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Not until my husband Rob and I were rolling maki under the sharp eye of my Japanese mother did I crack a mystery that has confounded me for years: why some writing students in the MFA program that I now direct soar, while others never seem to progress at all.
My hunch was that it came down to taking feedback. Some students couldn’t seem to apply the recommendations that their classmates and I made in workshop, making only minor changes in their revision and, more discouraging still, repeating the same mistakes in their next piece. As someone who gratefully relies on an army of skilled and patient friends and editors to pummel wretched first drafts into shape, I didn’t understand it. Maybe a couple of the students were resistant for the usual reasons—impatience, defensiveness, or distrust of our notes. But the others? Diligent, smart, and eager to learn though they were, when given revision suggestions, they froze up.
Under my mother’s direction, Rob and I had mixed the sushi rice; cut and laid the kampyo, shiitake, cucumber, and avocado in strips; and crisped the nori over the stove. I was reveling in the smells and stolen tastes, thinking how stupid I’d been to avoid making maki all these years, when Rob and I slathered the nori with rice and made our first rolls.
Though more cone-shaped than cylindrical, Rob’s was recognizably a maki, pieces stacking like silver dollars as he sliced.
Mine was lumpy and misshapen. I touched it with a blade and it fell apart, maki innards oozing out like guts in a zombie film.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. Rob is singularly gifted in the kitchen. Of course his first maki had turned out well, despite the fact that he’d been raised in Texas, sushi an alien concept until he was in college.
Rob could use a touch less kampyo, my mother said, and I needed to squeeze much harder.
We tried a few more times. With each roll, Rob’s improved. Mine refused to hold its shape when cut, failing the crucial test of makidom. My mother said I cut the cucumber too thick. I didn’t squeeze hard enough. I put on too much rice, and then too little.
“Oh—” I wanted to throw the maki—or the mishmash of rice and fillings that should have been a maki—across the room. Instead I stuffed it all in my mouth.
It was agreed. Rob would roll while I cleaned.
As I scrubbed the pots, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. I’d been having fun. I wanted to keep mucking about with the rice and shiitake, alongside Rob, to make something both tasty and pretty. Maybe I’d get there and maybe I wouldn’t, but I wanted to try.
So what had happened? Resistant, defensive, and overly sensitive—everything I wondered about with my students—I’d shut down. Why?
Was I taking the feedback too personally? Without a doubt. How infuriating that my Texan husband was so much better at making maki, when sushi was my birthright as a Japanese American. And yes, receiving and hearing criticism from my mother was difficult. Her criticism always stung, not because she was unfair or mean but because I wanted so badly to win her approval.
But something more was afoot. As soon as I heard my mother’s advice, I stopped enjoying myself. I started feeling the pressure of expectations, and whether the goal is a good maki roll or sentence, that’s the death-knell. There’s truth, after all, in that old chestnut: how do you get rid of writer’s block? Lower your expectations.
The heightened expectations I was feeling changed the experience of shaping the nori, rice, and fillings. Where once it had been fun—mucking about—it became work. What I needed to do was to hear, think about, and implement the feedback while still thinking of the process as play. I needed to retain my sense of it as joy.
Easier said than done, of course, but I had time, and nothing to lose by trying. There was still some rice left, enough for a few more rolls.
I took my seat beside Rob. With my mother coaching me, I tried again, coating the nori with rice, festooning it with fillings, rolling and finally unfurling the mat to behold my creation.
Was it a maki?
No—but something nearly as good. A start.
Secrets of the Sun by Mako Yoshikawa is available now via Mad Creek Books.