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My guest this week is historian Dr. Anna Zeide. Anna is an associate professor of history at Virginia Tech, where she is also the founding director of the food studies program, as well as the author of two books. The first, Canned: The Rise and Fall of Consumer Confidence in the American Food Industry, won a James Beard award, and her most recent book, U.S. History in 15 Foods, was published earlier this year. Incidentally, reading that book inspired me to plant corn in my home garden for the first time ever, so stay tuned on that experiment. She is also a co-editor of an anthology called Acquired Tastes: Stories About the Origins of Modern Foods. In our delightful conversation, we talked about everything from putting together a writing outline to taking a metaphorical—or literal—wander through the woods as part of the writing process.
MENTIONED ON THE SHOW
- Pomodoro time management system
- Omni Outliner
- Helen Rosner in conversation with the editors on Acquired Tastes
- Writing coach and consultant, Helen Betya Rubinstein
- Virigina Tech food studies program
- Jasmine Warga, Other Words for Home
- Veera Hiranandani, How to Find What You’re Not Looking For Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way (morning pages)
Hello and welcome back to Drafting the Past, a podcast about the craft of writing history. I’m your host, Kate Carpenter, and my guest this week is historian, Dr. Anna Zeide.
Thank you. I’m really happy to be here.
Anna is an associate professor of history at Virginia Tech, where she’s also the founding director of the food studies program, as well as the author of two books. Her first book, Canned: The Rise and Fall of Consumer Confidence in the American Food Industry won a James Beard Award. And her most recent book, US History in 15 Foods was published earlier this year. Incidentally, reading that book inspired me to plant corn in my home garden for the first time ever, so stay tuned on that experiment. She is also a co-editor of an anthology called Acquired Tastes: Stories About the Origins of Modern Food. In our delightful conversation, we talked about everything from putting together a writing outline to taking a metaphorical or literal wander through the woods as part of the writing process. Please enjoy my interview with Dr. Anna Zeide.
My career as a writer certainly is a longer one and a kind of more interesting one in some ways than my career as a historian. I think I first started thinking of myself as a writer in college and in a little bit of a backwards way in that I was trying as much as I could to apply for any scholarships that I could find. And one of the ones that someone I knew had gotten at the university where I ended up going, which was Wash U in St. Louis was this Nemerov writing scholarship named after Howard Nemerov, who’d been a faculty member and writer there. I kind of thought, well, I’m not really a writer, but I’ll apply for this.
And I got the scholarship, which was really exciting, and then once I got it, it pulled me into this really amazing network of people at Wash U, so I had to take a weekly writing seminar with other writers. We had to attend all of the visiting writers speaker series, which were poets and fiction writers and creative non-fiction writers in the really strong MFA program that they have there. And then I had to get a writing minor as part of the scholarship as well, which is not something I probably would’ve chosen. And yet it pulled me into this not just set of conversations and skills that I developed, but really as an identity.
I remember summer after my freshman year of college, I worked at Interlochen Arts Camp in northern Michigan, and there we had to choose what our art was in order to kind of guide our students. And I had never really thought of it before, but I said, well, I guess I’m a writer, but that was the art that I both thought of myself as belonging in by then and had cultivated an identity as. And I think that that grounding, even when I was a biology major then and much more rooted in the sciences, I think having that identity as a writer helped remind me and pull me into the directions of the humanities because I wanted to write. I wanted to pay attention to language and be in conversation with others who were thinking about storytelling. And I think I had a sense that history was a discipline in contrast to some of the other social sciences that I was also interested in that really made space for that.
I would say as I entered graduate school and did a PhD in the history of science at University of Wisconsin, I think some of that attention to writing fell off in ways that I have been trying to reclaim since, either just because of the kind of spaces of conversation in the seminars I was taking. It seemed like deprioritized in ways that I kind of wish we had talked more explicitly about. I mean the writing at that moment felt much more functional. How do we get words on a page? How do we develop arguments? And less about how do we sort of take pleasure in the writing process? And I think that pleasure is something I’ve been trying to reclaim as I think about more recent projects.
And then I will get into some of this I think later, but in some of the projects I’ve taken on after graduate school and in starting my career, I’ve definitely been thinking about how to remember that early identity as a writer and not just as a scholar or historian. And to think a lot about audience and how writing is such a direct path into thinking about who our readers are and what kind of impact our work might take and how intertwined all of those are identities as writers, as kind of public scholars, as people whose writing hopefully matters in the world.
Let’s talk about the practical stuff. When and where do you do your writing?
