Liveblog: Voice -- Storytelling

BlogHer Original Post

Note from your liveblogger -- scroll down to the bottom for a list of links referenced in this panel. Thanks! -- Julie

Welcome to the liveblog of the BlogHer Food '10 panel "Voice - Storytelling."

Dianne Jacob - Will Write for Food

Rebecca Crump Ezra Poundcake

Michael Procopio - Food for the Thoughtless

DIANNE: Definition of storytelling: "Storytelling passes on the essence of who we are, are a prime vehicle for assessing events, experiences and concepts from daily life to the human condition. It is an intrinsic form of communication, an integral and essential form of communication." Sounds like blogging! Why are we driven to tell stories?

MICHAEL: They communicate ideas, emotion, when people tell me stories I know them, I get drawn into their lives. Sometimes stories help you not deal with your own live, live someone else's lives through them, looking into their brain, their soul, what they choose to share with you.

REBECCA: We are always searching for people "of our tribe." When we're blog we are trying to share stories and ideas from people like us. I want to relate to people and learn about peoples' lives: "How YOU livin'?"

QUESTION: Stephanie of Happycat.com - I put up a recipe and paragraph usually. Do most people care about bloggers telling stories? I decided to share more after I went to blogger camp … but, do you guys WANT to hear about bloggers' lives? {Audience: YES!}

COMMENT: My mom had a community right around her, but now we're all so distant and busy, people need that, we're reaching out through the Internet.

COMMENT: Molly of Orangette -- someone told me once that good writing is storytelling and I hadn't thought of it that way. But most conversations are a story, even just my husband and I talking over dinner. That was a revelation for me -- stories are right under our nose, our natural language.

MICHAEL: An example of getting drawn into a blog because of the storytelling -- Diane of White on Rice Couple -- I saw a tweet about "Nail Salon Chicken." Beautiful photos, but all of a sudden there was this great story about Diane. It had tension, character. I got into Rebecca's blog because I loved her stories too.

(Ed note: Here's the link to the post at White on Rice Couple's blog.)

REBECCA: A really good story draws you in quickly. For me it's usually funny; it needs an emotional pull. So much food blogging is describing the recipe. Draw me into the experience instead. We all have a ton of cookbooks. What makes me want to make YOUR apple pie is your story, your connection.

COMMENT: Tara from Tea and Cookies - responding to woman asking about bloggers' stories. There are many types of great food blogs but the ones I read religiously are the ones that do share something with the reader. I may never cook their food but they feel like friends.

REBECCA: I remember waking up and telling my husband, "Oh my god Dooce had her baby!" To me she's real; my husband asked, "Did you go to school with her?"
COMMENT: Sean of Punk Domestics - In my case it took me a while to understand what the stories in my own life were. I took it for granted that my life was my life and it just happened. When you tease your stories out, transcribe them and share them and see reaction, that's when you put it into context. For instance, I grew up Italian American, didn't realize until late in life that everyone didn't eat pasta all the time.

SO HOW DO YOU TELL A STORY?

MICHAEL: It has to come out of an idea, an inspiration. Somebody came up to me recently and said, "Uh oh Procopios!" She turned my name into a can of spaghetti and I got obsessed by that, if I were a dish what would it be. Now … how you attack it is … something else … Dianne?

(Ed note: Here's the link -- http://michaelprocopio.wordpress.com/2010/10/06/eat-me/)

DIANNE: Beginning, middle, end; story arc; conclusion, of course. But that doesn't get to the heart of coming up with an idea that translates into a good story. People have a favorite story I tell. My mother is an immigrant -- she wanted to make spaghetti. She knew it was a red sauce. Started with 10 pounds of onions, cooked them down, then added a ton of Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, black pepper, water, and tomato paste, made a thin red sauce and put pasta in it. She served it with grilled chicken livers. It looked like spaghetti. I grew up thinking it was spaghetti. I finally had spaghetti and meatballs for the first time in college and came home and said, "Mom, the spaghetti I had had meatballs, it had oregano, it wasn't like yours at all!" She said: "It sounds terrible!" People really like it, because it has a clear end and punchline.

