Five writing tips from Julia Child
The famous cook’s experiences span the kitchen and publishing
Julia Child describes her book My Life in France as autobiographical stories of “the things she loved most in life,” – her husband, France, and the pleasures of cooking and eating. She does not mention writing.
Yet when I read this memoir Child wrote late in her life, in collaboration with Alex Prud’homme, I was struck by how much of Child’s life was spent writing, publishing, and promoting her now-famous cookbooks. I was also taken by how applicable her approach, even when she was talking about cooking, was to me as a writer.
Learn the craft. “Learn how to cook –try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all have fun!” – Julia never stopped learning about food, testing recipes, and enjoying every step along the way. She signed up for classes at the famous Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and continued to learn from chefs wherever she traveled and dined.
Writing workshops have sharpened my writing skills, introduced me to countless talented teachers and writers, provided constant inspiration. At some point, though, it’s time to stop going to class and start writing. Julia was tuned into that, too. She says of cooking: “The great lesson embedded in the book is that no one is born a great cook, one learns by doing.” So it is with writing.
Don’t give up – Because my own novel has taken five years to write, I was encouraged by Julia’s odyssey to write Mastering the Art of French Cooking. She began working on the 600-page manuscript her co-authors had compiled in 1952. In 1959 they submitted the manuscript (in its second, and “final,” iteration) to Houghton-Mifflin. Only to have The Book rejected.
Julia’s response? “We have only begun to fight.” With another publisher, a new editor who believed in the project, and yet another almost complete rewrite, The Book finally reached bookshelves in October 1961, and Julie and her co-authors came to view the rejection as a blessing.
Be open to input – Julia’s vision for The Book was far more grand than her publisher and editor believed could be successful. Julia’s first response was to reject the publisher’s opinion. She wrote a letter to that effect. The following day, she threw that letter away and wrote a letter agreeing to a more market-friendly version of The Book.
I’ve allowed myself a few nights of righteous indignation when comments have come in calling for significant rewrites. When I opened up to accept that the readers were right, I dove in to the rewrite. The result has always been better.
Build relationships – “The French are very sensitive to personal dynamics, and they believe that you must earn your rewards.” Julia espoused “the value of les human relations.” From fishwives to waiters to chefs to her writing partners, Julia took time to get to know people. Her interest was genuine, and those relationships paid off throughout her life.
As writers in 2014, we have far more opportunities through social media to be in contact with people. Social media takes a lot of time. But then what worthwhile relationship doesn’t?
Be bold. Promote. – “Knopf had agreed to take out a few advertisements, but most of the promotion job fell to us. I had no idea how to arrange for publicity, so I wrote friends in business and asked for advice.” Even a major publishing house did not provide much promotional support. So as all authors who hope to be successful must, Julia took hold of publicity herself.
Many authors find marketing to be the hardest part of writing. It is comforting, is it not, to find that even someone like Julia Child had to manager her own promotion?
Though I don’t have the passion for cooking, as I read My Life in France, I felt a genuine camaraderie with Julia as a writer. Her voice was so clear and so human. Her book both entertaining and encouraging.
Today I leave you with two thoughts from Julia that struck particularly close to my heart as I bring my novel Go Away Home to publication:
“Nothing is too much trouble if it turns out the way it should. Good results require that one take time and care.”
“Alas, this book may not be as perfect as you might wish, ma cherie, but it will be finished.”
Ah, yes. Bon appetit!