You will make all kinds of mistakes; but as long as you are generous and true and also fierce you cannot hurt the world or even seriously distress her. She was meant to be wooed and won by youth.
The Many Stages Of Publishing a Book, Told in Animated GIFs
Whenever someone asks me what it feels like to write a book, I am just going to send them to this brilliant blog post, The Publishing Process in GIF Form.
I also like to imagine the exact procrastination-happy state of mind that inspired the author to make this instead of writing their book. Happens to the best of us.
When Life Gets Stressful, I Get Baking
It starts when I start to fantasize about cookies. Cookies studded with chunks of melted chocolate, cobbled with hunks of walnut, heavy with raisins. Then I move onto pies. Crisp, buttery crusts, velvety lemon custard, rustic chunks of apple. I can tell I’m having a very bad day when I start in on cakes. Layer cakes, each painstakingly spread with raspberry preserves and buttercream. Whipped marshmallow frosting. I’ll come home from work and thumb through my glossiest cookbook, savoring the images.
I’m not interested in eating any of these things. I just want to make them.
I often turn to baking when my life feels like it’s spinning out of control, or I’ve taken on way too much to manage—which I do so often, I should really know better by now. For me, there’s a mind-clearing therapy in baking that I’ve never found on a yoga mat. I’ve discovered that the object is not to clear my mind completely (it never works; my thoughts are naughty children who do what they please) but to direct my mind into focusing on a singular task, the more complicated the better.
There’s a glorious immediacy to it. The world is narrowed down to the six inches of the recipe and the instructions it gives, those manageable, present-tense tasks. Measure out a cup of flour. Crack two eggs. Chop walnuts into bite-sized pieces. Savor the satisfaction in completing trickier tasks, like making caramel or beating a meringue. Nothing is impossible in the kitchen, especially if you have good instructions.
Novice bakers more or less need to follow the directions exactly or their creation won’t turn out. As if everything could follow such precise steps to a near-certain, tested conclusion. But there’s still a modicum of accountability required, just to keep things interesting. Yes, you are at fault if the recipe fails, but the stakes are low. There are many, many worse things in the world than a slightly overdone cookie.
Usually, the drive to bake clues me in that I need to take a step back or an afternoon off. In times of great stress, cooking will do in a pinch, but it’s never as good; there are just too many variables. Cooking is never an exact science; it’s the bohemian little sister of straight-laced baking.
My Own Advice for Future Food Writers
Amanda Hesser has a pretty bleak blog post up at Food52 today, Advice for Future Food Writers, in which she bemoans the decline of the 9-to-5 staff food writing job:
I can no longer responsibly recommend that you drop everything to try to become a food writer … Just 10 years ago, food writers with staff jobs were able to earn $80,000 to $150,000 a year, and freelancers were regularly paid $2 a word; today, these jobs barely exist.
This is true, and her column is full of good advice. But I also think it’s missing something extremely important: You need to write for the love of it, because that is the only thing that is guaranteed to bring you satisfaction.
Writing has never been a guaranteed paycheck. I think bloggers have widened the playing field, but it’s not like publishers ever just handed out plush staff writer jobs and book contracts to anyone who wanted one (in my understanding; I am too young to know a professional world without bloggers). There is a rich historical tradition of writers taking day jobs to pay the bills, and unless they lucked out in the best-seller lottery, they continued to work day jobs for the rest of their lives. Some, like T.S. Eliot, actually enjoyed them.
I am not nearly as accomplished as Amanda Hesser, but I have written a book and gotten things published in national magazines — and haven’t made enough at either to stop working a day job, btw — and I get my share of questions about how to be a “writer.” I don’t really have an answer, because the answer seems too obvious to put into words: sit down and write. Write well and write often. There’s no shortcut or magic bullet. It’s a bitch, but to paraphrase Margaret Atwood, you chose it so don’t whine about it.
