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The Quantified Author: Lessons from my food writing career

In April of 2014, I wrote a story for the ASJA magazine on the lessons I have learned over the last ten years as a food writer. Today, I would like to share that story with you all. I look forward to hearing your feedback, insights and advice as I embark on my next writing decade and adventure!

 

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Ten years, powered by hope

It was a beautiful Monday morning in January 2004 when I decided to quit my job, which paid very handsomely—six-figure salary, great insurance, the ability to travel the world—to embark on a new career I knew nothing about. I wanted to become a writer. So many people still ask me how I made the choice. But those of you reading this know that it is not a choice, it simply is. Giving in to the deepest desire of your heart to tell stories is a calling. And once it takes hold of you, it does not let go.

An engineer by training and trade, I decided to draw up a plan and study the markets. After all, there had to be a science behind how successful writers got there. In hindsight, I wish I could say that I was really that young and that stupid, but I wasn’t. I was a thirty-five-year-old engineer with two masters degrees in information systems. I had studied the way the brain works. I was sure there was a way and I could find it. I even wrote my obituary, to discover exactly how I wanted to be remembered.

The question: what to write about, was the easiest one. I wanted to tell stories about life and, being a lover of all things edible, I naturally gravitated towards using food as an lens to do so.

The first thing I discovered was that I needed to get big bylines—I needed the New York Times, the Washington Post, Saveur, Gourmet, Bon Appétit, Food & Wine, all the big boys in my chosen new world of food writing. Once I had those, I would be able to get a book contract and then, you know, retire to write my stories at will and leisure.

What followed was ten years of battle scar–worthy attempts at becoming a writer, and today I share them with you with great pride. I have a theory that it takes ten years to become an overnight success, so this January, I will either be writing my dream book or banging my head against the wall—both of which are, as you know, the same thing.

 

Lessons Learned

It took me six months of “convincing” the Grey Lady, the NY Times, to let me write a story for them. I begged, prayed, wrote detailed proposals, sent lists of potential interviewees with quotes. Everyone told me I was being a fool and that the Times would never bite. This brings me to lesson number one: just as I don’t know what sells or works in this industry, no one else does, either. The Times bought the story and ran it on the front page of the food section, above the fold.

My second lesson came from a luxury food magazine. I went to their New York City offices, terribly nervous. I pitched the features editor totally inane front-of-the-book pieces. She listened for a while and then asked, “What do you really want to write?” I told her. I was paid handsomely to travel across the world and write the story about the food culture of a newly burgeoning metropolis. When I filed it, the editor said it was the most poetic piece she had ever read. Then they sent a photographer across the world to shoot the story. All was going swimmingly well. The day before the story was to run, after six months’ worth of work, it was killed. No reason was provided. I learned how to negotiate and get paid for a killed piece, but more important, I learned that nothing is guaranteed until the story is already in print.

With my stories under my belt, I pitched a book. The first rejection said the book needed essays. The next rejection, a week later, asked me to take the essays out of the book. Four rejections later, the book was accepted. The week the cookbook came out, the acquiring editor quit and it came out that the in-house publicist had never promoted a cookbook before. Needless to say, the retirement plans needed to be pushed back. And my lesson became that even when you get your best stuff in print, there are no guarantees of success.

At this point, I pitched a newspaper a story and the editor, who was well aware of my bylines and books, asked me what the traffic was like on my blog. Blog? I had a website but no idea what a “blog” was. He insisted I create one in order to get more work. I did—and learned that I had created a monster that constantly needed to be fed but provided low or no returns.

This is when my focus turned from telling stories to creating a brand and a persona so that I could get magazines to assign me work.

I think the final lesson came when I was at dinner with a major magazine editor and she asked me for my Klout score. I had to excuse myself, praying that the bathroom had Wi-Fi, and check on my phone what the heck Klout was.

Publishing was changing faster than I could keep up, everything was about traffic and numbers, and everything was focused on brand. I should know—I began to teach sold-out seminars on these very topics.

In September 2013, my younger son started first grade. He was curious about what people did for a living and asked me. I told him I was a writer and he said, “So like you write on Facebook?”

That innocent yet insightful comment threw me for a serious loop. Who was I? What did this business really mean to me?

I went back and looked at my original notes from ten years earlier and yes, this recovering engineer found the obituary she had written back then when embarking on this new life. I read it again and this time, I decided to actually focus on what I wanted to be instead of what the market was demanding.

