Molly Wizenberg: “Let Your Writing Speak for Itself, and Be Proud of It”

Feb 042014
 
Molly-Wisenberg by Kyle Johnson

Food blogger Molly Wizenberg, whose writing career expanded to include two memoirs. (Photo by Kyle Johnson)

At Food Blog South recently in Birmingham, food blogger Molly Wizenberg shared her story of leaving graduate school and jumping into the unknown with her blog, Orangette. She spoke about taking risks, setting high standards, the importance of showing up, and how blogs are a powerful tool for writing.

Here’s an excerpt from her talk, which Molly graciously allowed me to share with you. It’s an inspiring piece about one young woman’s determination to stick with blogging, no matter what life events come along. If you’re feeling conflicted about blogging, or even writing on a regular basis, pull up a chair:

“I [...] started Orangette in 2004.  I have to tell you, I was so giddy to have a place to write for myself, not for professors; to have a place to let myself fall down the rabbit hole of food; to have given myself permission to go after something that made me so happy.  I think you probably all know that feeling.  There’s nothing that can beat that feeling.

I didn’t know then what I wanted to do with my blog, other than gush about what I ate for dinner.  A blog that really inspired me, though, was Chocolate & Zucchini.  Clotilde is a wonderful writer and has a great sense for food.  I sort of wanted to be Clotilde.  (Who doesn’t?)

So I farted around and, without really planning, tried out a bunch of approaches, whatever I felt like that day.  I did a couple of informal restaurant reviews.  I wrote recipes.  I posted some photos.  I wrote about a chicken I saw in someone’s front yard on the way home from the video store. I wrote some weird prose poem-y kinds of things.

And within a few months, something clicked.  I was writing one night about trying to learn to bake with this sourdough starter that a friend had given me, and I suddenly had a vision of myself as a pioneer wife during the Great Depression, riding across the Great Plains in my covered wagon with a bonnet on, cradling a bowl of sourdough starter, this thing that would allow me to sustain my family over the hard winter.  It was very romantic stuff.  I was totally getting a kick out of myself.  And I thought: wow, that’s a STORY.  I just told a story.  Or, rather, this sourdough starter told me a story. I loved that.  I think we all want to be told a good story.

Delancy-book

Molly’s latest memoir, due out in May, is Delancey: A Man, a Woman, a Marriage, a Restaurant

That’s when I started to understand that maybe, what I love so much about food is stories.  I love the shape food gives to my life – the stories it tells me about who I am, about the people close to me, about the city I live in, all of it.  Food is a very sharp lens for looking at what matters to us, and suddenly, I wanted to find out what else it could show me.  Those were the stories I wanted to tell.

And that’s what I’ve been trying to do ever since, both on my blog and in my books.  I’m trying to tell the kind of stories that I like to read. My goal in everything, always – in my writing and in my photographs and in the restaurant that my husband and I now own, which is a whole other story – my goal is to do the work that I want to see done.  I think that’s the highest goal we can aim for, the hardest goal.  It’s the goal that really gets me fired up.  I try to write what I want to read. We try to make the food that we want to eat. Sometimes I think I’m onto something. Sometimes I love what I’m making. Sometimes it works!

But a lot of the time, to be honest, I’m disappointed.  I look at something I wrote last month, and I wish I could have done it better.  Maybe you know that feeling.  It’s uncomfortable – it’s awful – but I’m trying to teach myself a different way to feel about it.  I’m trying to see it differently.  I’m trying to see that discomfort as a good thing.  We’re all in this together.  We’re all uncomfortable.  I can only do the writing that I can do that day.  You can only take the picture that you can take today.  Tomorrow, with work, maybe I’ll be a better writer, I hope.  God, I hope. Tomorrow, maybe you’ll be a better writer. Or you’ll be a better photographer.  Or you’ll make a better recipe.  The key is in the act itself, in the fact of showing up and doing today’s work.

