Sunday, July 11

I just got done with my first writing workshop, the first since college. Not just a workshop on how to write blogs or use web sites or other fancy communications tools, but legit, no frills, down-to-earth writing.

My brain is exhausted and fried right now. I should go for a run. But I have thoughts I need to get out.

Author Molly Wizenberg taught “What Food Writing Can Do” this morning. She’s a memoir writer and co-host of my favorite podcast “Spilled Milk.” I’ve read two of her three books. She’s my age. I connect with many things she talks about on her podcast as a midwest kid growing up in the 80s and 90s, even though the podcast is actually about food (but she and her co-host just slay me with their constant pop culture references).

Even though I’ve been writing professionally since 2001, it’s always been in the form of journalism – first for a newspaper for four years; for a Native American natural resources consortium for the past 15+ years.

As a kid, I LOVED reading and writing ridiculous wild stories. I had a reading tree. My sixth grade teacher encouraged me to get my alternative version of Cinderella printed in our local weekly paper. I also wrote a play that year (“The Day in the Life of a Sixth Grader”) and directed it on the last day of school before the 5th and 6th grade classes.

But, the idea of writers, to me, was so… boring. Writing magazines that would come through Language Arts classes never inspired me. Reading about writing bored me. During all of my schooling, I loved reading and writing assignments (and I’ve been keeping a journal since 1990), but anything to HELP me with my writing just turned me off.

(I WILL SAY though, my grandmother got me started on reading James Kilpatrick’s column “On Language” which was about the extent of my engaged “reading about writing” practice. And I told myself early in life not to take edits personally because all writers need editors.)

After I got settled into my young adult life near Seattle, I started to discover other things – mountaineering, garden groups, biking, trail running, volunteering – and didn’t really dedicate time to outside-of-work writing. I made a few web sites and blogs over the years, mainly to post pictures and trip reports about the fantastic adventures I was experiencing (and you know, ’cause writers have blogs, right?)

I also thought writers were introverted quiet types, who sit for hours on end musing and writing and musing and more writing. Often in the lofts over garages, or a really super cheap rented studio that is not in a good neighborhood. Or even Hunter S. Thompson style, in an alcohol- or drug-infused rage.

For anyone who knows me in real life, I don’t sit still, not for very long anyway. I am on the go and typically going at 100 at that. And if projects are involved, they’re typically short-term driven. Nor am I a raging alcoholic or drug addict.

So, I didn’t have “time” to write.

Until Jeremy asked me to help with a photography project in 2019. Just some captions for his photos about the maritime trades. I’d just gone through a break up that tore me up and it was a great way to throw my energy into something creative.

Those captions turned into mini essays. And, frankly, they were really good. I was pretty proud of them. They were incredibly freeing, tickling awake that long buried creative writer vibe within. They made the photographer cry. Other feedback included from someone in the boat yard (who I’ve never met): “I have never been as proud of what I do till I read what Tiffany wrote.”

That made me pause. Maybe, just maybe, if I take a page from Jeremy’s book about dedication and focus, I could work with this. How could I make this craft better? Make it my own? Could I someday produce a written body of work that only I’ve envisioned and developed, that is not directed by my paying gig or intended to support someone else?

Another sign I had in my head that qualified “Being a Writer” was that I had to have a deep desire to write the “Great American Novel.” I’ve never EVER felt that. I’ve never felt like I’ve had fiction stories inside me that need to be put out into the world. And I was never able to articulate that until I sat in on author Erica Bauermeister’s webinar last fall on her memoir about remodeling a house.

She was talking about her writing methods and noted that she’d never had fictional characters inside her that she needed to write about. She thought the non-fiction genre was her gig… until she was struggling with writing the house memoir and dipped her toe into fiction. Turns out, she DID have fiction stories in her to write and they’ve gone on to become best sellers.

I ALSO have long believed that I need to live some insanely fantastical life to create a well from which to pull my stories. Jeremy calls BS on that – you can find some fantastical stories in your own backyard. We are doing that with the Maritime Project. Hell, I’ve somewhat been doing that for 20 years with my day job, now that I think about it.

