, and the soon-to-be-dinner smells thickly wafted about the entirety of the house. In the oven, the ham’s pineapple slices and the big tom-turkey were turning toasty brown alongside the rosemarie, the spare crock of turkey stuffing, and a macaroni and tuna casserole of unknown origin, apparently dropped off and squeezed inside the cavity of that tiny oven as well, was once again steaming. The sweet potatoes were simmering away on the stove as the green beans one burner over were slowly absorbing a half-stick of home-churned butter and sharing space with the pan of bubbling creamed corn making plup-plup-plup noises. Suddenly, a late arrival, escorted by a wintry breeze came through the open front door along with the scent of fresh hot cinnamon and apples uniquely distinguishing itself from the wet cold aroma of winter snow, road salt, damp and bulky wool coats that almost reached the floor, followed closely by the wet-slush footprints from unremoved galoshes and flowery-sweet old woman perfume smells that reached the ceiling, all merging and hanging it seemed, at the exact same level as my nose seated upon that aged high-chair of my recent youth.
I looked up and noticed a smile paint itself slightly on my gramma’s face as she turned, reached up and embraced my grandpa. I scooted down from that chair, happy to see that everything was finally coming together, and that dinner was soon to be served.
Merry Christmas indeed.
First, you need to decide whether you're writing about your grandparents or your own memory of a happy time in your childhood. I vote for the memory. I would jettison all the history and personal detail of your grandparents and simply try to describe the day through your five-year-old eyes. Have you ever read Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory? Might be worth a look.
Second...whoa, you got some monster sentences in there. Your first paragraph is a single sentence. A sentence of 20-25 words is starting to get lengthy. Some of your sentences are two, three, even four times that length. I don't say never write sentences that long, but I am saying that they're often difficult to follow even if well written...and yours aren't that well written.
Third, although I can see hints of the mood, the warmth, and love and happiness, it's really buried under a lot of unnecessary detail. Let's take a look at one of your longer sentences:
When finally played back years later, and sufficiently present under all the people chatter as the soundtrack to the gathering, you could hear Bing Crosby crooning I’ll Be Home for Christmas from the record player in the dining room, while on the television in the living room, Dicken’s Christmas Carols’ ghosts could be heard frightening the bejeezus out of poor Mr. Scrooge in his large four-poster bed, shivering in fear as he crouched on his knees under the blankets, drapes drawn, effectively imparting his fears to the kids gathered to watch, chins upon hands lying on the floor.That's a 98-word behemoth. I suggest you eliminate the talk about your grandfather and his "geekiness" and the tape recorder and simply describe what's happening - the sights, the sounds, the smells, the action. Most people are well aware of the story of Scrooge, so you need not devote 40 words to its description. That sentence might look something like this instead:
Above the drone and chatter of the adults, Bing Crosby crooned I’ll Be Home for Christmas from the record player as the smell of turkey with stuffing and pies curled under our noses. While the fire crackled in the living room, many of the kids took a break from wrestling and war whoops to flop on their tummies in front of the TV to watch Scrooge tremble under his covers as the Ghost of Christmas Future menaced him.
1. Write about the memory, not your grandparents.
2. Cut down those giant sentences.
3. Eliminate unnecessary detail and focus on the mood created by the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings.
I think you have the makings of a great piece hiding in there. By the way, if interested, my last critique of Jay's writing is here.