What my blog does is force me to show up.  That’s huge.  A lot of writers and creative people have said things along the lines of, ‘Showing up is 90% of the work,’ and that’s certainly true for me.  Sometimes, the last thing I want to do is sit down and write.  But if I show up, time and time again, it’s worth it.  Even if I think I don’t have anything to say, chances are, if I show up, and if I really put on a good show and act like I have something to say, I will. (My friend George is a poet, and he has a sweatshirt that he wears every single time he sits down to write. It’s his way of acting the part, until he feels the part.) Some of my favorite pieces of writing have come out of days when I thought I had nothing to write.  There is no ideal condition for producing creative work.  I have to remind myself of that every day. You make the conditions ideal by showing up, period. Blogs help us show up, and that’s priceless.

A-Homemade-Life

Her first book, A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from my Kitchen, came out in 2010.

The reasons why I keep blogging are different from the reasons why I started, and believe me, I’ve thought many times about stopping.  I mean, let’s be real here.  I am not the same person I was when I started Orangette, and the energy that drives me in doing it isn’t the same energy.  What I’m interested in is different. I fought that realization for a long time, because, hey, my blog was succeeding; I shouldn’t change it!  What kind of crazy person would change something that was succeeding?

When my husband and I opened a restaurant in 2009, I had a hard time writing about home cooking, mostly because I didn’t have time do it.  I tortured myself, telling myself that what people came to my blog for was recipes, and that I had to give them recipes or lose my readership.  I even got e-mails from a few readers about that, telling me the same thing.  There’s a lot of pressure, when you find something that clicks with people, to STICK WITH IT.

But in those months, what I wanted to write about was not recipes and home cooking.  What I really wanted was to write about the restaurant, and how scared we were, and how crazy it was, and how much we were learning.  I let myself do it, even though I worried I was veering too far off course. And thought it scared me, I’m glad I did.  It’s all a part of my story now, and that story informs everything I cook and everything I write.

The same goes for becoming a parent.  It was the most intense thing that has ever happened to me, both in wonderful ways and in very hard ways.  It changed me, and it changed my writing.  And though that’s a little scary to recognize, I have to.  My blog is my place to write exactly what I want to write, and as it turns out, what I want to write about is not static.  It changes as I change.

I want my blog to keep me excited about writing.  I want it to be a place that forces me to keep writing and practicing, and to be a cattle prod to me to keep cooking and working.  I want my site to reflect what I’m excited about.  We expect to change; why shouldn’t we expect our work to change?  I have this conversation with myself all the time.  And I try not to think of it as, What do I stand to lose by following my nose?  Instead, I try to ask, What do I stand to lose by NOT following my nose?  I try.

I am trying to do work that I can be proud of.  I think that’s what it comes down to, and what it comes down to for all of us.  I had the honor of being on a panel once with Jenny Rosenstrach, who writes the blog Dinner, A Love Story, and at some point in the discussion, Jenny told us that her main driving principle – and that’s my phrase, not hers, but anyway – her main driving principle is that she wants the work to speak for itself.

There’s a common bit of advice that goes around, and I know you’ve heard it.  It goes like this: when writers and other creative people complain about having to market themselves and say that they’re terrible at it, People in the Know tend to say, “Well, get over yourself and learn how to market, or you’re not going anywhere!”  I’m not saying that it’s bad advice, or that it’s unfair.  It’s perfectly fair, and it often true.

But I think it’s also fair to respond by saying, “Well, I want to write – or make pictures, or develop recipes; you can fill in the blank – I want do write well enough that my work markets itself.”  I want my work to speak for itself. I want my work to be good enough, alive enough, smart enough, that it spreads on its own merit.  I am willing to work that hard.  Maybe it sounds idealistic or audacious, but I think that should be the goal of everyone producing creative work.

You don’t fall in love with a new song because you hear a DJ on the radio say, ‘Here are the reasons XYZ why this song is great and you should love it.’ You hear a great song, and you fall in love with it because it’s a great song.  You know it when you hear it.  You know a great photograph when you see it.  You know a great paragraph when you read it.  Sure, the Rolling Stones have paid a lot for managers and marketing, but they have succeeded because they made great music that millions of people could recognize with their own ears as being great.  They built a large and committed audience because their work speaks for itself.

And that’s why I keep trying to do better work every day (or most days), even when it makes me want to claw my eyes out, when I would absolutely rather make myself a Manhattan and read a book, or go karaoke with some friends and embarrass myself again, as usual.  (Which, for the record, I sometimes do.  I figure you have to do some living in order to have things to write about.)

