Thursday morning I climbed out of bed before dawn and headed to the kitchen. I believe it's a great advantage to be an early riser on Thanksgiving. The side dishes were finished and the turkey was roasting in the oven before my husband and daughter awoke. Creating the Thanksgiving feast was a breeze.
It wasn't always that way.
Twenty-three years ago, I was a newlywed, eager to prove to my family that I was capable of cooking a holiday meal. I felt confident about making the three-bean casserole, stuffing (in a box), and sweet potatoes with marshmallow topping. The problem was the turkey. I'd never attempted to cook one. This was the bird that graced the dining table in every weepy holiday commercial. Golden crisp on the outside. Moist and tender on the inside. I didn't want to blow it.
I sought advice from everyone. "Cooking a turkey is easy," said one friend, "just don't buy a Butterball." She then proceeded to tell me how I should smear two sticks of butter over the body. "Make sure to leave some for the inside of the cavity," she added.
It sounded so complicated so I called my mom. "It's easy. I don't know why people make such a big deal about it. Just buy a Butterball."
I heard other methods--cooking it overnight at a low temperature, and someone even swore it was better to cook the turkey breast-side down. "Trust me. You'll never do it any other way," they said.
Apparently I was not the only frustrated one. I hear there is a turkey hot-line, twenty-four hours of roasting advice offered by an expert. That must be some job. At least they had some funny stories to tell around their holiday table. I can just hear them. "Then there was the one who thought she'd give the turkey a golden glaze by coating it with sugar and torching it. She had to throw it in the fireplace and start over!"
Eventually I learned how to roast a turkey my way. It begins with ignoring the instructions on the label that advises allowing two days for thawing in the refrigerator. I don't know about you, but my turkeys take five to six days. Most years, my turkey has turned out pretty decent. It just took a few Thanksgivings to build my confidence and rely on my own instincts.
Learning to roast a turkey is not unlike my writing career. Early on, I received tons of advice. "Don't write in first person," one of my creative writing teachers said.
"Why?" I asked, mainly because all of my first stories came to me from that point of view.
Annoyed, she said, "New York looks at it as amateurish."
For awhile, I struggled to write in third person. It sounded forced, but I didn't want New York to think I was an idiot.
"You overuse the word look," said a critique partner. Never mind that she tended to be fond of gaze. But what did I know? She'd been writing for a few years. My characters started to gaze at the green meadows.
"If you want to write for children, leave out the parents." This bit of info came from a published writer. "Make them orphans or just keep them out of the story."
I tried to be obedient. And for awhile, I was. But the joy left the process. Then one day a story came to me, a story in first person. The main character lived with adults. She liked to look at things. I continued to listen to what others told me about my story. I considered all the advice I received from editors in rejection letters. Sometimes I applied it. Sometimes I did not. I'd learned to trust my own gut. After all, it was my story. Those were my characters. If it sold, my name would be on the book.
Three and a half years later, it did sell. Once my editor told me, "Kimberly, the thing I like about working with you is that you always consider what I have to say about the manuscript, but ultimately you do what you think is right." Some writers are born with that instinct. I'm not one of them. I came to it eventually, leaving fear behind, relying on my gut and instincts.
Not unlike roasting a turkey.
Kimberly Willis Holt's first book, My Louisiana Sky, was published ten years ago. Since then, she's written a few more and even roasted a few turkeys.