2016: A (writing) year in review.

Globally speaking, I’m beyond ready for 2016 to beat a hasty retreat. Seriously.

Professionally, though, I’m still marveling at what a great year it was. Seriously.

I was fortunate to collaborate with a number of longstanding and new clients, broadening and deepening my portfolio of writing about food and wellness. My work fell evenly into two camps: writing for publication and online marketing content. The subjects were inspiring, the teams fun to work with, the finished projects stuff I’m proud of. A few high points:

A visit to one of my top clients. After working together — closely, on lots and lots of projects — for two years, I traveled to connect in person with my colleagues at the Produce Marketing Association. We’ve worked together to promote dozens of global events for growers/suppliers/retailers in the fresh produce and floral industry. It was so neat to meet the PMA team face-to-face. And 2017 looks to hold even greater collaboration.

Giving life to local food coverage. Call me old-fashioned, but I still love reading the local newspaper over my morning coffee. And my recipe file is full of old clippings from newspapers’ food sections. So when editor Amy Wilson asked if I’d regularly contribute to the Cincinnati Enquirer‘s weekly food coverage, I jumped at the chance. I got to write about the pleasures of eating breakfast for dinner, shared delicious ways to enjoy summer tomatoes, and declared that making your own butter is just about the best thing ever. Coolest encounter of the year: Running into an Enquirer reader, toting my recipe for herb and spice cashews that she’d cut from the paper, as she was buying the nuts at Dean’s Mediterranean Market. Local food — and local media — for the win!

Tackling a new medium: recipe videos. You know those 1-minute recipe videos you see in your Facebook feed all the time? Turns out, those take about 2 hours to film and are a whole lot of fun to create. Working with Curiosity Advertising and their client, The Christ Hospital, we’re rolling out a series of quick recipe videos.

Supporting local food producers, farmers and retailers. Serving as editor of Edible Ohio Valley remains a passion and pleasure, as we get to tell the stories of people who are working hard to bring beautiful, healthful food to our tables here in Cincinnati. One of my favorite stories to write this year was a feature on farmers’ markets and their importance to our community, economy and our collective health.

Here’s hoping you had a productive and fulfilling 2016, and that 2017 will bring you more of the same!

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You don’t suck at writing. You just need to get started.

Recently, I was having a “you can do it” sort of conversation with a client who’s stuck in the long, thankless-until-it’s-published slog of writing a book, when she asked me about my writing process. The answer I gave her was probably unhelpful: I tend to wait until inspiration strikes, at which point the piece pours from my fingertips almost fully formed.

No inspiration? No writing.

(At which point, I should acknowledge that it’s been monthsandmonths since I’ve published a post here on my professional website. See ‘inspiration’ above.)

But what if deadlines loom and there’s simply no time to wait for the muse to arrive? Lynda’s question about process got me thinking more introspectively about mine. So for her, and for any of you who struggle (don’t we all?) with writing, here are a few of my practices that might be helpful to you.

Consider the nature of the project. Personal essay-ish pieces, like these posts or ones for my recipe website, or my editor’s notes for Edible Ohio Valley, do require inspiration. Often, I’ll noodle on ideas while I’m doing something completely unrelated: My Edible editor’s notes are unfailingly written in my head while I’m out walking Peroni. Recipe ideas jolt when I’m eating something delicious at a restaurant or browsing cookbooks or magazines. With more technical writing, information is more critical than inspiration. Research and interviewing are the prompts I need to get started. See below.

Just open a blank document. I know: The prospect of facing a blank page is daunting, no matter what you’re creating. But I find that opening a blank document, and saving it — making the project real, giving it a name, a purpose — often gets me over the hump.

Start collecting inputs. In that newly opened document, I’ll stash snippets of online research material, interview questions, Wikipedia content, interesting quotes or insights I’ve gathered. For example, I’m currently writing a newsletter for a client on a marketing-related topic, one that I’m familiar with but not expert in. So I started by doing several Google searches and gathering ideas, images and information (being sure to save my sources so I can later either quote or cite the originals). Soon, I had pages of reference material to work with.

Organize the inputs. It’s easy to see patterns in the inputs: a theme for the piece, or common elements that can be grouped together. For example, I’ll cut and paste quotes from extensive interview notes in a linear fashion. Once I’ve organized the inputs, I have the skeleton of the piece.

Fill in the blanks. With that skeleton in place, I’ll add transitions between ideas, fill in supplemental information or explanation, make sure the content flows logically and add a conclusion that helps the reader understand the concept or creates a call to action.

This newsletter is itself a case study in process:

Inspiration > Blank document > Ideas > Organize > Fill in.

Some days, we all stare at that blank page/canvas/screen and think, “I. Can’t. Even.” But then we can.

