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A friend emailed with a problem. Her gardening club loved her tales of digging in the dirt and her near-obsessive, homesteader-like canning and preserving activities that they asked her to write an article for their newsletter.

Then panic set in, so she asked me how write an article, which is funny for two reasons. One, that she asked me; I feel like I fumble through this. And two, her emails are already full of article-ready descriptions of her fruits and her labor, like this one:

I’ve been hanging out my bathroom window picking fresh figs. I’ve got a jar of figs in vodka. Will be doing another in bourbon later. Fig jam and chutney are on the list for this weekend. I guess there are worse problems to have.

But her question made me realize that we often want to know what steps to take for a specific endeavor. There is no lack of information out there but there is often too much and not the right information…for what we need. My brother, who is a great cook, once called to ask me how to fry an egg. See what I mean?

This is by no means comprehensive or in order of importance. But this is what I told her, and it’s a good place to start:

Trust your voice. Voice is important and one already exists in your emails to me. It’s too easy to sound stiff and awkwardly academic just because you have to write for publication. Don’t let that happen.

Read similar articles. Reread articles in your cooking magazines but with a new eye. Notice how they’re constructed and what devices are used. I just read one on butter, for example, and the author started with personal anecdotes and then went into history a few paragraphs in.

Write all the way through. Then go back and edit. Don’t rethink or fuss with the words as you go. It’ll stop ideas from coming. Really, DON’T.

Make it make sense. Hint at what you plan to cover in the first paragraph. If it’s a longer piece, add subheads. I find that adding subheads forces me to create a logical structure. Ideally, there should be an overall point; and not just be a rambling essay on your thoughts about growing and preserving food, mainly because there’s too much to say on that topic in one short article.

Add a quote or cite a reference. This adds credibility and texture to an article. (I looked back in one of her emails and she was one step ahead of me as she quoted Thomas Jefferson: “On a hot day in Virginia, I know nothing more comforting than a fine spiced pickle, brought up trout-like from the sparkling depths of the aromatic jar below the stairs of Aunt Sally’s cellar.” Note the brilliant metaphor!)

Be descriptive. As they say “Show, don’t tell.” Don’t just say fig. Instead, describe its texture and color, its squishiness. Like, “You’ll know a fig is ripe if it feels a bit like a woman’s breast.” Maybe not that, but you get the idea.

Think like the reader. What do you want when you read about the same subject? What makes you like an article? What tips do you find useful? It doesn’t hurt to ask the editor what their readership looks for.

I forgot to tell her two things. (Are you reading Eileen?)

Walk away. Then come back a day or two later. The same holds true for any creative endeavor (we’re both designers by vocation; picklers by avocation). You have to put aside your efforts and let the ideas marinate—not unlike figs in bourbon. Active thought, followed by incubation, followed by ah-ha moment…or so we hope on that last one.

Have fun.

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Malcolm Gladwell just told me I should keep writing.

Well, not exactly.

In desperation a couple weeks ago, I realized that I was in need of wisdom. Could someone, anyone, of sound mind please explain, among other things, how we arrived at this place in political history, how Palin be could be happening to us, what all this says about us as a people? For a moment, I had the misguided idea that one could impose logic on the illogical.

Who better than Malcolm Gladwell to unravel a mystery, I decided? I pictured his characteristic thesis that, on the surface, would have an obvious answer. But as the mystery unfolded, unexpected answers would emerge. I did what any desperate person would do. I stalked him.

Well, not exactly. But I did go to the New Yorker website, where Gladwell is a regular contributor, in the hopes of finding that he’d expounded on this very subject. I imagined I might breathe a sigh of relief to know that, even if people shout racist epithets in public, Gladwell would have taken the edge off by presenting an idea that I could live with. The idea, mind you, not the racist epithets.

What I found was that he hadn’t written a column since May of this year. Then I want to his own website and looked at his blog, only to find that he hadn’t written a post since March of this year. A writer like Gladwell? I became worried.

So I emailed him. My email must have sounded like he should keep his finger on the pulse of my fears about society, and that he’d shirked his duty. A few days later, my heart skipped a beat when I checked email and found his name in the inbox.

For a nerd, this is a bit like not wanting to wash your cheek for a week because your crush just kissed it. I’ll admit that the reply was not, indeed, written by Gladwell himself, but by an assistant. Still, I like to believe that when she said Gladwell thanked me for my “kind email” and that he “really appreciates you taking the time to inquire about him,” that she was telling the truth. She told me that he has a new book coming out in mid November.

Ah. Makes sense. I could live with that.

Imagine my surprise then, when I logged on to the New Yorker today, and lo and behold, there was a new column from Gladwell, the first in four months. Better yet, the column, titled “Late Bloomers,” questions the notion that genius is equated with precocity. He builds a case for exhibiting genius late in life based on repeated effort, and not so much from luck being born a prodigy. Thank goodness for that.

Gladwell says at one point, “…sometimes genius is anything but rarefied; sometimes it’s just the thing that emerges after twenty years of working at your kitchen table.”

Given my nascent attempt at writing at the ripe age of 42, I decided I’d conjured Malcolm Gladwell at just the right time. I’ll pretend he was sending a secret message my way and that he just didn’t have time to email me personally.