Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Snap Out of It: Food memories serve as effective writing prompts

Kim O'Donnel  (© Clare Barboza)
I recently registered for a webinar for writers plagued by procrastination. Frustrated participants described both their creeping anxiety and fruitless coping strategies. Some seemed on the verge of tears.

While following the presentation on one monitor, I was drafting an article and responding to email on another. When a text message chirped on my cell phone, I picked it up and replied. When my desk phone rang, I muted the livestream to take the call.

After about 20 minutes of this, I had a light bulb moment: While I can think of a thousand reasons to not do things I don't like doing, I rarely put off writing. Procrastination is not my issue, though inspiration sometimes is.

"Snap Out of It," a workshop at last week's 2013 International Food Bloggers Conference in Seattle, served as a effective reminder of the power of words and, by extension, the power of writers to assemble them in ways that resonate with readers.

"Writing is a process. We need to attend to it and nourish it," says presenter Kim O'Donnel, a hard news reporter who transitioned to a successful food writing career. Last year, the former Washington Post and USA Today food columnist released her second book, The Meat Lover's Meatless Celebrations. An essay the West Seattle resident wrote about a local farmer is featured in the soon-to-be released anthology, 2013 Best Food Writing.

"To me, food is the entry way to everything that connects us to the human experience.  It inspires the emotional, the personal, the political and the irrational," she says. "It's a way to make sense out of chaos. It's important. It helps us connect, not only with our own lives but what is going on around us."

O'Donnel's message was inspiring and persuasive. Bloggers gathered for her workshop ranged for beginners to those with established followings and revenue-generating websites.  Everyone participated in the same timed drills designed to "re-ignite the fire."

"We all have memory and we all have to eat," O'Donnel says, directing us to take five minutes to jot down a series of single sentences referencing specific food memories. Several were read aloud and earned praise from both teacher and peers for their creative promise.

An additional 10 minutes was dedicated to expanding a chosen sentence with rich detail. Some of the examples were so evocative that it was hard to believe they were cobbled together in no more time than it takes to cook pasta.

To demonstrate the detail necessary to write a recipe that can be recreated by others, the group was tasked with defining how to prepare a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The variety of approaches and degree of specificity was enlightening. Nearly everyone left out some essential detail, though many made their recipes sing with graceful phrases that revealed a great deal about the writer's personality.

"The point is that we have the power; we have it all within our own reservoirs, even when we feel we don't," O'Donnel says. "We always have something to write about."

I was glad to be among a cluster of bloggers who didn't realize the task was meant to simulate the experience of meeting the high standards of a cookbook editor. Several of us left out measurements entirely, using a broader brush to draft a narrative in the manner of an extended head note. Here's mine:

The Secret to a Good PB&J
Everyone knows how to make PB&J, but there usually is an extra step when it's made in my kitchen. The expected jar of peanut butter often has vanished from the cupboard. My husband says it calls to him in the night, beckoning like a Siren until he is compelled to get up and eat a few sticky spoonfuls to restore peace and quiet. He says this with the solemn duty of one who braves the piercing scream of a smoke detector that hungers for a fresh battery.

So, first step, locate the hidden jar of peanut butter from the rotating list of secret places where your preferred brand is stashed. Withdraw it silently, slather some across a slice of fresh bread, and quickly replace it before anyone enters the kitchen. Select any one of perhaps a dozen jars of homemade jam in the fridge - or tiptoe upstairs to grab one from the closet - and generously coat the other slice.

Press slices together, tuck into a napkin and immediately leave the kitchen. Consume somewhere with good ventilation, preferably outdoors, where the tell-tale whiff of peanut butter will be carried away with the wind.


  1. Wonderful recap of this session Jill and I love your narrative pb&j recipe. Lovely, lovely!

  2. Nice, Jill. You are such a gifted writer and I can now see you utter the words out loud, too. :) So nice to spend some time at dinner with you, Mary and Jenifer,

  3. thanks so much for the kinds words!