Restaurant exemplifies ideal of Travel Writing Classes

Travel, Food and Wine Writing Classes
In my Travel, Food and Wine Writing Classes I love to visit restaurants like the Sooke Harbour House, where I had the pleasure of dining with my family.

In my Travel Writing Classes, I love to visit restaurants with a strong sense of place.

Though European restaurants often exhibit this connection with place, North American restaurants are making this a priority, too.

Thus, it was a great pleasure to visit Sooke Harbour House on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. It was one of the first restaurants to place a strong emphasis on local foods, a natural outgrowth of its location on a beautiful inlet, with access to abundant local seafood, meats, and an extensive flower and produce garden.

I have been wanting to visit Sooke Harbor for years and finally got the chance this summer with my family. We sat outside in the sunshine at a table overlooking the sea, with the Olympic Mountains in the distance. I ordered the delicious charcuterie plate, which came with a side of wonderful figs and local produce. My children, not easily impressed by fancy food, agreed that the fish, soup and ice cream were some of the best they’d  ever enjoyed. My wife, Lisa, raved about the plum dessert.

Everything was perfectly prepared, with a light touch and the freshest of ingredients. The amiable waiter even made our dog, Stella, feel at home. It was everything I had expected and more. As is the case with the restaurants I visit for the Travel Writing Classes, the place reflects the philosophy and practice of the owners.

The Sooke Harbour House has been owned by Frederique and Sinclair Philip since 1979. Sinclair Philip is the Canadian representative to Slow Food in Italy and some years ago was a Slow Food Vancouver Island Convivium leader. Mr. Philip has a doctorate in political economics from the University of Grenoble in France.

The restaurant reflects this heritage, taking cues from French, Japanese and  Northwest Indian cuisine. If you have a chance to visit, don’t miss it!

Writer as Reader in Seattle Writing Classes

Seattle Writing Classes Discuss Writer as Reader with Dana Gioia as example.
Seattle Writing Classes Discuss Writer as Reader with Dana Gioia as example.

In this summer’s Seattle Writing Class, “Writing for Story,” we’ll learn how to read in public as a writer. This is a necessary skill for anyone who wishes to promote a book or read in public.

I was reminded of the importance of this when attending the recent reading by Dana Gioia, who received Image Magazine’s Thirteenth Annual Denise Levertov award. Gioia is not only an internationally acclaimed poet, but is one of the best contemporary readers of poetry around. He gave lyrical, dramatic interpretations of his and other people’s poems, all from memory. When I asked him about how Wallace Stevens had influenced his poetry, he said Stevens was an influence, though perhaps not as important a one as Shakespeare or Robert Frost. He then recited from memory Steven’s poem, “Peter Quince at the Clavier.” Are there any contemporary poets who could match that? If so, I have not heard them read.

Gioia’s ability to memorize, recite and perform poetry seems to grow out of his convictions that poetry is a public art, not simply something to be written and read without being spoken. These beliefs helped shape his tenure as head of the NEA, where he did important work in repairing the direction of the agency. In his 1991 essay, “Can Poetry Matter?” he took up this issue, criticizing the way contemporary poetry and writing was taught. The essay appeared in the Atlantic and created quite a sensation. I read the essay while in graduate school. It had an important influence on my own writing, and on the Seattle Writing Classes I eventually taught. Gioia’s understanding of audience and belief that writers need to speak to an audience outside of writing programs convinced me to follow a similar trajectory in my work and teaching. I highly recommend this essay as well as his poems and literary criticism for neophyte writers looking for a thoughtful and helpful model.

The Self as Character: Writing in First Person Point of View

First person point of view remains one of the trickiest strategies for any writer, as well as one of the most effective and popular ways of telling a story. This class will provide key insights into writing in first person: thinking of yourself as a character in a story; changing your point of view in the course of the story; reaching a meaningful conclusion that will interest readers. We will discuss first person point of view in memoir, travel pieces, humor, and other genres.
1) THINK OF YOURSELF AS A CHARACTER – The first person you assume in the story is a selection, not your whole personality, and you want to select carefully so that the aspect of yourself that you highlight works well within the entire narrative.

The part of yourself that you emphasize will depend on the kind of story you’re planning to tell. In one story you may want to emphasize your competence at croquet, in another your incompetence at softball. But remember that you’re choosing a selection of yourself, not necessarily the whole person. In first person, you’re assuming an aspect of your personality, and turning that aspect into a persona, a character who fits within the larger story. The narrator is a part of you, not all of you.

In his essay, “Natural Narratives,” Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, advises using first person strategically.

“The key is to realize that once you’ve made the decision that you’re writing a first-person piece, you’re not done. There’s a second decision: Which first person? You have many identities when you’re writing. For example, I could approach a piece as a gardener. Or as a Jew. Or a son. Or father. As someone who lives in Berkeley, Calif. As any number of identities. When you’re writing in first person, you’re not using your whole identity. You’re choosing what is useful to your story.

With “Power Steer,” I wrote as a carnivore. This was an important choice. Because if I’d written about the meat industry as a vegetarian, nobody would have read what I wrote. I needed to start where my reader was. And odds were that my New-York-Times reader was a carnivore. It’s also much more interesting to find out what happens to a carnivore after he’s gone into the heart of darkness of the modern American meat industry than what happens to a vegetarian. Because you know exactly what would happen to a vegetarian: He’d say, “See, I told you so.” That’s not very interesting.”

