Wrestling with Angels: How an Award-Winning Food Writer Crafts an Essay

by diannejacob on January 6, 2011

You may not have heard of Natalie MacLean.

Yet she has won six Bert Greene Awards for Food Journalism, five awards from the Association of Food Journalists, four James Beard Awards, and two awards for best writer from Les Dames Escoffier and the Louis Roederer International Wine Writing Award.

At the 2003 World Food Media Awards, MacLean beat out 1,000 other writers to win the award. And don’t even get me started on how many awards her first book (Red, White, and Drunk All Over) won, including World’s Best Drink Writer from Le Cordon Bleu World Food Media Awards. (She’s working on a second book of more travel adventures, to be published in 2012.)

Natalie MacLean is the writer to beat. And chances are, you won’t be successful.

Here’s a little background: She studied English literature at Oxford University and earned a Masters in Business Administration in Ontario, Canada. While on maternity leave from a high-tech marketing position, Maclean started writing freelance articles about wine for magazines, and then sent them out as emails, the start of a wine newsletter. Today, her free e-newsletter has a circulation of more than 100,000, and she has written for more than 60 publications.

We met years ago when she endorsed my book, Will Write for Food, on her website. After she won the MFK Fisher Award for Excellence in Culinary Writing from Les Dames Escoffier, I called MacLean at home in Ottawa, Canada, to interview her about food writing technique:

Q: What is it like to write from Ottawa, not exactly known as the food and wine capital of North America? Do you travel all the time, or do you find that you can drink and write just fine from home, thank you?

A: Ottawa is terrific for the work ethic because nothing happens here. There are very few road tours by wine councils and vintners. When they do a cross-country tour, Ottawa is not on their list. I live a boring, happy, productive life, staying behind the computer with bunny slippers on.

Q: You’ve beat out some amazing competition for awards, including wine guru Robert Parker and the Washington Post’s Jane Black. While you’re a sensational writer, you are self-taught, with neither a journalism nor an English degree. How did you learn to write?

A: I was a marketing manager and web evangelist. People are not going to wait for your inspirational muse. You have to tell story quickly, get rid of what you don’t need, and try to entertain, because it’s a competitive market.

If you do something long enough and you keep plugging away at it you do get better at it, just from sheer effort. I started writing in 1999, I was nominated for a Beard in 2001, and then I won starting in 2002. That’s ages.

When I was a competitive highland dancer, I put myself in the middle of the class to get picked on by teachers. I like to ask for feedback. Now I work with 10 to 15 editors, and they give feedback. Some feedback comes from friends and family because I make them read my stuff.

I spend a lot of time admiring and reading other writers like Jeffrey Steingarten, Alan Richman, and John T. Edge. (Later she mentioned M.F.K. Fisher, Dorothy Parker, and Colette, for her wine writing.) It informs your voice and style if you’re trying to figure out what they’re doing. Sometimes I read their work out loud and think it’s beautifully constructed. I pay attention to techniques, like the mock-heroic technique. They make it seem ridiculously easy and monstrously adventurous. I love that juxtaposition.

For example, Alan and a kid go to a restaurant (see Le Petit Gourmet). I like the simplicity of his sentences and yet they are so honest, like “The kid won’t go far.” You don’t need to be flowery. It’s the impact. I’m interested in parsimony. How might I use that technique and make it my own.

Q: What is your process when writing an essay?

A: I go overboard on research. It’s a way of procrastinating because the tough part is writing. I get exposed to ideas, phrases, tidbits.

It’s like painting. I know the perfect seagull in the corner. Or I know where the lighthouse is going to go. I start putting the pieces on the canvas and keep trying to put them together. I want a beautiful piece. It’s a pastiche. I edit, edit, edit. I’m a messy, disorganized writer, but a better editor.

I feel like I’m in a wrestling match when I start writing. I can’t get a grip, then eventually we slip, and I’m on top of the thing. I struggle with the angel, I feel like this thing is trying to crush me. Then I feel like I’ve flipped it over. At that point I know I’m in control. Then it’s just edit, edit, edit.