Because of my blog, I have a space to invent and reinvent myself and my work.  I have the opportunity to shape my own trajectory.  I can drink a Manhattan and call it research.  That’s insane.   This silly project I started almost ten years ago has given me a chance – many chances – that I never thought I would get, and I’m trying every day to live up to them by showing up, by disappointing myself and trying not to let it get to me, by trying to do work that I can be proud of.”

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  92 Responses to “Molly Wizenberg: “Let Your Writing Speak for Itself, and Be Proud of It””

  1. Now that is the kind of talk I want to hear at a blogging conference! Thx for sharing.

    I was lucky enough to speak on a panel about storytelling w Molly at BlogHerFood. She was inspiring that day as well. She is such a gifted storyteller and echoes that gift in her presentations as well.

    Staying true to your own voice and purpose in today’s social platform crazed environment can be very hard to do but I believe honest quality content will always pays off in the end.

    • Thanks Beth. I had to leave before she took to the stage, but this way everyone can enjoy her talk.

      It certainly is hard to stay true to yourself in social media. Sometimes I see what other people are doing and I think I should do it too, but then I try it and it feels wrong. I guess that’s part of how I find out what I like and what feels right.

  2. Molly is always an inspiration to me, with her unique voice that somehow manages to resonate with so many of us who love to cook, eat and write about food.

    • She works hard at developing a voice that is true to her. Her blog is not just about food, but about life and its struggles and joys, which is what makes it resonate for so many.

  3. What I love about this is how much thought Molly had put into what she has to say. Her posts, too, always reflect that level of thought. She’s the one food blogger I’ve looked at consistently over a period of many years. Her work does speak for itself.

    • Yes, it always feels like a tremendous amount of thought and effort has gone into every post. Not that her writing is worked or forced in any way, just that you know she’s committed to it.

  4. Molly always has great thoughts to put out there – thanks for the read. I’m sure I’ll be back at the beginning next time I need inspiration to write (like in an hour or so…)!

    • Hah! Yes, waiting for inspiration to strike is a good way to procrastinate. That’s one of her points: just show up and write.

  5. Molly is one of my favourite writers. This is bookmarked to come back to again and again. Inspiring words indeed.

  6. Wow. She has a way of sitting in the room with you when she writes. What openness and grace! Very inspiring. Thank you, Molly for the reinvention, the determination, the willingness to write for us and not to read a book!

    • Yes, her writing is personal and intimate, as if she knows you. She is confiding in you but she has a level of comfort that is admirable — the confidence to express her fears and failures in addition to her goals.

  7. This was exactly what I needed to read today. Thank you, Dianne & Molly.

  8. That is one of the most inspiring and honest pieces I think I have ever read about blogging. I would have loved to hear it in person that’s for sure! Thanks so much for sharing Dianne xx

  9. Just what I needed to hear/read today. Thanks for this encouraging word Molly and Dianne. I’ll be sure to bookmark it for easy reminding when the going gets tough.

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Abby. It’s good encouragement for the days when you wonder if writing is worth it. We have to answer our own questions: Yes it is, always.

  10. I love this and the fact that it is so inspiring. I have a different problem and it is driving me crazy, I bought my domain name. Then hired a Web hosting and design team but I have no idea how to manage my website and was very upfront with them ,I told them that I came to them to get set up and learn how to manage my own website. This did not happen .They’ve set up a website that I cannot do much with and I am discouraged. I don’t want to be. I love to blog, create recipes, and would love to be a part of the bloggers that I have met through social media. I can’t even figure out how to attach my Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Google account to my website. I ask my hosting, they say ask WordPress, I asked WordPress, they sent me back to my Web hosting. If you have any words of advice I would greatly appreciate it. I get so overwhelmed that I have to walk away from the computer. Please advise in any way you can. Thank you! I am so appreciative of any advice.

  11. Dianne: thanks for share with us Molly’s talk.
    It’s more than motivating. I’m printing it on paper. I really feel the need to underline, take notes on it. Also your remark for those feeling conflicted about blogging is relevant for me.
    “… I look at something I wrote last month, and I wish I could have done it better…What my blog does is force me to show up…The reasons why I keep blogging are different from the reasons why I started…You don’t fall in love with a new song because you hear a DJ on the radio say…This silly project I started almost ten years ago has given me a chance – many chances – that I never thought I would get..”
    I literally found me and some of my doubts here.