I would say this has changed a significant amount over the course of my career and letting myself notice that I need different things at different times has been a useful practice. For the last few years, I’ve been writing at home a lot and it’s become a pretty deep need for me is to feel very comfortable when I’m writing, to be literally in soft clothes in a soft space, sometimes at my desk, sometimes on a couch with a down blanket over me. And something about letting some of those physical discomforts go has felt really valuable to letting some of the writing intellectual or emotional processes come out. And I found it really hard to sit in my office on campus. I can do teaching related stuff or programming or event planning or emails there, but somehow writing feels increasingly linked to comfort.
And I’ve also felt like since I have elementary school aged kids and I definitely don’t feel like I have enough control over my time to carve out certain times of day, I think this has pretty much always been true. So I tend to use, I do the Pomodoro 25-minute method of writing, and I often just set a goal with certain number of Pomodoros a day and wherever those 25 minute chunks can be found, sometimes if I happen to have 2 hours, I can do them all at once if I want to do 4. Other times it’s like one in the morning and one on lunch break and one after the kids go to bed or it’s that kind of frenetic pace. I’m not sure I recommend it, but it’s definitely felt much more in line with the realities of my time for the last several years or many years I guess, than before. And I think that those are all, not necessarily … I’m sure they’ll change as my life circumstances change, but in this moment, those elements of comfort and fitting it in where it happens are pretty important.
How do you organize yourself? How do you organize sources and notes? What’s your workflow like?
Yeah, I have gotten increasingly organized about writing and in ways that I’ve actually been trying to dig back into older folders and try to understand how did I even write before I had this very rigid method? But lately and with my latest book, US History in 15 Foods which had 15 chapters plus an introduction and epilogue, very kind of segmented and organized in terms of needing very specific content in each chapter. Maybe that kind of shape of the project is part of what pushed me in this direction. But I started a very convoluted system, but though it has a lot of clarity to me, I’ve been using this tool called OmniOutliner, which for anyone who uses Scrivener, which I’ve also started using recently, my system I think recreates a kind of low tech version of Scrivener. So I use OmniOutliner, which is just a really simple software program that was recommended to me in graduate school. It really just has the function of allowing you to expand and contract and subordinate and create hierarchies of ideas in OmniOutliner.
So I have always two OmniOutliner documents and two Word documents that I still write in as my structure. One is my Word document of notes where I literally just write everything I encounter and I try to literally write everything in there. So either I copy and paste if it’s a digital source or I type in sometimes many pages worth of text into these documents because I find that process of having everything in one place really, really helpful, both for processing it in my head, thinking about its meaning, and then also having one place where I can always find everything source wise if I’m ever concerned about where I got something and didn’t document it well.
Then I create an OmniOutliner, organized notes kind of outline where I literally read through my entire notes document, which can be hundreds of pages for each chapter and try to pull based on themes into organized themes in OmniOutliner. Then I open up another OmniOutliner document and I try to take all those themes and pull the relevant ones into some kind of writing outline that now isn’t just random themes, but organized by similar content or an argument that flows.
And then once I have that outline in my second OmniOutliner document, I tend to open up a draft document in Word. And by the time I write that, I don’t write a whole bunch of different drafts, at least not like a zero draft. Really by the time I write my first draft, it feels at least like a middle level draft because I’ve been doing so much of the organizing and thinking and I have a really neat outline in OmniOutliner that I then turn into text. And then by then it’s a really fun phase of writing because I feel like so much of the mental organization has happened in these software documents. It makes it a little bit robotic or formulaic at certain stages of that process of really having to put every word on that note document and then drag every one of those words into an organized space. But I found it to be a system that really mimics what I think my brain wants to be doing and allows for the tools to sort of mirror that process.
So once you reach that sort of middle draft, what does your revision process look like?
I find it, yeah, incredibly helpful to have other people read my work. I think that we lose such perspective on our own writing by the time we’ve been in the documents and material for even a few weeks that having someone else help us identify the holes and even help us to … I find that I always articulate my argument most clearly when someone else has read my work and I ask them to ask me this question, “So tell me what you’re arguing here.” And in that verbal delivery, I sometimes audio record myself as I do it or ask someone to take notes because having a specific person ask me after reading the work and having to then say what the argument is, almost always I find that it comes out more clearly and more succinctly than what’s on the page. And I hear that from other people as well when they’re pressed to say something out loud in a writing group setting, it’s often better than what’s on the page.
And so I think that that process of conversation with others, of having an external audience take in what you’ve said and mirror it back to you, so much clarity comes from what’s unclear? What else do I need to add here? What’s superfluous? Where do I need to cut? So I’ve relied on so many generous readers and colleagues and friends throughout my career to help me move from that kind of first set of drafts to the next stages. And I think that that communal part of it, where we get out of our own heads and out of our own computers and into conversation with … I mean ultimately we are all writing for others, we’re writing for some readership, whether it’s a narrow one or a broader one. And so having that reader feedback early in the process, it feels really critical to me.
