7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Sasha Martin

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by Sasha Martin, author of LIFE FROM SCRATCH) at any stage of their career can talk about writing advice and instruction as well as how they possibly got their book agent — by sharing seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning.

GIVEAWAY: Sasha is excited to give away a free free prize pack (including a Life From Scratch tote, signed book, recipe cards, and Nat Geo travel mug) to a random commenter. Pizzos3.com has won this giveaway. 

life-from-scratch-book-cover sasha-martin-author-writer

Column by Sasha Martinauthor of debut novel LIFE FROM SCRATCH:
A MEMOIR OF FOOD, FAMILY, AND FORGIVENESS
(March 2015,

National Geographic) which chronicles her lifelong struggle to find inner-peace,
including the years she spent cooking the world as a new mother. Sasha is an
award-winning writer and blogger who spent almost four years cooking her way
around the world. Her work has been featured on NPR, as well as in Whole Living,
Bon Appetit, The Smithsonian, The Huffington Post, Food & Wine, O Magazine,
and People. Her website, Global Table Adventure, is a go-to hub for foodies
around the world. Connect with her on Twitter

1. The book you want to write isn’t the book you’re going to write.

I tossed my book proposal within weeks of signing with National Geographic Books. No one saw it coming, least of all me. To be clear: all parties were on the same page when we signed the contract: this was going to be a lighthearted book about my family’s adventure to cook and eat a meal from every country in the world as featured on my blog Global Table Adventure. I’d chronicle our mishaps and successes, using the cultures of the world to guide me. But everything changed when the actual writing began. My editor challenged me to dig deeper saying something like “obsessively cooking 195 countries, week after week, is not a normal thing to do—what was really going on with you?” The reasons I provided—raising my daughter with international perspective, helping my picky husband look at food as an adventure, not an attack, and attempting to satisfy my wanderlust while living in landlocked in Oklahoma—were nice enough, but didn’t seem like the whole story.

My gut lurched when my editor challenged me about my motives for cooking the world. I saw flashes of my childhood—time spent in foster homes, being separated from my mother, traveling to 12 countries by the age of 19, the death of my brother. It seemed unrelated, and yet I couldn’t shake the memories.

As a writer, watch for this gut lurch. Discomfort is a good sign. It means you are about to tap into something that matters to you. This will ultimately create a more compelling story.

My editor later confided that she only expected me to return a couple dozen pages of background story, but I showed up with close to a hundred … and more to say.

Here’s the gift: The book I didn’t mean to write turned out to be a book about my lifelong search for a sense of belonging. On a deeper level, cooking the world was the walking meditation that helped me make peace with my past. On all counts it is a much better story than the one I thought I would write. Allow deeper introspection—it’s where the real writing begins.
 
2. When you can’t sleep there’s a reason.

I avoided writing the prologue to my book until the end of the writing process, and even then I struggled. I knew I needed to set up the reason why the book had changed so dramatically from my blog, but I wasn’t sure how to approach it. One morning, I woke up at 3 a.m.and couldn’t fall back asleep. I stayed in bed like a sleep rebel, certain I could tame my mind. This happened three more times before I finally gave in and got up and wrote. The prologue poured out of me. I’ve never written that many words so fast. Ideas had built up and were begging to be captured on paper.

If you can’t sleep, get up. Pay attention. Create.

3. Books are a collaborative process.

Life from Scratch: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Forgiveness is technically “my” book. You can tell because my name is on the author line. I can tell because I spent well over a year of my life wearing out my keyboard in an effort to bring my story to life.  It is easy to think the author stands alone in the book writing effort because they do so on the cover. But no book is completed in isolation. While the words came from me, the final result would have been vastly different if not for the nudges and wisdom of experienced editors, agent, marketers, and publicists. Even my husband played a role, cheering me on on those nights when I felt I just couldn’t put another sentence together. Though I bore the most responsibility, we were a team with one mission: to create the best book possible (and, once written, share it with the right audience). Knowing that you share the same goal is key when those tough edits come in. Consider the opinions of your team—it’ll help you grow as a writer and your material will improve.