    • Yes, it does speak to all of us in that way, whether we think writing is worth it. She has decided it is, that it’s a necessary part of her life despite her other responsibilities. We writers have a hard time shutting out the things that we want to say and share with the world. I hope that’s true for you as well.

  12. Great piece, Dianne! Very inspiring!!! Hope you are well!

    • Thanks Alona but I cannot take any credit for the greatness of this talk, other than the brainwave to share it with you. We need all the inspiration we can get sometimes, and this talk provided it.

  13. […] I read this passage from Molly Wizenberg’s recent speech at Food Blog South, and I realized the great gift that […]

  14. Inspirational. Thanks!

  15. Thank you Dianne and Molly for sharing this. Very inspiring and exactly how I feel about blogging.

    • You are most welcome, Maria. That is what is great about this talk — it speaks to what we all experience as writers.

  16. Absolutely inspiring Dianne! Lovely to know another inspiring blogger – Molly :)

    • Hello Ishita! You’re so far away in Dubai, so I’m glad to introduce you to Molly. This is definitely one of the most inspiring pieces I’ve read about why we all need to continue to write.

  17. Dianne, thank you so much for sharing!
    It’s nearly impossible for me to attend a food blogger conference, as I’m so busy with organization of professional events related to my full time job.
    For this reason, I’m so appreciative for posting Molly’s talk here. it’s both very touching and inspirational to read it.
    All the best!

    • So glad you enjoyed it. It’s a long excerpt, so it was enough that you read it all the way through, since you don’t have time to attend these confernences.They are a time sink, it’s true, but I always enjoy them and I do lots of work on the plane on the way to and from.

  18. For me, the most meaningful aspect of Molly’s comments is struggling to come to terms with your blog (or creative work in general) evolving. I feel it makes me a moving target (to myself, to my husband, to my friends and family). I’m not sure anyone I don’t know personally has ever read my personal blog (www.fruitrootleaf.com), even though it’s packed full of snippets about life as an expat, food as a way of surviving being an expat, etc., etc. Somehow, that part doesn’t matter. But, as I’ve grown into my life in a new place, language and culture, the intensity of the blog subsided and the need to connect with people through it has changed. Now, I want to show where I live, not where I was struggling to live. And, I sometimes doubt that will be as interesting. Similarly, I’m branching out WAY past food, to look more at sustainability life skills and ecological sciences (other aspects of my life’s work), and it seems a monumental task to weave all that together. And so, sometimes, I just don’t post at all. But, I know that’s no solution. Bottom line, Molly’s comments about embracing your own evolution made something click. I’m just going to write and photograph what I’m living…even if I’m the only reader. Thanks.

    • Bethann, I love that concept: embracing your own evolution. Molly’s blog has always been about life, not just food, and life is not static. And regarding whether people would be interested — they will read about any subject if you present it well. I have found this whenever I am on page 8 of a piece on nuclear power or other subjects that usually elude me, and I wonder how I got there.

  19. I love this — particularly her advice on letting your blog change as you change. That is a HUGE one for me. I’ve been going back and forth in my head on how to change my blog without offending my original readers. As a result, I haven’t written anything — which is no good! I just need to follow my own gut. If my current readers don’t like it, they’ll unsubscribe. But I will get new people who love my work. And that’s what matters! Thanks for this!

    • I have been there, not writing anything. It is definitely no good. It makes me crazy. So yes, I hope this post from Molly helps you follow your gut with your blog and get back to writing. Good luck, Halona!

  20. Just what I needed to hear today. I studied A Homemade Life while I was writing my own memoir. I learned so much! Thank you Mollie and Dianne!

    • Hello Judith, you are most welcome. There are so many parallels between writing a blog and writing a memoir, eh? Luckily, blog posts are shorter.

