When we decided to dedicate an issue to food, we hoped (as we do with every theme issue) that we would get a wide range of stories, and we did—more than two hundred in all. The work we published included everything from memoir to immersion journalism, about topics from chapulines—toasted, seasoned grasshoppers—to the healing powers of lasagna, to the life (and death and plating) of a pig.
But what I remember most from the issue has very little to do with food, actually. The story that made the biggest impression on me was Liesl Schwabe’s quiet reflection on being a longtime waitress in a restaurant in Brooklyn. Like some kind of urban naturalist, over time, she observes patterns in behavior: for example, couples’ progression from first dates to marriage to parenthood, a series of steps she characterizes as “heartbreaking in their inevitability.” She goes on to describe young regulars who come for dinner with the new baby, with varying degrees of success and enjoyment.
It’s an uncomfortable description—or at least I found it so. A few years earlier, you see, I was that new mother bouncing the baby, breastfeeding in between bites. And you know, it seemed like a fine thing to do . . . though looking back, maybe it really wasn’t. (Similarly, I brought both of my daughters to work at CNF with me as babies; that, too, seemed perfectly reasonable at the time, but it’s all a crazy blur now.)
Anyway, I had never realized that restaurant experience was an easily recognized rite of passage—a “thing.” Who wants to be a generic type? It’s ever so much more interesting to think that we’re individuals, each of us the hero of his or her story. But, of course, the truth of the matter—and if you’ve spent much time reading unsolicited submissions for a literary magazine, you come to appreciate this, I think—is that there really aren’t so many stories in the world; most of our lives, if we are lucky, follow quite common trajectories. As E.B. White summed it up in Charlotte’s Web, “After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die.”
So it goes. But there’s also tremendous comfort in knowing we’re not alone, isn’t there? And of course, being ordinary doesn’t make a story any less interesting or important. In fact, the best creative nonfiction seems, however paradoxically, both personal and universal; it makes the unique somehow familiar while also helping us see how the familiar can be unique. In the end—as Schwabe suggests—perhaps it’s not so much our specific experiences but what we make of them that counts.
– Hattie Fletcher