Finding inspiration in Hemingway: Are you refilling?

“I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing; but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.” — Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

I have spent this summer refilling from the springs.

I have always been a reader; but the kid who devoured books one after another has, as an adult, found it difficult to consistently make time for reading. This summer has been different. I’ve moved from book to book, putting one down only to pick up another. I’ve felt almost hungry to read. It’s like eating Mexican Seven Layer Dip: I just. Cannot. Stop.

First, it was David McCullough’s “The Greater Journey,” a hefty nonfiction book about American writers, artists and physicians who flocked to Paris between roughly 1830 and 1900. These expats sought to perfect their crafts in what they saw as the most vital, creative life-giving city in the world.

When I finished it, I felt the need to stay in Paris, and to read about the next generation of writers and artists who went there in first two decades of the 20th century: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Anderson, Picasso, the group that Gertrude Stein called “The Lost Generation.”

Eiffel_TowerSo I picked up “The Paris Wife,” Paula McClain’s fictional account of Hadley and Ernest Hemingway’s courtship and marriage and early life in Paris. And then, of course, I had to read Hemingway’s memoir of that same time, “A Moveable Feast” — a gorgeously written, heartbreaking book. Forty-some years later — after he and Hadley had divorced (and he’d married three other women in succession), after he’d undergone horrific electroshock therapy treatments for depression that had sapped his memory — Hemingway received two steamer trunks of letters, notebooks and old clothing that he’d left at the Hôtel Ritz in Paris in the 1920s. He stitched together those old writings and fragmented memories into “A Moveable Feast.”

The book is more than reflection on a marriage; it captures conversations among writers about the craft of writing. I’ve underlined passage after passage that inspire me — and maybe you, too, no matter what your creative discipline:

On keeping momentum in your work — “I always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day.”

On the struggle to begin, to face the blank page — “But sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going … I would stand and look out over the roofs of paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there.”

On the need to seek out other writing as inspiration and respite from our own work — “When I was writing, it was necessary for me to read after I had written, to keep my mind from going on with the story I was working on.”

So, as the summer winds down, what are you doing to refill from the springs?

Let’s make work a nicer place.

I’m just back from three days at HOW Design Live — the premier event for folks in the creative professions (graphic and web design, advertising, marcomm and related fields). HOW remains close to my heart, since I spent many years managing the brand and helping to host the conference. (This year, I developed a content strategy, helped with a big chunk of writing and covered the event live on social media … big fun!)

Unexpectedly — and perhaps unintentionally — a prominent theme pulsed through the event, linking many of they keynote presentations. It was a theme of kindness. Simon Sinek talked about it. So did Tina Roth Eisenberg and Tom Peters. Brené Brown touched on it, too.

This event wasn’t JUST about the work — it was about being nice to each other at work. And people responded. Everyone I talked to had picked up on it. It was this sort of primal energy that fed the entire crowd.

Why?

As Simon Sinek pointed out, workplaces large and small have lost their way. Profits come before people. Workers are laid off without conscience, and the rest of the team are pressured to pick up the slack. The pace of work is inhumane. Technology is beyond disruptive; it’s poisonous. When did it become OK for managers to email employees on weekends and expect them to respond? When did the pace of work pick up such that people can’t even breathe, let alone connect with colleagues and create really incredible new ideas? Yes, companies exist to create profit — and in doing so create jobs and build communities — but so much of this profit focus is incredibly short term, and it’s destroying people.

Why do we think the independent workforce is booming now? People are getting off the freakin’ treadmill.

What do we do about this? Five keywords emerged at HOW Design Live, words that might point to a better path:

Trust. This is a big one. Companies don’t trust their employees to make smart decisions, to take ownership of their work, to fall and learn from mistakes. Employees don’t trust that companies have people (themselves, or their customers) as their primary focus. Trust isn’t an asset on a resume or a function on a job description. It’s earned. Managers earn trust by digging into the trenches, working alongside their teams, telling them, “I have your back” and then living those words. Employees earn trust by recognizing what needs to be done and stepping up, rising to challenges, being honest when they’re confused or when they make mistakes.

Truth. This goes hand in hand with trust, doesn’t it? In politically charged workplaces, it’s impossible to have honest conversations. People say one thing and do another, throw each other under the bus. Brené Brown talked about how we have to own our flaws, be honest about our failures — or others will use those things to define us. We have to control our own stories.

Try. I enjoyed hearing Angie Myung and Ted Vadakan, the founders of Poketo, talk about the by-the-seat-of-their-pants startup story. They moved in with Ted’s parents, picked and packed orders themselves, made some bad decisions about inventory. They just gave it a whirl, and now they have an influential brand that brings art into people’s everyday lives. They tried.