So your first book Canned and then this most recent book, US History in 15 Foods are quite different both in terms of scope, of time that you cover, and also even sort of tone, style, the approach. How was it different writing these two books?
I think there were a lot of differences. Canned certainly was my dissertation book, and there was a lot of revision that happened before its publication. But I think the writing of a dissertation as I reflect even a decade later on, that experience comes with so much baggage. At least for me, it did. There’s so much of a sense of proving one’s self, of writing for your committee or for your advisor of a very insecure for me sense of how my work might matter or whether anyone will read this or what am I even doing this for? And I don’t know how universal that feeling is to the extent that I felt it, but I think that most of us feel something similar, that there’s this sense that we haven’t yet found our position or place in this field. We feel like we’re supposed to be an expert about something that we don’t yet feel experts about.
And so I think Canned for, I think it has a lot of strengths, but I think that when I read it now, it does read to me like writing that has both a kind of narrow audience in mind and a kind of proving itself voice in mind as well, trying to carve out a little niche of territory that felt like a new set of contributions that I was making, building on lots of scholarship and work that others had done. But trying to carve out my territory in this space and show that I think I was also very concerned in that book with doing what I thought food history could do, which is bring together lots of subdisciplinary perspectives. And because I was in a history of science, medicine and technology program, was also very involved with environmental history work at Wisconsin, was also then engaged with consumer history and food history obviously.
There were all of these separate literatures and separate fields that felt like they had to come together and that I needed to do a lot of explicit work to show why they all belonged in one book, while also trying to show some kind of mastery about all these different fields which obviously couldn’t have mastered. So anyway, I think that that book reflects all of those emotional processes, and I guess I do think that writing is always a kind of psychological and emotional process and not just a intellectual one. And so it had a kind of narrowness of scope, a kind of deep attention to primary and archival sources, and a kind of desire to prove something about the value of food history at the nexus of these fields which came together well enough. I still like the book even as it reads to me as a relic of a different kind of Anna. I
I was going to say, I want to jump in for readers and say it’s a really great book.
Thank you. Yeah, I think it holds up. I think it’s mostly my own reading of it that sees whatever I’m trying to say about all of these background things going on in my brain about what the book was doing. But I do think, yeah, it came together and it obviously laid the foundation very significantly for all the work I’ve done since. I think it pulled me into a space that I felt like I wanted to keep exploring in. And it won a James Beard Award, which also as far as writing goes, I think really boosted my confidence. I think I don’t still entirely understand the process or how that book was received by that particular kind of food media lens of judges who chose the book. But I think receiving that award and having a sense of this writing doesn’t have to simply be for some kind of smaller history scholar audience and that there’s takeaways and values here that people who are interested in food more broadly or just in history more broadly could also engage with, certainly set the stage some for this book, US History in 15 Foods.
So this book is much more tied, I think, to my increasing sense of wanting to speak to broader audiences, to think about how we teach history, and how we teach food, and how we in general scaffold knowledge for others. I was just looking at my second-grader brought home some kind of famous American’s study sheet that she was going to have a test on, and it had everybody from Martin Luther King to Helen Keller to Christopher Columbus, all on one set of pages. And one of the things that struck me most was how none of the people or descriptions of them had any dates or even eras associated with them at all, that they seemed entirely out of context, such that my daughter, other than things we talk about at home, really didn’t know that Jackie Robinson and Benjamin Franklin were not around at the same time interacting in the same milieu. And I was like, whoa, this is how history education starts, is this second grade level total lack of context and total removal from everything else that shaped why these people were important in their time.
And I think it translates to the way I’ve found teaching a lot of undergraduate students that they come in with a lot of sense of back in the day, or it used to be, with really no sense of how those textures of different times and eras shape what they’re learning. So US History in 15 Foods has a lot more US history, kind of what you might think of survey context certainly than Canned or other scholarly history books. And it’s in part because I think most of us, even scholars in the field, certain eras of US history, I think we kind of lose a little bit of the context of how can I tell this story against the backdrop of what was really happening in those moments and why this particular food mattered at that time.
So yeah, it has a lot more kind of background information you might call it, but I think background information that’s critical to the story itself, and it does something much broader. It tries to kind of make an argument and a case for how we might see all of us history differently if looking through the lens of food. And of course you mentioned scope. It goes from pre-colonization to the present. Not all of those are eras I’m an expert in, but trying to really tell a kind of continuous story throughout these changing periods, whereas Canned focused largely on a much narrower kind of around the turn of the 20th century and in the years before and after kind of time period.
