While I was lecturing on the creative writing programme at the University of Kent, Canterbury, UK, a couple of students asked me if I realised I couldn’t get through a seminar without mentioning food or drink. Really? I mean, really??!! But they were right. And I began to notice how I might describe a bruise as being the colour of cooked liver, or identify hope in the scent of bread from a corner bakery.
And perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all food is a universal theme. So many of our memories are laced with the tastes and scents of food. In Western society our daily lives are often structured around its purchase, preparation and consumption.
And food would play a significant part in my first two books.
The Oven House (2004), a novel, told the story of a failed love affair and the food the main character prepared for herself symbolised comfort and nurture, the soothing of emotional desolation with the cherishing intensities of heat and taste. In Learning How to Fall (2005), a collection of poetry, food references are liberally sprinkled through its pages like good salt: fish and chips, a grocery store, tomatoes, milk, bread, chestnuts, olives, eggs, apples.
Then, in 2007, my husband and I moved to the South of France, a thousand miles away from friends and family in England and Wales. And perhaps it was this geographical distance that generated an intimacy with my past and propelled me to write about the place where I was born, about my parents, the houses I lived in and visited, about the child I was and the children who came into my life. About home. And how could I write about all that without writing about food? The food I grew up with and the food I learned to eat and cook.
I set out on that journey with no specific goal in mind. But I did design a three-part map of the route:
- Food and life had to be the principal ingredients of each blog-post.
- I promised to avoid what I called ‘literary fireworks’. My poetry collection had leant heavily on extended metaphor and I wanted to rely less on effects and more on the power of ordinary language.
- And I made a commitment to blog every Wednesday for a year without fail.
The blog posts varied from week to week: memories, stories, reflections, recipes, books that entertained and inspired me, some elegies and a few complaints. Some weeks what I wanted to say was already there at my fingertips, words and memories spilling onto the screen. Other weeks I found myself slouching towards my Wednesday deadline with an empty cupboard, bereft of ideas: frustrated, disappointed, doubtful about the blog’s existence. But I’d made myself that promise. So I pushed on: I wrote through the doubts.
And that commitment to the process of writing inevitably surprised me with the unexpected: the blossoming of an idea I hadn’t previously considered or the rekindling of a memory that had remained dormant for years. And I achieved what I set out to do – I didn’t miss a single Wednesday. And by the end of that first year I felt I’d discovered more about myself as a writer, and also more about myself as a person too.
That idea of writing emerging from writing, that a pen moving across a page, or fingers over a keyboard, can lead to discoveries, has been reinforced for me over five hungry writer years. Even if at times the writing that emerges feels flat and disappointing, like dough that has failed to rise. Because it can also on other occasions crackle with life and flavour.
And I wanted to share that experience and offer a similar opportunity to other writers – apprentice, emerging and practicing – who were following the blog. So to every blogpost I added one or more writing prompts. Write about the summer’s heat. Write about something your father said.
My first reward from the hungry writer blog came in 2012. Snapshot Press, a specialist haiku publisher in the UK, accepted a collection of some of the more lyrical posts from the blog’s first year that I shaped and seasoned with haiku poetry, and published them in forgiving the rain, a fragmented memoir on the theme of home.
And I am convinced I wouldn’t have been commissioned to write the upbeat and offbeat psycho-geographical account of my hometown in South Wales, Real Port Talbot (2013), without the hungry writer experience, the weeks and months of sieving words and phrases in an attempt to find a voice that felt expansively and authentically mine.
And now the blog itself has become a book: The Hungry Writer: Writing Prompts, Recipes & Stories, a simmered reduction of the first five years for people who love life, food and words.
Sometimes our passions are invisible to ourselves and I am grateful to those students for identifying the embryonic ‘the hungry writer’. One of the rules for writing that you might hear is, ‘Write what you know’. Let’s change that to ‘Write what you love’. That works. Believe me, it works.
The Hungry Writer is available directly from the publisher, Cultured Llama, via online booksellers and may be ordered through UK bookshops.
Lynne Rees, aka the hungry writer, is a poet, novelist, psycho-geographer, editor, creative writing tutor, and food lover. She was born and grew up in Port Talbot, South Wales and has lived in the Channel Islands, Florida, Barcelona, and Antibes, in the South of France. She currently lives on a working apple farm in the South East of England, UK.
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