Looking for Inspiration? Open Your Eyes…and Get to Work

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Why on earth did I decide to write a book about pasta? Why pick such a well-trodden subject? Or, to put the question in more general terms, how do you take a subject that has been written about–a lot–and make it new?

I considered this question recently in an essay I wrote for WORDS, the quarterly newsletter published by the International Association of Culinary Professionals. I also posed the question to three award-winning cookbook authors whose work I respect and admire. Here’s the essay; consider it a little food for thought…

Four Perspectives on Getting and Staying Inspired

I did not plan to write a book about pasta. The idea came from my publisher and I was skeptical. Did the world, I wondered, need another cookbook on pasta? (The answer, by the way, is “Yes.”)

I like a good challenge and so that’s how I decided to approach this book. As I dove in, I quickly remembered what it is I love about writing cookbooks—the process of discovery and rediscovery, of finding something fresh in a subject both well loved and well mined.

Research for The Glorious Pasta of Italy took me back to Abruzzo, where I’d spent many childhood summers, and which turns out some of the world’s best pasta. The trip did not begin auspiciously. My family and I had rented a small house in an unfamiliar corner of the region, a house reachable only by driving deep into a valley on a one-lane gravel road. We arrived late at night, during a torrential rainstorm. The valley looked like it might flood, and when we got to the house the power was out.

The next morning, discouraged, we drove into town. One thing led to another (as they do in Italy) and within a half-hour we had met a fellow who turned out to be an expert on the area’s culinary specialties. By the end of the week I had a wealth of new recipes and ideas, and—even better—new friends, including a number of young Italian cooks working hard to preserve tradition while breathing new life into the local food scene. As we drove out of the valley, I felt like I was emerging from someplace far away and magical. I couldn’t wait to shine a light on this lovely corner of the world and to connect readers and cooks with this place.

The world of food writing has changed dramatically, and there is much talk about the demise of cookbooks, talk I prefer to ignore. We are now forced to think about SEO and site stats and numbers of Twitter followers. These things may matter, but honestly, they don’t motivate me. What does motivate me are those moments I described above.

I am not the only one who feels this way, either, so I wanted to discover how other writers approach their material, and get and stay inspired. I talked to three authors whose work I admire and whom I consider great role models: baking expert Nancy Baggett; French cooking and baking authority Dorie Greenspan; and vegetable maven Mollie Katzen. Here (condensed) are some insights they shared with me.

Nancy Baggett, author most recently of Kneadlessly Simple: Fabulous, Fuss-Free, No-Knead Yeast Breads (Wiley, 2009):
* Never stop researching. Baggett’s books and recipes often delve into history, but she is always looking ahead. “I’m always researching,” Baggett says. “I just find the store of knowledge that one can amass endless—and endlessly fascinating.” Right now, Baggett is experimenting with unusual flavor combinations in baking—like rosemary or sage with cranberries or apricots in a sweet bread. “Everything is grist for the mill,” she says, “whether it’s going out to a farmers’ market and talking to vendors, or trying something at a restaurant and thinking about how you might do it differently, or even better.”
* “Nothing is unique” is a phrase Baggett deplores. Take classic shortbread, she says. “It has four, maybe five ingredients. Well, do you cut in the butter or do you soften it and beat it in? Do you make your shortbread thick or thin? What about oven temperature—that makes a huge difference.” She adds, “If you think nothing is unique, you’re missing part of the enormous pleasure of creating and learning and doing.”

Dorie Greenspan, author most recently of Around My French Table: More Than 300 Recipes From My Home to Yours (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010):
* Write for yourself, but also write for your audience. “When I write recipes I feel like I’m teaching, so even if I’ve written a recipe before I’m always thinking about how to teach someone how to do it.” The headnotes in her new book are personal and many contain stories. “That’s for me,” she says. “I want to have fun writing headnotes, but of course I also want to bring people in.”
* Get personal. “Twenty years ago, as a brand-new writer with a first cookbook, I was very tentative,” Greenspan says. “And for years after that I didn’t have the opportunity because I was writing books with others” including Julia Child and Chef Pierre Hermé. “It takes confidence to write personally,” Greenspan says, “and it was really with Paris Sweets that I could start to write my own story.”
* Learn from your readers. Greenspan has a huge following in the blogosphere of people who cook from her books and write about it. “I’ve learned from them, and when I was writing Around My French Table I thought about them and what they had told me about what they learned and what they had problems with, and I kept them in mind as I was working on recipes.”

