Friday, November 9, 2007

Blogging through the Culinary Underbelly

This year, for the second time in my writing life, I thought about participating in Nanowrimo.

When I did Nano before, in 2003, I wrote an awful 50,000 word genre novel. I didn't pretend it was serious work, but I was proud of the accomplishment. There's something intimidating about a novel--all that time, and all those words, namely--and in a month I had created one.

This year, working upwards of 60 hours a week, Nano just doesn't seem feasible, at least if you are also trying to get some sleep.

While I spent the last week of October stressing about logistics--Could I do it? How would I carve the time out of my schedule to write? What shape would the novel I had in mind take, and how would I link its disparate pieces together?--I allowed an even larger, scarier question to form in my mind.

Was it still the best way to get my writing out there? Is the novel, in our current society, a valuable product? Is it the best use of my time, of my reach? Hardly new ideas, I know. While we've all been talking about print culture being dead and how no one ever buys novels anymore, we're still waiting for the rise of e-books and their ilk, and we may wait a while more.

About a month ago I was sending out a piece of flash fiction to online journals. I'd worked over the piece and was fairly happy with it, but couldn't shake the feeling that it wasn't "worth" sending out to print journals. I submitted the piece to over a dozen journals and within four days it was accepted. I'm not saying this to brag, but because the experience was just so shocking. Another writer in my writers' group, Jamey Genna, shared that she's also been getting a lot of flash fiction placed recently. There seems to be an energy around the form that isn't present around longer stories. What we want to hear, what we have time and space to hear, is it changing? Where do you read, and what do you read? If what we are after as writers is to affect other people, or to get out stories out there, how do we make the novel relevant and critical, and not an artifact?

This time, these questions are coming out of my experience as a blogger. Some time back I started an anonymous food-writer blog (and subsequently became un-anonymous), and while it's audience is not large by any means I do have some readers, many of whom are also in the culinary industry. An old Emerson professor of mine Pamela Painter always stressed the importance of giving your characters a good, unusual job because the wealth of useable details was such a gift to your story. By becoming a pastry cook halfway through my course in Emerson's MFA program I essentially gifted myself. While there are many food blogs out there in the blogosphere, the voice of the chef is still rare.

As inimitable Bay Area pastry chef/writer Shuna Lydon wrote in a guest-post on writer Michael Ruhlman's blog, what it means to be a chef is still a story largely created not by us, the people in the kitchen. What really happens behind those doors is not Top Chef and it's not represented accurately. I have a unique story to tell now, and I have a voice that tells mostly true stories, and I have learned a little something along the way about appropriate content.

Chef culture finds its way into my fiction, and this Nano novel that I wanted to write would have taken chef culture as its focus. But it seemed more important to blog. To write flash fiction. The food blogging sphere is being mined for book deals. Maybe you've heard of Julie Powell's Julie and Julia, but do you know Gluten-Free Girl? Confessions of a Restaurant Whore? Conversely, authors such as Maryusa Bociurkiw, whose novel Comfort Food for Breakups is by turn both funny and wrenching, are turning to blogging as a promotional tool once the novel is published.

There are different kinds of stories we tell in blogging and in print. There is an immediacy at play in blog posts that does not translate well to the slow pace of fiction. But somehow, as I've let a part of my writing work be through blogging--and writing about the work I do, in which the voices of women and of queers are hardly well represented--is informing and changing the writer's work I do. Blogging is no longer a sidebar to my work. It is part of my writing identity. Perhaps, troublingly at times, the most important and far-reaching part.

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