Treat. As in, treat people kindly. Why are there so many assholes? Where is it written that if you’re unsure about yourself or your capabilities you get to mask that by being a bully? One great piece of advice from Sinek: When someone asks for a minute of your time, close the laptop and put your phone in a drawer. Disconnect from technology — entirely — and give them your full attention. Attention, he said, is the purest form of generosity.

Thanks. Tom Peters gave an enjoyably curmudgeonly rant that wandered all over the map. But he ended with the two most important words in business: Thank you. Thank you speaks truthfully and builds trust. We don’t say ‘thank you’ enough.

So, let’s all commit to this, shall we: Say thanks every day (every hour?). Try stuff. Be nice. Be honest and authentic. Support each other to build trust. Put the phones away and just talk.

I’m in.

New work: Taste of the Holidays for Meijer.

I loved creating the copy for Meijer’s beautiful in-store holiday publication. Our goal was to create an approachable, engaging guide for holiday entertaining, cooking and gift-giving, with content designed to spark ideas — and, of course, to prompt sales of the featured products and ingredients. Mission accomplished!

Taste of Holiday coverTaste of Holiday spreadTaste of Holiday spread 2

New work: Big Game magazine for Meijer.

After working on Meijer’s Taste of Holiday magazine, my client from IN Marketing Services asked, “Wanna work on our “Big Game” magazine? Hmmm … let me think about that: YES!

This was a really fun project, one that required that I haul out every football cliche in the playbook. For this 28-page publication, I drafted copy to support recipes provided by Meijer and their partners. I developed an “Ultimate DIY Nacho Bar” with all the trimmings, along with copy tidbits for each category of recipes.

Now I’m hungry!

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New work: The Findlay Market Cookbook.

I’m pleased as punch to share that “The Findlay Market Cookbook” has been published — copies arrived in our hot little hands yesterday. I’m very proud of the project, and thrilled with the collaboration with photographer Julie Kramer, writer Karen Kahle and publisher Farm Fresh Books.

The book is a celebration of Cincinnati’s historic public food hall, a place where I spend most of my grocery dollars and where Rob and I spend practically every Saturday morning. It spotlights the vendors, producers and growers who bring us fantastic local food. It recognizes the groove that our food scene is in, with recipes from some of our city’s finest local chefs and mixologists.

Plus, it’s a whole lot of fun. Take a look at a few of my favorite pages. And get a sneak peek at a few recipes from the book here.

The Findlay Market Cookbook is available exclusively at Findlay Market through early 2015, with proceeds going to support the nonprofit Corporation for Findlay Market, which manages and sustains the market.

FindlayMarketCookbook Cover

Colonel De Cottage Bakery Dark Wood Farm Fab Ferments

The creative benefits of puttering.

garden toolA couple of weeks ago, when the weather wasn’t so goshdarn steamy and my workload was summer-light, I wandered outside to take a look at the vegetable garden before sitting down at the computer for the day.

An hour and a half later, I realized that I’d been completely sucked into The Puttering Zone.

You’ve had this experience, right? What starts with a simple task, like putting something away in your workbench, or deadheading a few flowers in the landscape or stashing a box of crackers on the shelf … winds up as 90 minutes of tinkering or gardening or cleaning out the pantry. One little thing leads to another, and without much thinking about it, you’ve managed to accomplish quite a bit.

Or not. The pleasure of puttering is in the act itself, not necessarily the outcome (though that can be rewarding, too).

After futzing around in the garden for awhile, it occurred to me that this kind of activity might be really good for us. Turns out, puttering is good for both the body and the brain:

In one study by the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, which tracked 60-year-old men and women over 12 years, found that people who had an active daily life that included “non-exercise” — physical activity like “gardening, car maintenance, blackberry picking or DIY projects” — had a 30% lower risk of heart attack or stroke compared to people who were sedentary.

Another study by a team from Rush University Medical Center found that similar activity — described in a news release as “activities like cooking, washing the dishes, playing cards …” — may help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s.

Three aspects of puttering I think are beneficial particularly to those of us who work in a creative field:

  1. Puttering has an absent-minded quality to it. Performing simple tasks like pulling weeds or reorganizing tools on a pegboard, and moving from one task to another without planning, doesn’t require much concentration. Our minds are free to wander, to make connections between things stashed away in our brains, to generate ideas. (I’ve written about how we can coax ideas along in those seemingly serendipitous moments.) And in fact, the idea for this newsletter emerged as I was on my hands and knees working the soil with a cultivator.
  2. Puttering is one of many antidotes to sitting in a chair all day. The physicality of futzing around helps with balance and coordination. Just moving around is good for us. It’s what our bodies are programmed to do. (Too, I’ve written about how physical activity fuels creativity.)
  3. You can’t put “puttering” on your to-do list. It just happens. You go out to get the newspaper and, voila! Next thing you know, and hour has passed, and your car’s wheels are bright and shiny. Puttering is the antithesis of the to-do list. It forces spontaneity. This is a good thing.