So I want to come back to the new book, but first I want to talk briefly about Acquired Tastes. So you were a co-editor on this wonderful anthology called Acquired Tastes. And I know I think from hearing you and your fellow editors talk that you were really interested in making sure that this book reached a broad audience and not just an academic one, which was really successful. Helen Rosner, the New Yorker food writer had wonderful things to say about it, and it’s a fantastic anthology. How did you work to accomplish that goal as editors?
Thank you for that question. Yes, I think Acquired Tastes very much fit in between Canned and US history in 15 Foods in terms of pushing forward my desire to think about audience and writing. And I worked with two co-editors, Ben Cohen and Michael Kideckel on that book along with 14 or I guess 11 other amazing contributors who were part of that process. And from the beginning, the book came out of conversations that happened at the Environmental History Conference about how much we wanted to bring together food and environmental history conversations for people in the food movement, for people who had really important contributions to the food movement, but often weren’t rooted in a clear sense of history. And that conversation with that audience required an attention to the stories we were telling and a real desire to think about storytelling. So we actually hired a writing coach and consultant, Helen Betya Rubinstein, who is a writing coach who works with a number of academics now, and everyone should check her out. She’s wonderful.
And we brought her in for a weekend with most of the contributors and the summer of 2017, ’18, no, I’m losing track, but before the book came out, before everyone had a first draft by that weekend, and then Helen had read all of the drafts of this book. And I think hearing the responses of most of the participants after the end of that weekend and how kind of life-changing it was to be in a space where writing was the center of what we were talking about. And Helen brought really traditional, but also really new ideas about the writing workshop and how we think about characters and scene setting and speculation and filling in gaps in places where we might not know. I think as historians, we tend to want to have 100% of our primary sources lined up before we even begin to try to create a sense of a time and place, and how we might borrow some of the skills of fiction and nonfiction writers to narrate the past.
And I think that working really closely one-on-one with Helen and then in small groups as we gave each other feedback not just about content, but about writing, felt like so freeing for so many of us. And a lot of the contributors have continued to talk about that weekend as being really pivotal in their own relationships to writing and to storytelling. And it feels obvious to me now, but the idea that there are people who are experts in telling stories and writing, namely writing coaches and people with degrees in English or MFAs, whose knowledge we should draw on, that we can draw on. That there are lots of great books on writing, not just historical writing, but writing in general that can inform the way we think of ourselves as scholars.
And in my later work with Helen and others who I know have worked with her and other writing coaches, I think having someone who’s reading your work, not just from inside your discipline and not just outside your discipline in another scholarly field, but from people whose attention is to the writing and what it feels like to meditate there, to leave room for conversation and thought about writing and the writing process, and some of the emotional and psychological dimensions of it that I mentioned as well, a kind of writing therapy that I think that the best writing coaches do as well, feels to me like a new, at least for me, it was a new way of thinking about my writing process.
That’s fantastic. It seems like an opportunity that so many of us would love to have. Were there common issues that came up?
Yeah, I mean, I think a lot of it was in the way that so many of us, as I think back to the first conversation we had at that workshop where we all sat around was both a kind of lack of confidence in our own ability to write. I mean to write, yes, we came in, the word writing can capture so many things too. We were good at putting words on the page in clear argument ways, but as far as feeling a kind of liberty to tell stories and to think about what arc and narrative flows are and where we begin and end our stories and how there are models for doing this. And obviously there are many writers, historians who experiment with all kinds of new and interesting techniques that some of us … We learn about in kind of random ways. So a kind of confidence to own our identities as writers to recognize that that’s valuable, definitely felt really important. And again, it’s kind of a psychological moment more than a writing issue.
I think also we struggled … One of the things we did during the workshop also was had everyone do a kind of seven minute presentation to a public audience about our chapters in really pithy ways. And we encourage everyone to choose one image and one main point to do our seven minutes on. And that was so hard, and again, this is well-known writing advice, but being able to choose the one thing that you really want to say and using the rest of your narrative or analysis in support of that one thing and not getting lost in all of the interesting side paths that we all want to talk about, but often really take away from the central thrust of what we want to convey in our writing was I think a common challenge.
To talk more about how her work comes together on the page, I asked Anna to read from the opening to Chapter Seven, Jell-O, from her new book. Here’s Dr. Anna Zeide reading from US History in 15 Foods.
