When I lived in Iowa, my boyfriend Wes and I would visit The Cheese Shop in Des Moines for our (well, really, my) cheese fix. The cheesemonger would give us menus, but we ignored them and scanned the blackboard above the cheese counter. Scrawled lists of charcuterie and pate covered the blackboard, but I looked for only one thing: the cheese board.
“I need something soft, something funky,” Wes said during one of our visits, scooping up the last piece of Bloomsdale, a soft goat cheese from Missouri, from the wooden board. He cut into the rind, pine ash turned navy blue and fuzzed white, aromatic as dirty socks. With a grin, he chewed the rind and walked to the cheesemonger sorting cheeses in the glass display case.
After bringing me thin slices of camembert and washed rind cheeses from Ireland that tested my patience for funkiness, he handed me a soft, pale orange square, “She said this cheese was even funkier than the last.”
“Really?” I asked, the thin slice of cheese warming on my open palm.
“She said it was some French cheese, episee—”
“Époisses,” the cheesemonger said from behind the case, accenting the last beat of the word as if puffing a dandelion from her mouth: ay-pwhass.
I nodded; I knew Époisses, looked for it in the local groceries in Ames. I never saw this quintessential French cheese in small town stores. I was embarrassed I hadn’t tried it before now, after years of professing my love of cheese to everyone I knew. In Cheese: A Connoisseur’s Guide to the World’s Best, Époisses is the so-called “King of Cheeses” and “pungent” is a “gross understatement of the aroma of a ripe Époisses.” I smelled what the author meant—waves of spoiled milk wafted up from the delicate, innocent-looking cheese.
Wes plucked the cheese in his mouth, and grimaced.
Curious, I placed the thin slice of cheese on my tongue.
“Pungent” definitely was an understatement. A humid funk suffused my mouth, erupted up my nose. Instead of swallowing the cheese quickly and chugging beer to cover the stink, I let it rest, blend. Époisses softened my tongue, like velvet against skin. I tasted straw, old hay, butter. I smelled manure on the barnyard after a steady rain, cows pissing on wet concrete.
And holding that moment, the harsh silk of cheese in my mouth, the uncomfortable, strange encounter coalesced in my mind. Years later, I still remember when something as small as a paper-thin piece of cheese connected me to the world and language.
Because it is not the moments of ease, the moments of familiarity, that we remember and feel the urge to grab our pens and write. It is in the uncomfortable moments, the strange encounters, when an unexpected object or animal or person disrupts the haze of our days, that we write into and out of.
Right now, you may think, “Well, duh. Every good story has conflict.” But who wants every moment of their day as a series of jagged peaks to climb? Who wants to live in the frantic mess of conflict every waking moment, even those who relish it?
But who also wants the monotone drag of every day as the same pattern, driving the same roads, seeing the same people, sitting in the dark after work to watch the same TV shows you watched the night before?
Lately, my life is more routine, the same schedule of teaching and tutoring, which I know many writers who also teach or work multiple jobs feel the same sense of redundancy and financial anxiety (not an uncomfortable situation I want to promote here). Which is why I thought back to that moment in the tiny cheese shop in Des Moines, remember forcing myself to explore strangeness. Between the uncomfortable and comfortable, a balance formed, like curds bouncing and melding in a pot of golden whey. Or like straight lines of verse and the frenetic energy of vowels and consonants fizzling along the lines.
So, this is a reminder, for those who need it: be uncomfortable. Find an uncomfortable moment each day, and linger. The moment can be small, like sticking a piece of stinky cheese in your mouth. The moment also needs physicality: dogs barking, baby poop, sore feet after a hike on an ice-covered trail you were ridiculously underprepared for and resulted in a teary and snotty tantrum in front of strangers and your boyfriend…but that’s not an uncomfortable moment I’ll dive into just yet.
Most importantly, the moment needs a record, a written reminder to return to. Even years later, they’ll spring into lines, dialogue, character, story.
Of course, practice this without endangering your life too much. A twinge of embarrassment in front of strangers, however, is expected.