Shortly before we left for Asia in spring, I got a call from Denise Landis, founding editor of The Cook’s Cook. She asked me to write a story—on anything I wanted, any length, any style, but reflecting my food experiences. A story written with an anthropological eye (as we both share a background in anthropology).
“A Story of Chicken” is published in the October-November 2014 issue. I’d like to share the piece with you—the article itself (p. 43-48), as well as a bit of the back story. As a writer, I’m always eager to hear the deets behind other writers’ stories: how their pieces came about, why they structured their writing the way they did and what thoughts went into the production part of the story.
Why did I decide to write about chicken? Chicken didn’t immediately come to mind. I had to think a while—a couple of months, it turns out. I had to calculate the best fit. As a freelance writer, I perform a balancing act every time I write for publication. I suspect it’s the same for most writers who work for themselves. When an editor says write anything you like, it’s a gift to the ears. But we still must weigh our options. We consider the material we’ve already gathered, the time involved in putting together the pieces. We consider the salability of our work. If I have two stories on hand, one likely to sell to a particular publication, the other potentially more esoteric (thus, a tougher sell though no less interesting), I’m more likely to give the tougher sell to the editor willing to take anything. It’s pragmatism: I spend less time pitching that way. When Denise called, I had a few food stories on the brain—none of them chicken.
I eventually chose chicken because the idea struck me in a serendipitous way that often happens while traveling. We were in Bangkok. We’d spent the previous afternoon, a lovely Sunday, riding the ferry boat to Nonthaburi. We got out, walked around, and spent a good lot of time in the market. We bought chicken and sticky rice and an assortment of spicy things, and we sat on the water digging into our little packages of goodies. The next night, I sat on our Bangkok balcony with a drink in one hand, a pen in the other, and I wrote in my journal about chicken. It occurred to me, I had oodles of material on chicken—eaten so many different ways in so many different places all through the years. The words flowed easily that night in my journal—which is often where my essays and features originate. I have two methods of writing in the field: the little notebooks where I keep interview notes, quotes and practical stuff; and my journal, where I write whatever comes to mind. It’s old-school, low-tech writing by hand, and it’s often just what I need to get going. When I actually write the story, I begin with my journal, I add tidbits from my other notebooks, I compile additional research and I organize it all. But the journal is the impetus.
So I had all these bits and bobs of chicken experiences, but I also had research on the history of the bird and the environmental and health effects of modern chicken production. My aim was to weave all of those pieces together. I had the story in my head, but it wouldn’t have been easy to summarize before it was finished. It was a story I basically had to write before I could submit it anywhere (more on that in a minute).
Why did I write 2,000 words when I could have written something shorter? It’s easier to write long than short. But here’s another thing: if I’m going to put any effort into a story, I’m going to write it for the most potential benefits—to readers, to the publication, to myself. After all, writing is a business. It’s also publicity. Sometimes “most” means writing the least—in the punchiest, most effective way (such as in a point-by-point op-ed). But other times (such as in a personal essay), it’s better to let the words do their own work, without counting them. Just write. Let it flow. Then edit. Then count. If we pay too much attention to word count from the start, we threaten to sacrifice the language.
OK, so I chose an essay on chicken. Why was this story on this topic right for The Cook’s Cook? Because the magazine could handle it and Denise would get it. I’d written this piece essentially free-form, without constraints, and that rarely happens in this business. Denise had said “write anything,” so I did. I also knew it would be a touch pitch to other publications. I mean, what would I say in the pitch? I’d like to write a story about chicken? Well, what about chicken? The story is kind of everything about chicken. Tough to summarize successfully in a one- or two-paragraph proposal.
That’s it. That’s how “A Story of Chicken” came to fruition. I’ll be doing this periodically here—in “Back Story”—discussing the behind-the-scenes of published work. I’d love for this to become a discussion among writers (and readers) about the process of publishing, so feel free to chime in!