Mollie Katzen, author most recently of Get Cooking: 150 Simple Recipes to Get You Started in the Kitchen (William Morrow, 2009):
* Ask what is needed. “I choose my subjects very carefully,” Katzen says. “I never want to write anything that’s not needed. I’m very dedicated to teaching children how to cook. When I started writing books for kids I had no interest in writing a cute, fake kids’ cookbook. I wanted to write something that really addressed their motor skills, attention span, reading skills, and their taste. I don’t want my cookbooks to be souvenirs. I want them to get spilled on.”
* It’s not all about inspiration. It takes a lot of work to write a cookbook, Katzen says. “I don’t do it because I wake up in the morning and want to go chase rainbows. I do it because it’s my job and I have a family to support.” And also because she loves teaching people how to cook. “I’m thrilled at the prospect that people will learn to cook from my books. I take that extremely seriously.”
* Believe in the importance of home cooking. “There is transformative potential in home cooking,” she says. “I believe that with all my heart. It gives my life meaning. It’s part of being human, and it’s a very deep sense of that that drives me.”

For me, it comes down to an abiding love for good food and for the written word, whether it’s in a book or a blog. Call me naïve—you would not be the first—but I hope it never becomes just about numbers.

What motivates you? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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50 Responses to Looking for Inspiration? Open Your Eyes…and Get to Work

  1. Nancy Baggett February 21, 2011 at 2:10 pm #

    A terrific post, Domenica. Loving and embracing even a well-covered topic and presenting it through your own eyes does make it fresh, special, and yes, unique. I also share Mollie’s view of the value of home cooking completely–it does give life meaning, and gathering to share our cooking with others is part of what bonds us and makes us human.

    • Domenica February 21, 2011 at 4:49 pm #

      Thank you, Nancy, and thank you for sharing your personal insights. I know people appreciate it!

  2. dorie February 21, 2011 at 2:47 pm #

    Domenica, thank you so much for including me in this inspiring post. I loved your story about going to Abruzzo and nodded in recognition when you talked about meeting people who knew the local cuisine, treasured it and, best of all, wanted to share it. When you love food, every outing, near or far, has the potential of being an adventure. It is often difficult to explain how we work, what motivates us and what we hope to learn and teach from our work, but you have managed to capture these thoughts beautifully. Again, my thanks.

    • Domenica February 21, 2011 at 4:49 pm #

      Dorie, thank you for your kind words, and for sharing your advice and insight. I know folks appreciate hearing from accomplished pros like you, Nancy, and Mollie–especially since (as we talked about) writing can be such a solitary pursuit. Cheers, and thanks again.

  3. Kristen Hess February 21, 2011 at 4:25 pm #

    Domenica,

    This is a great post, I found you through Dorie’s tweets! Having been an artist and designer for 20 years, my biggest challenge has always been the “blank” piece of paper and getting my ideas started, getting inspiration, and then staying motivated to see it through to my final masterpiece. Now that I am moving in to food writing/styling and photography and home cooking, I see the same challenges as a Creative person, only in a different medium and I find that we can be inspired anywhere, anytime by looking all around us – art, nature, music, travel, culinary heros, sheer curiosity and the determination to create and find new ways of doing our craft everyday, only better, more creative, and learning all along the way.

    • Domenica February 21, 2011 at 4:58 pm #

      Kristen, thank you for your thoughtful reply. You are right–the blank piece of paper can be terribly daunting–whether you are writing or working in a different medium. So glad to know you found something of value in the post, and welcome to the blog. Hope you continue to check in. Cheers & all best.

