Writing Something of Lasting Value

Feb 192013
 

The web has made us impatient about our writing. We think that if we start a blog, it should take a few months to impact thousands, or if we write a book, we should finish it within a year.

I have often wondered how long it takes to create something of lasting value. Now I have a definitive answer from the late Steve Jobs, who knows a thing or two about making an impact: It takes seven or eight years.

Here’s what he told author Brent Schlender, who interviewed him countless times: “I have been trained to think in units of time that are measured in several years. With what I’ve chosen to do with my life, you know, even a small thing takes a few years. To do anything of magnitude takes at least five years, more likely seven or eight. Rightfully or wrongfully, that’s how I think.”

For most of us, that thing of lasting value will be a book. Yet, usually we get a year or so to write it. How much time should you give yourself to write something of magnitude? It is not often up to us, because the publisher decides. Besides, I don’t know about you, but I’m impatient and easily bored. I don’t think I could work on a book for seven or eight years. Or perhaps I would never allow myself such an indulgence.

Some of our greatest food-based books have taken even longer than Jobs’s estimate. Claudia Roden’s magnificent The Book of Jewish Food, for example, took 15 years of research, cooking and writing, and her legendary editor Judith Jones waited for it.

A friend of mine took four years to write a cookbook that won a national award and five years to write a cookbook that didn’t. Now both will no longer be printed. Perhaps a legacy is not just about writing a book, but having people continue to read it, just has Job’s legacy was about his work’s impact.

Is our culture so sped up that we only write things that can be delivered soon, like blog posts? Do blog posts have lasting value, or are we just cataloging them for that giant library in the sky? Do you have the patience (or financing) for a long project? Can you name any recent food books that took Job’s estimate of seven or eight years?

(Photo courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net.)

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  56 Responses to “Writing Something of Lasting Value”

  1. This post is so on point.
    My apprenticeship in French cooking lasted 8 years (that’s when I began to see a return on my investment). We are on fast forward where creative/career accomplishments are concerned.
    I notice this FF tendency in other areas. I like long reads (and tend to write those type of posts). I’m not a photographer and don’t want everything I read to run between 140 characters to 500 words. I can sit, quietly, and join a writer on a lengthy journey.
    Time is not an enemy.

    Thanks.

    • Thanks Deborah. I too can read a long book, and I even wrote one. Will Write For Food was 100,000 words in its second edition, but I had only a few months to revise it. I don’t know that I could have spent several years on it. Good for you for making an 8-year investment in yourself.

  2. Everything doesn’t need to be in sound bytes. Thoughtful writing still gives me a thrill.

  3. Oh, thank you thank you thank you for addressing the need for quality works of lasting importance. There is a market for significant books–I paid $40 for Diana Kennedy’s Oaxaca al Gusto, and I’ve never made a single thing from it. It is a fantastic treasure–years of research went into it. The endless stream of quick-to-press, on-trend cookbooks don’t make it onto my bookshelves. I don’t want trends, I want breadth and scope and depth of knowledge.

    • Yes, it is a huge pleasure to read a book by a scholar and expert who has mastered a subject. My hat’s off to Diana Kennedy.

  4. Cheers! Thank you, for putting it in words.
    I have those expert books resting on my bedside table. I read them for pure enjoyment both for the quality of writing and also for the comforting knowledge that I trust, because there are roots to ground it.

    • Indeed. What I am curious about is what made them put so much time into those expert books, and why are we unwilling to do so ourselves?

  5. Oh, this. This this this.

    For me, the rapid pace at which we expect creativity to bloom is further stressed by the fact that the internet allows us to compare ourselves to so many other people. We expect that we should be like them – post at the same pace, take the same beautiful pictures, have the same high-profile connections or book deals. But we conveniently forget that the people who are most successful tend to have been at it the longest. This is as true for blogs as it is for books.

    As a beginner in blogging, I find myself discouraged that I’m not good enough yet. That I’m on a lower level than many of my blogging peers. In those moments I remind myself, as you stated above, that quality work takes TIME. Lots and lots of time. Reading Julia Child’s memoir “My Life in France” struck home for me – she worked on “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” for over a decade. Rewrote it. Rewrote it again. Edited it. Re-branded it. Just stuck with it until it was her masterpiece.