“In 1902, the first magazine advertisement for Jell-O appeared in the pages of Lady’s Home Journal. “No boiling, no baking,” the ad read. “Simply add boiling water and set to cool.” These instructions underscored the fact that this was a new product promising a dessert quite unlike any Americans had experienced before. The many Jell-O ads that flooded the American media scene in the years to follow, referred to a wide range of the new product’s strengths. It was pure, dainty, colorful, adaptable, available in a range of flavors, easy to prepare, easy to digest, good for the sick, good for children, accessible for the rich and poor alike, produced by happy American workers who never had labor troubles and endorsed by leading home economists. But one thing that was rarely mentioned in these ads was what Jell-O actually was.
A rare 1909 recipe booklet tiptoed around the question. It said, “The base of Jell-O, the chief ingredient is crystal gelatine. Delicate, white, translucent, and pure and clean as falling snow combined with extra fine granulated sugar. The fruit elements are added by the nicest of modern scientific processes in one of the finest food factories in the world.” Even more unusually, another booklet from the 19 teens delved farther into where that snowy gelatin came from. “Starting from the cartilaginous parts, this pure food product is obtained by a long series of boiling and filterings in the form of a delicate, colorless and transparent jelly from which every trace of grossness has been removed.” And of course, the cartilaginous parts referred to parts of animals, of cows and pigs who have been slaughtered from meat production. As the meat packing industry grew in size and sophistication, it found the key to its profitability in selling its many byproducts, gelatin among them.”
I love this opening. You can see why this book will have wide appeal right in it, but I was struck, so this book draws on a lot of secondary sources just by the nature of the scope. But you also use a lot of primary source research. When I looked at the notes for this opening, there’s a whole lot of primary sources. So I’m curious to know how you put this together, what goes into writing this?
Right. So the book definitely tries to do some more kind of summary work in trying to pull together a lot of the secondary source material that looks both at the particular foods. So each chapter both tells the story of a particular food like Jell-O and then uses that food to tell the story of a particular era, like the Progressive Era largely in the case of Jell-O. And so I was trying to both bring together the secondary source material largely on that era. Sometimes there was a book or a good secondary source material on the food itself. In many cases there were actually, but more often the secondary source material was trying to really get a feel for that moment, what the large scale changes and forces were, and then trying to weave that particular food into those main themes as a way of illuminating them through the food. But often the foods themselves had less attention drawn to them in secondary literature, or at least less relative to the way I was trying to use them to tell the story of that time.
And so this is especially where a lot of primary source research came in. And like with this Jell-O opening, there’s so much amazing and interesting Jell-O, the company that produced Jell-O, the Genesee Pure food company, was really embedded in efforts at advertising, for example, because of its need to create taste for this new product, recipe booklets, which were common across many processed industrial foods at the time. So trying to use primary sources to think about how these foods were known, how they became known, how they were used, how they were stigmatized or celebrated in different eras, really did give valuable insight into how these foods were seen. And one of the big messages with the book and in talking about food in general is I think both how food becomes really easy to ignore both in our present day because we are all just taking it in and trying to fill our hungry bellies and move on with our days. And in historical literature, often we don’t have as many sources about food, about what daily meals look like for average people, which makes it sometimes harder to attend to.
At the same time, I think when you look at a lot of primary sources that have to do with food in the past and present, there’s always so much going on. I mean, there’s always a lot of other values embedded in the discussions about food. And I think looking at those primary sources really quickly gives you a sense of how meaningful the foods were, even if that wasn’t known or highly attended to by the people who were engaging with those foods in the time. And I think it’s certainly true of the present in the way that foods are so laden with meaning in the way we talk about them, even as those meanings feel kind of incidental to whatever people are saying about the food that they’re talking about.
That kind of gets at my second question about this, which is that I have to imagine that one of the hardest things about writing a book on this scale is figuring out what to leave out. There’s just so much you can include. But at the same time, also including enough detail that passages like this are totally engaging and fascinating. How do you navigate that? How do you decide what to leave out?
It was a challenge. I think even in the initial phase of writing the chapter outline and coming up with the book proposal. Figuring out, I mean, first of all, which foods to include itself was a huge act of omission in terms of so many other foods that could easily and perfectly tell stories within any moment in American history. So that decision of which of these foods am I going to emphasize? And a few of them certainly changed as I started to write and felt like I needed some kind of balance or other embodiment. And then when it came time to focusing in on the 15 foods that I do end up working with, yeah, I mean, going back to what I said about identifying the one thing, figuring out what each of these chapters was really about. And I would say even now looking back on it, I think some chapters do this better than others because there were just so many things that the food needed to do.
