The Main Ingredient

Thursday, February 11, 2021

When I was a child, I loved watching my maternal and paternal grandmother cook whenever I visited for the weekend or for a family gathering. I'd stand beside them full of questions and learn that the blackened skillet they used to fry a batch of chicken or catfish in, or to make skillet cornbread, was what seasoned the food and gave it flavor. I'd watch as they added fresh herbs or spices to their recipes, and get lessons on snapping the ends off of string beans, and how to clean collard greens. I treasured being in their company as delicious aromas wafted through their kitchens. I especially loved when they lifted a pot lid off of a pot of stew or soup simmering on the stovetop and let me peek inside. Whenever I asked what was in it, knowing it was more than what I saw with my eyes, after they named all the ingredients, they would smile and say, "But the main ingredient is a heaping tablespoonful of love."

For us writers, we not only put a heaping tablespoonful of love into our craft, but equally heaping tablespoonfuls of commitment, skillfulness, and creativity into our stewpots as essayists, novelists, authors, journalists, poets, bloggers, etc. We too add main ingredients that season our writing and cause it to stand apart from the competition. These are our unique blend of seasonings that we sprinkle liberally throughout our stories, articles, books, or podcast scripts, causing editors, publishers, and readers, to want to dig in, knowing they are in for something delectable and filling once they get to the last page.  

I've been thinking a lot about main ingredients of lately when it comes to my own writing. What have I been putting a heaping tablespoonful of in my stories to catch an editor or publisher's eye to get them out of the slush pile? What do I add a bit of this and a bit of that to, to flavor them and make an editor or publisher smack their lips and want more. Not just those essential story ingredients a good story should have such as, an attention grabbing opening, intriguing/relatable characters, great dialogue, conflict/contrast, and engaging plot and a satisfying ending, but something more substantial.

I've concluded that for me, that heaping tablespoonful, that main ingredient, I am putting more of in my stories is unflinching transparency. As I get older I am developing a fearlessness that I never had before and divulging parts of my life that I was once too uncomfortable to talk about, yet write about. Whether it's an essay or fiction, I am allowing myself and my characters to be willing  to be split open as author Natalie Goldberg who wrote, "Writing Down The Bones; Freeing The Writer Within," is quoted in her book as saying, "Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open."

Our voices as writers are dynamic and multihued, each different but just as needed, just as empowering or inspiring as others, due to the main ingredients we add. Some of us may add a heaping tablespoonful of humor throughout our writing to keep readers laughing as they turn every page. For some, the main ingredient might be the stellar research done when writing about a specialized subject; the way no stone is left unturned. And for some, the main ingredient may be ones attention to detail, or ones descriptive writing; the use of sensory imagery and figurative language that makes readers feel as if they have a window seat in a protagonist or character's life.  

Great cooks like my maternal and paternal grandmothers knew how to enhance their food with their main ingredient, "a heaping tablespoonful of love." Great writers, yes you dear writer, also know how to enhance your writing with a main ingredient or two or more. It's an ingredient that's distinctly yours, that makes both you and your writing stand out. 

                                                                 -Jeanine DeHoney

Jeanine DeHoney has had her writing published in several magazines, anthologies, and online. One of her essays is being published in the upcoming Chicken Soup For The Soul anthology, "I'm Speaking Now." 


Sioux Roslawski said...

Jeanine--What a wonderful post. You immediately drew me in, because my maternal grandmother and my mother were both fabulous cooks and bakers, so right away I was drawn in. Then you connected it to writing, and brought in Natalie Goldberg (a writing god, in my opinion).

Unflinching transparency. Honesty. Being genuine. When a writer writes from their gut and their heart, it's powerful, and that power flows straight to the reader.

If you get the chance to take Chelsey Clammer's class on anymous writers--writing without fear (I think that's the name of the class) I would strongly suggest you take it. Chelsey is a phenomenal writer and editor, and an incredible "nudger." She's able to nudge writers into going to places they never thought they would write about. She got me to excavate some memory caverns, causing me to write about some stories I've never written about. (It's just a suggestion.)

I look forward to reading your unflinchingly transparent work, Jeanine. And again, this was a wonderful post.

Theresa Boedeker said...

Love this example, and how we each bring our own spices to the table, you hear about finding your voice, but it is more than that that makes our writing stand out and be uniquely us.

Renee Roberson said...

Great post, Jeanine! I love your likening to the ingredients that go into a homecooked meal--I always felt similar feelings while watching my Mexican grandmother spend hours in the kitchen making tortillas, salsa and refried beans. Now I also enjoy cooking healthy and homemade meals for my friends and family. As I've grown older, I've also felt the nudge to reveal more of myself and my inner thoughts and fears in my writing. It's difficult and scary, but very liberating all at the same time. Best of luck to you in continuing to "spice" up your own work!

Joanne said...

What you said, Jeanine, is so relatable. Loved how you brought us into the piece with the family cooking anecdote, then threaded that through the piece to make your points. I will be asking myself "what is the main ingredient here?" in the next revisions I do (currently working on one, in fact). Thank you!

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

This post is perfect for women writers. If we aren't cooks, we know and love women who are. And then there's the writing.

You say Transparency. Mine is Authenticity.

Thank you for the encouragement to cook and write our stories.

Jeanine DeHoney said...

Thank you Sioux. Yes, Natalie Goldberg's a wonderful writer and her quote about being "split open" has always resonated with me. I've heard you mention Chelsey Clammer's class before and she indeed sounds like an awesome instructor that gets you to write fearlessly. Thanks for the suggestion about her class.

Jeanine DeHoney said...

Thank you Renee. Your grandmother left you with some great memories that I'm sure makes you smile every time you think of her, especially making those delicious Mexican dishes. Yes, I think as we get older even though it is scary at times we are more open and write about what we once were too uncomfortable to write about. And when we do it is so freeing, so I hope you too continue to write down your innermost thoughts. We're more courageous than we often think, and the more fearlessly you write, the easier it gets.

Jeanine DeHoney said...

Thank you Sue. Yes authenticity is a great main ingredient. And you're welcome.

Jeanine DeHoney said...

Thank you Theresa. It is definitely more that we bring to the table that makes our writing stand apart from the rest.

Jeanine DeHoney said...

Thank you Joanne, and you're welcome. Good luck with your revision. I'm sure you will nail it.

Jeanine DeHoney said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeanine DeHoney said...

Thank you Joanne. Good luck with your revision. I'm sure you will nail it.

Cathy C. Hall said...

I could smell that pot on the stove, Jeanine! And yep, time and practice not only improves our craft but also grows our reflection so we're writing as our best self.

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