Every now and then you get a chance to step back from your life and look at it properly. Taking stock, they call it. It’s a simple concept but perspective is everything. You get a very different perspective from the top of the mountain than you do at the bottom of the valley. Sometimes you need to put yourself up there and look down. Just beware the vertigo.
And sometimes you find yourself on top of the mountain with no idea how you got there, or why the vertigo is so vicious.
Which is what happened to me this weekend, quite unexpectedly, on a food writing course run by the respected Diana Henry, food writer and author of 10 cookery books. I wasn’t looking for a course on food writing but as soon she advertised it I knew I wanted to do it: I’ve been struggling with writing posts for a while now and needed something to inspire and inform me. I started this blog several years ago with no real agenda, other than I liked the idea of being able to articulate my thoughts and essentially, I suppose, show off my baking. A little along the lines of ‘if a tree falls in a forest and there is no one there to hear it, does it make any sound?’. If there is no one to admire or appreciate my efforts, do they count? So I post recipes, generally accompanied by thoughts or experiences. There is something I can show people which defines me. But it turns out I’ve applied rules and restrictions to my blog, just as I’ve applied rules and restrictions to my life. Life in the valley. One day on a food writing course with the straight-talking Diana Henry was a swift hike to the top of the mountain. With breaks for food, of course.
There’s something about the beginning of a new year. It may just be a date but it takes on a symbolic role and coincides with lengthening days and signs of growth and renewal, at least in my half of the world. People stop drinking, take up exercise and start eating healthily. They take stock. It’s just a coincidence that it’s a new year and the work on my garden, anticipated for the last two and half years, has begun, and that in a month or so work on the house will begin. That the writing course I signed up for in October was last weekend. That a friend has just asked me to be her “accountability” partner. That I finally have a proper system for work. That a new relationship is a possibility. A clash of new beginnings that all fill me with optimism, excitement and fear. So if Diana Henry tells me that my blog is my blog: I’m not bound by self-imposed ideas of what it should or shouldn’t be; that all writing should be honest and true and not constrained by worrying about what people will think, then I need to have the courage to take the advice that is being offered. Especially as I know it doesn’t just apply to my writing, it applies to my life.
So here I am, writing a blog post without a recipe.
Baking is therapy if I’m having a bad day. And sometimes I’m having a bad day because I have been awake half the night worrying about how I’ll do all the baking. Deadlines mean it will always get done, but writing is different. There are no deadlines for my blog posts; although I had self-imposed ones for a while they slipped when I got busier with baking orders, mainly because I didn’t have the time to bake for myself as much. There are no deadlines for any of the things I want to achieve professionally, but having “accountability” meetings with a similarly self-employed friend means we can both articulate what we want to achieve (not one of my strengths) and then work to the deadlines we have set. Or explain why we haven’t done what we said we would. Which means I actually need to think properly about what I feel about things and what I want to do. Again, not one of my strengths but a very important element of the writing process. And of life.
I had already drunk two pots of strong coffee before I arrived at food writer and grower Mark Diacono’s Otter Farm in Devon, for Diana Henry’s first food writing course there. I was welcomed by Mark and offered more strong coffee and homemade biscuits, which made integrating into the group already assembled much easier. You can always depend on caffeine and sugar in stressful situations; helpful when you realise that it’s not just Diana and Mark who are published authors, some of the group are also… It’s easy for me to feel like the odd one out in groups and the least qualified to be there, but I felt incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to spend a day with such a friendly, talented and interesting bunch of people. We spent the day either talking about, writing about, or eating food. Or some combination of the three. A marmalade polenta cake just out of the oven for the first coffee break: a huge chunk of hot, syrupy, golden comfort food. Cold, fresh flavours of fennel and blood orange at lunch, followed by a vibrant, garlicky ribollita. A dessert of hazelnut tart with Earl Grey soaked prunes and more coffee became the background to a writing exercise. And all the time endless energy, enthusiasm, knowledge and advice from Diana.
No one cared.
So I’ve taken stock. I am going to apply Diana’s advice to my writing and approach to work. And probably also to my life. I’ve been given the tools and the rest is up to me: I need to take all my new beginnings and form them into something I can be proud of. No more excuses.