  21. Thank you for this. It is so nice to get to know someone who is passion about what they do. I agree with her about how blogging can offer a platform to launch an idea or find a different direction, all while cooking and creating cool stuff in my kitchen. :-)

  22. Two of my favorite (and inspiring) women in on place ~ thank you great article!

  23. Molly, thanks for the inspiration. As a brand new blogger, I appreciate your honesty. What took me so long to start was the “what will I write about” and “how will I say what I want to say”. Realizing that I had no problem talking to people and students about topics I love, I just decided to write like I was talking. The voice just came. Just wish I hadn’t waited so long.
    P.S. Dianne has been a big help too.

    • You’re not alone. I waited 2 years before starting my blog! I’m glad the voice just came to you. People struggle with that for years.

  24. as everything she writes, very inspiring. She has a beautiful mind. Thank you Diane for featuring her thoughts just the way you did. love your blog for this reason and many more :)

  25. What an inspiring piece. Going to read it every time I hold back about writing! There is just one point though which might be worth discussing – Molly started her work when perhaps it was comparatively easier for work to speak for itself. I by no means trying to belittle her great work but isn’t it harder for people to get noticed even the great ones now without marketing, socialising etc. An ocean of blogs and talents and finding an inspiring one is much harder.

    • Well, I’ve heard that argument, and I’m not sure I agree. While blogging was a new form in 2004, it was the great writing that brought people to her blog. Now it’s easier than ever to get noticed with a blog, in that there are no gatekeepers.

  26. I really enjoyed reading this from someone as successful as Molly. I too have problems with blog evolution. My blog started when I was travelling around Europe soaking up different foods and food cultures. I then settled in Lithuania into a life as an expat, trying to be as self-sufficient as possible. The self-sufficiency is not only about food, but also our clothing, etc. I felt some of the stuff I was writing didn’t “fit” on the blog. At the same time these pieces were among my most popular. So, I rewrote my “About” section to redefine the blog and to allow for some non-food content. No one has complained! (Not so far, anyway.) I don’t know why I thought I was alone in this dilemma, but reading Molly’s piece and the comments has been really useful. Thanks for posting!

    • Yes, other commenters have mentioned this issue of blog evolution as well. People change and move on, so there’s no reason why a blog should have to be static, since it’s about your life.

  27. […] If you write or do any other kind of creative work, I recommend you read this. It’s an excerpt from a talk by Molly Wizenberg, whose baking and braising recipes I feature […]

  28. Thank you for sharing this.
    It was quite inspiring.
    When I started blogging I had no idea what I was doing, what I wanted to say, or how long I would be able to do it. But,I’ve been writing about our small farm and growing food for over four years now and the whole evolution thing is evident in reading over past posts. I intend to keep writing and growing for a long, long time.
    It’s very encouraging to read other people’s stories. Thanks again.

  29. […] you’re uncertain about making the commitment, then perhaps this interview will inspire you to take the plunge … you are least in for some interesting […]

  30. Thank you Dianne and thank you Molly. I have been reading Molly’s blog from the beginning, and used her book A Homemade Life as required reading in a food writing class I taught, so I have immense love and respect for her work. When she wrote about her personal experience with postpartum depression, she had a tremendous impact on women who needed to hear that they weren’t alone.

    The message of showing up to write is a good one for me…sometimes my internal editor prevents me from getting words down because they don’t seem good enough. This is a great reminder to keeping writing about what you love.

    • It’s funny how her blog is about food and yet it impacted women with post-partum depression. It just goes to show you that food is a vehicle for stories, not the whole story.

  31. I have been posting food stories on my blog for a little over two years and lately I’ve been struggling with getting posts up because what I want to write about today isn’t exactly in line with what I wrote about yesterday. For instance, I use to post a lot more recipes. With much gratitude to Molly — your book remains in my kitchen alongside my cookbooks — I still make your father’s prunes! You’ve given me the permission I needed (and what I knew intuitively all along) to write what’s in me each day and not worry about losing readers. It’s not “What do I stand to lose if I follow my gut?” It’s “What do I stand to lose if I don’t?” Now, back to work!

    • Lovely. How nice to give yourself permission to write whatever you feel is right, not to keep going with what you did in the past.

