Tasting Home – Judith Newton on writing memoir

Tasting Home book coverI’ve been reading Judith Newton’s  Tasting Home: Coming of Age in the Kitchen.

I was curious about how Judith so successfully conquered new territory by authoring a memoir, having spent her career writing for academic audiences. My background as a marketing communications writer has been both a help and a hindrance when it comes to memoir and other personally expressive writing.

If you are a writer who wants to try new forms or reach new audiences, you may find Judith’s insights helpful.  And if you simply want to read more fine food memoir collections, Judith has some excellent suggestions.

In your acknowledgements you mention having to transition from writing academic texts to writing memoir. Can you comment about some of these challenges and how you overcame them?

When you write as an academic,  you are writing defensively.  It’s customary to begin a book by outlining  the arguments of other works on the subject. You then situate your own argument in relation to those of other works and point out how your own says something better or new. You’re always aware of how others might criticize your argument and you’re careful to defend yourself against that.  It’s a competitive culture and some people are downright mean.

Judith NewtonWriting a memoir requires a different emotional orientation.  The idea is to open yourself up, to share private stories with your public, and  to engage with readers on an emotional level. I had to imagine a non-academic audience to write like that and, even then, writing the memoir sometimes felt like jumping into free fall off a cliff.   Taking classes was helpful with this.  I often imagined my audience as the other people in the class.

I did read other memoir writers. M.F.K. Fisher’s The Gastronomical Me was a big influence because it conveyed a great deal about the emotional hungers that are fed in cooking for, and dining with, others.  Laura Esquivel’s novel Like Water for Chocolate implicitly connects food to politics, which is something  I wanted to do. In Like Water cooking for, and eating with, others is what sustains women and men, physically, emotionally, spiritually, and politically as well.  Mollie Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life, which, among other food memoirs, combines personal vignettes with recipes, supplied a model for the form.Like Water for Chocolate

I had to learn how to write differently as well.  Although I made a habit of including personal stories in my academic writing,  those stories were an addition to, or comment on, the argument I was advancing.  I had to learn how to sustain a personal story for the length of a book, how to give it a narrative arc, how to write scenes, develop characters, write dialogue, use imagery and all the rest.  I took classes to do this (at U.C. Extension and Osher Lifelong Learning), and I really believe in classes for the instruction and for the community they give you.  I needed that community support.  (I also loved being a student rather than the teacher!)  I made a conscious decision to go into my classes feeling open to criticism because insightful criticism is a writer’s gold.  I wanted to experience, in a full way, whatever the class brought.

Your Life as StoryI can remember feeling that Annie Lamott’s Bird by Bird was incredibly liberating and comforting.  Two other really helpful books were Tristine Rainer’s Your Life as Story and Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing.  I especially like Rainer’s book and think that people who write screenplays have a lot to teach us.

If there are food memoirs and cookbooks you’ve especially enjoyed, let us know in the comments below.

Judith Newton is Professor Emerita in Women and Gender Studies at U.C. Davis. While at U.C. Davis she directed the Women and Gender Studies program for eight years and the Consortium for Women and Research for four.

Tasting Home is the recipient of a 2013 Independent Publisher Book Award.

In addition to Tasting Home, Judith is the author and co-editor of five works of nonfiction on nineteenth-century British women writers, feminist criticism, women’s history, and men’s movements. Four of these were reprinted by Routledge and the University of Michigan Press in fall 2012. Currently she writes for The Huffington Post.

I found enlightenment in the Pacific Northwest

In May, I happily stumbled on the secret to enlightenment when I attended the Medical Library Association (MLA) annual meeting in Seattle and vacationed with my family in the Cascades.

It all started with MLA speaker and best-selling author Steven Johnson, who told us about a theory he encountered while researching his latest book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation.  (Steven is a great speaker, not to mention that he reminds me of one of my favorite Downton Abbey characters.)

Some believe the 18th century’s Age of Enlightenment occurred, in part, when the middle class switched from alcohol to coffee and tea as their beverage of choice. With clean drinking water scarce, people drank ale or wine, even for breakfast. When coffee and tea imports became available, many switched from alcohol – a depressant – to caffeine, a stimulant.

