How to Handle a Writing (or Kitchen) Disaster

Laurie Colwin Potato Salad recipe(short)

But first, the stories worth reading this week:

All the Food That’s Fit to Print: How Culinary Scientists are Building the Meal of the Future, Layer by Layer (Susie Neilson for The New Yorker): This is an absolutely fascinating look at what 3-D printing can do in the food world. If you don’t have time to read the full story, watch the 2-minute video here.

What Makes a Bestseller? Two SMP Authors Say They Know the Formula (Jim Milliot for Publisher’s Weekly): “What are the components a manuscript needs to become a bestseller? According to two St. Martin’s authors, Dave Eggers knows.” It’s also worth reading Mike Shatzkin’s rebuttal on The Shatzkin Files: “The idea that the odds a book will make the bestseller list can be calculated from the content of the book alone, without regard to consumer analysis, branding, or the marketing effort to promote the book, is ridiculous.”

Webinars & Summits: An Author’s Guide to Selling Books through Online Events (Chad Cannon): “Secret ingredients to sell books: win someone’s email address, demonstrate your authority and teach valuable content, strategically get in front of a captive audience. A killer way to do these three things online… for free… all in one fell swoop? Online events.”

Dissecting the Success of Malcolm Gladwell (The Tim Ferriss Show): A great listen for any fans of Gladwell who want to learn more about his writing process. One sneak peek: “’For every hour I spend writing, I spend three hours thinking about writing.’”

11 of Our Best Potato Salads (Sam Sifton for New York Times Cooking): This has nothing to do with publishing, but everything to do with your happiness this weekend. Seriously: do you have your potato salad game on lock for this weekend? Jarrett and I are ready–we special ordered Duke’s Mayo off of Amazon just to make the potato salad recipe you’ll see below. This is both something to be ashamed of and something to be very, very excited about. We’ll be making it tonight, so follow me on Twitter to see how it turns out!

How to Handle a Writing (or Kitchen) Disaster

Laurie Colwin Potato Salad recipe

Here’s something I hear myself saying to authors a lot: “It’s going to be okay—don’t worry!”

That’s because disasters happen. They always do. And that’s okay. There’s no good challenge you’ll take on that doesn’t experience a hiccup, change of course, or outright fiasco along the way.

It’s just like being in the kitchen—sometimes you perfectly poach that egg and other times you end up with egg on your face.

Which has happened to me. I tried to poach an egg in the microwave once, and it exploded in my face. At work. In front of other people. At a publishing house.

After a good cry in the bathroom and many, many paper towels to wipe the shell and yolk and mild burn marks off myself, I got it together and went back and sat at my desk like nothing had happened. And it was okay. And I laughed about it.

It’s the same thing with your manuscript or your book. Yes, it’s much more important, and deeply personal, and it’s your life’s work. There is no contesting that.

But it’s also all very fixable. What’s not fixable? Losing your health. Losing someone you love. Losing a part of yourself that guided you.

But plot tangles, photo shoot fiascos, endless rejections? They can’t really hurt you.

I can promise you that. Need to hear it from another writer? Well, then pull up a chair and have a nice long sit-down with Laurie Colwin, whose incredible book Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen I just recently discovered and fell head over heels for.

If you’re not already familiar with Laurie Colwin, who wrote both novels and a food column, you are in for a treat. It’s a beloved classic for a reason—it’ll become the book you curl around when your sentences won’t go right and your chicken burned to pieces and you don’t want to ever look at another book again.

Laurie Colwin Home Cooking book cover

That’s because it’s pure comfort reading, laced with pure comfort food. Laurie Colwin hates fancy food, and she hates fussy writing, and she does not give a hoot if that makes her neither literary nor culinary enough. She also has her most fun with the disastrous moments of both cooking and writing–so if you’ve ever served slop or had slop served to you (and I am guilty of both!), you have to read her classic essay “Repulsive Dinners: A Memoir.”

I love that she finds the weird and wonderful parts of a disaster and doesn’t hide them away. Because, really, those disasters lose all their power when we see them for what they really are: funny little wrinkles in the way we thought things would go. Even the truly awful ones have their payoffs.

Here’s Laurie Colwin on why disgusting meals (and I would add: truly awful manuscript tangles) can be really quite okay:

“There is something triumphant about a really disgusting meal. It lingers in the memory with a lurid glow, just as something exalted is remembered with a kind of mellow brilliance. I am not thinking of kitchen disasters–chewy pasta, burnt brownies, curdled sauces: these can happen to anyone. I am thinking about meals that are positively loathsome from soup to nuts, although one is not usually fortunate enough to get either soup or nuts.

Bad food abounds in restaurants, but somehow a bad meal in a restaurant and a bad home-cooked meal are not the same: after all, the restaurant did not invite you to dinner.

