The holiday season is one replete with tradition. In Pamela's last post, she asked for some favorite Christmas reads. One of mine is This Year It Will Be Different, by Maeve Binchy. It is a collection of un-Christmasy Christmas stories, and a book I read pretty much every year. One of my favorite stories in it (though all 20 or so are my favorites, I think) is about a woman with an obnoxious teenage stepdaughter who questions the newer family's tradition of throwing an annual Christmas party. I think something has to be going on for a while to be a tradition, the snotty girl tells her stepmother, who replies that it feels like a tradition to her. And it's been six or seven years, anyway, so take that.
My toffee-making tradition just celebrated its fifteenth year if I remember correctly. I don't have my own little Snow White to contend with, but I think that under any definition, something I've done every year for nearly Justin Bieber's entire lifespan qualifies it as a tradition. I guess some might argue that since the recipe changes slightly year to year (not the candy itself, but the goodies it swaths: this year: pretzels and dark chocolate, cookies and white chocolate, cashews and milk chocolate, and my favorite, almonds and no chocolate), it's not quite a tradition. To them I say butter and sugar: what's not to like? Sing it, Tevye: tradition!
My mother-in-law sighed a grateful "Yes, please!" when I asked if she wanted me to provide candy gifts for some of her friends this year. Turned out to be lucky I did, as a bad back laid her up the day she would have otherwise undertaken her own baking. I'd found some gaudy-if-it-weren't-December gold plastic tubs on clearance, and I layered stacks of toffee in those for her pals. My gift-wrap closet (think of me as the extremely low-rent version of Nels from Frasier, he of the gift wrapping room; mine is two shelves in the guest room closet) yielded found some wide purple satin ribbon, and I wrapped lush strings of it around the metallic tubs. Fat purple bows put, well, a bow on it, and the final product was just this side of over the top. Pretty much the kind of wrap job my mother-in-law would produce, and almost nothing like I the kind I'd do (and later did not do) for my own list: ornate, elegant, and abundant.
My own neighbors and friends got the same candy, theirs stuffed into decorative sacks from The Dollar Store. Same candy, same amount of candy--and yet. Spare, some might think; chintzy, sayeth the less generous. Maybe. But it looks like me, and how I do things: basic, no nonsense, practical. (Kind of like my wardrobe, come to think of it. Okay, now this is getting depressing.) And when I started thinking about it, that's kind of how I often write as well. At least the first draft.
As I stirred the bubbling pan melting goodness with one hand, the other clutched a copy of a book I'd started on CD in the car a few weeks ago. I have to admit, I hadn't adored it. It was maybe just too much, I thought. Too much atmosphere. Too many fine details. And I felt the story paid the price for all that lushness, all that purple ribbon. Reading it instead of listening, though, I think I may have been wrong. It may have been the reader who infused it with just too much. The writing, still boasting abundant description, was not, after all, too much when taken in with my eyes instead of my ears. The story inside, lost when I heard it, was intact as I read, and the characters whose stories I'd begun to wonder about came to life better when I met them in pages instead of speakers.
Still, there's a happy medium. There are books that are gorgeous and opulent, and books that are simply ornate. Books that are wonders of fine spare prose, and books so thin in detail we just never much care. The trick is finding what works for our own story, our own novel (our own candy gifts), and remaining true to the purpose of the story and its characters. Layering, like layers of pretzel then molten toffee then dark chocolate, is key. And honestly, if I'd taken it one step further and drizzled strings of white chocolate on top of that dark stuff, the candy would not have been over the top at all, but rather of gift of voluptuous abundance. Even as I cracked the sheet into bite sized pieces, I knew I should have taken that final step, one more bowl of chips melted in the microwave, a fork dipped into it and swirled over the candy.
It's candy. In a snowman bag or a deluxe golden box, it's still delicious, and still a treat. But with writing, I don't want to make the mistake of skimpiness.
So note to self: break out the second or third kind of chocolate, bring on the metaphors and rich descriptions. Don't overdo it, but make sure to do enough. It's almost always true that a little more chocolate is a good thing. A little more fine-tuning is as well. Abundance in writing, abundance in life. Abundance in chocolate. Just not too much, but rich nonetheless.