Coffeehouses, where “ideas [could] spill from one mind to another,” became popular, according to Johnson. “The coffeehouse was a multidisciplinary space.” (So are libraries, he said, in a nod to his audience.) People from all walks of life who normally would not encounter one another engaged in “a diversity of conversations.”

So, coffee and tea led people to a kind of hyperactive exchange of ideas, which in turn led to innovation.

Johnson predicts that the internet and social media are a new kind of global, virtual coffeehouse spawning another great age of innovation.

I experienced coffee and coffeehouses on an entirely new level during my stay in Washington. In Rochester, New York, we don’t have drive-through espresso kiosks as in the Pacific Northwest. They are ubiquitous in the Seattle area, even on the edge of wilderness. Up in the Cascades, if you need a dentist, quick, or someone who knows how to repair a transmission, you may be out of luck – but you can almost always find a cup of coffee.

My theory is, there is so little sunshine people need the caffeine to keep going.

At any rate, I also noticed that the Pacific Northwest has thriving literary communities. People here really appreciate books, and they love coffee, and they love combining the two.

For me, the combination of exceptional coffee, great bookstores, access to the internet and, last but certainly not least, absolutely stunning scenery and fresh, mountain air, was so invigorating. I felt the ideas flowing. Like I was on the verge of my own personal enlightenment.

The Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle

The Elliott Bay Book CompanyWe spent several hours visiting The Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle’s largest independent bookstore, which also has (of course) great coffee. Elliott Bay has a full roster of book signings and author readings, and a terrific blog. Here is what I bought there:

The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa

The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness, by Karen Armstrong

Zen in the Art of Archery, by Eugen Herrigel

Pearl Street Books & Gifts in Ellensburg, WA. Pearl Street Books & Gifts

I wanted to see the high desert on the eastern side of the Cascades, so we drove to Ellensburg, WA, where we discovered the delightful Pearl Street Books & Gifts. Owner Michele Bradshaw is passionate about books and literature.  She and I talked about our reading interests. Michele enjoys making recommendations, and it’s obvious she puts a lot of thought into creative, customer-responsive bookselling.

I liked the Magic Table, a display of enticing best-sellers and high quality fiction and nonfiction. Quality is apparent on every shelf and surface in the shop, where carefully chosen books are displayed cover side up. Michele has put together a number excellent book collections, including young adult, children’s, fiction, memoir/biography, and Pacific Northwest authors.

Pearl Street Books & Gifts also hosts 11 book clubs, a tea club, a knitting club, and yoga workouts.

While I was there, I bought:

The White Cascade: The Great Northern Railway Disaster and America’s Deadliest Avalanche, by Gary Krist

The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America, by Timothy Egan

Booklust to Go, by Nancy Pearl

Queen Anne Books

Cover of Some Assembly Required by Anne Lamott
Climb, climb, climb Queen Anne Avenue in Seattle and you’ll be rewarded at the top of the hill with tree-lined streets and all manner of shops, including Queen Anne Books. On the shelves are literally hundreds of hand-written staff recommendations, the sign of a great bookstore. Here, Windee recommends Anne Lamott’s latest book about her new grandson, Some Assembly Required.

Seattle Central Library
The Seattle Central Library, designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and a local architectural firm.

I had a great time this spring walking the Pacific Crest Trail with Cheryl Strayed (who has just inspired Oprah Winfrey to revive her book club!), sailing the waters off British Columbia with M. Wylie Blanchet and her children, clearing forest trails with Ana Maria Spagna, and observing life through the eyes of the characters in Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams.

In June: The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

“Today I shocked the lawyers, and it surprised me, the effect I could have on them.”

This is the opening line of The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan (first-time, best-selling novelist making her debut at age 57, wrote novels in secret for 25 years when the kids were at school), which I’ll be reading in June.

Highlights from the jacket copy: 1914. A bride on her honeymoon. Adrift on the Atlantic Ocean. Not enough to go around. A power struggle. Choosing sides.

Will you read it with me?

Quote from: The Lifeboat, Charlotte Rogan, Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2012.