    I also love this quote by Ira Glass (http://vimeo.com/24715531), which talks about pushing through until your work is GOOD. The interesting thing is that his solution to the problem is creating a large volume of work. Writing something, every day, until you achieve your full potential. So maybe the constant flow of production fostered by the internet will actually lead to MORE great works in our field. :)

    • I share your sentiments, Joy. I also compare, which is of no use. The bottom line always comes down to writing and the quality — and sometimes quantity– of it. We just have to keep our heads down. Thanks for this link from Glass.

  6. ‘Do blog posts have lasting value, or are we just cataloging them for that giant library in the sky?’ – thought provoking for sure. I know of a few Bengali cookbooks (manuscripts, I would say!) that have taken a long time to write but it was written and published (much before the world of social media and networking – in 1907! And yes, they have stood the test of time!

    • Fascinating, Ishta, that people are still using these texts from 1907. I wonder if anyone will be referring to our blog posts almost a hundred years from now. Maybe scholars looking for topics for papers.

  7. As Joy said the internet makes it so much easier for us to compare ourselves to others and it is easy to forget that the most successful at their craft have all spent a considerable amount of time at it. From my observations the most successful bloggers (if success is measured by number of followers, comments and book deals) are those who have been working at it for years rather than months.

    Even if we are not working directly on a project for 5 or even 7 or 8 years there is probably that many years of experience if not more that has gone into making it happen before the end product. I think even blog posts (or the ones worth reading) require some prior knowledge. While the writing may not take that long, accumulating the knowledge behind the writing takes quite a bit longer.

    • Exactly. The people I know who have succeeded as bloggers were already skilled when they came to it, either with technical prowess, writing chops, cooking credentials — and in every case, they are incredibly competitive and hard, hard workers.

  8. It depends, I suppose, on what you measure lasting value by.
    Do you measure yourself by a book, a publication, your number of readers?
    OR
    Do you measure the value by those whom you have touched, communicated with or perhaps even educated by 1 blogpost/article/book or many?
    Just like beauty, lasting value may be in the eye of the beholder….

  9. Dianne,
    Please point your friend with the two out-of-print books my way if they would like to have them converted to an ebook. While electronic cookbooks are slow sellers, ultimately ebooks will provide masterful cookbooks with longevity.
    Lori

  10. While I wouldn’t have the patient to work for 5-10 years on a single book, I do enjoy the benefits of those who have gone before and done so.

  11. This gives me hope. I switched to wordpress a little over a year ago and it was like starting over and while my traffic is growing like crazy, where it could have been had I started right. But, there’s still time in life. I enjoy your blog and all the information. I have a novel idea and only started it’s going to take a lot of time to finish.

  12. With regard to the time it takes to write, I think a lot depends on your life circumstances. When I was teaching, running a program, and bringing up a daughter, it took me at least five years to write a scholarly book. After I retired, it took me three and a half years to write a food memoir and to draft a food mystery. (When I got tired of one project, I’d switch to another.) There’s nothing like having the time.

    Another thoughtful post, Dianne!

  13. I agree with Joy’s comment about how easy it is to compare yourself (your writing, photography, knowledge, etc.) to others out in the digital world. However, it’s important to remember that the good ones have been doing this a long time and they started out with some of the same insecurities any new blogger, writer, or whatever faces. Insecurities and disappointment in my own abilities have been my biggest hurdle to even starting and especially sticking to writing. Diane, your post is very timely for me. I have to remember that if this is something I want to be a “lasting value” I need to work at it and not expect that I throw something together in and it be triumphed as Julia Child.

    PS: I am currently reading your book “Will Write for Food” and am loving it! I’m reading it all the way through, then I’m going to go back and read it again and do the accompanying writing assignments. I bought several books on food writing and am glad yours arrived first. It has helped shape my next steps to get on the food writing path. Also, I really enjoyed your Google hangout video with David Leite. I would love to see more of those!

    • Thanks Carolyn. Insecurities are a major factor in creativity and they keep many of us from moving forward. It seems that Steve Jobs did not have that problem! At least I never heard anyone mention it. Maybe we should figure out next how he managed to avoid them!

      Re the Google+ hangout and my book, thank you! I’m so glad they have been valuable.

  14. Love this affirming post, Dianne. (And the video message from Ira Glass). I truly appreciate both angles. Before becoming a food writer, I wrote a book about my other longtime profession – sign language interpreting. It took 3 years to complete and I’m happy to say that the book is still used as a text all over the world, 14 years later. It’s like sowing seeds that continue to bear fruit without much effort.

