Cook some instant fiction

Ever had the urge to devour the walls around you? The participants at Sherrie Flick’s rather “tasteful” writing workshop surely did. Last Thursday, Flick kicked off her three-part series of writing workshops at the Silver Eye Center for Photography. Brightly illuminated walls covered with mouth-watering photographs of steamy soups, freshly baked bread, luscious strawberries, and other delectable goodies set the scene, which Flick used to provoke a sense of perspective and characterization within her audience. The photographs were all part of Canadian photographer Diana Shearwood’s latest exhibit, What’s for Dinner?

“The aim of this workshop is to grasp and develop the idea of sensory detail, specifically acknowledging the role ‘food’ plays in a piece of writing,” said Flick, director of the Gist Street Reading series.

Flick read aloud short pieces of fiction to the participants, demonstrating the relationship between food and the characters in each story. The pieces included a section from The Art of Eating by M.F. Kisher, as well a short story by Anita Brookner from a collection called Flash Fiction Forward.

The pieces examined how food invokes memory, and how the presence of food can add to the life of the character or display tension in a scene while capturing the reader’s attention. For example, a writer can use food to reveal a character’s mood, likes, and dislikes, or can create a scene where there is either an abundance or a scarcity of food, and then show what it means to the characters and plot. The workshop lasted two hours and involved both contemplative and fast-paced writing.

The workshop’s first exercise focused on the memories and associations inspired by pictures of foods. What’s for Dinner? is currently on exhibit at Silver Eye Center for Photography, so participants were surrounded by images of different types of food. Participants were asked to look around and jot down their reminiscences. The results comprised a variety of concepts, from people and places to times and situations.

“The image of the golden-brown muffin topped with a cube of cheese reminded me of home and lazy Sunday mornings,” said one participant said.

Here, Flick helped participants transition their thoughts from food to specific moments in their lifetime in which these foods were somehow involved. Flick said that a writer’s job is to “evoke” those feelings of sensory detail in the heart and mind of the reader.

“You can use so many gestures with food in storytelling; it sheds light on the character, especially when placed in vital stances such as the opening scene and dialogues,” said Flick.

The next writing drill focused on smell. Here, the participants were asked to describe what they imagined the food in each image would smell like. Diverse viewpoints emerged and led to a thorough discussion of why aroma is one of the most difficult senses to describe or convey in literature.

“Reaching out to the reader’s olfaction through words is one of a writer’s greatest capabilities, because it makes you use other things around the character, and eventually leads to describing a whole scenario,” said Flick.

In the final segment of the workshop, the participants explored the representational elements in food through similes and metaphors. Once again, they were asked to observe the images of food and express those images in figurative language.

In this exercise, a participant referred to an exuberant image of hot red peppers as “the fiery passion of forbidden love,” while another described a photo of ripe tomatoes as “a heart full of surprises and abandoned virtues.” Some participants had significantly varied perspectives on the same photograph. For example, while one saw a well-done steak as “a coral reef,” another viewed it as a “harbor for bones.”

“The key lies in understanding the control you have over your thoughts and words. Then, you can mix and blend the way you like,” Flick said.

At the end of the evening, Flick asked the participants to prepare a short piece of narrative fiction about food using the concepts they learned in the session. The participants will discuss their work during the workshop’s next meeting.