MICHAEL: Middle for me is often most fascinating. I take the idea and write very stream of consciousness, let myself go. Hemingway quote: "Write drunk; edit sober." I don't necessarily drink but I do approach writing like I have had a couple glasses of wine at a dinner party. I loosen up. I relax. So many of the food blogs I come across I don't come back, because I'm not getting a voice. So many people are afraid to be themselves, to expose themselves. Some people hide behind their blogs. I just start writing and it takes me in a totally different direction than I anticipated. You learn these things by yourself, ABOUT yourself, when you tell yourself these stories. That's why the middle part, where you're getting a little lost, is my favorite.

REBECCA: Book recommendations!

- Anne Lamott - Bird by Bird
- Stephen King - On Writing - even if you're not into horror, his toolbox is great

It helps me to have an ideal reader in mind you're speaking with personally. Sometimes it's my sister, who often asks me "Why would you cook THAT?" I go for the great first sentence, especially with so many people reading my blog through Google Reader. Once I get that first line right, I can coast the rest of the way. I bookend the post by ending on a high note that reflects the first sentence.

QUESTION - Kristin of Dine and Dish - I had a friend ask for my favorite recipe. I couldn't think about it because I'm not a recipe blogger but I knew immediately my favorite story. My question - as someone who writes spur of the moment and hits publish when I'm done -- do I need to schedule posts and space them out? Do you?

MICHAEL: I make myself post once a week and keep it on the same day, that started from a weekly column I had to write that way. But I'm very undisciplined -- usually I write just before I post to keep it spontaneous. They come out, I read them for sense and redundancy; but other than that it's a spontaneous exercise. My routine is a lack of routine; that keeps it fresh for me.

REBECCA: What you see on the blog is what I had for dinner the night before. I read Problogger and know I should have an editorial schedule but my meals just happen. Stories are different - I keep a notebook of my stories to remember them. Then I will refer back and see which story I can relate to a recipe. I've written a funny story about a gynecologist visit that had nothing to do with appetizers.

DIANNE: So when I go to blog posts titled "Southern Pot Roast Recipe" that start "So I went to the gynecologist the other day …" and I sometimes feel a little lost. What do you think?

MICHAEL: Sometimes that pulls you in and piques your curiosity. If it connects somewhere.

DIANNE: How far down do you have to read to get to the connection?

COMMENT: Depends on how good a writer you are. If you're good, the connection will draw you in. If it doesn't flow, then it's a disjunct.

REBECCA: When I started blogging I was a baker and wanted to keep my skills up, I joined Tuesdays With Dorrie; at the time it was 300 people blogging the same recipe each week. There's a community feel and you want to comment on everyone's blog but you are looking at a lot of the same cookies. For me,telling a different story came directly from that.

MICHAEL: When I blog, only about half the time is me saying I want to cook and blog this recipe. Half the fun is coming up with a recipe to go with a story. Someone called me and told me their parrot just laid an egg and could I make a recipe out of it. (Yes, that happened, really.) If there is a recipe I want to do, I'll put it in my phone and sit on it and I won't do the recipe until I have a reason to. I'm not going to write about strawberry shortcake because STRAWBERRIES are in SEASON! I'll go to other blogs to grab recipes, and that's great, but rarely will I come back unless there's an interesting shortcake

COMMENT: Rachel - Improvised Perspective - if you choose a recipe you've been lusting after, you do it, it works, great photos, but you don't really have a story -- what are your values around making up a story? Like, making it up, something that didn't happen.

DIANNE: You need a lede, regardless.

MICHAEL: This company came in with $8 ice spheres called GLOSS to the restaurant I worked at, and my coworkers said, "You have to write about this." And I was like, how easy is it to mock this? I'll pass. Then I thought, what if I were the type of person who WOULD love ice spheres? And I wrote a story in that voice, I fabricated it. It was fun -- but it completely confused ALL my readers, even friends of 25 years. They were asking, "Did you really get lipo?"

REBECCA:

MOLLY: I run into this problem a lot and it's really uncomfortable. I write for Bon Appetit with long deadlines and thinking about strawberry jam in December is very inauthentic. But as uncomfortable as it is, I have never not been able to eventually come up with a real angle. I pitched sole meuniere because I wanted to teach myself how to make it. But it wasn't interesting because sole meuniere is really not that hard to make, so I was stumped. But there's something magical about pushing yourself to the point where you DO have something to say. I wound up thinking about a friend who is really into classical technique, who made me trout amandine which is related to sole meuniere, and I ended up writing about my jealousy of his perfect technique. I never would have gotten there if I hadn't spent the time going through the phase of "What am I going to say?"

