A little while ago I was asked, “do you have any writing advice or tips for what makes a good writer?” Wow. What a question. Honestly, it’s a mammoth one and I’m not entirely sure that I’m qualified to answer it. I am, after all, just a girl who likes to tell stories. I find it hard to embrace the title and tell people that, yes, I am a writer and I write about food; I always find myself blushing a little as I do.
There’s an idea of glamour that goes along with the term ‘writer’. The thought is that other people value your words, that you have the power to influence, that the pen is mightier than the sword… but I’ve never really seen it that way and so small successes are always a surprise.
For me writing has always been somewhat cathartic. I find that my brain moves so fast sometimes that I can’t always vocalise what I’m thinking – with writing it’s my only way to silence the voices or the nagging questions, to slow down and normalise. It’s word vomit (if you’ll excuse the phrase on a food blog) and in the past I’ve been known to actually burn or tear up a piece of paper full of my words, jotted down out of necessity – an unloading of ideas, frustrations and cerebral noise.
So I don’t know if I can give you any ‘tips’ or ‘advice’ that’ll be helpful to you, all I can do is tell you what I’ve discovered and the ideas and principles that I stick to, because at the end of the day writing and especially good writing is all about your personal experiences.
There’s this one piece of advice that everybody seems to give writers. It doesn’t matter what you write, the one thing they bombard you with over and over is simply: ‘find your voice’. The assumption seems to be that once you have your ‘voice’ doors will fly open for you and you’ll be transformed into an amazing writer. Sound easy, right? ‘Find your voice’. Every time I hear that phrase a little piece of my soul dies.
You want some hard truth? Find your ‘voice’ by all means, but it’s not suddenly going to get any easier; you’re not a writer because you know how you want to sound – on the internet, in print, whatever – you’re just a person who sits in front of a laptop (or a paper pad, or a typewriter) and puts words from your brain onto a screen/paper/print. Sometimes it’s easy to read, sometimes it’s a nightmare, but at the end of the day you are a medium for words. Whether or not those words are enjoyable to the masses is another matter, but most people? They don’t give a toss about your ‘voice,’ they care if you can string a sentence together, if you deliver on time, if you’re reliable, if you can spell. They care who you’re connected to.
In some ways, I’ve always been a writer… or at least I’ve always been a storyteller. As a child I would sit in the bathtub for hours on end, talking to myself and creating my own entertainment. My mother would watch bemused from the doorway as her strange child talked continuously, splashing around and creating worlds that only she could see. Imagination was my favourite toy.
I craved books like a crack addict and my spelling ability was through the roof. I used to read by torchlight under the covers until 3 or 4 in the morning, devouring every piece of fiction I could get my hands on. When it came to Summer holidays at school I took out the maximum allowed number of books from our classroom library (3) and finished them all in a week. I was a book fiend and the stories inspired me.
My first writing device was an old electronic typewriter that was big, heavy, noisy and had a tendency to turn itself on at night, terrifying the wits out of me as it whirred and clicked on my desk. I wrote short horror stories, a la Point Horror and Goosebumps (two series I was addicted to), then displayed them around the house and “sold” them to my parents (my father bought the first for 50p). Later on I wrote stories on our first computer (a large box-like machine from Apple), then my first laptop (a Dell) and when I was obsessed with *NSYNC in my early teens, I wrote my first novella – a fan fiction epic, featuring myself, all of my friends and, of course, the band members (all of whom were in love with me, obviously). I printed it out (all 100-odd pages) and it was passed around my classroom and giggled over quietly under desks.
I only started to take writing seriously when I joined the school’s senior creative writing club, for years LV (around 14/15 years old) upwards. The new English teacher was a published poet, an actual writer, and was keen to nurture talent. The first thing I wrote for the club was a short melodramatic piece set in France about a newly-wed who accidentally kills herself. It was terrible, the imagery cliche and the piece pointless but after reading it out, instead of laughing at me, he merely nodded, thanked me for sharing and then covered the piece in tick marks and kind comments.
The encouragement was exactly what I needed and later that year I won a huge national competition which had been running in conjunction with The Tate Modern’s ‘Surrealism: Desire Unbound’ exhibit. My short story was loosely based on a Dali painting, tying in a favourite story from Classical Civilisation study. My prize was £100 worth of book vouchers for me and another £100 for my school, lunch for two at the Tate Modern’s 7th floor restaurant (still one of my favourites), a copy of the exhibit book and a representation of my piece by a current Scottish surrealist artist. It was huge and I had local reporters calling me up to interview me for a week, my photo appearing in The Times along with the finished painting. When the painting was displayed in the school hallway along with my piece one of my teachers read it and then turned to me with the words, “I had no idea you were so twisted.” I took it as a compliment. The next year I won a national screenwriting competition and had my piece displayed on London buses around town. My screen writing ‘mentor’ from that experience, a wonderfully funny and talented Northern chap who wrote a poem which turned into a play and then a film starring Cristina Ricci, is still a friend of mine.
So you see, though I wasn’t yet writing about food, I was creating stories from a young age. During my year at Reed College I took a creative writing class under the wonderful Pete Rock, by far my favourite professor and an incredibly encouraging and talented writer. Under his tutelage I found myself writing weird and wonderful stories based on true events from my life, images flowing fast and furious from my fingertips onto the page, the rest of my class raising eyebrows or cringing at the idea of having a drunken stranger pee on the floor of their bedroom in the dead of night (that actually happened to me).