  4. Mollie Katzen February 21, 2011 at 4:36 pm #

    Thanks from me too, Domenica. It was delightful to talk with you, and to get an opportunity to articulate some of these things that often go unsaid. With appreciation, Mollie

    • Domenica February 21, 2011 at 4:53 pm #

      Thanks to you, Mollie. Enjoyed our conversation and I know that many people appreciate hearing your perspective. It helps to know we are all in this together! Cheers

      • Mollie Katzen February 21, 2011 at 5:16 pm #

        And I love your gorgeous photo of the National Park of Abruzzo. Talk about inspiring! Must get there.

  5. Amber February 21, 2011 at 5:02 pm #

    Thank you for writing this! Twitter and SEO overwhelm me, too. Thanks for reminding us it’s not about that, and to Dorie Greenspan for reminding us new writers to have the courage to be personal.

    • Domenica February 21, 2011 at 7:50 pm #

      Thank you for your comment, Amber. I think most of us get overwhelmed by the numbers, especially these days. They matter (alas), but like I said, they are not all that matters. Cheers

  6. Lucy February 21, 2011 at 5:02 pm #

    Thank you for this piece, Domenica, and for the advice from Molly, Nancy and Dorie. This is all sound advice that can also be applied on a broader scale as well.

    • Domenica February 21, 2011 at 7:48 pm #

      Great point, Lucy. Agree! Glad you enjoyed the piece.

  7. Susie Middleton February 21, 2011 at 5:20 pm #

    Hi Domenica,

    This was a wonderful post, inspiring and fortunately, familiar feeling. I love this thing that we get to do, and every day I feel blessed that I’m involved in something so creative and stimulating. Writing is really what you make it and it shouldn’t be limiting. I think there’s a sweet spot that lies somewhere around an intersection of personal insight and practical information–a spot where writing is both inspiring and useful to the reader. Anyway, thanks for this!
    Susie

    • Domenica February 21, 2011 at 5:30 pm #

      Beautifully said, Susie. I, too, feel blessed to be doing what I am doing–even on the days when I am struggling or having a tough time getting going. Love your point about the sweet spot. Sometimes it is hard to find but it is there! Many thanks for your comment.

  8. Ken⏐hungry rabbit February 21, 2011 at 8:35 pm #

    Beautifully written post. Thanks for the reminder and make me focus on why I started a blog in the first place. The subject might be old, but it’s the passion and personal touch that makes everybody’s voice unique.

    • Domenica February 21, 2011 at 8:49 pm #

      Thank you, Ken. You know I love your blog. You do beautiful work…so keep on doing it! Appreciate your comment.

  9. virginiawillis February 22, 2011 at 2:16 pm #

    Brava!! So great to see this piece and congratulations on FNJ. Really awesome. Thanks for sharing! Best VA

    • Domenica February 22, 2011 at 4:30 pm #

      Thank you, Virginia! Very much appreciate your support, my friend, and hope we will see each other again before too long. Cheers

  10. Casey February 22, 2011 at 2:23 pm #

    Hi Domenica,

    What a fabulous post with four inspirational viewpoints. I own (and treasure) The All-American Cookie Book by Nancy, and even had the thrill of having her comment on my baking blog at one time. I love Mollie’s measure of success: to have her cookbooks spilled on. In most of the cookbooks I own, I can find my favorite recipes simply by seeking the pages that are the most stained and dog-eared. And Dorie gives fabulous advice when she urges us to “get personal.” Yes, everyone has an interesting story to tell. The real test is, are they willing to take the risk to tell it?

    I am so excited to meet you and learn more from you at Eat, Write, Retreat. Thanks for sharing these four unique voices.

    Best,
    Casey

    • Domenica February 22, 2011 at 4:28 pm #

      Thanks to you, Casey! I am so looking forward to Eat Write Retreat. It’s going to be a fantastic event, thanks to all the work that you and Robyn have put into it. Cheers, and thanks for your comment.

  11. Madame Fromage February 22, 2011 at 2:46 pm #

    Thanks for writing this. It spoke to me at just the write moment this morning, as I was winnowing down a few book ideas. I really appreciated the insights, especially because they came from writers whose work I admire — what a delightful surprise over breakfast.

