Food writing, focusing on the personal experience of food — combining memoirs, recipes, technical information, and history in a literary or journalistic text, is a relatively recent genre, popularized in the 20th century in the USA by the incomparable MFK Fisher — although there have been some notable precursors, such as Marcel Proust. In turn, it has given rise to one of the most creative and remunerative forms of blogging today. A quick glance at Instagram or Twitter feeds will show that we are obsessed with our food and with what other people are eating and cooking. That should be no surprise: a great deal of human history has focused on food.
From a psychological point of view, food is our connection with our mothers, with our most archaic identity as a newborn for whom the very first physical sensation as an independent being is hunger. Food and hunger define who we are.
To write about food is to write about our evolution, our feelings, and our deepest identity, or as some might say, our soul.
Below are seven food writing prompts to investigate your food memories.
I was delighted to see that critic and writing teacher Walter Cummins, mentor to generations of writers, included his review of my first novel The Etruscan, originally published in The Literary Review, in his new anthology of reviews and essays Knowing Writers (2017)
His generous review cuts through to what is for me the essence of the novel: the clash and fusion of the mythic and the temporal, gothic and modernism, romance and reality, Italian cynicism and Yankee yearning for spirit and beauty. My own life plays out, frazzled but energized, in the midpoints of those binaries.
This novel grew out of my exploration of the storied Etruscan landscape and my sojourn in an ancient house. It was nurtured by my literary studies of the Brontes and the gothic, DH Lawrence and Italy, Henry James, Vita Sackville West, and Daphne Du Maurier, as well as by my research into the lives of early twentieth century women travelers.
“Among the pleasures of The Etruscan are a compelling plot, intriguing characters, vivid sense of place, strong descriptive writing. But Linda Lappin’s principal achievement – and greatest challenge – may be found in her realization of Count Federigo Del Re and the strange power he exerts over the novel’s heroine, Harriet Sackett.
Lappin’s task -or that of any writer who wishes to create a Federigo Del Re- is convincing the reader to share Harriet’s complex, almost otherworldly, obsession with the man. In The Etruscan she succeeds.
While the novel has a twenty-first century publication date and a twentieth-century setting, many of its narrative strategies are Victorian, with the Gothic overtones found in writers like the Brontes. Del Re is clearly a Byronic figure in the tradition of Rochester and Heathcliffe. Mystery lies at the heart of the story-for much of the novel the question of what happened to Harriet in Italy and, even after the final page, the nature of what draws her to Del Re.
Two realities are contrasted, that of Edwardian perspectives of Wimbly, the Hamptons, and the Hampton’s housekeeper, Mrs Parsons, and that of Harriet’s immersion in another realm. Lappin presents the attitudes and perceptions of Wimbly, the Hamptons, and Mrs Parsons in close third person. But Harriet emerges directly through her first-person diary, a document like that found in many traditional novels. The physical diary itself becomes an object of contention, with Stephen trying to burn it, Mrs Parsons rescuing it, and Sarah preserving the final, torn out page until its content is revealed on the very last pages of the novel. The Italian settings are certainly Gothic, the ancient homes, the treacherous landscapes, the Etruscan tombs. Because of Lappin’s exact descriptions, they are very convincing” –Walter CumminsKnowing Writers: Essays & Reviews
“This is a book about how to enhance our awareness of places and find in the environments around us inspiration and material for artistic and writing projects . It’s very much a personal journey, retracing my own creative process and discoveries as a writer, reader, teacher, and traveler. Its most basic premise is that there is a power or energy at work in certain places that speaks directly to our imaginations and nourishes them.
Many writers, artists, photographers, psychogeographers have recorded eloquent testimonies of the ways particular places have inspired them, and it would take to long to share even a few. They boil down to a few concepts: “Landscape is character,” in the words of Henry James. For Lawrence Durrell, “We are expressions of our landscape.” And the houses and rooms we live in, are analogues for the self. We keep up an ongoing dialogue with the places we live of which we are totally unaware. Houses and landscape inhabit us just as much as we inhabit them.”
In 2014, I was invited by the Center for North American Studies at Christian Albrechts University in Kiel, Germany to participate in a creative writing project sponsored by the Jubilee fund. Among the special events organized to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the founding of the university was an undergraduate literature and writing course in English, focusing on Writing the City, taught by Prof. Barbara Röckl and teaching assistant Dr. Tristan Kugland. I was brought in during the last phase to help students create a literary guidebook to their town, featuring places, itineraries, and atmospheres of particular interest to the student population.