My mother believes that people who can’t cook should rely on filet mignon and boiled potatoes with parsley, and that they should be on excellent terms with an expensive bakery. But if everyone did that, there would be fewer horrible meals and the rich, complicated tapestry that is the human experience would be the poorer for it.

My life has been much enriched by ghastly meals…”

Mine, too. Here’s another ghastly thing I did in the kitchen:

I had just met Jarrett a few months into our senior year of college, and I decided the smart thing to do would be to cook for him. So I got started on hustling up Anne Burrell’s Bolognese recipe in his miniature and very unclean apartment kitchen. We got the celery and the carrots and the onions and the beef, laid it all out on the counter and spent a few hours chopping the vegetables into teeny tiny bits. (Because why would he have a food processor?)

When it came time to cook it all, he pulled out his biggest pot: a speckled blue monster that resembled a canning pot.

Okay.

We put it on the high heat, and I got busy browning the beef because “brown food tastes good,” Anne Burrell points out.

Reader, I melted that pot. I melted it good. I burned it to pieces then melted it right through to the bottom. It was disgusting. The entire apartment smelled like the kind of fumes that mutate your lung cells, and we had to throw the whole sauce out in the backyard, pot and all.

So if you’re looking for a recipe for Metallic Meat Sauce, I’ve got a good one for you!

That’s why I laughed when I read Laurie Colwin’s husband’s thoughts on her cooking, which he shared shortly after she died suddenly of a heart attack at 48:

“’She was a great cook, but the fiascos were kind of fabulous,’ Mr. Jurjevics recalled. ‘She cooked haggis once that was like the advertisement for “Alien,” with the cracked egg.’”

I’m here to tell you that you, too, can be the great writer whose fiascos were kind of fabulous. You lucky, writer, you.

I know that sounds like a tall order and, really, not a very fun one. But it will make a difference, and it is possible.

So here’s exactly what you’re going to do when you hit a snag in your writing, in your publishing, in your cooking. And you can quote me on this.

You’re going to laugh it off, step away, and do something else.

The only thing that will help is perspective. That’s what I provide—I give authors the context and perspective they need so they can understand what’s going on. I explain why something is happening, I assure them they’re not the only one, and eventually, I help them come up with a way around the blockade.

But at the end of that first crisis call I always say: “Go, relax, do something you enjoy that has nothing to do with the book, and tuck away all thoughts of it until tomorrow. Tomorrow, we’ll look at it in the bright morning sunshine and reassess.”

So today, I’ll say the same thing to you. Step away from that knot you’ve been clawing at and put your hands and thoughts to use on something else.

Here are 4 ways to get your mind and your hands off of whatever ails you.

But I would highly recommend putting your hands to work on this potato salad. It’s Laurie Colwin’s Potato Salad recipe and a big, big favorite in our house. I also highly recommend making enough to eat over the long Fourth of July weekend—as Laurie says:

“It is always wise to make too much potato salad. Even if you are cooking for two, make enough for five. Potato salad improves with age – that is, if you are lucky enough to have any left over.”

Amen.

Laurie Colwin’s Potato Salad Recipe

Makes: too much

Ingredients
Idaho or red potatoes
Mayonnaise
Lemon juice
Black pepper
Scallions
Dill

Method (in her own words)
“My own potato salad is a snap. Idaho or new red potatoes can be used. Boil the potatoes. Make a dressing of Hellman’s mayonnaise thinned with lemon juice and seasoned with black pepper. This does not need salt–prepared mayonnaise is quite salty enough. Mix the cut-up potatoes with chopped scallion and finely minced dill. Pour the dressing over and let sit for an hour or so before serving.”

To go with your potato salad, try Laurie Colwin’s Baked Mustard Chicken recipe (it is legend).

And if you’d like to read more about Laurie Colwin:

Laurie Colwin: A Confidante in the Kitchen (Jeff Gordiner for The New York Times): “‘I think of her as kind of a proto-blogger,’” said Mitchell Davis, executive vice president of the James Beard Foundation, which in 2012 inducted Ms. Colwin into its cookbook hall of fame. “’I would say she’s a transitional figure between M. F. K. Fisher and Julie Powell.’”

Decades Later, Laurie Colwin’s Books ‘Will Not Let You Down’ (Maureen Corrigan for NPR Books): “Many years ago, Laurie Colwin began an essay she wrote about the magic of roast chicken like this: ‘There is nothing like roast chicken. It is helpful and agreeable, the perfect dish no matter what the circumstances. Elegant or homey, a dish for a dinner party or a family supper, it will not let you down.’ Substitute the phrase ‘Laurie Colwin’s writing’ for the words ‘roast chicken,’ take some poetic allowances with the word ‘dish,’ and you’ll have an approximate description of Colwin’s own elusive magic.”

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Laurie Colwin Potato Salad recipe (long)

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