But for a lot of the chapters, figuring out, okay, if I had to say three keywords about this era, what were they? What would capture the phase of US history that this chapter is talking about? And then what is going on with this food that similarly captures those three keywords and all the other interesting details about that food that also tell us something about it but that aren’t contributing to those keywords that make up the one thing. Putting them kind of explicitly in my OmniOutliner outlines I have an unused heading and I very explicitly drag a lot in there and it makes it easier than just deleting it. Or maybe I’ll come back to it, maybe it’ll end up being useful later. I can still search for it. But kind of the physical act of dragging and dropping details or pieces of information or arguments that don’t cohere as the writing goes on into that unused tab really helps me with a physical feeling of sorting and sifting and winnowing it down to what I really want to say about that era and food in this book.
And like I said, it’s interesting to look back on the chapters where I think I just felt like I had to fit more in, and I still think they’re valuable chapters, but there’s a bit more of a feeling of jumping this way in that and a little bit less of like, okay, how does this all come together? Whereas other chapters have much more of a strong focus. But even that, I hope that this book will, with its 15 chapters, I think it makes for useful comparisons across different chapters of what is happening and how the arguments come across and how the stories come across.
And it is a super teachable book. And we’ve talked before about how that was one of your goals for this. I already want to teach a US history survey with this book as the text.
And as I was reading it, it’s so generative that I was thinking of the final assignment for the class while I was reading it. I think that’s fantastic. And I know that undergraduate education has been really important to you at two programs, now you’ve helped to create a food studies program and you’re a wonderful teacher yourself. And I’m curious, how do you see the relationship between your writing and your teaching?
I think they are really tightly intertwined for me. And I think about teaching quite expansively both in undergraduate education and graduate education and public talks that I give and the kind of questions that I hear people put forth both about history but also about food. A lot of basic lack of knowledge about where our food comes from, about nutrition, I mean for all kinds of legible reasons that lots of people have written about. But it makes me think about the importance of writing in this area. I say this even as I often spend a lot of time feeling like there’s so many more important things I could be working on, but I do think food matters. I think that it is a really accessible lens into a lot of really important and heavy and consequential factors, both in our past and our present. Everything from environmental issues to race and class issues, to just questions of justice more broadly, to systems of agriculture and government.
So all of these big systemic issues that are really hard to get a handle on, I think often for me, feel more legible through a particular lens. Many to choose from, but food being one really useful one. And so in the way I teach, in the courses I teach, in the ways that I advertise the courses and think about conveying to students what the takeaways are. And same, I would say in my writing in trying to say, trust me as you go along for this ride where we go far afield into all kinds of areas and sometimes tricky and difficult things to understand, that we come back to this center point of food as something that anchors why this matters.
And I think that, yeah, we’ve here at Virginia Tech where I am now, we’ve been trying to build a kind of food studies or food and society related minor that’s going to be quite cross college with the College of Agriculture and other partners to emphasize to people who do think about food a lot, but from the kind of food science or nutrition or agriculture side of things that these more humanities inflected ways of thinking matter. And then to humanities students or those who don’t really think about food, to convey that the things they’re interested in can also come together in this most fundamental of areas. So yeah, I would like to think that the teaching and the writing both are fundamentally trying to use this topic as a tool for opening us up onto kind of some of the most critical issues for students and humans in general to think about into our uncertain future that we’re all headed into.
I want to ask, you mentioned earlier the importance of getting feedback on your work and noted in the acknowledgements, US History in 15 Foods, you talked specifically about the … Let’s see, The Historians Writing Group at Virginia Tech. I’m always curious to know how people’s writing groups function. So can you tell me a little bit about yours, how it works?
Yeah, this one, it’s THWG for short and it’s been an institution here for a while before proceeding my arrival at Virginia Tech. And in idea, it’s a full departmental writing group, so everyone in the history department and sort of historically minded colleagues from other departments as well are invited. And I ran the group for two years, so I was really embedded in it for my first two years here. And it’s really a group that sends out a piece of writing monthly, and then anyone who wants to come, which is usually maybe a third of the department would come to any, which is about 10 to 15 people here, would come to lunchtime conversation. During my two years they were on Zoom. We’ve resumed meeting in person over lunch and then have a really wide-ranging conversation with feedback from historians who are studying all kinds of different eras and topics that helps move a specific piece of writing forward. And there’s typically been book chapters or conference papers or articles in progress.
And I do think running that group for two years helped me think … The last semester I was doing it, we instituted a number of changes to try to think about what serves writers best. Everything from starting out the session where everyone went around and spoke for a minute or two about where they were in their own writing process of whatever, whether that was, “I’m not doing any writing right now, because I’m so caught up in this other thing.” Or “I’m struggling with this particular source.” Again, to kind of create the sense of community around writing that this is not just about one person’s semi-finished product and instead a process that’s a work in progress.