The best tips I can give you for writing are really simple, they’re so blindingly obvious that you’re going to read this and say, ‘well duh.’ Duh indeed – it’s common sense. So here we go:
1. Write what you know. Didn’t I tell you it was simple? Here’s the thing about writing – if you’re trying to write about Japanese food but the only experience you’ve ever had was one lunchtime when you went to Marks & Spencer’s for lunch and decided to branch out from the sandwich selection and chose some dodgy looking sushi, you cannot write about Japanese food. In fact, do so and I will hunt you down and slap you. I know next to nothing about traditional British food but Chinese food? I’m all over it. Italian food? I can make it in my sleep. Tapas? Damn straight, I’m down with it. It’s the same with trying to write stories – don’t write about crack addicts and pregnant women unless you are either (or both) of these things. It just sounds forced, otherwise and really people are looking for the genuine, for the honest and compelling.
2. Get down with your bad spelling self and kick it to the curb. Reading badly spelt and grammatically incorrect articles/blog posts is a huge pet peeve of mine. Proofread, proofread, proofread and when you think you can’t proofread any more, sleep on it and do it again. I sometimes like to print out my work and go through it with a red pen (but that’s possibly my teaching assistant experience talking). If you can, get a fresh pair of eyes to glance through it.
3. Figure out what time of the day is your most productive and set it aside to write. Mornings are the worst time of the day for me, I’m much more of a night owl. If you try to make me write before about 5pm I will end up procrastinating and playing on Facebook/Twitter all day, instead. From that time onwards, though? I’m in the zone. What’s your “golden period” for work?
4. Figure out what your USP (unique selling point) is and work it, baby. I find this one the most difficult. I am not a scientist turned gastronome (I was horrible at Science), nor am I a technical genius who knows the most about mushrooms in the entire writing world. So what do I do? What’s my niche? Well, I listen carefully to every nugget of conversation around me; I absorb useless information like a sponge and I know where to source weird and wonderful ingredients in London; I can cook, I can write and I can photograph and I have a wealth of experience in a ridiculous amount of areas; but more than anything? I can turn this all into a story. They’re what I like reading and so they’re what I like writing. That, ladies and gents, is my niche. What’s yours?
5. Read, read, read and then read a little bit more. Reading is such a pleasure – why don’t we do it more often? Don’t just limit yourself to reading around your specialism, read anything and everything that interests you. A couple of summers ago I made my way through the entire Murakami collection and it awoke the creative writing beast inside me – I turned out six short stories that summer, hidden away in my files. I read articles I find online, I read others’ blog posts, I read food magazines that I pick up in the dodgy newsagents up the road; I occasionally like to dive into Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking because it’s just so readable and fascinating – I read everything. If you want to write, learn to read.
6. When you’re done reading, get writing. Writing is a skill and just like everything else, practice makes perfect. If you let yourself be lazy and skip out on that blog post it’s so much harder to pull yourself back in again. Take it from somebody who knows – after my successes as a school girl you know when I did any real fresh writing again? Six years later. Every time I tried to start a piece I’d start freaking out, believing that I couldn’t write and eventually I’d give up. I have so many half-written stories just waiting for me to come back to them. College essays didn’t count because all I was doing was rehashing other’s ideas and I fell out of practice. Hone your skill, write something every day and get into a rhythm – after a while it doesn’t even feel like work any more, it’s a joy.
So there you go, six tips on writing, or at least six things I abide by. Good writing is discipline and practice as much as it’s fun and enjoyable. Really all it comes down to at the end of the day is: how do I make this more fun for me? If you enjoy what you write, chances are most other people will to. Enthusiasm shines through in these things.
Nasu Dengaku (Sweet Miso Grilled Aubergine)
Adapted from No Recipes; serves 2.
115 ml dashi or 115 ml water with 3-4 tbsps fine salt dissolved in
1 tbsp mirin
2 (15 g) packets miso paste (recommended: Clearspring)
1 tsp cornflour
2 – 3 tsps cold water
Sesame seeds, to serve (optional)
Spring onion, sliced thinly, to serve (optional)
1. Pre-heat the grill to around 200 degrees C.
2. Halve the aubergine and slice a little off the skin-side to help the aubergine sit flat.
3. Using a sharp knife, score the flesh about 2/3 of the way into the aubergine (making sure not to cut the whole way through), in a criss-cross pattern. This will help the flesh absorb the sweet miso sauce.
4. Using a pastry brush, brush the cut surface of the aubergine with vegetable oil, then place on a baking tray, cut-side up. Grill under the flesh is dark and cooked through (about 5 – 7 mins). Keep a close eye on it!
5. Meanwhile, gently whisk the cornflour into the cold water and set aside. In a saucepan over a medium-low heat whisk together the dashi (or salted water), mirin and miso, then whisk in the cornflour/water mixture. Stir until thickened, then remove from the heat.
6. When the aubergine is cooked, remove from the grill and then baste the tops with the sweet miso sauce. Place back under the grill for 3-4 mins, until the sauce is bubbling and caramelised. Keep an eye on it, this can burn very quickly.
7. Remove from the grill to a warmed plate and sprinkle with sesame seeds and the spring onion. Serve half an aubergine each immediately and dig in.
I hope some of those tips were helpful and you enjoy the nasu dengaku, a beautifully simple and delicious Japanese appetiser. Big thanks to Marc from No Recipes for the base recipe.
Until next time, peace and love.