Five writing tips from Julia Child

By Carol / February 18, 2014 /

The famous cook’s experiences span the kitchen and publishing

Julia ChildJulia 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?

julia-child-my-life-in-franceBe 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!

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  1. Shirley Hershey Showalter on February 18, 2014 at 1:58 pm

    I love My Life in France, and I love what you did with the book — extracting wisdom that supersedes art form differences and will always be true.

    Bon chance, ma cherie!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on February 18, 2014 at 2:05 pm

      Thanks, Shirley. The arts in all forms offer us so much. “My Life in France” was wonderful on many levels. Another aspect was the relationship she and her husband shared, supporting each other through all the changes life threw at them.

  2. paulette mahurin on February 19, 2014 at 8:55 am

    Good advice from a pro!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on February 19, 2014 at 11:40 am

      Yes, indeed. Recently I read about the cross-over learning we can take from artists practicing in all forms. Art happens in all different arenas, including the kitchen. Thanks for commenting, Paulette.

  3. Sharon Lippincott on February 19, 2014 at 9:15 am

    I listened to the audio version, much of the time in the kitchen, and have the print version sitting on my TBR shelf. She’s one of the few celebrities who pull me in with authentic voice and seeming transparency. She sounds real. And, as you say, inspiring in so many ways.

    One thing I just noticed from what you wrote above is the fact that Julia did not mail that letter as soon as her fingers quit moving. That is one more lesson we can all benefit from whether it’s a letter (or email) of disagreement or other controversial content, a story, a blog post … it all benefits from aging and rethinking. So thanks for picking up on that. I don’t recall it from my memory of the book and doubt I noticed it at the time. Which shows the value of community and thinking out loud, even in written form, about lessons learned.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on February 19, 2014 at 11:37 am

      Julia has a distinctive voice, one that conveys her true and enthusiastic self. Did she narrate the audio version, Sharon? I believe she was 90 or close to it at the time she wrote the book, but I can imagine her having the energy to give voice to her own work.

      Julia was wise in many things – holding that letter until she calmed down and thought it through was yet another example. It was only a sentence in the book and easy to overlook. But definitely worth adding to the list of writing tips from Julia Child!

  4. Kathleen Pooler on February 19, 2014 at 12:15 pm

    Carol, you certainly have whet my appetite for Julia’s book in this insightful analogy. You have extracted many pearls from all these lessons Julia shared. She certainly was a role model for perseverance and commitment to excellence in all she did. I can still hear her trademark sing-song , distinctive voice.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on February 19, 2014 at 12:22 pm

      You won’t be disappointed in the time you spend with Julia, Kathy. The stories are so vivid and one might wonder how someone could remember with such clarity. Julia and Paul wrote detailed letters and kept journals, all of which appear to have survived. What a treat.

  5. Kelly Boyer Sagert on February 19, 2014 at 2:13 pm

    Although I’m not a poet, I find inspiration when I go to poetry events. So much to learn via cross-discipline exposure . . .

    • Carol Bodensteiner on February 19, 2014 at 7:25 pm

      So true, Kelly. We never know where we’ll find inspiration; it’s enough to be open to the possibility. Thanks for commenting!

  6. Elfrieda Schroeder on February 19, 2014 at 3:51 pm

    Thanks for the encouragement Carol. Never mind finishing, I need to get started!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on February 19, 2014 at 7:26 pm

      Well there you go, Elfrieda! I’m glad you found encouragement here. This may be the time to get started.

  7. April Yamasaki on March 12, 2014 at 9:45 am

    This is a such a great post, Carol. I’m glad you re-shared it on Twitter today because I missed it earlier. I’m inspired now both to read this book and to keep writing–I hadn’t realized that Julia was close to 90 when she finished this book! Thank you for sharing it in such a creative and helpful way.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on March 12, 2014 at 9:55 am

      Thanks, April. Julia’s book was interesting and inspiring on so many levels. If nothing else, Julia encourages everyone to keep doing what you love. It’s never too late.
      I’m also glad to know re-posting on Twitter worked. 😉

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