Some Truly Weird Writing Advice
I’m not taking writing advice from writers. I’m taking it from sommeliers.
Unusual for an overworker, I took a break from writing and indulged in an infrequent luxury: I checked out and watched a movie, once again proving, that if I slow down, the world will not end.
I watched Somm, a documentary about a group of guys studying for their Master Sommelier exam. I’ve seen it many times before. Something about watching wine swirl around in a glass for an hour and a half is incredibly relaxing.
Robert Louis Stevenson said that “wine is bottled poetry.”
He was right. It lives. It breathes. It evolves. It’s complex and deep. It inspires and intoxicates.
There is a commonality between being a sommelier and being a writer. Both professions require experiencing life on a level that most people really don’t. A willingness to use all senses to soak up as much as you can.
“We never really stop and experience and breathe and appreciate what’s there…You stop and you take it and you look at it and you live life to your senses for that quick 25 minutes. It’s like nothing else matters other than this liquid.”- Ian Cauble
Do weird things.
People training to be sommeliers do weird things. Really weird things. They lick rocks. They smell dead flowers. They eat overripe fruit. Because there will be that moment when they stick their nose into a glass of a 1982 Chateau Margaux and smell not just violets, but wilted violets. That moment is gold.
I once met a sommelier who picked out the taste of flint in a Santa Maria Valley Chardonnay. He had eaten a match so he knew what flint tasted like. Seriously. Imagine that.
Sometimes, as a writer, you need to eat a match. No, I don’t mean literally.
Just showing up isn’t enough.
You can’t write about life if you don’t feel it. If you aren’t in the middle of it and surrounded by it by jumping in the deep end.
As writers, we have to be able to convey an experience our readers are looking for. A feeling. A moment. But to do that, we have to know that moment.
“To be an authentic sommelier you have to be an incredible, incredible taster…because that’s the way you can explain to a guest.” — Rajat Parr
Writing doesn’t depend on writing every day. It depends on living every day and telling people a story about it, in the most beautiful way you can, so they believe you.
Henry David Thoreau couldn’t have written Walden from a tiny damp home in Boston. The Sun Also Rises would never have happened if Hemingway never got drunk in a cafe in Pamplona. Am I advocating going and getting drunk in a foreign country? Absolutely. Go do it.
Word choice is deliberate and takes consideration.
In the movie Somm, Ian Cauble is forever poked fun at for his description of wine as smelling like “fresh new rubber hose.” So damn weird. But, hand to God, the next time I went to Home Depot, you can bet I took time to stop and smell the hoses. (I’m almost ashamed of that joke. Nope, not really. I loved it.)
The word choice is, indeed, just as odd as other descriptors used to describe wine but it’s spot on. “Grandma’s old purse?” Yeah. I got that. You tell me something smells like my grandmother’s purse and it’s going to take me someplace. And, it will take a whole flood of other memories with it. My grandmother smelled like a crazy combination of moth balls, Pine-sol and marinara. If, as a writer, I can get that to make sense to someone, it’s something.
I once had a Sauvignon Blanc that tasted just like Zihuatanejo, Mexico smells. If taking a sip of wine can bring me back the that place, my words should be able to do the same thing.
Overthinking is the devil’s playground
We’re writers. We’re not curing cancer. There are times when something takes a considerable amount of effort and research. Some stories have taken days for me to get through.
Good god, though, these guys are picking out the exact varietal, regional and vintage of wine. It takes time and knowledge, and years of education. I can’t imagine that pressure. But, there is a certain amount of trusting our gut that can easily be undone by overthinking.
“You’re not going back to the drawing board. You know exactly what you did. You had very good tastes, all the things are there. Just don’t make it harder than it is.”- Fred Dame
The most popular story I wrote came on a Saturday afternoon after two glasses of wine while singing Leonard Cohen loudly in my living room. I hit publish and sang the rest of the album. My gut said it was fine. It was.
If I had any shred of fear of its reception, I never would have hit publish. Writing from a place of fear is a fruitless endeavor. What do we have to be scared of? They’re our words. We own them. We control them. The words don’t own us.
“Think about how nervous my wines are right now. Just sitting in the glass right now, trembling as I’m about to devour them. How nervous are my wines?” — Brian McClintic
As writers, what’s most important to us is the same thing that’s important to these sommeliers. Listen to a sommelier talk about wine and you’ll get it. More than anything it’s this: you have to be passionate. If you want to be good, you can’t call it in.
Write like these guys taste wine. Write like your damn life depends on it. Write like nothing else matters. Write like the Devil owns your soul and this is your one chance to get it back.