I’ve always hesitated to call myself a writer. As a child of fiction-loving parents, I was convinced you were only a “Writer” (with a capital “W”) if you wrote from your imagination. I told myself this even as my bylines piled up at various school newspapers; I was writing a lot, yes, but that wasn’t real writing. It wasn’t until this November, when I wrote eight articles for one upcoming issue of the magazine I work at — a feat I will never attempt again — that I realized I am a writer, damn it! Although I think my revelation had something to do with the books I found myself drawn to this year: tales of strong creative women who didn’t give a damn about what other people thought.
I read Amanda Palmer’s unapologetically honest The Art of Asking early in 2015. Her memoir chronicles her career from working as a living statue in Cambridge to crowdfunding her newest album, musing throughout on just what it means to call yourself creative. But this is not one of those polished self-help books for artists that are becoming trendy; it’s authentic and unflinching about how hard it can be to unleash your work and hope it will be understood, mistakes and all. It gave me permission to write, yes, but also to fail. The book is littered with Palmer’s failures, which is what makes it such a triumph.
This theme of owning up to your failures and false starts continued in Amelia Morris’s cooking memoir, Bon Appetempt. Cooking memoir doesn’t do the book justice because it’s a coming-of-age tale of finally finding the woman you always needed to be, with some great recipes included. Morris is good-humored but real even throughout family troubles, poor career choices, and bad dinners, but these “failures” make for a rich story. She taught me it can all work out, just keep writing and cooking, and that you can make pasta sauce out of an entire wheel of Brie and some cooking water.
With these two books on creativity and cooking influencing my mindset so early on in the year, it shouldn’t be a surprise that my favorite book of 2015 — the one I’ve recommended to five people and will recommend to you now — was J. Ryan Stradal’s Kitchens of the Great Midwest. Billed as a novel, each chapter is really a short story that could stand on its own thanks to opinionated protagonists with unique voices, but they all connect to a larger-than-life Minnesota chef, Eva Thorvald. She’s the type of culinary wunderkind you’d expect on an episode of Chef’s Table, but one of very humble origins. And this book is less about a genius than the people who influenced her, the same down-home Minnesotans I grew up with. I’ve lived in Atlanta for almost two years now and have embraced the pimento cheese and bourbon, but Stradal’s world made me homesick for the best indie radio station, 89.3 The Current; the St. Paul farmers market; and even the somewhat petty Lutheran moms of my classmates and their peanut butter bars. I’ve never had much of a Minnesota accent, but I recognized myself and the community I grew up with in this book, just like I recognize it in FX’s Fargo, which I binged around the same time. We all have to start somewhere, and maybe that’s the key to creative success.
Palmer, Morris, and the fictional Thorvald go back to their origin stories in their tales of creative fulfillment, and maybe that’s what I’ll have to do when I finally pen the humor essays I’ve talked about writing for years — now that I’m a “Writer” after all. Consider that my 2016 New Year’s resolution: fully embracing my creativity, and I have three strong women as guides.
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New this week: The Dying Grass by William T. Vollmann; Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal; Gonzo Girl by Cheryl Della Pietra; How to Be a Grown-Up by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus; Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans; and The Night Stages by Jane Urquhart. For more on these and other new titles, check out our Great Second-Half 2015 Book Preview.