Respecting the Italian way of life.

Rob and I this summer spent 10 days in Italy. Ten glorious days. We started in Lucca, a charming town in Tuscany, then spent a full week in Bologna, the spiritual center of Italian food and the capital of its breadbasket, Emilia-Romagna. I simply can’t rave enough about Bologna, with its lovely architecture, its narrow cobbled streets and its food shops.

Oh, its food shops! The Quadrilatero, a maze of tiny streets lined with produce vendors, butchers and salumerias, fresh pasta shops, cheese emporia … you can’t even imagine. It was bliss. Even the neighborhood just outside the Centro Storico (the city center), where we stayed for the week, had lovely food shops that met our every daily need: the latteria with its dairy goods and other essentials, the pasticceria with homemade breads and pastries, the salumeria with meats and charcuterie, the produce stall with lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. All right around the corner from our apartment.
We rented an apartment specifically so we could cook. Going into all those lovely shops and not purchasing yummy things to make would have broken my heart. I would say that we cooked a ton while we were in Bologna (we ate dinner at “home” every night), but we didn’t do more than boil water for pasta and slice tomatoes and mozzarella for caprese salads. We cooked—and ate—simply and well.

Weeks after we returned, Italy is still in my heart. I have no claim to it, but I miss it dearly. While they are fresh, I wanted to journal a few impressions of Italian food and culture, impressions that I intend to incorporate into my daily life here in the U.S.

Traveling outside the States is so richly informative, because it opens your eyes to how other people and cultures exist in the world. No country is perfect, certainly not ours. I observed so many practices and norms and ways of doing things in Italy that inspired me to live differently here.

Take food. Food in Italy is ridiculously inexpensive. Like half of what it costs here. A great bottle of wine was 10 euros. A 2-pack of yogurt was 1 euro. A liter of water was about 19 cents. I don’t know why that is. But it was noteworthy.

At the same time, food is very high quality. Fresh. Local. Yes, we were living for the week in Italy’s breadbasket; the peaches and apricots the apartment owner left for us on the kitchen table were from their own fruit farm outside the city. While we didn’t venture into a large grocery, everything we saw, even in the tiniest shops, was of the highest quality.

Perhaps because food is so high quality, Italians don’t overconsume it. There’s a respect for food—and the people who grow, prepare and sell it. Portion and package sizes are sensible; waste is minimal. For Italians, the hunger and deprivation of war are not-too-distant memories. Food is valued. Maribel, who taught the cooking class I loved in Bologna, spoke with great seriousness about not wasting the scraps of our homemade pasta, because the previous generation knew what starvation felt like. We owed it to them to not waste food.

Home life is designed for a small footprint. Refrigerators are half the size of what they are here. You shop for just a few days at a time. (Which isn’t at all an inconvenience, because the shops are literally down the block.) There’s practically no mass-produced, prepared, boxed-and-frozen food. Because ingredients are so fresh and dishes are so simple, it’s not a hassle to cook every day. And if you’re exhausted and can’t turn on the stove, there are fresh house-made salads, meats and cheeses in the market right beyond your doorstep. Or the neighborhood trattoria.

Everything gets recycled. In our apartment’s kitchen, there were separate, sturdy totes for paper, glass/metal and plastic. And a bin by the sink for food scraps. Each household is responsible for sorting and managing their trash and carrying it out to big bins on the street. With homes, streets and cars packed in so tightly, there’s no room for every home to leave a bulky trashcan on the sidewalk, and no room for trash trucks to trundle along once a week picking up bins one by one. Trash, like so much of life in Italy, is a communal effort, and it fosters a small footprint.

It was all so different … so small, so self-contained, so minimal … compared to life in the States. Americans think it’s our birthright to have endless choices in the grocery, to expect huge portion sizes when we dine out, to drive a XXXXL-sized vehicle, to live in a house that’s twice what we need, to buy as much cheaply made clothing as we want. And where does all this multiplicity of choice leave us? With food-induced health and environmental crises, sprawl, long commutes, disconnect from community, and a closet full of regrettable purchases. Heck, you can pay money to hire a company to haul away all that stuff you bought that you never needed (or wanted) in the first place. Bigger, bigger, bigger, more, more.

Immersing myself in Italian life, for just a brief week, made me feel sad about many aspects of American life. I’m not sure there’s a solution … or that most folks even see this as a problem. As for me, I’ll keep working toward the motto that Rob and I have set for ourselves:

Live analog. Live slow. Live small. Live local.

Looking for inspiration in all the right places.

In college, I took a 200-level English class on American literature and popular culture that focused on the intersection of music and literature. We studied Sam Shepard and Patti Smith’s rock-and-roll play “Cowboy Mouth.” I remember writing a term paper that dissected the lyrics of 10,000 Maniacs. Ever since, I’ve found inspiration in beautifully crafted songwriting.

A couple of months ago, we saw Rickie Lee Jones in concert, and about halfway through, I started to cry, totally blown away by hearing music live that has been the soundtrack to some of my favorite moments in life. Rob is something of a music junkie, the master of the playlist, and we have music playing all the time: while I’m working, while we’re having a cocktail outside on our porch, late into the night when that cocktail has segued into dinner and a bottle of wine.

Hearing Rickie Lee live reminded me of how magical great songwriting can be, how transportive and transformative.

While inspiration often finds me in a great book — my god, have you read All the Light We Cannot See????? — it regularly creeps in through the speakers or headphones. My musical taste steers toward singer-songwriter types, from the 1970s Laurel Canyon artists that dominated the radio waves during my Indianapolis childhood to the likes of R.E.M. and The Bodeans during my college years to current artists like Dawes, Lake Street Dive, Jill Andrews, Sturgill Simpson. I love songs that capture a time and place, that transport you into situations and relationships, that depict characters so vividly you’ll swear they’re standing in front of you.

