“If you’re born with a love for the wrote and the writ
People of letters your warning stands clear
Pay heed to your heart and not to your wit
Don’t say in a letter what you can’t in my ear.”
Everybody is a writer these days. I think the internet is the culprit; it allows an unhindered, unedited, uncensored note pad on which the world has been scribbling for almost three decades. I am guilty of calling myself a writer without the bonafides—or, I was guilty of it—I have finally been published, as in typeset print on paper. I am breathlessly proud. So there you have it. I’ve trumpeted my accomplishment. However, as much as seeing my words in print and receiving a decent pay cheque for my toils was, like, dope, the most life-changing take-away of this achievement was the experience of working with an editor.
I pitched a Toronto magazine with some writing from this very blog. I did not have high hopes. In fact, like all my other submissions over the last three years, I dropped it in the slot and walked way, forgetting it almost immediately. My writing—including a full memoir manuscript and many shorter pieces—has been rejected innumerable times. Some rejections provided encouragement and a bit of feedback, other times, a form letter of sorts impersonally broke the news. By and large though, most of the rejections were not sent at all, but implied by a long and cruel silence. Most of my work sits on what are called ‘slush piles’, which to put it plainly, are the lowest items on any publishers’ to-do list. They might swipe one or two submissions off the top before a vacation to skim through idly on the beach or they’ll toss a few manuscripts to a new intern. But most times, they end up in the bottom of a drawer, a forgotten and over-looked Shakespeare-in-the-making or more likely, a dreary, poorly written romance cluttered with poor dialogue and cliche— we’ll never know will we? There aren’t enough people in the world to read through the mountains of hopeful, unpublished work that lay dusty in the attics and cellars of the world’s publishing houses. Somehow, against all the odds, someone finally read something of mine and asked to see more. Then they asked to meet. Then they gave me an assignment: my whole restaurant experience from start to finish in 4,000 words. A tall order, but my first writing job. Pinch me. Then the real work began, for writing, however pleasurable, is also hard work.
Writing with an editor’s guidance forced my hand to systematically kill off all those lovely bits of text for which I was so proud; the perfectly placed metaphor, the back story that provided a jewel of context or a short, snappy dialogue that placed character in setting like a hand in glove.
Yes, he made me murder my darlings.
“The reader will already understand that. There’s no need to explain further,” he said to me, “it’s obvious.” Or, “The previous sentence already implies what you are saying in the second sentence, it is redundant.” He especially loathed anything that resembled a cliche—a creature to be dispatched on sight with extreme prejudice. Pacing and detail are critical, he told me. Magazine articles should unfold chronologically, so no prologues and no gimmicky narrative arcs. We replaced repetitive sentences with more information. Assumed names and aliases are problematic; he suggested I use actual names or no names at all. He drew more personal information out of me than I had originally intended to share. As the piece took shape, I started to feel exposed and vulnerable. I had not intended to reveal dollar figures from my restaurant business, nor to write at length about my wife and children, but he insisted that it was important that I did. Being brave in the face of misgivings, I deferred to his expertise. 7,000 words became 4,000 words. The ruthless slaughter of my darlings resulted in an effective narrative as tight as a drum (yes there’s one of those pesky cliches). The editor’s instincts are well-tuned. I appreciated working with him more then he probably realizes. After a few weeks of back and forth, the final draft was approved and it went to print, at which point I started losing sleep worrying. Unlike online writing which can be edited any time (like this post for example), an article in print is a wild thing set free to rampage through the village unchecked. For me, it was a new experience as a writer and I was scared. Would someone misinterpret my words? Did I come off sounding like an asshole? Was my writing voice whiny? Did I sound like Gilbert Gottfried in the reader’s head? I had good reason to worry. An article about a real estate acquisition written a few months earlier for the same magazine had been eviscerated by the public for oozing upper-class privilege and being tone-deaf about poverty (among other things). An online brigade of fact-checking vigilantes discovered deeper, embarrassing facts about the writer from past articles she had written, including undisclosed real estate largesse and wealthy relatives, further cementing her and her husband’s reputation as the ‘most hated family in Toronto’. Admittedly, at the time I also partook in the smug schadenfreude of the whole sorry situation. Clearly the writer had not anticipated the pile on. Perhaps I am no different: blind and out of touch with a mob of angry readers waiting in the wings to accuse me of first-world problems and maybe even the misappropriation of my family’s assets (which is true to a certain extent). I won’t know until people start reading the piece. It has only just hit news stands. When it is posted digitally, the real shit will hit the real fan because that is when Twitter weighs in—or even worse, ignores me completely.
So, I wait.
On the broader topic of writing, I mentioned at the beginning of this blog that writers without bonafides are all over the internet, but this is not to say that these writers are bad. I know a few writers whose work has never appeared in print who humble me with their effortlessly beautiful writing and I also know of (and have read) food/restaurant writers who are indeed printed on paper who are awful, unreadable and rage-inducing (and that’s not just my opinion). It all seems so terribly unfair. So many good writers are not heralded.
For example, there is a blog called You Have Been Served, written by a successful but largely under-the-radar Toronto restaurateur. I discovered her online writing earlier this year and was categorically blown away by the quality of her work. I emailed her and after a few exchanges, we’ve become sort of writerly friends. Her grasp of vocabulary, style and language are light years beyond my amateur dithering so I have asked her to help me edit my writing. She should be published. Really. Her restaurant memoir would be up there with Kitchen Confidential and Blood, Bones and Butter, that is, if a publisher was willing to take a chance on someone based on their abilities as a writer and not on the latest count of their Twitter-followers (She told me that the first question a literary agent asks now is how large a social platform you have, before even reading the work). Her writing is caustic and snarky in the best way and funny as fuck. I really wish someone would publish her.
And there is also Rebecca Taylor, who used to drink beer at the bar in my restaurant and who ultimately ended up cooking in my restaurant kitchen. Our bar shelf doubled as library at the time, and this young, prolifically-tattooed woman worked her way through all the food writing we had on hand from Bourdain to M.F.K Fischer to Lucky Peach Magazine. She has proven to be an outstanding writer and has submitted work to online publishers and gotten some stuff posted, but for the printed-on-paper words, she has experienced rejection like me. She is younger, and perhaps savvier in the ways of media. Her life is a hell of a lot more interesting to boot. She rides horses, plants trees, sleeps in the woods and drives a convertible. With no culinary training to speak of outside of The Beech Tree kitchen, she can cook circles around plenty of lifers. She doesn’t necessarily believe that she can, but trust me, she’s legit. She can also wordsmith me under the table any day. I would read the shit out of any book she put out there. You would too. I really wish someone would publish her.
I am happy that my words have finally appeared in print. I am proud. But there is another part of me that is bitter, bitter that so many good writers get rejected, bitter that so many shitty writers get book deals and bitter that the written word is being reduced to bleating dispatches on Twitter. Maybe I’m old fashioned. Maybe I just care more about doing things the hard way. I don’t know. I have no idea what the reception will be for my article, and for all I know I am about to weather a shit storm that could rival the red spot on Jupiter, but that’s all part of the gig I guess.
And so I wait.
Available at news stands in Ontario: A Restaurant Ruined My Life – Toronto Life Magazine – November 2017