    But now, I’ve gotten hooked on the instant-gratification of having my food posts appear on websites within a week. It feels so gratifying to experience a revelatory moment (a trip, an interview, a cooking class), document it and have it visible to the world in a matter of days. But it’s kind of addictive – like snack food – makes me want to try the next one and the next one. For me, I think a mixed diet of both would be a good balance.

    • Hah! I know exactly what you mean. It’s more fun to do it, get it done, and then move on to the next thing. But then for me, nagging long projects in the back of my mind want to come out, but only if I make time for them.

  15. I suppose I see both sides of the stories..the quick return and the long run writing.

    Seven or eight years seems like a terrifying amount of time…what if it fails? All that time was “wasted.” This is probably why most people, and I myself, am so hesitant to spend so long on a project. I think I would only spend so long on a project (a book) if I had someone financing it and that person really believed in my work. I can’t imagine at this point in my life being rushed into writing a book in a few months, though!

    I do feel like some bloggers who write daily (or multiple times a day) tend to run a little dry sometimes. How can a person have something significant to share with the world each and every day? But then again, there could be that one good post that will keep people coming back for more. The time invested in a post is more like a few hours versus a few years.

    • That is an interesting question. I think of the answer in Steve Jobs’ terms: WWSJD? I’m sure he faced moments of doubt, but he seemed to be okay with giving himself all this time to explore and research, without judging himself. He didn’t seem to care about failure or what anyone else thought about what he was doing.

      Regarding that one significant post, for me, the most popular posts are a mix: One I wrote in a hurry, one that took me several months to get to and research and write and then rewrite. I don’t know the secret!

      • Isn’t that funny! Likewise I have written fluff posts that have gotten a lot of attention, but also have poured my heart and soul into posts and receive little to no response. Maybe that’s why people write every day…you never know what idea will strike people the most!

  16. I’m not entirely sure I have the patience to take 7 years to write something, but then again I’m still fairly new to writing and will surely mature and develop. At least I hope so.
    I’m very pleased that there are those who do have that patience though, for their work bring me much joy – especially that of my hero, Claudia Roden.

    • Well, at least you have that goal for yourself, which is a good thing, Amanda. In the meantime we can be in awe of our heroes who put in the time.

  17. Hi Dianne!
    Well, actually a blog is kind of a book, right? We write & publish, develop our work, research etc. There is no ending to it! To write a book that might take 7 years seems daunting and fears certainly appear. What if it doesn’t work out? What if I waste my time? BUT we as Bloggers are facing this everyday and still we continue to do what we love and enjoy. Insecurity & doubts are of no use and have no place here if one wants to succeed. It’s easier said then done, but if you want to succeed in life you need to understand what you want.

    The problem nowadays is the commercial pressure around us. Quality disappears in this quick world and everybody wants to make lots of money asap! The world is looking for quality only and they will mostly spend money for quality. So I wouldn’t mind sitting 6 years, taking some sacrifices, so to finish a book if I am sure that it will make an impact. I would make sure too that I am working on a project that fascinated me, I need to be passionate and creative!

    Most of the writers have a day job, so it isn’t surprising that they take more time to finish their book. For example, my German friend here in Goa took 5 years to finish her book about “The magic of speech” (not a food book!). Hey but then she self published, so there was nobody to stress her out with deadlines…

    • I suppose it is kind of like a book in that a blog takes commitment and perseverance to keep it going. I don’t know how you could be sure that your book would have lasting value. It’s a risk. Somehow, though, I bet Steve Jobs knew that his work would change the world. Is it arrogance, or self-confidence? Whatever it is, we could all use some of that fairy dust!

  18. “Is our culture so sped up that we only write things that can be delivered soon, like blog posts?” We are a society of instant gratification, instant fame. People want to produce something and have it recognized immediately and they want it to bring them fortune immediately. We are a culture of trends and fads, as well. I do think that something of higher, lasting quality does take longer to produce (but not always). I think it is less about the time we put into something than about the quality of what we are producing, though it usually does take time to create something important, profound, lasting. I think most of what is produced that is an immediate success, an instant hit will fade away and be forgotten with time. (But not all, happily). When bloggers come to me for advice about writing, I point out that writing is a skill to be learned over time, like painting or becoming a surgeon. Skill, talent, quality content does not happen overnight, though most nowadays want it or expect it to. There is an expression in French “Petit ‘e0 petit, l’oiseau fait son nid” – Little by little, the bird builds his nest. It took me a long time and a lot of work to get to the point where I consider myself qualified to write professionally. I have been cogitating, taking notes, working towards the creation of my books. Patience is a virtue, right? Thanks for another thought-provoking post, Dianne. It is posts like this that reassure me and encourage me.