    • Domenica February 22, 2011 at 4:27 pm #

      So happy you found this post helpful. Those women are the real deal and I’m so glad they shared their insights. Cheers

  12. Lisa Boalt Richardson February 22, 2011 at 3:50 pm #

    Lovely post! Sometimes it is hard to focus on why you started doing something in the first place. I loved this “getting back to the basics” post. It reminded me of why I love tea and love writing, teaching, and speaking on tea.

    • Domenica February 22, 2011 at 4:25 pm #

      Thank you. Yes, you are right. Whenever you’re in a hard spot it helps to get back to basics. Loving your subject is key, too!

  13. Alex February 22, 2011 at 4:16 pm #

    Thank you Domenica for sharing. I find my inspiration through various facets. The one that stands out the most is my curiosity. Curiosity for cuisine, ingredients, techniques. I have been fortunate to travel and explore. I love food in it’s simplest form. When a food can tell a story of time and place that inspires me. And even more so is when I find the commonalities in world cuisines. That bridge that connects and exemplifies that we are all truly more alike than different when it comes to creating and sharing through food truly sparks my interest. The love of the kitchen from the woman in my family, that also inspires me.

    • Domenica February 22, 2011 at 4:24 pm #

      Thank you, Alex. Curiosity is paramount, I agree. I, too, love the story that food tells us if we let it. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  14. cherie mercer twohy February 22, 2011 at 4:17 pm #

    wow–thanks for an amazingly timely post. as i start my third cookbook, i will keep these wise words from fabulous women close at hand. great inspiration!

    • Domenica February 22, 2011 at 4:23 pm #

      Thank you! Best of luck with your newest book.

  15. Maggie Green February 22, 2011 at 5:23 pm #

    Domenica,
    A very nice post and interview with 3 terrific authors. We all write for different reasons, but I love the fact that we can be personal with our cookbooks. That’s what brings them to life so to speak. Writing can be isolating, but when writing about food and we get to share the food with those I love I am drawn closer to them and to my real self. Keep up the good work and remember that someone out there needs to hear what you have to say about pasta~

    Maggie

    • Domenica February 22, 2011 at 5:40 pm #

      Thank you, Maggie. You are right; it is that personal dimension that breathes life into a cookbook. Looking forward to getting my copy The Kentucky Fresh Cookbook. I can tell just by the title and the beautiful cover that I am going to love it.

  16. Nancy/SpicieFoodie February 22, 2011 at 5:25 pm #

    Hi Domenica,
    This is such a fantastic post. I love your story about meeting the locals and their knowledge, this is inspirational to me. The quotes from all of the authors you included are great tips for everyone from the food blogger to the professional cookbook writer. I don’t
    pay attention to the technicalities involved. I like to put all my energy in the artistic or creative end which is what I love the most. I find inspiration in local fresh ingredients and my surroundings.

    • Domenica February 22, 2011 at 10:02 pm #

      Thank you, Nancy. So glad you found the post helpful. And yes-you don’t have to travel to find inspiration; it’s everywhere.

  17. Dianne Jacob February 22, 2011 at 6:32 pm #

    Well done, Domenica. You chose the right authors to interview, as they have thoughtful and insightful comments to add to your own. Plus, they’re big stars! I tweeted and Facebooked this blog post.

    • Domenica February 22, 2011 at 9:59 pm #

      Many thanks, Dianne. Means a lot, especially coming from the person who literally wrote the book on food writing. Cheers

  18. Jill Bloomfield February 22, 2011 at 7:32 pm #

    Lovely stories. Thanks for the round-up. My book, Jewish Holidays Cookbook, was the outgrowth of being a clueless new bride to a wonderful Jewish guy. My background is Catholic and Italian, so a concept like “kosher for Passover” was a learning curve for me. My personal kitchen discoveries, my cooking hits and misses and my constant interrogation of my husband to learn his family’s traditions are all part of the book.