Kiel, not far from Hamburg, and previously a Danish city, was quite a discovery for me and September proved to be an excellent time to visit. Lonely Planet’s description of the place as grottenhässlich — ugly as sin – just doesn’t do justice to this vibrant and hospitable university town, which hosts both the world’s largest sailing event as well as one of Europe’s most prestigious universities. Kiel is a fascinating patchwork of ambiences. From the dizzying heights of the rathaus clock tower, as straying gulls dip near your nose, you may enjoy a view of the naval yards, the harbor, the new town, and the countryside – while in the lower depths of the building, you may meditate on somber sculptures commemorating the suffering of the people of Kiel under the allied bombs which destroyed much of the town during World War II.
The university’s sprawling, modern campus is well-connected to the city center with buses, which unlike Rome’s transport system, seem to have been made in heaven. Its quiet neighborhoods are interspersed with lush nature parks inhabited by boar and bison. In its traditional coffee shops, ladies meet to sip hot beverages and taste delectable cakes made with chocolate, ginger, berries, whipped cream — Barbara and I sampled a few during my stay.
But the port is the main attraction. Splendidly situated on the Kiel fjord, the sea front area seems to stretch to infinity, mingling sea and sky. In the harbor, antique sailing ships, cruisers, and ferries bound for Sweden, Norway, and Russia, energize you with their constant movement and promise of imminent departure: you just want to grab your bag and hop aboard for adventure.
During my stay, the class met every morning to work on materials, prompts, themes, and exercises drawn from my craft book The Soul of Place, to ferret out the heart of this Baltic sea port, producing pieces of flash fiction and memoirs deeply imbued with the genius loci. I was very impressed by the students’ superior linguistic skills – by the unique range of their talents, backgrounds, and interests and by the quality of their prose, which speaks highly of the standards maintained by the German scholastic system. Beyond that, their knack for writing, powers of observation, curiosity and enthusiasm were truly extraordinary. Some students were already skilled writers — poets and journalists. One or two discovered they had a talent for writing in English which they had not expected.
A brewery haunted by a medieval monk, a bar resembling the entryway to the underworld, a treacherous labyrinth beneath the rathaus where we thought we had lost one of the students during our guided tour, windswept beaches, a stadium where the local team always loses, a laundromat where the rhythm of the washers produces its own poetry, a flea market, a no man’s land of squats and gardens torn down to build a megastore, lonely bus stops, old salts hanging around the port reminiscing on old times, the fishy salt tang of kieler sprotte or mouth- puckering desserts made of sugarless plums only for connoisseurs, a tower where a lover dreams of flying – these were among the subjects of the pieces written during the course.
The students kept working for several more months, followed by a phase of long-distance editing and selection of only 36 pieces from among many more for the book, coordinated by Prof. Röckl. A search for a publisher followed, and thanks to Barbara Röckl’s persistence, arrangements were made with Wachholtz Murmann Publishers to publish FEEL KIEL the Ultimate Kiel Guide for Urban Explorers in 2016. The photos by Finja Dirksdóttir blend sleek, post-modern street photography techniques with stunning landscapes and elegant architectural shots. Each prose piece is accompanied by a photo and a short description of the place and its role in the town.
This highly subjective, elective, personal, and even quirky guide charts out a tour of Kiel, which visitors and long time residents alike, won’t want to miss, in search of that unique quality– the true essence of place. I was delighted to be part of this project and immensely proud of the students and the book they produced. Thanks again to Barbara and Tristan for including me, and to the students for their fabulous work. Order your copy from amazon de https://www.amazon.de/Kiel-ultimate-Guide-Urban-Explorers/dp/3529051314
Again this year, I had the great good fortune to lead the Creative Writing Workshop organized on the Cycladic island of Andros by the Aegean Arts Circle founded by artist and writer Amalia Melis. This year marked the fifteenth anniversary of the summer workshop, first held in 2002. Given the climate of uncertainty pervading so many cultural endeavors and institutions in these times of economic crisis, it is remarkable that the Aegean Arts Circle has continued to thrive, and attract writers from all over Europe and the US. Past instructors include Dorothy Allison, Thomas E Kennedy, David Lazar, and Robert Owen Butler.
Half of the workshoppers were “returnees” coming back to a setting they loved in order to move forward with projects — one participant had even been present at the very first workshop back in 2002. Others instead were newcomers and some had never been to Greece before.
Our group of gifted writers included a professional British journalist working on her first novel, in the dystopic vein. We also had a professor of philosophy from a prestigious US college working on a memoir about his teaching experiences in an exciting experimental school, an inspirational blogger writing hilariously about her life as a pet sitter, a diplomat writing an autobiographical novel that hinges on a search for mysterious origins, a poet with a background in science who started her first novel at the workshop, a survivor interned during the Second World War, writing of her childhood in the camp, the daughter of a sea-going family of many generations writing about her love affair with boats, a Greek-English writer working on a multivoiced novel entwining two generations of islanders, and Greek American writer working on a second novel, set in Greece.