    • Thanks Jamie. This is one of those posts where I thought perhaps no one would answer, so I am gratified by these thoughtful responses, including yours.

      Yes, we are building something, but what is it? Will someone notice our blogs 50 years from now? Will they even be around? I sense that a book will still be there, as it is an object you can hold in your hands — more tangible. Certainly any magazine articles we wrote will be lost.

      Do we have to believe that what we are doing has lasting value, rather than just immediate? I think so. Otherwise it would be hard to keep going.

      I love that French expression about building a nest. It is similar to the title Bird by Bird.

      • Oh, no, I don’t think we “have to” believe that what we are doing has lasting value. But if we decide that we want to create something that does have lasting value then we have so much to take into consideration…including the time and patience (and, as you so astutely point out, finances) to create that. But the question is, I wonder how many think they are that are not? I personally think that a blog is more about the immediate. If we want it to have lasting effect then it must be tied to something stronger and more solid…. like a book or a career off the blog. My opinion…

  19. well not only Steve Jobs, also the old Soviets had understood that it takes time to to reach a goal, remember their 5 years plans.

  20. Having just wrapped up a manuscript, I can tell you that a year is a long estimate these days. I was given 6 months. I totally agree–it is extremely difficult for most of us (okay, me) to generate something extraordinary in that time. In my case, 75% of the manusript was already completed before I approached the publisher, so I was able to meet the deadlines and produce something I am proud of. I think for the next book, I’ll do the same; I’ll write it first, then see if someone wants to publish it. I’m not great at writing great content under time constraints, so that approach works for me. I’m always amazed at the cookbook authors who crank out one book every 8 months or so.

    • Six months! You must be tired, and maybe a little exhilarated. Congratulations!

      It sounds good to write a book in advance, but I couldn’t do it. I need a real deadline to produce, as that’s how I was trained. For me, there’s also the fear that the editor would want something different, which is part of why people write the proposal first.

      My hat’s off to you, Ricki. Of course, having written much of it beforehand made it possible.

  21. I suppose it really depends on the type of book, doesn’t it? One of my poetry mentors wrote a very successful debut and is still fine-tuning the sophomore release… seven years later. From him I learned of the importance for work to gel and for me to disconnect from my work enough to be able to actually see where it could be tightened up or where I needed to kill my darlings. Cooking, and to that end writing about food also takes time. Perhaps the example here would be prepping and cooking for a weeknight meal versus a 70th birthday party celebration. I’m not sure that the same kind of food would be served. This isn’t to say that blogging or quick concoctions are not as important, but I guess I would say I think often about what it means for me personally to write something of lasting value. And, perhaps it does come down to how each of us defines “value”?

    • I’m so pleased to read that you think about this subject, Annelies. We all want some kind of legacy. I suppose it does depend on the definition. None of us is going to reach the level of Steve Jobs, but it’s still inspirational to read about how he thinks.

      So your mentor has been working on his poetry book for seven years? Wow. Maybe he’s a perfectionist, or maybe it’s more fun to work on it than get it out there? Or maybe I’m being my usual impatient self!

  22. This post reminds me of a constant subject of debate when I was in Art School (1980′s). We often discussed what was the value of art. Was it the attention and recognition? Was it the one single audible sigh of an onlooker? or was it the actual creation itself? Is there art in the simple act of art. Does “good” art have to be bold and large? or can the smallest gesture be artful?

    I always liked the answer that the creation was the only necessary endpoint, I suppose because- though I don’t hear children singing on the other side of the planet, I do believe I am touched by it. The point being, is if we create good things, create thought and invoke emotions/ideas- than we all benefit- whether anyone is there to witness it, whether there is an accolade or recognition, or even if there is an astounding recognition or not.

    The process of creation is without time or boundary. A second or a century, what does it matter? I just thank all that strive to do it- and I hope that in some small way that they can feel that.