Also have experimented with different kinds of feedback and encouraging and learning how to give feedback. This is one of the things that our writing coach for Acquired Tastes, Helen talks a lot about in her work on writing is I think a lot of the ways that we think that feedback is useful often sets back a writer’s goal, and how to ask questions that really help pull out what that writer wants to do and not what we think they should be doing, which is a very tricky balance, especially if we’re used to grading or marking up students or people whose work we have a bit more of a authoritative relationship toward.
So anyway, I think there’s a lot to think about in how writing groups function, and I’m really grateful that we have this departmental one, and I think there’s a lot of conversations about where it heads next. But I will say yes. I mean, again, a redundant piece of advice that I’m sure lots of people have talked about here on the show and elsewhere, but finding writing groups of different kinds and scales. I think when I was writing Canned, I was in three different writing groups and they all kind of offered different functions both in terms of what the people’s backgrounds were, how close I was to them in terms of feeling like I could cry in front of them if that’s what was needed, versus feeling like I had to be more formal in spaces, people who could really give me very physical specific information about where I might find an archival source versus people who had no idea anything about history or history of food, but who could help me think about setting a scene.
So finding different writing groups with different functions and identifying what those functions are and understanding that not all writing groups can offer all the things that one needs as a writer or as a person, I think is advice I want to remind myself of too. Because I think it’s easy to fall off of that, cultivating those relationships.
In addition to finding writing groups, what’s some of the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
I think one that I keep coming back to that increasingly seems really wise is actually advice from my dad who was a professor of forestry. And as a kid, I knew that every day he would walk to work through the woods, taking sometimes up to two hours each way to meander and lie on fallen logs and take up his time. And I remember him saying that his department head was often like, “Zeide, what are you doing? You’re coming in late, you’re leaving early, taking hours in the woods every day. Why aren’t you working?” And my dad would say, “Doesn’t he realize that is the work, that is when I’m doing the work?” And he always found it so ridiculous that his department head didn’t have this sense of what it means to write. And I never quite understood what he meant until I became a writer and scholar myself.
Realizing how much of our work, our writing, our thought process, the connections that happen are in our brain have to happen in more unintentional, or that’s maybe the wrong word, but less direct words on page, and how much of it is about making connections and thinking about the stuff we’re reading and giving ourselves space, whatever that looks like to process. Walking in the woods obviously is a great way to do it, but people find other ways and not feeling guilty that the writing process sometimes has to include time away from our desk, time for our brain to make connections, that for me at least when I feel stuck and just can’t write, that I shouldn’t push myself, that I should get up and go for a walk. And that these things are not separate, that I think there’s a lot of neuroscience research that suggests that that is actually how ideas form is when we give space for the brain to do its work.
And so acknowledging that, honoring that, letting that feed into my own relationship to how I pace my day. I think this goes along with a broader advice just about productivity culture and trying to give ourselves space to step away from sense of how we waste our time. And so I really like that advice, just sort of making sure we understand writing is a much more holistic process that involves our brain doing the work in addition to what we’re typing at our desks. It’s one that I try to remind myself of even when I’m not always totally successful.
And maybe along the same lines, another piece of advice that I really like that I think comes from Margaret Atwood, although I feel like now I’m not sure if that’s right, is again about the physical parts of our work. I think it was like, “Pain is distracting, do back exercises.” And similarly forcing myself to literally get up and stretch and recognizing that where we are mentally ties into where we are physically, and that sitting crouched over does not promote clarity of thought or focus or pleasure or appreciating our writing as a process. And so that one also, I used to have that written up over my desk, “Do your back exercises.”
It’s such good practical advice. I love it. I’m curious to know who you read for inspiration. Are there other writers you look to?
Oh, there’s so many. I am a very avid fiction reader, and I try not to think of it as explicit inspiration in the sense of how this will make me a better scholar. I try to do it because I enjoy it, but I also think there’s so much that I pick up from writing. And in fact, lately I think some of the inspiring reading that I’ve been doing, is my kids are finally at an age where they’re reading these kind of middle grade chapter books that are finally really, really fun for me to read too. And I’ve kind of fallen down reading a bunch of these, and I’m kind of amazed at some of the incredible artfulness of some of these books that have recently come out.
In particular, I recently read Jasmine Warga’s Other Words For Home, which is a middle grade book about a Syrian refugee girl in Ohio, and it’s written in verse, it’s a poem book, but also written accessibly for 10 year olds. And it’s just beautiful. And I spent a lot of time writing out certain passages from the book into my writing journal, feeling like there’s so much intense emotion and important ideas in these five short lines. How does one do that? How do we take that writing?
