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The Kitchen Analog and the Fiction Workshop

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First appeared on Food Riot, by Dana Staves

When I started The Kitchen Analog experiment, wherein I go the entire month of August cooking without the help of the internet, I knew social media would be the biggest challenge. When my Facebook feed is full of photos and recipes, all inviting me to try a new cookie, salsa, smoothie, or fancy pork dish (I have a particular weakness for fancy pork dishes), it becomes hard to keep my resolve, to walk quietly away and stare at my cookbooks and get inspired by the printed page.

But so far, it's working. So far, I have stuck with my copies of Bon Appetit and Fine Cooking and an array of cookbooks, old and new. And this give-take of temptation and success has given me a few insights.

The idea for The Kitchen Analog came from a day when I was particularly frustrated with food and writing and my place in those two realms. I had seen so many bloggers, many doing the exact same things, in a food rat race, all of us going for the same piece of cheese at breakneck speed but trying to dress the cheese up with different props, lighting, contest giveaways, and random acts of adorable. I stopped running. I looked at the maze we were running, and I thought, I give up. It's too much.

I wanted to get away from the rat race. And I've done that to a certain extent. But I will confess that I miss a small handful of blogs and websites. I find, however, that they're old faithfuls: smitten kitchen, for instance, and the website for The Cooking Channel, which hosts most of my favorite food shows. I find myself lingering my mouse over their links, reasoning that if I don't cook the recipes, then I'm not failing at the experiment. Right? Like with Match.com: it's ok to look.

But what I really figured out from that temptation to look at old favorite sites is that the Internet is not the bad guy here. Rather, it's replacing knowledge, instinct, and personal creativity with the Internet that can, but not necessarily must, lead to those feelings of burn-out and defeat. It's easy to fall into the trap of believing that we must be plugged into the whole internet: all the blogs, all the sites, follow all the people on Twitter, and DO ALL THE THINGS.

Here's a story:

When I was in graduate school for my MFA in Creative Writing, we had weekly workshops with a professor and a group of fellow students, usually around 10 people. When your turn came to be workshopped, you submitted your story in advance, and your classmates and professor read it, made notes, and got ready to comment in workshop. You weren't allowed to speak up through the critique; you could only sit, take your own notes, and then ask questions for clarification afterwards if necessary.

To listen to the advice of 10 separate voices is a good way to drive yourself crazy in the revision process. This person thinks you should change from first person to third person; this person thinks you should keep it in first person, but do it as a monologue. Someone else wonders why no one else sees the homoerotic element between the two boys at the lemonade stand, and someone across the table thinks it is completely implausible that anyone would actually set up a lemonade stand. Someone else wonders why we should care about the heroine when she's so clearly a flaky, shallow girl. One other person noticed that you misspelled a word on page four and wants to make sure everyone else saw that, too. The cross-section of conflicting advice can lead to those same feelings of defeat and burn-out. And after my first or second workshop, I asked a friend how in the world I was supposed to revise a story when so many people saw so many different things wrong with it.

Don't, she said. Don't revise it according to what the whole group thinks. Rather, find a few voices to trust. Find just a handful of people who you think really tuned in to the story in a meaningful way. Listen to them.

As with the writing workshop, we don't need to listen to the whole Internet. We can find those blogs, those websites, those friends whose advice and tastes and experiences resonate with our own culinary and creative processes.

This is my discovery, that the internet is not the culprit in food writing anymore than the writing workshop is in fiction writing. It's merely the conference room we're all sitting in, tweeting and typing our hungry little hearts out. The key, I am learning, isn't to try and sit next to everyone; it is rather to assemble a good group, a compatible set of voices, and sit with them.

And everyone else? They're nearby if you need them. One click away, you might say.

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