And Molly put it another way today – two different people can write about the same thing, but the difference would be in the quality of the writing. Something as simple as writing about a delicious slice of cake. An OK writer would use adjectives; a good writer would use concrete language (yay, a new term I learned today!) to create a visual, pulling the reader in with them, as if they’re sharing that cake together. And I realized recently, I’ve always enjoyed that kind of writing – short stories and essays that really dive into the details of a particular moment or thing.

That all said, still, I’ve never really thought I had a story to tell.

Until I started cooking for others on a regular basis. Namely, my partner and his kids.

I never realized that a lot of people just aren’t into food like me, my family and a good chunk of my friends. Those who may not always seek out the most local and fresh foods, and then pour energy into making a meal that lends to rolling your eyes into the back of your head as your savor that first bite. Like, you don’t embrace the first tomato out of the garden? Or just eat bowls and bowls of roasted and sautéed vegetables after hauling home overstuffed produce bags from the farmers market or your friends’ houses because they grew too much? Create a four-part YouTube video series on your father’s smoked turkey method?

I’ve really had a hard time understanding this and getting over it. What IS my relationship with food? Why DO I enjoy spending hours in the kitchen making three different meals to eat on for a week, a bit stressed from trying to use ALL the fresh food that my wallet couldn’t stop bleeding for? Why is it that my mouth waters while reading REALLY good writing about food and the stories that come with it?

Then I started to think about how food has played a role in my entire life – all 42 years of it. Not just because I need it to survive, but my dad’s gardens, my mom made-from-scratch meals, my desire to help start a farmers market, then a food co-op, supporting local farmers, that quaint moment in a little cafe in Florence, Italy eating wild boar ragout with my 5 month-old nephew asleep and cradled in my arms…

SO many things.

Scene: McMenamin’s, Bend, Oregon, May 2021. Jeremy and I are settled in for an evening of pizza and beer after a day of adventure. Our conversations often lead to discussing his creative desires, which is storytelling through photography, and our maritime trades project. But occasionally, he pushes back on me – what do YOU want to create? What do YOU like to think about? How can I support your creative desires?

I often struggle with that answer. I honestly just think I live life in the moment and what’s coming up next. But something (the beer likely?) snapped in me and the first thought came to mind: Food.

Suddenly, I’m unleashing A LIFETIME of food memories into a tiny 3″ by 5″ blank notebook that I had with me. We sketched out a possible outline of chapters. I thought about everything from how I ate my college roommates’ leftovers (just throw some salsa on it, it’ll be finnnnnneeee) to learning how to cook Brussel sprouts and parsnips from my urban farmer neighbor who introduced me to community-supported agriculture.

And since then, the idea of writing about my memories with food has stuck with me.

I realize I have a lot to do and learn – the tricks of how to write a memoir; read other memoirs (food-based and otherwise); interview family and friends who have been part of these food memories; dig out my journals in hopes that I captured some of the bigger moments that stand out; learn how write about memories when memories are fuzzy; decide if I want to include recipes; when do I want the food memories to stop?

(As a woman who has never bore children, I am amused by the idea of ending a food memoir at the moment that I am jumping off a cliff to start a food adventure with teenagers, because everyone pretty much knows how that story goes. Good luck and godspeed. All I know so far is that I have to keep popcorn and Oreos in the cabinet, which is completely against my nature.)

ANYWAY – Molly’s workshop was eye opening and enlightening and inspiring and sparking. It’s made me realize that generally, there ARE NO RULES for going about writing something. And that “Being A Writer” isn’t being huddled in a corner like a hermit. There’s a lot of research and I LOVE researching things. And interviewing people. And sharing.

So, not sure how to end this. Some of you may be, “Well, yeah, Tiffany. This all tracks. Have you looked at your Instagram account lately?”

It’s … it’s just nice to be excited about a writing project finally, after, for nearly four decades, not really feeling like a writer.