Rick Bass is a prolific author of essays, non-fiction books, short stories, and novels. Born in 1958, he is in an introspective phase of life. The phase where people begin to contemplate their mortality, their legacy, how much time remains. His latest book, The Traveling Feast: On the Road and at the Table with My Heroes seems born of that kind of mind.
In the book Bass chronicles a unique project…
The plan was to cook a great meal for all of my heroes, one by one, and tell them thank you while they were still living, rather than that other thing writers usually do, speaking kindly of one another in the sterility of the obituary – which, however floral or nice, is never heard by the deceased.
Each chapter is dedicated to a different literary “hero” or mentor. Writers like Peter Matthiessen, Doug Peacock, Tom McGuane, and Terry Tempest Williams. Some are long time friends of Bass’s, with deep shared experiences that recall laughter and tears. while others he’d never met until they consented to his offer to prepare them a meal in their home. With the former there is a sense of familiarity, of comfort. With the latter Bass at times comes off as awestruck and awkward. We have much to learn from both cases.
There are three narrative arcs in this book, each compelling in their own right. The first and perhaps primary arc is that of the craft of writing. Bass uses his experiences as a writer, and those of his heroes, to describe what does and does not work; what promotes good writing and what is a distraction. He’s assisted in his culinary endeavors by a pair of writing mentees, Erin Holcomb and Cristina Perachio, and at times by his daughter, Lowry Bass, again providing opportunities for teaching the writer’s life.
Some of that advice is surprisingly practical…
Watching my mentors, coupled with my own experience, has led me to suspect that when it comes to writing, one of the key areas for improvement over the long run of a life is not so much about bearing down harder on the nouns and verbs as it is about learning how to take care of one’s mind. How to let the brain properly cool down, after asking so much of it.
It’s good training. Reading out loud brings an awareness to every word, forcing the writer to assume full responsibility for every pulse, cadence, rhythm, and sound; for all the clumsy, stilted passages.
There is little that is more injurious to a writer than the disruption of routine. The hard-sought flow is interrupted and one can sometimes spend days recapturing the mental preparedness that dissipates with a single conversation carried on one sentence too long.
Other elements are more philosophical, even ephemeral, but perhaps more important…
He’d carouse till midnight or later, go home, play his guitar, write letters, then settle into work, writing until just before dawn. Sometimes there was work that needed doing – a field to plant, a tree to saw up. An airport to get to a place to give a reading. Leaning forward. But writing was the best thing. The sole purpose of all the other work was just to buy time to be still for a moment and write.
I find the vignettes, the glimpses into the lives of these significant writers, to be most interesting because they are presented together, allowing the careful reader to stitch together themes across their otherwise disparate lives. Almost all of these writers have chosen to live in relatively remote locations, valuing the isolation that affords the requisite uninterrupted long periods required to write. They cultivate lives and living situations that optimize the conditions of their own creativity. They seem to have attained levels of comfort with who and what they are, unapologetic about their chosen lives. These gifted women and men do not seem to be trying to balance their drive to write with other demands that this world places on many of us.
It is not a life easily attained by most of us, but maybe that’s the most important of lessons. We try to balance family needs, social and societal expectations, financial demands, and our own self-doubts along with our creative efforts. The Traveling Feast suggests you’re either in or you’re out. If you are to write and write well, it must be your primary objective. It cannot be something in which you engage when all the other needs have been met. It is the thing which everything else exists to support. It is also, quite simply, work. It is a craft to which the writer must per her shoulder day after day, week after week, year after year. Good writing does not simply happen.
The second narrative of The Traveling Feast is that of Bass’s divorce. It is ever present as he wrestles with the end of his 20+ year relationship marriage. His gut-wrenching pain drips from the pages and is palpable. It is as if the bedrock of Rick Bass’s life has been found to be vapor and everything he believed true about himself has become an object of scrutiny and suspicion. At times Bass’s self-deprecation and doubt borders on self-pity…
Then he says something that renders me speechless. “I know there will come a day when my publisher doesn’t want me,” he confides. “It happens to everyone, eventually. I know it. It’s just a business.” Part of me is thinking, That’s my line. My last novel, my thirtieth book, sold fewer than five thousand copies – less than a hundredth of what David’s books sell.
And yet his struggle does not become tiresome, but noble. Rick Bass has laid bare for his readers the open wounds of his soul, sharing his struggles with us. His humility makes him more human, more approachable, just as many of the moments shared with his literary mentors does for him.
The third narrative of The Traveling Feast is that of food, cooking, and a shared meal. After all, the premise of the project is that Bass will travel to the home kitchen of a writer, and prepare and serve them a meal. Bass writes lovingly and in detail about the trials and successes of these meals. There is a passage about a turkey incinerated within Tom McGuane’s gas grill that reduced me to tears of laughter. There are enough descriptions of the proper searing of an elk tenderloin that I believe I could accomplish the feat myself. There are the challenges of buying what is needed for the meal and brining, sometimes across the Atlantic, what cannot be bought. There are dishes that simply didn’t work and meals that sing.
But there is also that sense of community built with others over broken bread and poured out wine. Something magical happens with when share a meal with another, particularly in the intimacy of a home, with food prepared by hand. Strangers become friends. Friends become family. We let down our guard a little and become known to one another. We, as readers, get to share in that community even if only one dimensionally. Bass reminds us we are social creatures and, even if driven to isolation, still crave deep connections, particularly with those who have trod the path we walk.
The generosity and trust of the writers profiled in The Traveling Feast should not be overlooked and, as Bass notes in the Acknowledgements, not everyone to whom Bass extended the offer agreed. Think for a moment about how you would feel if someone, particularly someone you don’t know, invited themselves into your home to cook you a meal. I’m struggling to contemplate doing that with my friends, let alone someone I don’t know. It’s an incredible act of courage and hubris to even suggest such a thing. That Bass has done so and that so many amazing writers agreed, allowing the reader to catch a glimpse of these moments between Rick Bass and his heroes, is nothing short of a work of genius. A gift.
In the end, The Traveling Feast: On the Road and at the Table with My Heroes by Rick Bass is as much the memoir of a man, a gifted writer in his own right, recovering from one of the most damaging wounds this world can offer, as it is a book about Bass’s literary heroes. The combination of the two results in a sum greater than its component parts and may be my favorite of Bass’s books.
Like what you read here? Click the “Subscribe” button on the right side of the page and get each new blog post delivered to your inbox.
As always, please leave your comments below, both good and bad. We love to hear from you.