    • Domenica February 22, 2011 at 8:46 pm #

      Thank you for your comment, Jill. Love that you incorporated stories of your hits and misses into the book. Best of luck with it.

  19. Liz the Chef February 22, 2011 at 8:36 pm #

    Wonderfully informative post. As a new food blogger, this is invaluable information that you have gathered to share. Thank you!

    • Domenica February 22, 2011 at 8:44 pm #

      Thank you, Liz!

  20. Tori RItchie February 23, 2011 at 2:05 am #

    You are wonderful Domenica! You put into words what so many of us feel — it’s not about Facebook popularity; it’s about discovery and dedication and the thrill of touching people’s lives through food. I’m going to quote you to my next class of food writing students as inspiration. Thank you and thank you Dorie, Mollie and Nancy.

    • Domenica February 23, 2011 at 2:13 am #

      Torie, thank you for your kind words. I feel blessed to have support from wonderful friends like you, even if you are way out on the other coast–and that, my friend, is the best part of social networking.

  21. Cathy February 23, 2011 at 4:00 pm #

    Thank you Domenica for this post. I’m writing this week, and it’s particularly hard work. I’ve returned to read this post a few times now. Thank you for the encouragement and reminder to let my passion for food flow.

    • Domenica February 23, 2011 at 9:22 pm #

      Thanks so much, Cathy. It means a lot to know that the post is helpful. Good luck with writing this week!

  22. Rebecca February 25, 2011 at 5:15 pm #

    What a great and inspiring post! Yes, I agree–there are real-life moments that are unique, authentic and transformative–and can’t be translated on Twitter. Thanks!

    • Domenica February 25, 2011 at 5:18 pm #

      Thank you, Rebecca. So glad you liked the post, and yes–not everything can be said in 140 characters. Cheers

  23. Antonia Allegra February 26, 2011 at 11:57 pm #

    Just as we are all telling the story of our lives at all times, our cooking – haute or family or any other style – reflects who we are right now and how we are inspired. When you think of the source of the word “inspire,” – to breathe in – it certainly lines up with “waken,” or “rejuvenate,” or “revive.” We are surrounded with food inspiration that revives us. For instance, I recently sensed the heft of a mangosteen in an Atlanta market and tasted that extraordinary fruit when I released it from its almost wooden exterior. The experience has not stopped roilng in my mind, inspiring my imagination, triggering word spills to write …. Your excellent presentation, Domenica, speaks to us all about why we write about food, with joy.

    • Domenica February 27, 2011 at 3:47 am #

      Thank you, Toni. Believe it or not, I had never thought about the origin of the word inspire until you mentioned it. Of course it makes complete sense. That is exactly how I felt after my most recent trip to Abruzzo, just as you felt it when you tasted the mangosteen. Thank you so very much for your comment.

  24. Majella Home Cooking June 26, 2013 at 10:19 am #

    Last night, my insomnia had me surfing the web and as I was browsing around your beautifully revamped site, I came across this wonderful post. For me, writing about food is as much about leaving a legacy for my family as anything else. I recently found an old copy of Crime & Punishment that my husband had given me when we first started dating during my first year of law school. I guess I wasn’t particularly focused on the novel because on the back cover, I had scribbled little anecdotal notes about my parents, grandparents and growing up in an Italian home. As a new blogger and caterer, my inspiration comes from my personal history and experiences, both past and future. I hope to one day have the chance to share my own stories and recipes with the world. Thank you for this lovely bit of inspiration!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Tweets that mention For Food Writers and Cookbook Authors: Four Perspectives on Getting and Staying Motivated -- Topsy.com - February 21, 2011

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by dorie greenspan, Domenica Marchetti. Domenica Marchetti said: Looking for inspiration? My #IACP WORDS essay, with great insights by @doriegreenspan @MollieKatzen and @tweetsontreats http://ow.ly/40j5G [...]

  2. Irish Food Bloggers Association | Blog | What We’re Reading: 22 February - February 24, 2011

    [...] Cookbook author Domenica Marchetti shares four perspectives on getting and staying inspired with food writing. [...]

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