One Writer, Many Voices
How I write to speak aloud versus how I write to be read.
For as long as I’ve been writing this newsletter (we’re coming up on four years), I’ve been publishing talks I’ve given for academic and industry audiences, as well as the lectures I wrote as part of teaching culinary tourism. It’s always been important to me, as the audience has grown, to keep the sourdough bread and cultured cashew butter, so to speak, work of the newsletter free. This allows the ideas to flow freely, be in discussion in or with others’ work, and be referenced widely (it’s similar to how I feel about reception to No Meat Required: I don’t need full reviews everywhere; I need people to use the book, in an ongoing way, to reframe how plant-based eating is culturally and politically positioned in the U.S. Argue with it, please!1). I care a bit more about discourse and what is called “public scholarship” than I do about paywalls.2
And part of that is I don’t want anything I do for audiences with access to these spaces to remain solely in those spaces. Some of this is my personal distaste for how academia functions (and the chip I have on my shoulder as a person who found it very difficult to get through college while working for money), but most of it is about being dedicated to DIY in whatever way I can be at my big age.
What’s interesting to me about writing talks is that (1) I have struggled with social anxiety my whole life, and while I was in college, found public speaking nearly impossible, and (2) it’s very different from my regular writing voice. Even in writing this now, because I’m writing about writing for speaking, I notice myself doing my writing-for-speaking voice and inserting myself only through parentheticals.
This voice, simply put, is a bit more leaden than my writing-for-reading voice. I don’t have access to all my tools: Sentences need to be short and to the point, as opposed to my usual long, somewhat convoluted (but hopefully artful), highly punctuated tendencies. (I did recently receive an edit that said something along the lines of, “I think this is correct but the subject and verb are too far away from each other,” so…) People can’t hear a semicolon, you know? And I just don’t have what it takes to read in a poet’s manner. As unfortunate as that may be! Vocabulary should be pretty basic, too, to ensure people keep listening and don’t go to Google. I also never want to be caught with a word whose pronunciation might trip me up in the moment, so you can bank on my never using “inchoate” in a talk.
There are differences, too, in whether I’m doing a sort of teaching talk or I’m doing an idea talk. Last week’s lecture was for teaching; my “grandma rule” piece was for an idea talk. In an idea talk, I add personality and am hewing much closer to my writing-for-reading voice, but it’s less my real personality than a caricature. I wouldn’t make a joke about Carrie Bradshaw (despite loving Sex and the City) in an essay for reading; it would feel hacky. But if I want to make sure people are listening to me and are entertained, I drop in something easy to grab onto.
I learned much of what I apply to these different writing voices by getting an essay I published at Hazlitt in 2017 ready to read for “The Splendid Table.” The producer, Sally Swift, was brilliant at going over a very personal, emotional essay with me and figuring out how to make it work for radio. Shorter sentences, easier transitions: Things that will work without the listener seeing the words.
The differences between approaches will vary for every writer, of course: I want to be conversational and easily understood without sacrificing my peculiarities.
I was recently re-reading Kitchen Confidential and took special note of how Bourdain was a natural at television because he writes the way he speaks, heavily leaning on vernacular, and even annoyingly (to my mind) over-using italics as a means of emphasis. Let the reader read, I want to scream at him. His excellent way with verbs provides the brain a lot to work with in creating visuals, though; it makes his written work pop off the page as though it’s being spoken. Pizza is “spun,” he writes, and immediately we picture dough in the air.
It’s been interesting to think in this way, especially as I’ve had the opportunity to do it so much more in recent years, because it makes me realize just how attuned my brain is to words on the page and not in the air. (“Cooking does not take place in the medium of language,” writes Rebecca May Johnson in Small Fires. That’s why I need it.) I think of language as words on the page (this relates to how I learn or don’t learn other languages, too, where I easily collect vocabulary and rules, and pick up on colloquialisms, but have a lot of difficulty turning it into my voice). This is why I write everything down and do minimal, if any, riffing off the cuff.
I’ve said to folks before, and they haven’t believed me, that I’m not comfortable speaking—because once I get going, I’m off to the races, in a bit of a fugue state. I have that anxiety that makes me fill air; I have to memorize questions for interviews. I feel more than adequate here at my desk, with all my books and notebooks; I worry about whether I can bring that to a situation where I don’t have notes (otherwise known as: human socializing). When I was doing my podcast, I would have many more questions written than I would ever feasibly need, in hopes of keeping conversation going. It always felt like a bit of a personal failure when I couldn’t get people talking, but it was deeply instructive. My job as a writer has taught me how to talk to people in a way that simply being alive never could, for better or worse.
It can feel, on the surface, a little disingenuous to have these different voices, but I’ve learned that every forum requires its own approach. I could never have imagined myself doing so much speaking, and it’s been a fun puzzle to learn how to navigate it.
That doesn’t mean necessarily argue with me, thank you 🤣
Sometimes my free-wheeling nature with my work gets people confused, so I’ll say clearly: I do need to make money and I don’t do any non-public-facing work [no copywriting, no agency stuff] nor brand deals, and thus those who fund the newsletter also fund my ability to write essays, talks, lectures, and books. (These often pay, of course, but not in any reliable nor ongoing way.) The connections we build through conversation here among the paid subs are a really cool bonus. I love to chat with people who have similar interests and values, and get to watch them talk to each other. It’s a gift I never cease to be grateful for. (SIGN UP FOR MY CLASS!)
This Friday’s post for paid subscribers will be The Monthly Menu, chronicling all of my eating, cooking, and recipe adventures from January—many links, many cookbook recommendations, and the beginnings of my unlikely forays into cheese-making. Focaccia, olive oil cake, lasagna, flatbread, my favorite salad dressing, and the new kitchen cleaning items that have upgraded my life…
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I’m just working on my book! But I did spend last week in edits on two pieces I filed at the end of 2023, hoping to finally push them out—I’m excited about both.
A Lifestyle Note
Copper and gold binder clips from Puerto Rico Drug, which make me much happier to put together my book research than plain black ones ever could.