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.
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.
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.”