Q. When you think about creating an essay that might win an award, do you write it almost exclusively for your website? Why?

A. I love longer pieces of 2,000 to 4000 words. Few outlets publishing that anymore. I love the flow that happens with a sustained piece. Those are the most satisfying.

I write them for the website because there aren’t a lot of outlets. If they’re good enough, I remove them from the site and expand on them for a book, where I can give the essays a second life.

Q: What is the single most important advice you have for writers who dream of being half as successful as you?

A: You have to have to have interest and desire. Beyond that, it’s just hard work, plugging away on it, being willing to not give up on something, to be there until you’re really ready to give it away to the world.

Most people give up on most things way too early. I was a dancer for 17 years. I practiced three hours per day for dances that were 3 minutes long, perfecting each movement. You need mental discipline and focus. It’s so rewarding when you have it. I’m willing to wait for it each time, no matter how long it takes.

You have to want it so much you’re willing to be uncomfortable and tired. But you’re willing to keep going because in the end there’s something inside you that makes you hum.

Q: Do you think your sense of humor and easygoing approach to wine gives you an edge?

A: I think the fact that I’m neurotic really helps. I’m so worried about everything. Something about always being not quite sure of my place in the world makes me uncomfortable, and being uncomfortable makes me hypersensitive to my environment. Also it makes for good input into the story.

I’m sure I’d be a worse writer if I were more balanced. I don’t need to be miserable, but I’m always feeling like there’s something incomplete, always striving to get closure, but I never get it.

It’s when I write that I figure out how I think about the experience. The happiness is in organizing the experience later. I can’t imagine doing anything else, yet I’m also completely bothered by it.

Q: Are too many wine and food writers obsessed with adjectives?

A. Yes! They’re struggling with how to strap a subjective experience in words. When you’re dealing with something sensory, you have to put words into it. I’m getting less purple as the years go on. I try to take out adjectives when I edit. I’m focusing less and less on describing wine and more on the people. Their dialog moves the story ahead.

Q. Why don’t you try to write for the New Yorker or the Atlantic?

A: I once pitched the New Yorker; I had some nice feedback about the writing.

I’m just so busy. I have my magazine columns, my mobile apps, the website, the newsletter, the new book. I like the freedom of putting my work on my site the way I want to. I guess I’m a bit of a control freak. I like being a horse without a saddle, just galloping the fields. That’s what you do when you have your own website.

* * *

Readers, your reward for getting to the end of this interview is a chance to read one of MacLean’s award-winning essays. Go to this Les Dames D’Escoffier International website and type the word dames in the white box.

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Shirley @ gfe January 7, 2011 at 6:23 am

Compelling interview, Dianne. While no great writer myself, I do know what Natalie means about being a better editor. Editing (of others’ work) is a much easier job than writing and rewriting/editing one’s own. Her essay is outstanding with its imagery and the topic is a fascinating one. I truly had no idea on what vineyard/winery owners had to go through to protect their prized crop. Bottom line … I agree with those who selected her for the prize. Her piece won hands down.

Thanks so much for sharing Natalie and her work!

diannejacob January 7, 2011 at 7:58 am

You’re welcome, Shirley. Thanks for getting all the way to the end and reading her essay. This one is a long post.

I agree that it’s easier to edit someone else. Better than facing a blank page.

Candace Davis January 7, 2011 at 6:43 am

Very inspiring profile, Dianne! The only question I have is this: when, where, and how did she become an expert on wines? Was it during the same time that she was also learning to write? If so, that’s not an easy feat.

diannejacob January 7, 2011 at 8:03 am

She’s an accredited sommelier. I believe she and her husband took wine classes as a hobby at first, and then she began using her knowledge to write about wine. For more about Natalie, see this page on her website.

Stephanie -- Wasabimon January 7, 2011 at 7:09 am

Nat and I have chatted over email and I think she’s delightful. And she’s cute as a button, too! She’s got the look, the experience, and the skills to be at the top. She’s a great role model to aspiring writers and smart, savvy women in general.