And also Veera Hiranandani is another one that I’ve been really loving. She writes historical fiction. The one I recently read was How to Find What You’re Not Looking For. And it looks at sort of interracial marriage and relationships in the 1960s against the backdrop of the 60s. And again, the way that she’s able to narrate that moment really legibly as well as talking about these kind of racial and political issues at the time, I’m surprised and delighted to find those as kind of a source of inspiration in addition to more traditional scholarly or creative nonfiction writing that I also spend time with and enjoy.
I have to go back though because you mentioned copying out passages in your writing journal.
How do you use a writing journal?
Well, I have a journal that I would say if you looked through it has so many different ways of using it but it’s like there’s not much consistency. So sometimes I use it for doing morning pages, which comes from the Artist’s Way and trying to write for 20 minutes every morning to just kind of … The goal is to keep your pen moving and not stop and just sort of blurt out whatever’s there, both about your writing process and what you’re thinking about as well as whatever comes to mind. And sometimes I find that incredibly helpful. So some of my pages are filled with a week streak where I did that every morning and then I fall off for months and don’t do that.
And then I use it to put in really helpful, I’d say not quotes so much as kind of passages or reflections either on writing itself or on kind of like I said with the book, sort of a sentence or two that’s really perfectly crafted that I feel like is able to capture a heart of something.
And then I sometimes do just open it up and read it when I’m feeling stuck in a moment or needing a little bit of inspiration.
I also try to draw in it, I’m not much of a drawer, but I feel like it’s a space of reminding ourselves that creativity can be nudged forward through other mediums. And that sometimes just letting your brain move with doodles or whatever gives us, again, that pause, like the walk in the woods that can sometimes do that.
And then sometimes I use it for kind of more explicit like writing to-do lists or kind of writing a list of steps that need to be taken between now and next month when I have a conference paper due or something like that. So there’s a little bit more of that less artful and more prosaic to-do list stuff too.
But yeah, I find it really helpful. Sometimes stuff, those things that I write end up on scraps of paper and not in my journal because in my bag and I don’t feel like getting it from the other room when my cat’s in my lap. But I do a lot of that kind of writing of other sorts when I either need to organize my thoughts or just have a moment of doing something that feels incredibly low pressure. I do a lot of note-taking of that sort.
Before I let you go, can I ask you what you’re working on these days?
Yeah. I guess two projects that are taking up my attention at different paces and very different modes. One in my more scholarly space is a book project I’ve been working on for quite a while now, five years or something, which is a history of food waste, trying to understand origins of so many of the threads that have come together to create a real food waste crisis in our country today and globally. And so that one is … I’m trying not to push it in terms of how quickly it comes together. I’ve written some pieces here and there over the years, doing a conference paper on one thread of it. I’m writing about dumpster diving and Food Not Bombs in the 1980s right now for conference in a couple of weeks. But trying to take it slow, trying to sort of identify what I want that book to be in terms of how broad of an audience, whether it’s a trade book or a scholarly book.
And then I’m also working on a family history project that also I’ve been working on for probably more than a decade. I have records from my grandmother who was born in 1907 in Russia, and she lived in Russian, in the Soviet Union throughout her whole life. So I’ve been trying to narrate her diaries as well as my dad. He also grew up in Russia and immigrated to the US in his 40s, and I did oral history with him in the years before he died a decade ago, including his narration of his mother’s diaries, and with all of his sidebars about the content. So I’ve been for about 10 years now, transcribing and translating from Russian and trying to work through the really complicated narratives in both my grandmother and my father’s life and have been trying to figure out what kind of project it’s coming together to be.
So it’s a lot of Russian history that I was not familiar with, a lot of Russian Jewish immigration history, a lot of history of the South, environmental history. As I said, my dad was a forestry professor and his walks in the woods were really pivotal in shaping him and obviously me. So it’s also kind of a story of myself. So it’s a complicated, many stranded project that I don’t know how much it’s going to be something that’s just for me and my family and how much that’s something I’m going to try to publish in a way that contributes more clearly to the fields I’m in. I think it could do all of those things and more, but for those reasons, it has been a kind of complicated project to work on, but a delightful one.
Dr. Anna Zeide, thank you so much for joining me on Drafting the Past and talking about your writing process.
Thank you, Kate. This has been so much fun. I love these conversations.
Thank you again to Dr. Anna Zeide for joining me to talk writing. And thanks to you for listening. You can find links to Anna’s books and the other things we talked about at draftingthepast.com, where you can also find a complete transcript of the episode. If you’ve been enjoying Drafting the Past and you want to help me keep it going, you can also donate and subscribe at patreon.com/draftingthepast. Until next time, happy writing.