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