Hi! I’m Jess Thomson. I’m the author of the blog Hogwash, at jessthomson.com, and I’m thrilled to be here today. I’m hoping that although most of us here are bloggers, today we can expand that scope and think of ourselves first as writers.
Today, we’ll define voice, and talk about how to develop voice and how to recognize changes in that voice based on what kind of publication we’re writing for.
Then, we’ll talk about the writing process itself—how we write, why we write, and even when we write, and how all of those things can improve our writing processes.
Finally, we will explore what makes personal narrative work—which words we put on the page to make the page come to life. And as an adjunct to that, we’ll talk about memoir, or, as I like to put it, writing about ourselves. We’ll talk about the difference between memoir as art and navel gazing.
And somewhere along the way we’ll use those memories that aren’t about food that you just brainstormed and use them to learn a little bit about how we can write about food better.
VOICE is what makes you identifiable as you when someone else reads your words. It’s the combination of word choice, tempo, rhythm, and subject that makes your writing unique. And it applies whether you’re writing in the first person or the third person or whatever. It’s always there.
The issue is that as writers, we need to be able to identify our own voice so that, god forbid we have to ever write something for someone else, for a publication besides our own personal blogs, we can vary that voice so that it matches the different publications we write for.
So these three things are all about food, but they’re quite different, because I’m using a different voice in each. They’re all written differently based on who I need to be in each case—for Arthritis Today, it’s an understanding arthritis sufferer who gets that it hurts to hold a knife sometimes. It’s authoritative. It’s bossy. It’s a little self-absorbed. For my blog, it’s me. It’s my life. It’s honest and truthful, and sometimes emotional. For The Kitchn, I need to be mom who loves food who has to pack lunches every day. It’s also authoritative, but less comforting than the other pieces.
So I use all these different voices all the time. The important part is knowing when you’re changing your voice. And I think that’s where a lot of bloggers gat caught up; sometimes you work so hard to be different things outside blogging that it’s easy to forget who you are when you come back to your blog.
BUT. When you’re writing for your blog, you (usually/typically) get to be YOU. So you have to be consistent with who this YOU is.
There’s a part in Alice in Wonderland where Alice has a really “who’s on first” conversation with this this freaky hookah-smoking caterpillar… are we familiar with ti?
So this talking blue caterpillar (who definitely wasn’t created by someone on heavy psychedelic drugs) looks at Alice and starts blowing pink smoke out of his pipe, and the smoke comes out in the shape of letters. And he says WHO ARE YOU? And she says …”I hardly know, Sir. I’ve changed so many times since this morning, you see?”
And the caterpillar says, “I do not see. Explain yourself.”
And Alice says “I’m afraid I can’t explain myself, Sir. Because I’m not myself.”
And then she asks the caterpillar to do the work for her, telling her who she is, etc. (SHOW CLIP FROM FILM.)
So you are Alice. And The Caterpillar is the reader.
This is where writing goes to die. If you don’t know who you want to be when you sit down at the keyboard, you can’t write effectively. You don’t want to have so little voice that the reader has to work. That’s what makes a reader stop reading.
So, who are you?
The biggest definers of who you are is your word choice and word patterning. I, for example, know that my word choice in my own writing can be crass. I can be self-effacing, and brusque, and sharp. I like to use AND or OR to connect a series of ideas instead of using commas, which some people probably find annoying but some people say lends my writing a rhythm that makes it particularly mine. This doesn’t mean that you have to use the same specific words over and over again, but it does mean that your writing can fall into a category. The way, say, Dr. Seuss’s writing always falls into the category of “silly,” yours could be grounding, or inspiring, or satirical, or angry, or whatever. But becoming known as a writer requires having one of those voices, whether you choose it intentionally or not.
Not everyone has found a voice If you don’t feel like you’ve found a voice yet, I’d offer boldly that your best example of your true voice is your speaking voice. So as an exercise, it may make sense to watch yourself. Really. Stick a Piece of paper into your pocket, or use your phone, or whatever, but make a habit of noticing things: Do you always hold your hands up? How? Why? Take your two hands, for example. Convincing? Praying? Wondering? Championing? You can learn a lot about how you approach the world by exploring your own actions. Write down what you notice about yourself.
The point is this: You have to know who you are (or who you need to be, if you’re writing for a different publication), before you start writing. And when you write, you have to convey that person.