It’s so important for creative pros not just to seek inspiration — but also to seek it outside their own medium or genre. Looking beyond your milieu opens your eyes to new influences. It frees you from the self-criticism inherent in comparing your stuff to other artists’ work. It gets you out of the weeds and into the wider world.

Skimming through my iTunes library recently, I sparked to these snippets of lyric poetry:

Eddie’s got one crazy eye
That turns him into a cartoon
When a pretty girl comes by
And there’s nothin’ here to do anymore
He sits on the stoop all day
Like there’s something he’s waiting for
Rickie Lee Jones “Living it Up”

You have found me on the other side of a loser’s winning streak
Where my thoughts all wander further than they should
Let me sing to you my solitude, let me pay for your next drink
Let me defend these hearts which are so rarely understood
Dawes “From the Right Angle”

I met him once way after midnight
he lit a smoke and I just stared
He seemed to me like such a sore sight
Bobby Tanqueray with his gorgeous face and hair
Lake Street Dive “Bobby Tanqueray”

Pour some sugar on me
Ooh in the name of love
Pour some sugar on me
Def Leppard “Pour Some Sugar on Me”

What’s in your inspiration queue?

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

Who are your influences?

There’s a scene in “The Commitments” (a terrific movie about the rise and fall of a soul band in working-class Dublin) where self-appointed manager Jimmy Rabbette is auditioning singers. A parade of musicians knock on Jimmy’s door; he opens it a crack and demands, “Who are your influences?” Hearing responses like, “Barry Manilow,” “Joan Baez” and “Spandau Ballet,” he repeatedly slams the door in disgust.

Who are your influences?

Recently, I reconnected (if you’ll indulge a personal anecdote) with one of my influences. During the holidays, looking for something to read in between finishing book 3 of the “Game of Thrones” series and starting “Gone Girl”—yes, I’m just now getting to that—I had a taste for material that was less dark and intense.

So I picked up an old favorite, “The Wind in the Willows,” Kenneth Grahame’s charming story of the Water Rat, his kindly friend Mole, and the motorcar-addicted Mr. Toad. I immediately found myself in familiar territory: Not only had I read Grahame’s beautiful story many times since childhood, but I recognized the pattern and rhythm and structure of the writing. The way Grahame works in threes, stringing together three words or phrases in a singsong pattern. The way he inserts knowing little asides. The way he uses metaphor to convey an idea.

WITW imageThe recognition struck like lightning: This is how I write. Little did I know, writers I loved in childhood—Grahame and E.B. White and A.A. Milne—would in ways large and small influence my own work decades (and decades) later. Of course, I don’t propose to compare my writing to theirs—with all due modesty, I’m competent, but not that good—but I can’t help but realize that I’ve borrowed styles and techniques from authors I’ve loved. It’s entirely subconscious. But the influence is there.

Who are your influences?

Think about the people—writers, designers, artists, mentors, colleagues, managers—whose craft and technique have informed your own work. Do you regularly revisit, review or reread those influences?

Shouldn’t you?

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.

Rethinking your elevator pitch.

Don’t you just hate talking about yourself?

Earlier this year, I had occasion to give a talk about my career and my work to a group of retirees as part of a senior-learning program sponsored by Miami University. I focused my talk on The Clara Project, a series of posts on my recipe blog, writes4food.com, inspired by a collection of 1930s recipes, which were previously owned by a woman named Clara Shenefelt, and which I discovered in an antique shop nearly 2 years ago. (As it happens, Clara lived at this retirement complex until she passed away earlier this month at age 98.)

I was unusually nervous and self-conscious about the talk. Giving this presentation felt like giving my “elevator pitch”—but, like, for nearly an hour.

But I learned something very important from this experience, something that I think is relevant to anyone who works in the creative field:

Whatever it is that you do for a living, if you speak of it with authentic enthusiasm, people will be interested in hearing about your work.

And that goes whether you’re pitching to a prospective client or meeting the friend of a friend at a party.

Aside from the few elderly gents who dozed during the presentation like they were in church, the audience seemed genuinely appreciative. They wanted to know what I write about, and how I do it. They loved the story of The Clara Project. And I found that expressing my genuine excitement made it so much easier to talk about my work.

image via creative commons license

You may have worked on your own “elevator speech”—that one-sentence pitch that describes what you do and for whom. It probably follows some kind of formula:

I do _____ for _____ who need _____.

And while the formula can help you structure and hone how you speak about your work, it has its limitations. It can sound a little stilted when you utter the words, like you’ve memorized a few lines of poetry. It can be a little jargon-y, which might play well in a business setting but might be out of place in a social interaction. And it can be a little restrictive.

Instead of memorizing a set pitch that you repeat over and over, try these tips when you’re talking about what you do:

Keep it flexible. The standard version of my pitch is: “I’m an independent journalist, copywriter and content developer, and I focus on food and wellness, creativity and design.” Recently, I spoke to a group of olive oil producers, and I introduced myself by saying, “I write about food for magazines and food brands.” When I spoke last month to a group of design-firm principals, I said, “I help creative agencies tell their stories.” Your pitch should flex depending on who you’re talking to.

Have a shorthand version for social settings. At a party, if I’m asked what I do, I simply say, “I’m a food writer.” Invariably, I’ll get a follow-up question: “Oh, so who do you write for?” When you’re in a social setting, can you come up with a short-and-sweet description of your work that prompts additional conversation?

Let your enthusiasm shine. Whether you write about food or you develop B2B websites, there’s something about the work you get really geeked about. Tap into that when you’re talking with someone new about your work.