How Pickles Help Me Survive the Horrible, Wonderful Life of a Writer
Danya Kukafka on Her One, True Love: A Good Pickle
You are sitting at your desk and it is very early morning.
You are still wearing your pajamas. You open your notebook, your computer. Take a sip of tea.
Think of your greatest, most affecting love. Now recreate it.
My greatest love could very well be pickles.
When I was a child, my grandparents lived on Long Island—we visited once a year from Colorado, and my favorite part of each day was the trip to the grocery store. Specifically, the deli aisle. The Long Island deli had barrels of pickles standing side by side; we would grab a plastic gallon-sized tub and fill it to the brim.
They don’t do that in Colorado. You have the pickles you buy by the jar, butter-sweet or Heinz. I was enamored with those deli barrels, by the idea that there were different worlds of pickles, that a distinction between sour and half sour could mean something.
As a child, I ached for them. I wanted to fill myself with the salt.
Once, a friend came along to visit my Long Island family. We bought a gallon of pickles and ate them in front of the television—maybe twenty pickles in one sitting. Our stomachs hurt, but we were not full. Pickles are cucumbers and salt, vinegar and garlic. They are not food. They are not nutrients. They are our basest desires, the need to satiate the part of ourselves that requires only the sour, only the furious, only the mouth-watering.
My first novel just came out. Often, people ask a debut novelist: what would you tell an aspiring writer?
First: we are all aspiring.
And the thing I can’t say—the thing you don’t really want to hear—is this. Sometimes, I hate writing. It is hard and it is boring and it most of the time it does not work. It’s messy. I make my bed every day. You cannot do that, when you’re writing a novel (metaphorically, at least). It takes years to feel like the bed is made. This drives me insane. Sometimes I sit in frustrated silence, not writing, for that precious hour before I go to work at my full-time job.
But there is something that keeps me pushing forward in my writing, and I think in many ways, this is the same feeling I have when I’m reading my favorite book. I wonder if you can learn it. I don’t think I was born with it. I think books gave it to me.
Consume enough, and you’ll learn how to create.
We are all aspiring, is what I actually say, but you have to be hungry.
My dad buys the wrong pickles every time.
He likes to surprise me when I visit by stocking the refrigerator. But they’re always the weird pickles—too sweet or too sour, too soft or too spicy. There are two brands that I like, and my dad can never find them in my hometown’s grocery store. They aren’t in the pickle aisle. They are with the sliced meat, and the deli cheese. Claussen. They are elitist pickles, and my love for them knows no shame.
I only like the pickles that have been given some real thought—the fancy ones, yes. But I love my dad. I eat the weird ones anyway.
I work as an assistant editor at a literary imprint of a large publishing house, and here is a useful thing I have learned: writing does not come easily to anyone. The writers you adore still fume when edits come in. They turn in messy drafts. Someone sits them down and says: this could be good, but it isn’t working yet.
They revise that draft. It comes back a little cleaner, but still has holes where certain bits have not yet been sewn together. They revise that draft. It’s almost ready, but their sentences still ramble, and they use a lot of commas. They revise that draft. This is the work you’ll recognize as that of your favorite author.
Is it any consolation, when you are sitting at the desk in your pajamas, sweating and watching the clock, that your favorite author is also wondering: Why? Maybe. But still, that doesn’t make the process of creation any easier.
After long days at my job—where I edit other people’s writing and rarely have the time to think about my own—I come home. I take off my shoes. I am hungry, not starving, having eaten a big lunch but nothing in the afternoon to sustain me. I have late dinner plans. I think, a pickle. What I need is a pickle.
I uncap a jar of pickles. I eat two, four, five. My kind partner does not complain about my breath.
My first novel just came out. People say—are you so excited?
Yes, I tell them. I’m so excited I could puke. It’s a thrilling combination of fear and accomplishment, narcissistic delight and a walk to the edge of the plank. This is how it feels to publish your first book. It’s a sensation entirely different from sitting at the writing desk in the morning, but it feels just as weighted. I am so excited, I say, and also I wonder: what does it mean to create something people can hold and love, or hold and hate? What does it mean to create something meant for consumption, and also for satisfaction?
So, I have started to make my own pickles.
This is work I understand. Here, I know exactly what I want. I want to create the perfect horseradish pickle. The perfect jalapeño pickle. The perfect half sour.
I want to stuff my fucking face.
The first batch I made was too garlicky. The second, too vinegary. The third was closer to those deli aisle pickles but fresher, crunchier, more coriander and bay leaves. I played with the garlic ratios. By the fourth batch, I’d gone rogue; I’d created a new recipe entirely. My pickles will never be perfect, but they will be close. I cannot stop.
It has taken me a very long time to write this essay. The other night, I got so frustrated that I slammed my computer shut in a huff and trudged out of the cafe.
When I got home, I didn’t even take off my shoes. I set the water for the brine. I pulled dill off its stalks and crushed garlic beneath my sharpest knife.
We writers are known for our neuroses. There are some things we can control, and many more we can’t. I cannot control how a work of art goes into the world. But I can mince garlic so carefully that my fingers will still smell the next morning.
There is a reason we have foods like pickles, and it is the same reason we crave good art. We are in it for the pleasure, and this may be the hardest thing to distill or explain about something good. We want to devour it. We come for the rush of salt. The crunch and satisfaction, even with the knowledge that sometimes these things will make you sick before they’ll fill you.
I am trying to write another book.
Often, it feels like I am slogging through a swamp the size of an ocean. I cannot see any shoreline. But this is normal, this is how it goes. This is what writing consists of.
My mother once asked, do you love writing?
I hate it, I told her.
Then why do you do it?
Because I have to—this didn’t feel like quite the right answer. Because I love it. Because it’s hard, but it’s worth it when it’s going well.
Because I want to make my favorite thing.
And within all of it, the joy. Sitting down to write and seeing a glimmer of something good in the rubbish. The rush, the crunch. That perfect bite.
It is a consolation to remember this, and it is what I would tell another aspiring writer: put in the work until you find just a hint of that feeling. The uncapping, the pleasure. Because that’s what we’re here for, isn’t it? The salivating love that keeps us pushing forward, striving for a perfection that does not exist.
It is there, that love. It is wonderfully salty.
When you find it, try to hold it on your tongue.
Danya Kukafka’s debut novel, Girl in Snow, is available now from Simon & Schuster.