And I have to believe, because it’s been true in my life and because it’s essential to my personal value system, that there will always be a place for talent and passion. If you deeply love food and you are a good writer with a unique voice and you work hard, you will get published. It helps to network, it helps to take Hesser’s advice about getting a day job in food and rounding out your other skills, but I really, truly believe people respond to passion and genuine excitement for your topic.
But let’s get one thing straight: You shouldn’t pursue a career as a food writer because you like the way it sounds on paper. Some people think writing, especially food and travel writing, is this crazy glamorous lifestyle. It has its moments, but most of the time it’s you, sitting in a room by yourself in front of a computer screen for hours on end, often with very little to show for it.
Or as George Orwell wrote:
Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.
Unless you’ve got that demon, monkey on your back, guilty conscience, whatever, don’t bother. Hesser’s right in that it likely won’t bring you fame and fortune, especially these days.
So why do I keep at it? Because of that hit of pure euphoria when I nail the perfect sentence or paragraph. Because of that feeling of satisfaction when someone tells me something I wrote meant something to them. Because it helps me make sense of the world around me. And because when I’m not writing, I’m feeling guilty about not writing. Those are my motivations, and they – for better or worse – are not tied to finances at all.
The Laziest Day Ever
I did nothing yesterday. Well, almost nothing: I read all day long, first in bed until the sun started going down, then on the couch because it seemed too shameful to stay in bed. I also made coffee, and walked down to the corner store to buy some beer. And that was my Saturday.
A shame, because I had such a lofty To Do list that included:
- Go to yoga
- Clean my appallingly messy apartment
- Write for at least an hour
- Do laundry
I did none of those things, even the ones that would have been easy to do (laundry and reading go together quite well; I even have enough quarters, which never happens). The absolute best and worst thing about living alone is that no one’s there to keep you honest.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. What happened was, the day before yesterday I had a tremendous headache. Probably sinusus but maybe a migraine (who knows, I looked it up online and WebMD told me that a “sudden severe headache” could be the sign of a brain tumor, and I remembered why I don’t look symptoms up online). I left work early and lay on my couch and moaned. Finally I couldn’t stand it anymore so at 8pm I took a combination of Advil Sinus and NyQuil and was dead to the world until 11am yesterday. I woke up sort of confused and happy the world still existed, but I was hungover from the medicine and disinclined to get out of bed, except to make coffee, until about 2. By then I’d missed the yoga class I was planning to attend and was so enjoying the book I was reading (Skippy Dies, I was nearing the end, and when that was getting too harsh I switched to Sherlock Holmes stories) that I just kept on doing it.
Today might have gone down a very similar path had I not made a plan with my friend Raquel to go hiking. Raquel is a very valuable friend to have because, unlike me, she generally considers plans set in stone once you make them, whereas I am the queen of flaking out and therefore hardly ever do anything. She wanted to meet me at my place but I couldn’t let her because of the aforementioned appalling mess, so I felt bad about myself for a while over that, and then set out to meet her far too late. Luckily she was even later. We hiked Runyon Canyon and parted ways, but I was propelled with enough forward momentum to at least write a blog post and take my trash out. Also, I am considering doing my laundry.
I think the reason yesterday disturbs me so much—because god knows I have had my share of slothful days—is because I spent so much of it in my bed. It reminds me of being a teenager, when my domain was a tiny room and my bed was staging ground for homework, reading, diary writing, mix tape making, IMing (junior year on, when I got internet in my room; Wi-Fi didn’t exist yet because I am old), music listening, and staring at the ceiling despairing of my life. Now I have a whole apartment to myself and a whole city to explore. Am I regressing?
But I’m probably reading too much into it. As another friend reminds me regularly, there’s a big difference between rest and laziness. Sometimes you don’t finish your To Do list. And that’s okay. I’m learning that’s how life works.