Finally, we’re going to do an exercise. It’s based on an old trick I first heard from a lovely woman and excellent writer named Martha Holmberg, back when she was the food editor of the Oregonian. She used it as an example of how to tailor your magazine pitch to an editor, because pitches should be different based on who will ultimately reads the story you want to write.
So in her example, the story you want to write is: How To Boil Water.
So, say you’re writing, instead of pitching. Say you’re writing for Food & Wine magazine:
Food & Wine: Do we all know Food & Wine magazine? It’s authoritative, it’s chef-driven, it’s often NY-focused, it’s tip-happy
So a story from their magazine would start something like this:
When we launched a quest to boil the best water possible on the lower east side, we knew our first stop would be in the home kitchen of fabulous Manhattan chef April Bloomfield, whose chops in the water-boiling world are famously unparalleled.
Saveur: Deep in an unknown archipelago of islands off the coast of the Philippines, a native tribe has been boiling water in indigenous palm front baskets for centuries.
Cooking Light: We all love boiling water. But did you know that with just a few quick changes, your boiling water can be lower calorie than usual—without sacrificing flavor?
Fine Cooking: When we decided to launch our boiling water test, we knew the biggest difference would be pan material. So we started with a copper pot, an enamel pot, an aluminum pot, and pots made from several thicknesses of stainless steel.
You can imagine how this might change for Lucky Peach, or Cherry Bombe….
You can use this as an exercise to get you in the mindset you want to be in when you write for someone else, or when you write your own stuff.
So here’s a three-minute exercise:
I’d like you to write the introduction to a story called How to Boil Water for your own blog.
Is it identifiable as yours?
So here’s a three-minute exercise:
I’d like you to write the introduction to a story called How to Boil Water for your own blog.
You have 3 minutes.
Is it identifiable as yours?
*** This is a tidbit of wisdom from the author of the blog Tea & Cookies, who also lives in Seattle. I suggest that if you’d like to work on voice, you write this down on a little note and put it next to your computer.
If you are using your voice, and if your voice is effective, this will always be true.
If you want a little extra something to do, take this boiling water exercise home, and think about what you might be able to add that could make it more YOURS.
So HOW, you ask? How do I develop a voice? Is it like buying a car? Is it like shopping, do I just pick it out?
There are a lot of different opinions…
One way to develop your own voice is by trying on other voices, and finding out who YOU are by discovering the NOT YOU.
So do some reading. Find out what it is about readers you like (or even don’t like) that makes them recognizable as them. Is it the way they always ask questions? Is it that they use a lot of great analogies and similes? What is it about their language that appeals to you?
But really, the one way that you develop voice is by practicing writing.
In 2007, I chose a very deliberate path to finding a voice. I knew that I am a very schedule-bound person. I do really well with lists and plans and rules. So for all of 2007, I decided to write a recipe per day on my blog. It was a big challenge, and it stretched me both as a recipe developer and as a writer. But most importantly, I think it forced me, quite simply, to WRITE. EVERY. DAY. And only by exercising that writing muscle, much the same as exercising any other muscle, was I able to make it strong in a specific way and for a specific purpose..
Let me read you some examples of excerpts from that year
When I started this project, I wanted to see what I’d come up with every day, but I also wanted (and still want) to encourage people to cook. I think many people of my generation were brought up on convenience foods and indoctrinated with the idea that cooking equals entertainment, which, while not necessarily a bad perk, means that many people only tend to cook when they’re having guests over for dinner. The simple, homey, not-so-pretty dishes that don’t dress up for company get left behind, meaning people (myself included) never internalize the most basic recipes. You can make sushi, but you can’t boil rice without the package. You make homemade caramels, but you’ve never made a pie crust. You’ve made chicken tikka, but have never tried roasting a plain chicken. I’ve made a standing rib roast and beef wellington, but, until recently, I’d never cooked a pot roast.
This is anyone’s experience. It’s mine, but it could be anyone’s. There is nothing in that paragraph that makes it uniquely mine.
Side note, if you want to get really depressed, paw through old blog entries.
Now, something from DECEMBER of that year, regarding razor clamming, which you can do here near the coast:
So here’s how it does work: You follow two small children around, depending on them to see the signs of life under the sand that you are somehow completely incapable of recognizing. They tell you to dig, and you dig, not down a foot or so, like in that video. Actually, that part’s true, you do dig a foot or so down with your shovel, first. Then you fall to the sand and start heaving sand out in messy handfuls, like you’re pawing through a giant vat of 34-degree Cream of Wheat, and you feel your dog staring at you. She’s got her head tilted to the side, wondering who the hell taught you to dig like that. But as soon you feel the tip of the clam, it digs down farther and slightly seaward, so you flatten your chest to the sand and get your whole arm involved, right up to the armpit. You have to make sure you have your watch on and the sleeves of your fleece a little bit open when you plunge your hand into the liquefied sand, so that millions of hard little particles dive directly up your sleeve, where they exfoliate your elbows, and down under your watch band and into your good biking gloves. Then, and only then, do you bring the clam up.