I did indeed come back indoors and sit down at the computer, at which point I opened a Pages document and sketched a few notes that became this newsletter. I recall having a much brighter outlook on my day, having accomplished something and enjoyed myself in unexpected fashion.

I think we all need to make more space in our lives for puttering, don’t you?

New work: Celebrating the design community.

Late last year, the team at San Francisco’s supertalented Hybrid Design called with an assignment: Would I be interested in interviewing Sibella Kraus for one of their client projects?

Um, yeah.

Sibella Kraus is the matriarch of our modern farmers’ market system, and a personal hero of mine. She worked with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse, where the two of them began seeking better quality produce from local farmers. When Sibella left the restaurant business, she went on to found the Center for Urban Education About Sustainable Agriculture, the nonprofit organization behind the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market, a San Francisco institution that Rob and I never fail to visit when we’re in the City by the Bay. Sibella was wonderful to talk to, and the story ended up in Issue 3 of Mohawk Paper’s Maker Quarterly. (Click on the cover image below to download the PDF.)

Four months later, the Hybrid Design team asked if I’d contribute to Issue 4 of the Quarterly. This time, I had the fun assignment to write about public spaces that foster community: tiny parks, communal apartment buildings, co-working spaces and the like. (Click on the cover below to download the PDF.) I love working with the Hybrid team … it’s a real collaboration.

Finishing that marathon project.

Well, it’s done.

On July 1, I turned in the manuscript for “The Findlay Market Cookbook.” It’s a whopper: 54,000 words, about 220 pages, full of 70+ interviews with local farmers and food entrepreneurs and about 125 recipes. The biggest project I’ve ever undertaken, by far.

And my goodness, was this a learning experience—from start to finish. I wrote about this Marathon Project (MP) several months ago on my blog and in my newsletter. (In fact, that post, in March, was the last one I’ve added to my blog. Yeah, I’ve been busy.) At that point, about 2 months into the MP, I had discovered some project-management tricks that would help manage a long-term gig, including breaking the MP into chunks and doing the pre-work necessary to make things move smoothly.

Now that I’ve wrapped up much of the work involved in the MP (marketing and promotional work will happen when the book is published this fall), I thought I’d document and share more of what I’ve learned during the experience. And I’m sure more “a-ha’s” will emerge the farther away from the MP I get.

image via creative commons license

The MP is smaller than you think it is. If you’re a “get-er-done” kind of person, one who tackles the to-do list with relentless pursuit and who’s not comfortable until tasks are finished, the Marathon Project will loom large on your plate from the very start. Until you finish, it will remain a constant presence on your mind and your calendar. The thing is, the MP is psychologically larger than it actually is. It will consume you … if you let it.

That said, the MP is large. And you probably won’t fully appreciate its magnitude until you’ve wrapped the project. Only when I finished the last step of my cookbook project—when I compiled all the profiles and recipes and front matter and miscellaneous stuff, about 200 separate pieces, into a single document—did I realize just how BIG this MP was. Only then did I truly feel a sense of accomplishment. When you reach the finish line of your MP, look back and consider all the ground you’ve covered.

Know that you’ll hit the wall, and trust that the inspiration you need will come. I had about 10 final profiles to write for the book and was scrambling to gather recipes—and I couldn’t keep going. I hit the wall. I was just going through the motions, totally un-fired-up about the project. Then Julie Kramer, the photographer, shared some of the images she was getting for the book. They were amazing. Perfect for the project. Those shots gave me the dose of inspiration I needed. When you hit the wall in an MP, keep your eyes open for something that will give you the buzz to get to the finish.

Business development efforts shouldn’t cease. For the final month of the project, I graciously declined several other gigs so that I could focus solely on the book, and I let my clients know that I’d again be available in a few weeks. It was scary to say no to business, but I felt I needed to. During that time, though, I also cut off other marketing channels: didn’t contribute to my blog, put the newsletter on hiatus, neglected business-development follow-ups. This was not smart. Next time I find an MP on my plate, I’ll be more disciplined about carefully keeping the marketing machine turning.

Find a way to celebrate. When you reach the finish line on a Marathon Project, do something deliberate and meaningful to celebrate, particularly if it’s a team effort. Lunch, happy hour, an afternoon off … find a way to reward the effort and acknowledge your quality work.

Finish that Marathon, catch your breath, and then get back to doing the great work you do.

Working on a project that I can help with? Get in touch—I’m ready to start something new!