I’ll be discussing additional strategies for first person writing on my blog in the days ahead. Please follow if it’s useful and forward to others. This is one of the many techniques I teach in my Seattle writing classes. Visit my website for more.

Scenic Leads the Key to Suspenseful Storytelling


These leads attempt to grab the reader through use of graphic detail and gripping suspenseful storytelling. These leads do not attempt to tell a complete story as do anecdotal leads, but they give the most appealing, eccentric or dramatic part of the story.

NEW YORK – Caprice Benedetti stared fixedly at herself in the mirror, surveying her beauty, and saw that her color was just not right, so she repaired that deficiency quickly. She daubed on a touch more lipstick. Self-absorption is expected of a model. It was late in the day, and she had already changed clothes and make-up a half-dozen times, piling new look upon new look. “OK,” she said. “I’m the next me.”

She bounced out of her apartment building in Manhattan, the doorman nodding to this latest version of her. Quickly, her long legs propelled her into the humming convoy of pedestrians, those who had uncomplainingly lived with the same look all day long. “Some days, I’m changing my face and changing my clothes 10 times,” she said. “I’m elegant. I’m casual. I’m chic. I’m downtown. I’m sexy. I’m theatrical. I begin to wonder ‘Who am I?’ I’m 10 different people. Where’s the real me? You have an identity crisis. Who is this?”

As she wove through the crowds, there were, as always, covetous stares, but no sense of recognition. For hers was not a face that many would know.

Caprice, as she is known professionally, is an average fashion model. She is not Cindy Crawford or Naomi Campbell or Niki Taylor, and never will be. She is one of “the other girls.” While she makes abundant money, never does her face decorate the covers of Vogue or Elle or Harper’s Bazaar. Never has she been the Clairol girl or the Revlon girl. She wallows in the vast anonymity of fashion, her scrupulously made-up face blurring with thousands of others.

From “Fame Can Elude Models Who Are ‘Just Average’” by N.R. Kleinfeld in The New York Times.

Anecdotal Leads: Tell a Compelling Story Quickly


Anecdotal leads tell a compelling story quickly and succinctly, a story which illustrates the larger point that the piece is making. These leads do not employ a lot of scenic detail, but instead rely on describing an action which makes clear the writer’s point. Use only strong, succinct stories for anecdotal leads.

“When I went off to college, my father gave me, as part of my tuition, fifty pounds of moose meat. In 1969, eating moose meat at the University of California was a contradiction in terms. Hippies didn’t hunt. I lived in a rambling Victorian house that boasted sweeping circular staircases, built-in lofts, and a landlady who dreamed of opening her own health food restaurant. I told my housemates that my moose meat in its nondescript white butcher paper was from a side of beef my father had bought. The carnivores in the house helped me finish off such suppers as sweet-and-sour moose meatballs, moose burgers (garnished with the obligatory avocado and sprouts), and mooseghetti. The same dinner guests who remarked upon the lean sweetness of the meat would have recoiled if I’d told them the not-to-simple truth: that I grew up on game, and that moose they were eating had been brought down, with one shot through his magnificent heart, by my father—a man who had hunted all his life and all of mine.

From Brenda Peterson’s essay, “Growing Up Game.”

The Five Best Ways of Opening a Story

“The easiest thing in the world for a reader to do is to stop reading.” Barney Kilgore, former editor of the Wall Street Journal.

The opening is the most important part of the story. If your lead is not interesting, intriguing or entertaining, the reader may never get any further. Therefore, you want to spend as much time as necessary finding a strong lead. Rewrite the lead until it sparkles, presenting a lively, exciting opening to the story.

Here are the five best ways of opening a story or book: summary, scenic, anecdote, inventory and beginning at the end. Each of these techniques pulls the reader into the story quickly. The type of lead you use in a given story depends on your material and the audience you want to reach. Scenic leads lend themselves to active stories; summary and anecdotal leads often work best with more reflective stories. But there’s no rule about it; go with what works best!

For more on lead, please consider signing up for my fall writing class.

Write on the Sound: Quest Narratives

Write on the SoundI had the pleasure of speaking at the annual Write on the Sound writers conference in Edmonds, Washington, yesterday. I talked about Quest Narratives, one of the oldest and surest ways of telling a story. Here’s some of my advice about how to organize a quest narrative.

Writing a quest narrative

  1. Describe the object of the quest and why it’s important. You don’t have to start the story with this statement, but it should come near the beginning, explaining why you’ve arrived in New Guinea, for example.
  2. Set out on the quest. What do you bring? How do you prepare? Who goes with you?
  3. Describe the journey and the difficulties of achieving it.
  4. Describe whether you achieve the goal or not.
  5. What did you learn from it? Don’t have to achieve the goal, but have to say something interesting about failing to achieve it. For example, Peter Mathiessen’s The Snow Leopard is a quest narrative, about his trip to the Himalayas, to see a rare snow leopard. He never in fact sees one of the animals, but through his journey there learns something important about himself. This is a kind of Zen ending to the quest narrative, but he certainly carried it off as The Snow Leopard won the National Book Award.

This is the kind of approach I take in my Seattle writing classes, Travel, Food and Wine writing classes, or online writing classes.