A guest post by Kathleen Flinn
Who writes three food memoirs? Before they’re 50 years old, no less? There’s me, Ruth Reichl, Nigel Slater… it’s not a long list. Food memoirs are tricky, though. Here are some things I’ve learned along the way:
1. Conflict drives narrative.
Your grandmother might have made beautiful dumplings. You may be obsessed with kumquats. But does your story pass what my journalism mentor called the “Who Cares” test?
Ultimately, readers keep turning pages because they want to find out what happens. Publishers like non-fiction that reads like fiction. This means understanding fundamentals of story. There’s a dilemma that drives the protagonist to action, plus a story with a narrative arc replete with conflict and obstacles, a climax and a resolution.
The biggest issue I see in my students’ memoir concepts, proposals or manuscripts is that nothing happens. There’s a lot of description and maybe some interesting culinary history, but the story doesn’t move.
2. No one loves a perfect heroine.
When writing the original proposal for The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry, I left out the embarrassing moments. My husband, who works as a developmental story editor with authors and screenwriters, warned me this was not a good idea. An editor at a major New York house read that version and sent this email to my agent: “I’m afraid to say it, but as it is there’s just something not likeable about her on the page.”
The “her,” of course, was me.
Mike hired another editor to provide fresh perspective. I told her all these funny stories about things that went wrong at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, including a horrifying scene involving a duck rolling around on the floor. A day later, she called. “Where’s the duck story?” I told her that I left it out, along with other less flattering material. “No, you don’t get it. You have to be willing to be vulnerable and make mistakes. Otherwise, how can readers root for you?”
I put all the embarrassing stuff back in. The duck story was excerpted in newspapers and magazines on three continents.
A flawed main character is a key concept of “a hero’s journey,” a method of storytelling that lends itself well to memoir. Find and articulate your own physical, emotional or spiritual journey. Embrace those awful, cringe worthy moments. Make fun of yourself. Be imperfect. Bumble. Be real. Drop that duck. So when something goes right, readers can cheer.
3. You need an editor, or at least a writing coach.
The hardest part about writing a memoir isn’t what to put in, but what to leave out.
It’s tough to be objective about your own story. This isn’t some article on holiday pies. It’s your life. You need someone to tell you, “You know, your aunt’s birthday scene is pretty long and it isn’t moving the narrative forward. You should cut it.” Even if you initially get defensive ( “But you loved that aunt! You loved that scene!”) you will be grateful later when your proposal or book leaves out one overwritten clunker anecdote after another.
Be warned, editing can be a messy process. Mike and I have had some tough discussions and major disagreements. He even unfriended me on Facebook in the heat of one exchange. (I yelled back, “I know your password, I can always friend myself!”)
Find someone you respect and trust. Try not to take feedback too personally. A good editor can keep you focused, find a compelling narrative line and even help you develop your voice. It will cost money, but trust me, it is a worthy investment.
4. Get your facts right, and remember that recipes are not “filler.”
I’ve heard from hundreds of readers who have made recipes in my books. One even sent me 22 photos of his process of making a veal en croute.
So when my manuscript is almost ready to go to my publisher, I hand it off to a professional recipe copy editor and two fact checkers to assure all of my culinary research is dead on. I pay for this myself.
Why? A memoir is non-fiction. You may take some creative license with telling your story, but your facts have to be right, and the recipes must work. You’re got to be willing to put in the hours, gather the research, organize the testers (I now have a group of more than 200 volunteers) to assure your recipes work, or consider not including them.
5. When you write about real people, you will portray them differently than they perceive themselves.
Memory is highly imperfect. Some people will not like what you write about them. Do your best to be true and right, but know that you might still get it wrong from someone else’s perspective.
If you’re going to make people into characters in your book, consider giving them a preview. If there are any problems, it’s better to get them sorted before your book goes to print. Also, I’ve learned from doing so that people often volunteer details that make the story better.
It’s a good idea to get signed releases from the people your write about in a memoir if you use their real names. For Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good, Viking/Penguin asked for signed releases from all of my family members – even my mother!
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Kathleen Flinn is the author of the The New York Times bestseller, The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry, now published in nine languages. Her second book, The Kitchen Counter Cooking School, was named a 2012 Book of the Year by the American Society of Journalists & Authors. Her third book with Viking/Penguin, Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good, is a finalist in the IACP Awards and was a finalist in the Goodreads Choice Awards. Her blog is CookFearless.com.