4. Make your mental health a priority.

If you’re not emotionally gutted at some point during the writing process, I’m not sure you’re doing it right.

This applies to any author, but especially those writing memoir: Take the time to care for yourself.  Digging into the past can be incredibly painful. It is not enough to unlock the doors to our traumatic memories—we must pull those ugly demons out, smell their foul breath, and embrace them. The so-called past must snap into reality again for the author—this is the only way to make the story real for the reader.

There were a few scenes in my book that gutted me—for several days, I was unable to effectively parent or be a participant in my marriage/family life. Sometimes I cried. Other times I numbed out. It took great discipline to not allow my occasional nightcap to turn into habit. And, to be honest, there were times when that line was smudged. Recognizing your emotions and leaning on your support system is critical.

5. It doesn’t end when the book is written.

Mental and emotional exhaustion can be worse after the book is written. It’s like running a race—the goal propels you forward, but when you’ve finished the race, it’s just you and your sore muscles. When you reach the “finish line,” not only do you have to prepare to promote the book, you have to live with the finished product. Be kind to yourself.

6. Every story has been told.

To quote the Bare Naked Ladies, “It’s all been done before.” I find a great deal of comfort in this notion and urge those who are about to share deeply personal stories to embrace the notion. If the world already has stories of foster care, estrangement, and loss, then when I’m putting out there isn’t quite so scary. I’m not alone on stage shouting to the world—I’m adding to a dialogue where people are already invested and care about the topic at hand.

7. Don’t let the sun set on a memory.

To celebrate cooking a meal from every country in the world, I had a local museum help me recreate the experience for Tulsa. Together, we hosted 15 chefs and 177 dishes from 177 countries (we came short of 195 countries, because we ran out of space). Hundreds of people ate the world for free. It was phenomenal. After the event, I was exhausted and just felt like relaxing. As I walked out the door, my friend urged me to find a quiet spot and reflect on the experience.

“Write down your impressions while they are still fresh,” she said.

I am so grateful for this advice. The second to last chapter in my book is loaded with material I wrote that day. The words were vivid, the experience still fluid in my heart.

Whether it’s a beautiful sunset or your grandmother’s rolling pin, jot down a few notes while it’s fresh in your memory. This can make flat writing three-dimensional. Think about trying to describe a pizza you ate 10 years ago, as compared to the last meal you ate. Which one would you have more descriptors for?

GIVEAWAY: Sasha is excited to give away a free free prize pack (including a Life From Scratch tote, signed book, recipe cards, and Nat Geo travel mug) to a random commenter. Pizzos3.com has won this giveaway. 

———————

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11 thoughts on “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Sasha Martin

  1. heyjamie

    So much good advice here! I think every writer struggles with those inner deamons when something hits too close to home. And I couldn’t agree more that those things or scenes in our work are the ones which tend to resonate most with readers, at least that’s my experience!

  2. Pizzos3.com

    Thank you for this interesting post. Your work seems to embrace the definition of fulfilling and I look forward in experiencing it first hand through the reading. Numbers 1 and 6 are so true with me right now. Thanks for the confirmation that I am not nuts.

  3. DeerRun

    Sasha,
    This was an awesome column. I look forward to reading your book, and I think I’ll have to go over to your blog and check it out. I love your writing style, and plan to commit several of your statements to memory, especially: “If you can’t sleep, ‘get up’, “If you’re not emotionally gutted at some point during the writing process, I’m not sure you’re doing it right,” and, of course, “Be kind to yourself.” Thank you!

  4. Sasha A. Palmer

    Very nice to meet you, Sasha.

    Enjoyed your 7 “recipes.” Clicked on the link to your column – your site is great.

    Congratulations on your book, all the best in cooking, writing, and living,

    Sasha from Russia 🙂
    (wonder which dish from my country you cooked..?)

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