See? There’s a difference. Anyone can go razor clamming, but there, I made it my experience.
When we talk about the writing process, we’re really talking about what happens when you take the words and the food ideas in your brain and put them down on paper or screen.
My process has changed enormously since I started Hogwash, in part because I think I’ve become a better writer, but also because I’ve had a kid (I have a six-year-old) and because my writing life has changed. I do much more writing for publication in print and online now than for my own blog, so much more of my process is guided by who I need to be when I write. I ghost-author cookbooks, so I’m often simply pretending to be other people (for better or worse). So as we talk about process, I want you to keep in mind that a single blogger’s writing process shouldn’t necessarily be like someone else’s or even like their own five years earlier or five years later.
WHO: Here, I don’t so much mean who you write with—although that can be important also—but I mean WHO ARE YOU for the thing that you’re writing. Are you a blogger? Are you a nutrition expert? Are you a bacon lover? Are you a beat reporter? You need to access that voice thing we talked about before you start writing. IDENTIFY YOUR VOICE
WHEN: Learn when you write best. I write best between 7 and 10 a.m. Period. With a possible second wind between 5 and 7 p.m. But if I’m writing something longer than 200 words, it almost always has to be done in that timeframe. I don’t make meetings then. I write then. If you learn when you write best, you will be more productive as a writer. Keep in mind that writing in volume isn’t the same thing as “writing best.” FIND YOUR SWEET SPOT
WHERE: For some people, it doesn’t matter where they write. I happen to be terrible at writing in my own home—I get distracted. I water the plants, I pet the dog, I wrap a gift, but I don’t write. I have to be in a coffee shop that makes me feel physically close to others without actually having to speak with them. I also need coffee and food. Not one or the other, but both. But for some people, it’s best to be in complete silence at home with their favorite tea mug. Learn where you work best, and work there. LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
HOW: I think it’s incredibly fascinating how differently different people write.
I am a cogitator. I am a brewer. I once compared the way I write to how a french press works: You pour all the important stuff in together, and let it steep, and after a few days, you plunge it and pour it out. Occasionally you get chunky grounds with it, and things don’t go so well, but it often works that way also. It does mean that I have a really hard time changing direction mid-piece, but that’s something I consciously work on.
Other people plan. They make lists of ideas, then they make outlines, then they make detailed outlines. They may make 10,000 scribbly notes in 10,000 files, and only then do they finally write. And they basically have a road map to write from.
So most frequently, there’s this sort of juxtaposition between those that work with their writing as if it’s a jigsaw puzzle, and those that work as if with flowing water. I’m in the latter camp.
There are, of course, lots of other ways to get the job done—In the case of many food blogs, the recipe comes into play. Do you do recipe first, recipe last? Does the recipe beget the story or vice versa?—but it’s important to know that you’ve figured out which way works best for you. KNOW YOUR PATTERNS
So again, practice, and if you feel stuck, try something new.
So first, let’s talk about what narrative is. Let’s go to the dictionary (READ)
I’d like to point out one word here: story. I think often a downfall of food blogs is that they are in such a rush to talk about a recipe or a photograph that they forget that using recipes and photographs and words, we often still want to tell a STORY.
DEFINE GOOD NARRATIVE
I want your opinions—what makes good narrative? What makes a good read? What makes you get out of bed or stay in bed or pour your coffee or pour another cup of coffee?
My thoughts: -have to feel like you’re there, what did they feel? What did they see/smell/touch? -have to feel or recognize the emotions put forth in the writing -want it to feel emotionally and physically authentic
So basically this story all comes out of our ability to create a scene
This may seem really basic to some of you, but the things that have to be in a scene are, I think, worth repeating:
ACTION: things have to happen, if not physically, then at least emotionally
DIALOGUE (WHICH IS A FANCY WAY OF SAYING “TALKING’): this can be outer or inner dialogue, but there has to be some sort of tension or communication
SETTING: the story has to happen somewhere
CHARACTERS: we need to know about the people involved
TIME: a story doesn’t usually happen in an instant, so it’s often crucial to establish a beginning/middle/end
SENTIMENTS: if you’re writing a story, there’s probably a reason, it probably made you feel a certain way. Tell us about it. Tell us why you’re writing this.
