Hunger Pangs: A Writing Career Launched with Food
By Emily-Jane Hills Orford
I often thought, in my younger years, that it would be an easy thing to be a writer. I had the ideas; I had the imagination. All I had to do was put pen to paper, as one would say in the pre-computer era. And why not? Others did it. In fact, some authors pushed out novels, bestselling novels at that, at an amazing rate.
I joined authors’ groups and listened intently (and slightly in awe) as some of the members read from their published books. I felt insignificant, almost fraudulent. How could I claim to be a writer if I hadn’t published anything? If I hadn’t published any books?
I tried to boost my self-esteem by telling others that I was a writer. “What books have you published?” people asked. When my answer was “None,” they quickly stopped asking about my writing career.
I have to admit that my first attempts at writing were futile and didn’t amount to anything. I was in a hurry, frustrated with my attempts to keep up with the progression of ideas flowing through my mind. I changed focus, countless times, until the plot had so many tangents and so many secondary characters that even I, the author, was lost.
I took some writing courses and attended workshops, but I couldn’t shake this feeling of inadequacy. Who was I fooling? A writer has to have something published to demonstrate his or her prowess as a writer, right? Was I justified calling myself a writer if I was only an unpublished writer?
These doubts plagued me and, although I continued to attend writing workshops and author events, I couldn’t bring myself to share what I had written. With my growing stack of rejection letters, I was becoming more and more convinced that I just wasn’t good enough.
My luck turned, almost overnight it seemed, when I ventured into the realm of food writing, particularly recipe articles. I gave it a try, primarily on a lark, after reading a few of my favorite recipe magazines. I could cook. In fact, I loved to cook. Why not write some stories around my recipes? Pizza! I knew a great story, a memoir of sorts, that centered on the theme of pizza.
I dashed off my first piece and sent it to Recipes Only, then a very popular Canadian recipe magazine. Imagine my surprise when, after years of rejection letters, I actually received an encouraging letter from the editor. Would I consider working on the piece I had submitted? Would I ever!
My editor’s response to my first draft wasn’t encouraging: “I don’t see a long feature piece about pizza… The writing would have to very tight with every word counting.” I endured fifteen re-writes of the pizza story and my frustration was to the point that I wondered if the article would ever be published. Carroll, my editor, led me through the fine art of food writing. There were more discouraging comments, like “I’m sending this back because I couldn’t use it in its present form,” and, “Perhaps I’m doing you a disservice by encouraging you in a pursuit where the competition is very stiff and the requirements are for superlative knowledge of food combined with a bright writing style.” I persevered. I did more re-writes and shouldered the criticism that came back on almost a weekly basis (remember, this was in the day of snail mail). And the piece was finally published.
I am forever grateful to Carroll for not giving up on me. She groomed me well, demonstrating considerable patience on her part to make me into a solid food writer. From then on, no matter what subject or theme I chose to write, I had the structure, the organizational skills, and the creative energies to compose a successful piece that would easily find a publisher. Carroll helped me recognize, early in my writing career, the key ingredients to writing success: know my audience, and adhere to the style of the magazines for which I wrote. As I ventured into creative nonfiction and fiction, I continued to be aware of my audience and to keep my writing tight. Food still appears in my stories. In Personal Notes (Moosehide Books, 2008), my grandmother’s story, I used family recipes to tie together significant elements of each chapter; the story continually revolved around the family’s connection to food.
Although it took me years and, I must admit, a few published books, to overcome this stigma that a writer could only be a genuine writer if published, I have finally seen the light. A writer is someone who writes and has a passion for writing. Publishing one’s work is gratifying, yes, but that’s not what makes a writer. Passion and dedication to the craft of writing is what makes a writer.
One would not think that a food writer would become an author of multiple books, only one of which was a recipe book: Still Delicious (Baico Publishing, 2013). However, the discipline of writing food stories taught me the importance of order, capturing the reader’s interest, and the ongoing need to be concise and to the point. This can be learned in any form of disciplined writing. Choose an area of expertise and/or personal interest and start writing for that audience. Aren’t we, as writers, always told to start by writing about what we know best? The key is to write, to shoulder the discipline and the criticism, and to keep on writing. Carroll taught me that and much more.
Emily-Jane Hills Orford is a published food writer, novelist and writer of creative nonfiction books and stories. She has received numerous awards for her writing. Her recent food book, Still Delicious (Baico Publishing, 2013) takes into consideration the growing global concern for food intolerances and food allergies, many of which are not easily recognized. For more information on the author, check out her website or connect with her on Facebook, Goodreads, Twitter, or Linkedin. She also has a blog.