  32. Thank you so much Dianne for sharing Molly’s talk, this was what I really needed after a day spent thinking, re-thinking and evaluating basically the past 5 years.
    This is so true. I love the whole article, but the last sentences really resonate with me:
    “This silly project I started almost ten years ago has given me a chance – many chances – that I never thought I would get”.
    The blog gave me many chances, at a different level, but definitely so many chances I would have never expected and, most of all, made me discover my real self, which is changing year after year, along with my blog, my writing skills, my photos and my passion.
    Thank you Dianne, thank you Molly

    • It’s funny that when we started blogs re really had no idea what would come from them, and now look what happened! Aside from all the successes outside the blog, it has given us a place to write regularly and share ideas. That is what I love about it most.

  33. WOW! You and Molly hit the nail on the head for me. Look out blog world, here I come! :-) vic

  34. […] and buy a copy for your mom too, it seems like the kind of book that moms would like). Reading Molly Wizenberg’s speech about food blogging made me feel all the things. It’s true, I started this because I need to […]

  35. […] you can be pretty sure that they will change regardless of how you try to keep them a certain way. Then I read this piece on Dianne Jacob’s site Will Write for Food, which was really Molly Wize… It was very inspiring, so I took it to […]

  36. Oh Molly, you have always been a thinker, and you have always been exceptional. I am so glad to have found this blog and to read your thoughts. I have started a blog and you are right, it is a journey and it is supposed to be fun. Thank you.
    I was honored to teach Molly Horseback riding lessons as a child, and we had some very fun adventures. Jenny

  37. Thanks Dianne, and thanks Molly! Molly is one of my favourite bloggers, and it was upon reading Orangette and A Homemade Life that my understanding of what I wanted to do on my own blog gelled. I wanted to tell the stories behind the food. Thank-you, Molly, for penning the thoughts I’ve often had about that notion. Can’t wait to read Delancey!

  38. I really liked it how Molly talked about changing the direction of her blog to suit where she was at and what she was passionate about, even though she knew that some of her readers wouldn’t like the change. There’s always so much advice out there about staying on track and giving your readers what they want so that they keep coming back. Yet at the same time we are told to be ‘authentic’, so reconciling the two pieces of advice can be tough. the fact is that everyone evolves over time, and even without substantial change in other parts of your life, the process of writing can still result in an evolution of your writing and thinking styles, and therefore a change in how your blog speaks. The other thing to consider is that the potential audience out there is huge, so even if you lose a few long-term readers because of a change, you are likely to gain new readers because of the new things you blog about. Good on Molly for remaining true to herself, which I think is more important that sticking with something that is no longer a driving force.

    • So true, Glenda, and this was a theme that resonated with a lot of the commenters. I suppose if you’ve always been writing about your life, that can continue. But if you’ve always been writing about peanut butter and then you switch to yoga, that’s a little different.

  39. […] Molly Wizenberg on writing and blogging […]

  40. […] was my favorite thing I read this week:  an excerpt from Molly Wizenberg’s talk at Food Blog South, which Dianne Jacob posted on her blog. I kept trying to remember things to quote here from her […]

  41. I echo everyone’s comment that this piece is very inspiring. I got into blogging quite by accident when friend and business partner suggested it. Although I don’t have a problem writing, it’s the getting started that’s hard – specially if I don’t have anything in particular to write about in mind! I’ve only started to blog since August 2013 and sometimes I feel it’s futile. My blog only has one “follower” even though I know some people have subscribed to it. Who’s reading my stuff? There are so many food blogs out there already.
    Thank you for sharing this!

    • Yes, sometimes it’s hard to come up with a topic, I agree. When it comes to narrative writing, sometimes I don’t have a plan. I find if I sit down and start thinking and typing, writing appears. It goes back to what Molly said about showing up.

  42. […] I loved this excerpt from Molly Wizenberg, one of my favorite bloggers (and author of one of my favorite collections of stories and recipes, […]

  43. […] to remind myself of that every day. you make the conditions ideal by showing up, period.” molly wizenberg, found via erstwhile […]

  44. Love the honesty. I am going to bookmark this post and come back to it often. Thank you for sharing.

  45. […] I’d like to use it again, the way that I did when we lived in Brazil, as a way to “show up every day.” As Molly Wizenberg advises, it’s the best way to just get writing. I love this too […]

  46. […] folk. Anyway, there I was, reading her when I clicked on – of allll her hyperlinks – this (excerpt) of a talk she gave at Food Blog South on, well, blog […]

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