COMMENT Sharon of Three Many Cooks - I have no problem with poetic license. I just made a ton of tomato sauce from a big frickin box of tomatoes. Making tomato sauce is boring. But I got this image in my head of me taking a freezer box to the dumpster covered in red stuff, looking like a murderer. You add things like people in the parking lot when maybe there was one. Taking an image, magnifying the image, making it funny, elevating your normal life.

REBECCA: I don't have a problem with being your own editor. When I visit my family I repeat the same stories and my sister and I say to each other, "The next time you hear it, it'll be better."

MICHAEL: You hooked on something when you said "Your own twist." Your individual take on it. Elevate your real life to something else as long as you're telling it your way.

COMMENT - Gluten Free Girl - Thanks for talking about real writing. Food bloggers actually go to markets and buy vegetables based on popularity of search terms. THANK YOU.

DIANNE: When I'm having the most fun writing is the best time for me and the best time for my readers. It can be uncomfortable when I've got nothing, but I'll realize there's always something. I used to be crazy about starting with the lede, then the title, all my newspaper training of the inverted pyramid structure -- with all the good stuff at the front. But now I give myself permission to just write.

Q - I read On Writing while I read Twilight, and it completely ruined it for me. Heh. What about length? I know when I'm trying to infuse more of me and my story I go long. Do you keep it to a certain length or just go wherever it takes you?

REBECCA: I go where it takes me. If I'm procrastinating, it goes shorter. If I think of something to add later I get to go back and tweak -- one of the biggest benefits of blogging. I try to balance -- 3 short post and 2 longs per week? Short is 3 paragraphs. Long is 7-10 paragraphs.

MICHAEL: That's a short one for me.

REBECCA: I did features writing for a while, where I just had to draw it out. It's nice to hit it and quit it.

MICHAEL: I like to meander, follow a thread and bring it back. Not everyone's going to read through and I'm OK with that. Those that do and get me, they stay and I connect with those people.

COMMENT: Priscilla of She's Cooking. My writing is always business writing, I started blogging to write with more creativity. I'm used to writing very succinct memos and the like. What tips do you have to pull out that creativity.

MICHAEL: Have a glass of wine. I used to date a Ph.D. candidate in Evil English Literature. He jumped from academic writing to writing for the Examiner, and he said he got in trouble for using his "fun voice." For him, it was about being out of practice. My best advice for you, if you want to loosen up, just practice. Write conversationally, Just keep doing it. I was forced to write every week, I didn't know what I was doing at first. Every week I write, it gets better.

REBECCA: When I'm having trouble with a post -- grab a magazine that you love. Flip through it, steal ideas. Oprah always has a celebrity playlist -- what would be the soundtrack to what I just made? Gives what you're cooking personality beyond the five senses. Do a list post -- 5 things to do with a chicken breast, who hasn't gotten frustrated by chicken breasts?

DIANNE: Good lede. I wanted to ask Rebecca -- she was saying that a recipe for apple pie doesn't have to include how it tastes. She'll write, "This pie is naughty, the kind that will spank you without using a switch." How do you get this kind of inspiration?

REBECCA: That one came straight out of a conversation my husband and I had about when you were kids you would get sent outside to pick their own switch. I could differentiate recipes by the amount of cinnamon but it's a lot more fun to thnk "Is this peach cobbler like a little great grandma, or like Michael Procopio?"

COMMENT - Jenny from Purple Housedirt November is NaNoWriMo and NaBloPoMo, you don't have to publish but it's a great way to get practice.

COMMENT - if you write every day you'd have a 365-page novel.

COMMENT - just because I don't write a post a week doesn't mean I don't write 7 days a week.

CRAFT: HOW DO YOU DRAW READERS INTO A STORY?

MICHAEL: Catchy hook, eye-catching photo, fascinating headline or all three. I'm never quite sure how I'm going to do it but as I'm writing it becomes clear to me. I need to get emotional - whether love, death, something embarrassing, something funny. If that's in the first paragraph or two I'm hooked; I'll stay for the recipe.

REBECCA: For me it's all about that first sentence. It's hard to explain how to write a great first sentence. Grab your favorite books and magazine articles and see what you like.