    Gail

  23. I always wanted my avocation to be my profession, as I strived toward the old adage, “love what you do, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” But now that I’m here, I’ve found the value of having a separate hobby, one from which I anticipate no recognition or readership over the long or short haul (except maybe from my husband and kids!), to be of true value. I’m finding that it helps to slow down my need for more immediate measures of professional success (although it doesn’t eliminate it by far!).

    On a related note, I think that all the metrics associated with blogging (and book writing and sales) make it really, really hard not to expect to see the needle move (and judge your success or failure based upon whether or not it does).

    Important topic, for sure, Dianne.

    Nicole

    • It sounds like a whole lot less pressure to not expect anything from blogging, and simply to enjoy it. I’ve often thought about starting a new blog just for the purpose of writing whatever I like. But I know how I am — soon I’d want to use it to pitch stories, start building it up, etc. etc. Writing will never be just a hobby for me. I admire that you can just enjoy it, Nicole.

      • Oh, Dianne, you give me way too much credit! My hobby is not a blog, nor does it involve any writing (or even food for that matter). I’m learning to draw and to use Adobe Illustrator, because I have always always wanted to. I’ve included a tiny bit of it on my blog so far, but just for fun to adorn a couple of my posts. But it’s strictly for my own amusement. If I did anything in the realm of writing, I’m sure I’d try to use it to support my vocation!

  24. Having been on the IACP Culinary Classics Book Awards committee for several years, I’ve thought (as have the other members) a lot about what makes a book (or other writing) of lasting value. Several basic clues: It changes the way a significant number people think or act; or teaches them a lot they didn’t know; or preserves vital ideas or information that would otherwise be lost to us. As you mentioned, taking the time to delve deeply into the subject and really present it as elegantly and clearly as possible certainly puts one on the path to producing something that matters. But I think that to avoid being pretentious and maybe disappointed, it’s wise simply to strive to do the absolute best one can, as only time can determine what is of lasting importance.

  25. I think that is a very hard question to answer for me. I am still very new at this blogging thing and one can only hope that what I have written will resonate throughout the ages. In the end the only thing I can do is to write the very best article that I can. It will be something that sticks, or it want. Just my thoughts. :-)

    • That makes sense to me too, Susan. Somehow it seems arrogant to strive for something of lasting value, but every once in a while, we have to stick our heads up out of our work.

  26. First, forgive me if I duplicate this comment. I thought I already left a brief one when I first read this last week, looks like I haven’t . I love the comments thread here and everyone’s opinion is very valuable and insightful. My blog was born out of the desire to keep up with technology. Before that, I was writing recipes for my sons to remember in a spiral notebook, the same way my mom did. When my sons taught me how to blog and the value of it, I never looked back. And as you have suggested, I have kept my expectations low, expecting nothing out of it, but every recipe and story shared is there because it just makes me happy to share what I learned from generations before me. I hope that makes sense. Thanks for this write-up, Dianne!

    • It’s truly wonderful that people give such thoughtful replies, Betty Ann, and of course, you’re welcome to add yours. I’m glad you’re getting so much satisfaction from keeping track of what you cook. Obviously it has deep resonance to you and your family, and you have reaped quite a bit of notice from it. That’s a whole other level of satisfaction.

  27. Thanks for the very thoughtful post, Dianne. I think about this often– how the rapid pace of our internet-based world leads to not only fast writing, but fast reading. I take Wikipedia as one example of how even “research” is done instantaneously now, compared to the joys of wandering the stacks in a university library and serendipitously coming upon a source that would otherwise have been undiscovered. I think that we might even need a Slow Writing movement, akin to Slow Food.

    • I like that idea, Linda. I bet we’ll discover that many people are doing it the old-fashioned way, using typewriters and longhand, and taking their time.

  28. Yes. I entirely agree. I have been cooking since my mother marched us into the kitchen at the age of 7 to be certain we would each be capable of fending for oursevles in time to come. That type of preparatory thinking paid off in time but my cooking did not become an art until I achieved middle age (and that was some time in the past for me as well). I spent 10 years writing a really fine book for teens and young adults and that also paid off for me. I have also spent decades creating a really fine living environment that I can now enjoy in my later years. I am put off by the fly-by-night “artiste” moments which have no lasting impact but only serve the self-serving.

    • Nice, L.D. It sounds like you know what you want and you are willing to work hard to get it, even if it takes a long time.

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