Friday, January 19, 2007

How tasting dog food made me a better cook

"How tasting dog food made me a better cook." That idea has been playing in my mind all morning long. No, I haven't been reduced to stealing my dog's kibble. Read on to find out what the heck all this has do to with Mojo Mom.

If you have been reading my blog for a while, you know that I am crazy about motherhood, politics, writing, and radio. There is a current that runs under all of these themes--storytelling. I have become fascinated with communication. How can we get our messages across to our kids, spouses, blogosphere, electorate, or President? How can we craft ideas that pierce through our listerners' emotional armor, or find a small piece of clear desktop in their cluttered mindspaces?

It comes down to crafting sticky messages, unraveling mysteries for our audiences, and telling good stories. Moms are in a good position to do this--we have real live audiences who ask us night after night, "Mommy, tell me a story." I feel that in many ways we are better positioned to deliver direct, effective, and interesting communication than people who have been locked in a corporate bubble or an ivory tower. My podcast co-host Sheryl Grant is a wonderful writer an interesting person. As she heads back into academia, where she is assigned to give PowerPoint presentations (not assigned to give an effective presentation, but a PowerPoint presentation) I worry about the forces of academic conformity and jargon-creep corrupting my friend's brain.

Case in point: I wanted to learn more about the feminist movement of the 1970's, so I picked up the book Yours In Sisterhood: Ms. Magazine and the Promise of Popular Feminism which just happened to be published by The University of North Carolina Press. The ingredients of a great story are present, ready to be brewed into an intriguing tale. Who would effect more cultural change, the independent newsletter publishers who refused to cooperate with the mass media, or the founders of Ms. Magazine who risked working in a commercial setting, cooperating with the media, while trying not to lose their integrity. The media created a "star system" that anointed spokespeople like Gloria Steinem, Kate Millett, and Betty Friedan. I believe this story could be told with academic accuracy and spellbinding reader interest. Unfortunately, as ususal, the academic treatment drains all the life out of this dramatic story and I have to work to drag my attention beyond page 27.

What's going on here? In my favorite new book, Made to Stick authors talk about "the curse of knowledge," which is the mental block that experts develop that makes it impossible to imagine a story from a beginner's perspecitve, leading to ineffective communication. Good old fashioned, detailed storytelling is on of the antidotes to break this curse. As a nonfiction writer, I find that it is easy to get wrapped up living in my head in a world of ideas all day long. I have to consciously unplug from my imagination from time to time to reconnect with the sensory world, regrounding myself in reality. (For Myers-Briggs fans, as a natural ENFJ I find this even more of a challenge.)

This morning I got a lesson in storytelling from an unexpected source when The Story interviewed Pat Patterson, who in her role as a professional "sensory analyst" is hired to smell and taste just about anything you could dream up. Imagine a day at work where you eat dry dog food and rate how meaty it is, and describe the smell of used cat litter. Pat has traveled to New Jersey to feel men's faces after shaving, and flown to Indonesia to taste fresh fruit. Her immersion in the sensory world has its benefits. She says that as a result of her work, she has become a better cook, leading her to place more emphasis on flavor and trying new spices. I thought that the concept of "How tasting dog food made me a better cook" was one of the stickiest story ideas ever.

Clear-headed mindfulness, showing up and paying attention and being in the moment are precious commodities today. I am guilty of multitasking and living with my head in the clouds on a regular basis. Once in a while a word from my daughter, Zen writing, Yoda (we just watched the whole Star Wars trilogy over the holidays) or someone like Pat Patterson brings me back to the here and now. I'll take my teachers wherever I can find them. I know that connecting with the senses and stories of life will make me a more effective writer and a more connected Mom.

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Anonymous Karen said...

You don't know how much of a muse you are to me. This reminds me of an evening, driving home from work, about 15 years ago, when I heard the late William Maxwell, the long- time fiction editor of the New Yorker, interviewed on NPR's "All Things Considered." He was talking about his new book of short stories called "All the Days and Nights." The stories in them were unlike any he'd ever written; they originated as bed-time stories told to his beloved wife. They were not predictable in any way, but original in every way and he considered them his best. He said, "I'm convinced that story must come from the absolutely emptied mind." I drove directly to the nearest bookstore to get his book and read it immediately. It changed everything for me. I heard it as a spiritual teaching, and now I also know it as writing instruction, and yet it applies to everything that is powerfully true.

11:30 PM  
Blogger PunditMom said...

MojoMom, I am so inspired by the way new and creative ways you think. You are always giving me new ways to think about and look at things, which is immensely helpful to me, both in my writing and "just" day-to-day life!

4:00 PM  
Blogger MojoMom said...

Karen and Punditmom, thank you for your lovely comments. Writing this blog is so much fun. It gives me an outlet for all ideas that would otherwise just float away if I didn't have a place to anchor and share them. Blogging has definitely made me a better writer and story collector. Thank you for joining me along the way.

9:57 AM  

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