DIANNE: I was editing a long story the other day and he didn't really understand the use of foreshadowing. What I learned in J-school is that readers like to be taken down a path; you have to sprinkle breadcrumbs for them. They want to know, "Should I keep reading?" We're all busy. What he was doing wrong was switching topics and tones. One minute it was travelogue, one minute it was dialogue; I didn't know where it was going and it bugged me. The reader will stop if there's an opportunity.

COMMENT: It's interesting writing for the Web -- any minute someone could click away. Yet there is no hook on so many blog posts -- it's Thursday, it's been raining, I think I'll make soup. Think about what would grab you. I throw away three beginnings before I find the real one. Catching eyeballs is the essence of writing online.

DIANNE: "Thursday I think I'll make soup" is technically called "throat clearing." You can write it, you don't need to keep it.

COMMENT: Is blogging really journalism? I was trained as a journalist. Lede, inverted pyramid, craft, blah blah blah. Does that still apply?

DIANNE: Who feels the first sentence is critical? [Most raise hands.] It's important for a reason.

COMMENT: But it's not all words anymore. It's sometimes a visual. There's video, still images, photos, multimedia.

DIANNE: We're talking about the craft of writing.

MICHAEL: I thought we were talking about personal essays. I don't consider myself a journalist at all; I write extremely subjectively. It's journaling, not journalism.

DIANNE: Journalism encompasses storytelling.

COMMENT: As a blogger I'm blogging for myself; as a journalist, don't you have more of a responsibility to other people?

MICHAEL: If you're writing a personal essay from your point of view, what's so appealing to me about certain food blogs out there, is those people who feel strongly and share it in an interesting way. I find few people fearless enough to do that.

REBECCA: A lot comes from intention. Are you just telling your experience with this recipe or are you trying to persuade me to cook what you just made? Are you teaching me about the history of this food or a regional specialty?

DIANNE: If you are only going to write for yourself, write a journal and not show it to anyone. If you are writing a blog, other people are going to read it and you should consider your readership. I still write for myself but my blog is different from my personal journal. You do want to figure out how to keep your readers interested in reading.

COMMENTS: We're communicators. There are certain rules for being a communicator; the inverted pyramid is just a handy way of seeing that. Interest, readability, beginning middle end, are crucial. My question -- I think I'm a good writer; that is, I love everything I write. But I come back three years later an cringe but even after throat clearing and spellchecking, how can I tell "this is working?" Is there a checklist you use to know what to edit?

MICHAEL: Sometimes there's no way of knowing. Go with your gut, which is telling you you're fabulous. Keeping my food blog has been the best therapy ever. You work out little things through your essays. Back to feedback -- how are people responding, what sort of comments are you getting?

REBECCA: And ask someone! We're a community, we're all trading business cards here. Ask someone for an honest opinion. When I first started I asked friends and relatives -- mine don't sugarcoat; their criticism was valuable.

QUESTION: Sharon - our blog is story and writing based; the recipes are separate posts. I feel a lot of pressure from readers and Google Analytics - people are interested in recipes and glossy pictures of cookies and chocolate dripping of the side of those cookies. Sometimes it's difficult to compete with that. But our blog is never going to change. I feel frustrated because like everyone I do want an audience, and people are just coming and checking out the recipe. How do you deal with that?

MICHAEL: I got over my "look at those photos and comments on other blogs" and just do my own thing. Now I just think people are awesome and I make friends with them. My approach is that the recipe is part of the story. I reference the story within my recipe directions; you can't separate the two. Kinda like Sondheim.

COMMENT: People do appreciate the stories but it's easier to respond to the recipe.

COMMENT: I'm a long blogger. A "scroller." I tried to edit myself and become more pithy and some people ask, "Why can't you just shut UP? I want a recipe?" to which I reply, "Scroll down." Blogging shouldn't be a popularity contest. This isn't high school.

MICHAEL: Life is high school.

COMMENT - The thing that breaks my heart about conferences is that they sometimes imply that there's one way to do it. I'm friends with Elise Bauer of Simply Recipes who is very SEO/Google friendly. I do something different, I'm doing what I want to do. There are many many ways to peel an apple, we need to find our own voice, style, niche, maximize the niche and the audience will find you.

MICHAEL: "It's not the sips and nibbles I find interesting; it's the sippers and nibblers." I take that to heart.

Links Referenced in This Panel

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