Veronica Chambers is “one of the indispensable journalistic voices of the last 20 years,” Tom Hayden declared in his introduction earlier this month. Chambers is a four-time New York Times bestselling author. She is a currently a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford and has been teaching a class this quarter on food and environmental journalism (which I am lucky enough to be in and terribly sad to see the end of) — she gave an open talk last Wednesday entitled “Food, Memoir, and Narrative: The Story Only You Can Tell.”
Hewlett 200, a stadium-esque classroom used for many introductory science and engineering classes, seemed a funny choice for what was to be an intimate talk about food, life and storytelling. Chambers joked at the start that, if in fact only three or four people had shown up, she would have been perfectly happy to play some rock-paper-scissors and call it a night — her game of choice, perhaps because Chambers has only one good arm at the moment, the result of a bike accident earlier in the quarter.
Chambers wrote her speech for the evening by hand. She mentioned that this was partly thanks to her arm — writing with a pen is far easier than single-handed typing — but partly because of her strong belief in the power of revision. Chambers has emphasized to her class this quarter, and emphasized again to Tuesday’s audience, that it doesn’t serve a writer to throw away a first draft, no matter how crappy. You never know when you might need to revisit an idea you had crossed out ages ago — like a shirt you’ve kept in the back of your closet since high school, waiting for it to come back into fashion. The age of word processors and Google Docs has made it too easy to delete things. I personally almost always edit within Google Docs; my first and final drafts will be contained within the same space, the first melting away to form the last. It’s a habit I am trying to break.
The first excerpt Chambers read was from her 1996 memoir, “Mama’s Girl.” Chambers wrote this book when she was 24 — and though she told the audience how she loathes looking back at things she wrote when she was that age, she wanted to do it in part as an inspiration to current students. This was the story she had, and at the age of 24 she decided to tell it. There’s an important lesson in this for any aspiring writers out there. We all have stories. As unfinished as they may seem to us, there’s no time like the present to start telling them — to start finding our voice, and honing our craft.
The section Chambers read to us was about double dutch. “Ten years before Air Jordans, I learned to fly,” she began. “There’s a space between the concrete and heaven, where the air feels sweeter and your heart beats faster. … There’s a space between the two ropes where nothing is better than being a black girl.” Her descriptions of jumping rope were vivid and lovely — much like her more recent writing about food.
Chambers grew up in a food insecure household. There were nights her mother said they’d be lucky to have anything besides “air pudding and nothing pie.” This heritage, Chambers pointed out, makes her an unlikely food writer. She added: “I think people like to read about food, because we all make it, and we all eat it, and we all have it.”
She recalled an evening when she was invited to dine at Aquavit, the renowned New York restaurant of Chef Marcus Samuelsson, about whom Chambers co-wrote her first chef memoir. She and her dining partner were asked if they had any dietary restrictions, and if the chef could select their meal. Chambers described course after mouthwatering course, each accompanied by a half glass of wine. Despite her clear pleasure in this lux cuisine, Chambers related a mounting sense of tension as she wondered how she could possibly afford it. Altogether, including the wine pairings, their dinner would have cost over $300 per person — but when Chambers asked for the bill, she was handed a small white card, to the tune of “Aquavit is honored to have you as our guest.” (At this point in the talk, Chambers put a hand to her forehead and jokingly let out a “Whew!”)
Chambers also shared an excerpt from “32 Yolks,” a memoir she co-wrote with Chef Eric Ripert. Ripert’s restaurant, Le Bernardin (in New York City) has been counted among the best in the world, and Ripert himself has received numerous awards. Despite this professional status, the memoir turned out to be deeply personal. Chambers discovered, throughout their process, that Ripert was really writing for one person — his son, who at that time was about the age Ripert was when his father died. The stories he revealed were shocking and vulnerable. Chambers described the feeling, as a writer, of being trusted with information that nobody else had ever heard, not even Ripert’s spouse or closest friends. Many days, she said, leaving Le Bernardin after their meetings, she would cross the street carefully. She would go straight home and transcribe everything right away, treating the story like something precious she was obliged to protect.
If this story speaks to Chambers’s dedication as a writer, I think it also speaks to her compassion. In many cases, the stories we ask of people — especially in journalistic writing — are sensitive. It’s a very courageous act, when somebody tells their story to a writer, and the writer then is tasked with telling that story to the world in a way that is fair, honest, and and responsible.
This is perhaps another reason why we should practice with our own stories first, and often. Chambers left the audience with these words of encouragement: “If there’s something you’re longing to write — or create, in any way, shape, or form — you should do it.”
Contact Claire Thompson at clairet ‘at’ stanford.edu.