One of the things I love most about working with writers is that so many of them are unflinchingly generous with their time, words and wisdom. So when I was recently approached by freelancer Monica Bhide and asked if I’d be interested in something purely motivational for our community of writers and readers, I jumped at the chance to have her as a guest here on There Are No Rules. Monica is a previous contributor to Writer’s Digest magazine (she has written eloquently about ways to Reinvigorate Your Writing and shared Tips for Effective Blogging), and we’re thrilled to have her back.
Monica Bhide is an engineer turned food/travel/parenting writer based out of Washington D.C. Her work has appeared in Food & Wine, The New York Times, Parents, Cooking Light, Prevention, AARP-The magazine, Health, SELF, Bon Appetit, Saveur and many other magazines. She is a frequent contributor to NPR's Kitchen Window, and her food essays have been included in Best Food Writing anthologies (2005, 2009 and 2010). She has published three cookbooks, most recently Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Recipes for the Contemporary Kitchen (which “Top Chef” host Padma Lakshmi called one of her personal “BEST. BOOKS. EVER.” in Newsweek), and edited the book In Conversation With Exceptional Women: Seeds of Inspiration to Help You Bloom Where You Are Planted. In 2012, The Chicago Tribune picked Bhide as one of seven noteworthy food writers to watch, and Mashable recently named her one of the top 10 food writers on Twitter. She is currently a monthly columnist for Cooking Channel on lucky foods. Visit Monica Bhide online or connect with her on Twitter.
What Is Your Excuse?
by Monica Bhide
“I need an MFA,” I explain, yet again, to my husband, who has asked why I’m not working on my novel, my dream project. Even as I mouth the words, I know I am exaggerating, as does he. It is my go-to excuse of the moment.
“You’re a smart writer—why don’t you just try to write and complete the novel instead of worrying about it so much?” he asks as gently as he can. I talk about the novel all the time. It is one of my biggest dreams. It has been in Draft One for about two years now. Maybe longer; I stopped counting. Yet I talk about it all the time. It doesn’t let go.
He comes over and hugs me. “You know you can do this. Why are you so afraid?”
“You don’t understand: Writing a novel is different from all the narrative work I do now. I don’t know how to build a character, I don’t understand plotting, I have no idea how to create conflict for these characters …” I can feel my eyes brim with tears as I fight back the emotion that rears up at times like this, assuring me that I have failed.
He simply shakes his head. He knows I am stubborn. He leaves the room to avoid a scene and I turn to the TV.
I’m not much for watching reality TV, but the series that comes on catches my attention. It’s a show based in India and they are trying to find the “MasterChef” among competing home cooks. I know the judges and am instantly drawn to the show.
The novel is forgotten as I begin watching with interest. There are the usual suspects among the contestants: a housewife, a handsome young kid with a great desire to succeed, a cooking teacher, a caterer—but the one who catches my attention is a very young woman named Khoku. She is a servant in Delhi. Her day job is to go to people’s homes and cook their meals. She and her family live in one of the tiniest rooms I have ever seen. The families she cooks for entered her into the contest because they felt her cooking was on a par with professional chefs. I watch her turn out dish after dish with ease, and listen in amazement as one of the top chefs in India, Sanjeev Kapoor, who has an audience of over 500 million (!) for his own shows, tells her that she should not be competing, but teaching chefs how to cook.
She is tiny, from what I can tell, and intense. While the others chat and look for attention, she seems uncomfortable in front of the camera. It is only when the camera catches her off guard that you see the personality: Her gaze is fixed on her work area, the cutting board, the knife. Occasionally you see her put an ingredient in her mouth and then close her eyes as she gives thought to its taste and texture. She seems to be in awe of where she is just as the others are in awe of her raw talent.
Then come two challenges that change my view of my world, my own insecurities, and myself. First, the contestants are to make pizza, Indian style. The judges hold up a pizza and tell the contestants that they must prepare one in a skillet (no oven) and it must have an Indian taste.
I see a strange look on Khoku’s face that I am not able to decipher. And then it clicks: This young servant girl has never tasted pizza. Ever. The judges understand. Vikas Khanna, one of the judges and a top chef in New York City, walks over and hands her a slice so she knows what she is supposed to do. She passes that round with flying colors.
Next the contestants work with liquid nitrogen. They are given recipes that they must follow. I notice one of the judges standing with Khoku as she works. Another realization hits me: The girl does not know how to read or write. The judge is standing next to her to read her the recipe. Yet here she is, competing on a global stage next to the literate, the famous and the accomplished.
I look around at my table. I have stacks of books on writing novels, I have friends who are novelists and have offered to help, I have editors asking for the manuscript, and yes, I have the ability to read and write.
I think of Khoku: She simply relied on faith to carry her forward, without expectations.
The last show Khoku was on aired a couple of months ago.
Since then I have started the second draft of my novel. I dusted off my books on the craft of fiction and began working through them. Each morning, before I begin I think of her and her grace and her faith in her calling.
I have a long way to go, but this young woman taught me that faith in yourself is the first step in achieving your goals and your dreams. It occurred to me that my writing had never let me down, but by giving up, I was letting my craft down.
Now, tell me: What is your excuse for not writing?
Editor, Writer’s Digest Magazine
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