Stephanie -- Wasabimon January 7, 2011 at 2:08 pm

Also, I love this:

“I feel like I’m in a wrestling match when I start writing. I can’t get a grip, then eventually we slip, and I’m on top of the thing. I struggle with the angel, I feel like this thing is trying to crush me.”

So true.

Anastasia January 7, 2011 at 9:30 am

Nice. I like that her process is a bit of a mess, and that she winnows, winnows, winnows. You also have to admire someone who can’t be bothered with the New Yorker because they have too much interesting stuff going on.

diannejacob January 7, 2011 at 10:04 am

Perhaps she believes she doesn’t need the New Yorker to be successful. How’s that for self-confidence?

Cheryl January 7, 2011 at 9:37 am

As someone who never, ever reads (or writes) about wine, I was surprised at how completely this interview captivated me. I’m interested in checking out Natalie’s books now because I’m taken with her use of language, not because wine is her subject.

“I’m getting less purple as the years go on. ” — I just love that. I hope I get less purple, too.

diannejacob January 7, 2011 at 10:06 am

Thanks Cheryl. Yes, if you read the essay you can see how adept she is at the craft of writing: use of similes, metaphors, contrast, humor, etc.

Natalie Maclean January 7, 2011 at 12:29 pm

Dianne, you are a gifted writer and interviewer and a good friend. You pulled things out of me that I’ve never revealed, at least not when sober.

The true testament to your writing is your community here: how engaged they are with your site and story-telling. I already login to your site regularly, but I’m also bookmarking this post and comments for whenevr I need a pep talk.

Keep sluggin!


diannejacob January 7, 2011 at 1:44 pm

Thanks Natalie. It was a pleasure, and I wish you even more success.

MM Pack January 7, 2011 at 3:12 pm

This is about the most revealing articulation I’ve read regarding a fine writer’s process for getting it done (and done beautifully). I totally identify with over-researching as procrastination technique, as means to avoid the inevitable angel-wrestling.. I love the comparison of writing to a dancer’s practice; I’ll definitely be keeping that in mind. Thanks to both of you for a great interview.

diannejacob January 8, 2011 at 10:32 am

How sweet of you to say so, Mary Margaret. I appreciate it.

We have both entered some of these competitions, and probably competed against Natalie and lost. What strikes me about her is her dedication to work so hard on a piece. That is a lesson too.

Nurit - 1 family. friendly. food. January 9, 2011 at 9:09 am

Very inspiring for new writers!
I tried to decide which qoute is the most encouraging 🙂 I think it’s: “It’s when I write that I figure out how I think about the experience.” I believe I struggle with that one the most, but it is the most rewarding in the end.
Great interview. Certainly one that I will read again in the future when I run out of writing energies.

diannejacob January 9, 2011 at 10:32 am

Thanks Nurit. I can relate to that quote as well. Sometimes I have to just start writing before I figure out how I’m going to shape it.

angelina January 10, 2011 at 8:23 pm

Most of the writing I do isn’t food writing but I think the process Natalie describes can be applied to all writing and I love that. I don’t edit so much for my blog writing (3 times through after writing a post, tops) but I’m writing a novel and I am having to become a much better editor for that. I used to think the editing part of writing was tedious but what I’ve been learning is that editing isn’t a separate job from writing, it’s just the OTHER part of writing. Now I find it pleasurable to go over work again and again to whittle it down and shape it because there is such incredible satisfaction in seeing a scrap-heap of words become a focused, sharp, and memorable piece of writing. So for me it’s good to hear published award winning authors reiterate the importance of that part of the process. I can’t get enough of reading about how other writers work!

diannejacob January 10, 2011 at 9:37 pm

Oh good Angela, thank you. Hope to have more interviews like this.

That’s a good way to look at it — that editing is not a separate part of writing. Makes it seem like more fun, somehow.

Good luck with your novel!

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