As usual we were hosted by the Andros Holiday Hotel, a magnificent structure with spacious, air conditioned rooms and huge private terraces overlooking the water, wifi, salt water pool, private beach, and a first rate chef who prepared luscious traditional Greek meals accompanied by lots of salads, vegetables, and fine local wine.
During class time, we critiqued two manuscripts per session submitted prior to the workshop, did free writes, and shared writing exercises done as homework. The focus for the workshop was “World Building” in the larger sense – how we translate, transform and reconstruct the world around us in our writing. We took some inspiration from Virginia Woolf’s essays “Life and the Novelist” and “A Sketch of the Past,” to examine our own writing process. From where do our new ideas , stories, characters and imagery come? We also took a few tips from T.S. Eliot’s essay on the Metaphysical Poets to enquire into how our minds select random details from our experience and reassemble them in meaningful ways.
We began by scrutinizing our immediate environment and recent experiences to find imagery or stories we might otherwise have overlooked, calling all the senses into play. Woolf says that although writers “can no more cease to receive impressions than a fish in mid-ocean can cease to let the water rush through his gills,” they must learn to master their sensibility and make it serve their purposes. Our first day, we discussed the ways the creative impulse first manifests when we start writing a new piece – for some it begins with one or more characters suddenly piping up in the mind’s ear. For others places and settings generate stories and characters. Others found that intensely personal stories worked themselves out through imaginary characters and plots in exotic settings. For yet others, a striking image set a story in motion.
CHARACTER was another area of intense investigation. We looked at Woolf’s idea in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs Brown” on the challenge of rendering a complete character
PLACE was another major topic. “Fiction depends for its life on place. Location is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of What happened, Who’s here? Who’s coming? And that is the heart’s field” writes Eudora Welty. We discussed the ways places can express emotion, manifest consciousness, or become a character as Lawrence Durrell suggests.
Lawrence Durrell “Landscape IS character”
Eudora Welty “Fiction depends for its life on place”
Early on in the workshop, we remarked how so many of the stories we were telling hinged on the Quest Motif and we explored the ways that pattern fit our projects. POINT OF VIEW , PLOT STRUCTURES, DUAL TIMELINES, and BACKSTORY were key issues.
Workshop events included group gourmet dinners attended also by local writers and friends of the Workshop, private readings in the evening from work-in-progress, a public reading at which I read from Signatures in Stone: A Bomarzo Mystery, winner of the 2013 Daphne Du Maurier Award, and a public showing of 2 video shorts by Sergio Baldassarre – The Professor’s Teeth and his newest SF fairy tale, The Cosmic Omelette.
It was sad to leave our island. After nine nights and eight days of intense work, we had formed a real community and we all had made headway on the projects we had come with.
TWO EXERCISES FROM THIS YEAR’S WORKSHOP
From Homer’s catalogue of ships in the Iliad, to James Joyce’s inventory of the objects in Bloom’s drawer in Ulysses, lists are tools for world building. List-making also can be a dynamic generative exercise when exploring characters or settings. Novelist and critic Umberto Eco has praised lists as the origin of culture, for they impose order on chaos; we love lists, he claims, because we don’t want to die.
MAKE A LIST – fiction writers : choose a character and make a list, using the ideas below for inspiration. Memoir writers, focus on a setting or episode and make a list related to it.
contents of a drawer, medicine chest, kitchen cupboard, pocket, purse, tool kit, mess kit, trunk
articles of clothing for a special occasion
mistakes, lovers, enemies,
births, deaths, illnesses
Free Write: The Keys to the Kingdom Free associate. What does this expression mean to you?
You’ve seen them sitting in cafes or on park benches, or streaming along in high-speed trains, young travelers, earnestly bent over their notebooks or Ipads, writing intently as the cup of coffee at their elbow grows cold. Maybe there are maps spread on a table beside them or a little pile of postcards. You envy them – they have found their focus. They are succeeding at what you meant to do, but didn’t – attending to their travel journals.
And yet you came prepared. Here in your bag, you have your moleskin notebook along with some colored pens and your smart phone is full of stunning photos and amusing selfies. On your walk this morning, you stumbled upon three interesting things to write about: a political protest in the piazza, a puppet theater in the park and some discarded mannequins in a trash bin behind the bowling alley. But when you finally sit down to write, the inspiration evaporates. You gaze at the blank page then put the notebook away, thinking there will be another opportunity for this later.