My obituary said, “Monica was a writer who told stories of hope and inspiration. She aspired to help people achieve their goals and dreams. Her stories were often told through the focus of food.”

Considering I am not dead yet, I have another chance to make this work. My challenge is to fit this into this new world of social media craziness, branding, writing, and being who I really want to be.

In January 2014, I  launched my own digital project, “Powered by Hope,” to share what I have learned over the ten years of creating this new life.

These ten years have taught me a lot about life: the need for tenacity, the value of support systems, the lessons of failure, and how the years I have spent in the pursuit of my dream truly have been powered by hope.

This digital project, free to all my readers, is about making my mess my message. Each week, readers will get a story intended to be motivational, but mostly meant to get people thinking. It has all the elements of social media but more important, it has a writer telling stories.

I am not sure where it will lead, but that is the most important lesson of all from my journey: the journey itself, with its ups and downs and joys and sorrows, is the most rewarding part. The destination, if it doesn’t change a million times, is just a stopping point where you ask, “Where to now?”

 

 

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Comments

  1. Monica, having met you personally in London and attended your labs was one of the best things that happened to me lately.
    Reading you really gives me strength, even though I admit I find it difficult to insist, and ask as I usually drop out after no answers/rejections. Some skin thickening must be done :D.
    After hearing your story about going to editors office with the color sprayed trays I am considering of actually the same thing (obviously not with the trays ;) ).
    All of this above just to say THANK YOU for inspiring us all.
    I wish you a lovely weekend.
    Lou

  2. Beautifully written and so honest and thought-provoking Monica.

  3. How Inspirational! Sometimes it seems things choose us rather than us doing the choosing. For some reason it seems blogdom choose me and this is a career late in life. I love doing it and it is very fulfilling. I will look forward to reading your messages of hope.

  4. Monica – another glorious essay from you — my favorite story teller. Like you, I was 35 when I quit my high-powered job and took asleep into the unknowable.
    You are an inspiration dear friend.

  5. Kathleen Flinn says:

    Beautiful, Monica. Feast and famine, that’s the world of writing for most of us. It reminds me of a story we had a friend read at our wedding titled “The Station.” You think at some point you’ll arrive at this end point, a place of safety and clarity. When I get to “X” point in my career, when I make “X” amount of money, when I have that fabulous book deal. Everything will be great. But the station ends up being something that constantly outdistances us. In the end, it’s all about the journey.

  6. Monica,

    I enjoyed this piece, thank you. I think you and I have been pursuing freelance careers for roughly the same amount of time, although I started writing for a living earlier. I’m still working on achieving my “overnight success.”

    Keep up your great work!

  7. Kiran Manral says:

    Loved this. Thank you for writing this.

  8. jamielifesafeast says:

    Monica, I didn’t think that you could inspire me any more than you already do but you now have. For many reasons. You (like myself) are in a constant state of self-doubt, of “I’m not there yet and I might never be”, in (as Kat just wrote) a constant state of movement and reaching higher and farther. First, I know that the self-doubt and the humility are what both pushes us forward and keeps us grounded. Second, it is comforting to know, comforting to someone who is not only new to the writing game but is also so unsure of herself, thinks everyone else has it so easy… that you, someone who is so talented, energetic and successful (in my eyes) has the same battles as I. Your mindset, your focus and your energy throughout your career from day 1 is so inspiring (what a trite, overused word but so appropriate) and really motivates and encourages me. But you are so talented, so loved for who you are and what you do. And your sharing it all, sharing your voyage, is so necessary to me and so generous of you. I cannot wait to meet you! x

    • Oh, I just saw this. THANK YOU so much. For some reason, I am not getting comment notification.. I am so honored to know you and call you a friend. I am looking forward to meeting you in Orlando next week!

  9. Dear Monica, I stumbled upon this beautiful, honest essay, I just finished my PhD and I should be looking for a job, but all I want to do is cook and read about food and write about food. I am scared for myself! Thank you for honestly sharing your story. It gave me comfort. Priyam

  10. Hi Monica
    I’m so happy I stumbled onto your site. I downloaded your e-book and love it. In Conversation with Exceptional Women is such a generous work to share with others. Am looking forward to being inspired by your interviews.
    Ellen

  11. Great post Monica! Just subscribed, so I don’t miss any of your stories!

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