So now let’s try a little of that writing thing. (Yes, after that about writing process, I’m going to make you write in a room full of people you don’t know right before lunch.)
I asked you to write about something besides food because I think many of us in this room are probably used to the way we write about food. Writing about something else can lift us out of our habits.
So the previous directions were: READ
And NOW: READ
Write really whatever comes out. Doesn’t have to be complete sentences, just go.
If you haven’t thought of a topic yet, go BIG—think, literally, birth, death, break-up, love. Big things, but try to stay away from food just this once.
You have 5 minutes.
So we talked about good narrative, but really… who wants to be a good writer? I personally would rather aspire to be a great writer, so let’s talk about what kinds of things take writing to the next level.
The point here is not just to show people a scene. The point is to show them a scene they can’t un-see. Something so vivid that it sticks in their memory, right?
Let’s go back to that last list.
ACTION: boots, tell me about the boots
DIALOGUE: I think a lot of times we get stuck with dialogue, because we either don’t remember exactly what was said in a particular situation or we are afraid of getting it wrong. Try to be emotionally truthful, meaning try to get the point across instead of getting the words just right. I’m not saying you should make shit up. I’m saying that you can be accurate and truthful and honest without having recorded every conversation that occurs in your life.
SETTING: How was the sun coming in? Was it in your eyes? Was their grit on the road because of the rain? Was it twilight? All of these things round out a story.
CHARACTERS: I think we’re really good at describing other people, but we often forget that our readers don’t always know US.
TIME: Not much to add to that
SENTIMENTS: We often avoid what’s uncomfortable. I think it’s natural to refrain from giving away the deepest, darkest secrets in a story but we need to remember that being honest and thoroughly honest (the whole truth and nothing but the truth) makes our stories more interesting and more unique and more specific, which I think is what makes for great narrative.
-have to feel like you’re there, what did they feel? What did they see/smell/touch? -have to feel or recognize the emotions put forth in the writing -want it to feel emotionally and physically authentic
So you’re adding texture, adding detail, or adding emotion that might draw in an audience.
You have just a a minute or 2 to think about this…
So while narrative is a story, I’d like to think more specifically about memoir, which is our story. Theoretically, I think that what you just did—making changes that improve the story—are what makes the difference between just writing about yourself, and writing in such a way that people buy into your story and feel that they’re actually a part of it.
There’s a quote that encapsulates this, of course.
I think the word “discomfort” could be easily replaced by any litany of strong emotions: our love, our pleasure, our sadness.
And I think it’s important to recognize that while we may tell our story for different reasons, we are always also doing it so that others can identify with our emotions.
And with food, it’s no different. We are writing so other people can identify with our love of food, so we need to be specific in all the ways we just talked about even when we’re writing about something we’re already so familiar with.
If we are making our grandma’s apple pie, are we making it because it’s good, or is it good because grandma’s gone? Or are you making it because she made it every year on Christmas, and Christmas has somehow changed for you? It’s totally okay to talk about Grandma’s apple pie, but only if you make it your grandma’s apple pie. Look for specificity.
IFBC 2015: Honing the Craft by Jess Thomson
HONING THE CRAFT
Personal Narrative, Voice, and the Writing Process
with Jess Thomson
GET TO WORK
While you’re waiting, write down 5 emotionally-
charged memories that have no connection to food.
You’ll need them later.
The Writing Process
• Who: Identify your voice
• When: Find your sweet spot
• Where: Location, location, location
• How: Know your patterns
noun: narrative; plural noun: narratives
1. a spoken or written account of connected
events; a story.
Make a Scene
Let’s Do This
While you’re waiting, write down 5 emotionally-charged memories that have
no connection to food.
Pick one of these memories. Then pick one moment in that memory as an
entry point. Write a paragraph or three.
Better Narrative: Be Generous to the Reader
• Action: Say exactly what you see, give details
• Talking/Dialogue: Be emotionally truthful
• Setting: Place, weather, time of day, describe the room
• Characters: Don’t assume your readers know you.
• Time: Beginning/Middle/End
• Sentiments: What makes you uncomfortable?
Go back to your scene.
Make three changes that can bring the reader in
We create structure out of our
discomfort so other people can take
-Lisa Jones, on memoir