Very likely when your trip is over, your notebook will return home still virgin. Next summer, next year, when you want to remember something of your journey, you will curse yourself for not having had a more disciplined approach. Sound familiar?
Keeping your journal
Failing to keep up your journal is a special kind of writer’s block – here are some tips to overcome it and turn your blank-paged notebook into a scintillating record of your trip– even if you are not a writer.
Firstly, consider “Why?” you want to keep a journal before you consider “How?” Remember your intention is to create a document that will reflect authentic glimpses of your experience. Encapsulating experiences in words of our own is different from snapping a photo. It casts a warmer, more intimate light on a fleeting moment. Think of it this way; you are writing a letter to the most important person in your life, your future self, to preserve precious memories that will otherwise fade away and vanish.
When rushing off to airports or out to see the sights, it can be tricky to schedule writing time, especially if you are traveling in company and must accommodate other people’s rhythms. Perhaps, when you finally have a moment alone, you’re just too tired or overwhelmed by new impressions to collect your thoughts. Try opening your notebook throughout the day, whenever you have some downtime, even if you aren’t intending to write. You might be surprised to find yourself inspired.
Experiment with different settings – try writing in an art gallery or historical museum, on a bus or in a taxi, at a shopping mall, train station, hairdressers or restaurant. Explore the city streets as a flaneur, jotting down the bits of life swirling around you as they happen, or take your notebook on a slow nature walk, pausing to study and describe in detail the wild life you encounter.
Remember, you aren’t writing a novel. Don’t worry too much about grammar and form. Take it lightly, start with a ten-minute assignment with this sure-fire prompt: make a list.
Lists are a very evocative literary device. From Homer’s catalogue of ships in the Iliad, to James Joyce’s inventory of the objects in Bloom’s drawer in Ulysses, lists are tools for world building. Novelist and critic Umberto Eco has praised lists as the origin of culture, for they impose order on chaos; we love lists, he claims, because we don’t want to die. Through lists we reconstruct the contents of our mind and environment.
Here are some ideas for list making while traveling:
Five ways the local people look, dress or act differently from you
Five items (clothing or other necessities) you should have brought but didn’t – and why you need them
Five foreign words or local expressions you learned and the circumstances in which you learned them
Five children you have encountered on your trip
Five unfamiliar objects you have come across and what they are used for
Five doorways you have passed through or windows you have looked out
Five place names with a story to tell
Five appealing/unpleasant smells, tastes or sounds you experienced that you wouldn’t find at home …
Once you start the process, you will see that one list leads to another and every item on each list can grow into a longer, richer narrative.
If list making got your creative juices flowing, go on to the next step. Choose some items in your list and turn them into “ tweets.”
Even if you don’t have a Twitter account, you can still use the 140-character format as a guideline for producing short, pithy texts resembling haikus, superflash fiction, or even koans. To compress an experience in 140 characters is no small feat. The formal discipline will help shift your prose into a poetic mode.
Try to draw a picture in words, render an atmosphere, zero in on a detail that speaks for the whole, chart an itinerary, capture an action, frame a portrait or landscape. Experiment with understatement, overstatement, humor, surprise, the quirky and the uncanny.
Combine each tweet with a photograph or other visual accompaniment. Your journal will sparkle with these shards of observations and, if you use social media, you can share them with friends and readers.
Lastly, bring it all together with a unifying device – a deep map.
The term “deep map,” was first coined by Native American Writer William Least Heat-Moon to describe his research method in writing a book of travel essays, PrairyErth. “Deep map” is now used by geographers, travel writers and urban planners to describe a multilayered map of a space, collecting information from multiple sources, time periods and perspectives.
Heat-Moon made his map by staking out a county in Kansas and exploring it from every possible point of view: by hiking and driving across it, interviewing locals, studying legends, scientific research, historical archives and old newspapers – even by dreaming about it. He matched his findings with the quadrants of geographical survey maps and then wrote about his journey section by section.
To make your deep map, find a map to paste into your journal or use Google maps or other apps like Story Map or Scribble Map to create and annotate a digital one. Trace the rough outline of your itinerary and then add layers: lists, tweets, quotes, journal entries and other texts, photographs, sketches, drawings, and vintage maps. If you are using a paper or plastic map, add mixed media: cut outs, clippings, receipts, postcards, tickets, menus, money and any other talismans of place. Do this as you go, or just gather pieces in a plastic envelope to assemble when you return home. As you flesh out your deep map with layers, stand back to reflect on the bigger picture. Themes, patterns, cycles, and changes will begin to appear, and your trip will take on new meaning. Use these insights to write a final entry on what you have learned and how you have been transformed.