It seems wrong and unfair that Christmas, with its stressful and unmanageable financial and emotional challenges, should first be forced upon one wholly against one’s will, then rudely snatched away just when one is starting to get into it. Was really beginning to enjoy the feeling that normal service was suspended and it was OK to lie in bed as long as you want, put anything you fancy into your mouth, and drink alcohol whenever it should pass your way, even in the mornings. Now, suddenly we are all supposed to snap into self-discipline like lean teenage greyhounds.
Stalking Geoff Dyer
Meeting one’s literary idols is a disorienting experience. They’re always so disappointingly normal. Novelists don’t have the sheen of movie stars; you are reminded that these are people who spend the majority of time alone at their desk, struggling with sentences.
Today I went to brunch in Greenpoint with girls I’ve been friends with for nearly 15 years—a comfortable, gossipy sort of brunch, the kind you always long for after watching Sex and the City but minus the zinging one-liners or TV drama. Afterward we wandered around Williamsburg for a while, and on the L train home I remembered that Geoff Dyer was signing books in Nolita at 4. It was 4:10 then; I arrived at the bookstore at 4:30, and as I stood outside the shop trying to figure out if I was too late, a tall, elegant British man in a corduroy jacket emerged, holding a bottle of water and surrounded by a sort of entourage. I just knew it was Dyer, though I didn’t have time to confirm on my iPhone that this was absolutelyforsure the same face from the book jacket, and yet here I was standing less than a yard from him and suddenly had nothing to say.
And I remembered a story my father told me about the night he arrived early for a Norman Mailer reading back in the 70s. Norman Mailer was one of his heroes—he’d just finished writing a PhD dissertation on the man—and as my dad sat in his car waiting, a car pulled up behind him and out stepped the author himself. Mailer proceeded to walk right past my father’s car window. He watched his literary idol pass; he suddenly had nothing to say.
Because I wasn’t meeting anyone for a few hours and had nothing better to do, I followed Geoff Dyer and his entourage as they walked briskly away from the bookstore. I didn’t have a plan. I suppose I had a vague fantasy that Dyer would stop at a wine bar and I would sit near him and soak up everything he said until he gave me an opening and I would interject with something so perceptive and witty that he would talk to me for the rest of the night and solve all my life problems, but it was nothing fleshed out. Mostly just impulse and too many years reading Nancy Drew and Harriet the Spy. As I tailed them, I stayed a healthy half-block behind—Dyer was so tall and distinguished it was easy to keep track—but really, I wasn’t too worried they would notice me. I doubt esoteric essayists/writers of brilliant, problematic novels worry too much about groupies.
Anyway, after a few blocks Geoff Dyer and his people disappeared into a sort of hippie-ish, vaguely Asian and nearly deserted coffee shop and cafe. I stopped, pretended to study the menu posted outside the door, and asked myself what the hell I was doing. Did I want to talk to him? I could go in there, meekly admit my quasi-stalking, tell him I loved his work, and make up for my cowardice outside the bookstore. But what would I say after that? And what if I didn’t like his response? So I walked away, and later, privately, re-read some of my favorite passages and thought of brilliant things I could have said.
It’s been bothering me, though. Why didn’t I have anything to say to the man, when his books have moved me and inspired me in deep and important ways? His writing has led to revelations I never thought I’d have and restored memories I thought I’d lost and took me to places I never thought I’d go. He’s one of my favorite living essayists—a man I deeply respect and admire. So why not tell him just that?
I think it’s because, first and foremost, it would have been more for my edification than his. Every writer likes to be told they’re a good writer, but I wouldn’t have been able to convey to him all the feelings I wanted to convey—because he was a stranger. An older British gent in a corduroy jacket who has no context for, and no interest in, my feelings about being a writer, my sense-memories from my trip to India, my feelings about divorce and dating, my general attitude toward the natural world. These things belong to me, and he helped them belong to me. But reading is a private affair. Why spoil it by offering it to someone who may or may not have anything to say in return?