Ode to Junk Food Deadlines

Theme Essay by Martha Nichols

How Cheetos and Chips Make Me a Better Writer


Last night, it was Cape Cod Potato Chips. I filled another bowl, first grabbing the folded-over ones that seem as delicately whorled as a nautilus shell. Crunch! A heavenly explosion of salt filled my mouth. The sea, the sea

Fresh Fried Potato Chips by Paul GallianWho am I kidding? Potato chips are not my madeleines. I’m not M F. K. Fisher. I’m not even Anthony Bourdain, who’d say he ate the whole f**@ing bag after pouring a bottle of $7,000 cognac over his head.

What I am is a writer on a deadline. It’s 2:00 in the morning, and I’ve decided to change my lead.

Jelly beans. Chocolate-chip cookies. Cheetos. Bad bad bad—yet also so tantalizingly good. A veteran insomniac, I’ve got lots of excuses for pulling all-nighters and gobbling junk food. What surprises me is how effective this deadline ritual can be.

Let’s start with the obvious: It’s the pressure. Take all those hackers in movies scarfing pizza in front of a monitor before the velociraptors claw their way in. Sitting in front of my own computer, wrestling with fanged words, I’m just as distracted. I’m not thinking about how to make whole-wheat pizza dough.

The thing is, I love being distracted by a writing project. I love the way it catapults me into an alternate reality. In Deadline Land, I fling myself at the computer like a drunken warrior meeting her fate—and that’s when the hours flow by, and I realize I’ve ingested nothing all day but coffee.

Grab some yogurt, fool! my superego hisses. A banana, a handful of raisins, anything to catch yourself before you succumb to—

Cheetos by Alex PeñaToo late. My hand is in the Cheetos bag.

Another obvious excuse:It’s my nutritionally blighted upbringing. As a child, I got a taste for junk food from my parents’ love of potato chips, complete with the celebratory cream-cheese clam dip my mother made during televised Oakland A’s games. My school lunches included Twinkies or pink Snowballs.

But like many teenagers, my first rebellion was against my parents’ food. In college, I became a vegetarian in the granola heartland of Portland, Oregon; I actually dreamed about studying naturopathy. I thought I was becoming the real me. Instead, that rebellion just stuck me with a new set of rules.

Decades later, on most non-deadline-driven workdays, I stop for a few hunks of cheese and dried fruit to keep me going. In another part of my life, I remain a vegetarian with healthy eating habits. I used to be a long-distance runner; I still practice yoga.

Yet when I’m on a deadline, it’s the rebel in me that comes out to play—and I need her more than ever, that candy-loving, greasy-fingered little monkey. I need her to make me toss out the boring lead, to axe the staid words and overly controlled arguments. I need her to run through my stories like a girl in a piecemeal pirate costume.

For me, rebelling with Cheetos is really about shooting down the judges, every last one of them. Food writers are always pontificating about whether the pasta is exquisite or a train wreck, as B. R. Myers wryly notes in “Fed Up,” an Atlantic review of recent food books. (Foodies came right back at him with blog posts such as “Why B. R. Myers Can Choke on His Article.”) Fashion bloggers get off on dissing somebody else’s creative inspiration. Then there are book reviewers: Is it the next Great American Novel or trash?

Bang! Bang! Bang!

All right. I know there’s a place for quality control—after all, I’m a magazine editor and teacher in my other “healthy” incarnation—but harsh internal critiques get me nowhere as a writer. I need chips and Cheetos and late-night hours to jump the barriers.

Bitten Chocolate Peanut Butter Candy © D. Sharon PruittWhen I eat junk food after midnight, I even shoot down the judges in my personal life. Nobody I love is hovering close to question me (husband: You’re eating that instead of dinner?) or to suggest other stress-relieving activities (friend: Wouldn’t a tasty arugula salad—or the tasty husband—feel better?) or to throw my own bad behavior back in my face (son: If you’re eating Halloween candy in front of the computer, why can’t I?).

That’s when Martha the Good Editor-Wife-Mother flaps into the shadows and the green-teethed Pirate Girl struts free. She thumbs her nose at the rules for proper nutrition, at all the puritanical, lifestyle-magazine-induced worrying about who we are and what we’re allowed to do as adults—especially us caretaking, female adults.

I’ve learned that any kind of hypervigilance, in life and in one’s words, is the death of good writing. I grew up not wanting to be crazy or impulsive like my mother, watching myself too carefully, and it’s taken me years to shuck off that yoke. For a writer obsessed, not worrying about what anybody else thinks is the guiltiest pleasure.

We need to succumb to crazy impulses sometimes. We all get there in our own ways, but for me—on my guiltiest, most solitary, joyful nights—I’m back to the chips and dip and Butterfingers.

Now it’s 4 a.m. A new rough draft flickers on the screen, and I break only long enough to pour out more of those chips. Back at my desk, I read through the draft as I crunch away—and I taste the luscious chips at first—but then I don’t.

They’re just part of my deadline-driven, in-the-zone communion with words I crunch and shape until they are as perfect as a nautilus shell.


Art Information


Martha Nichols

Martha Nichols is editor in chief of Talking Writing.

Her current junk foods of choice are popcorn, a bowl of chocolate chips, and Jordan Almonds. She does insist on drinking dark-roast coffee brewed in her espresso machine with a dollop of almond milk. She also makes brownies with organic bittersweet chocolate that her son says are "awesome."



You know those lines about jellybeans from the Rufus Wainwright song "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk"? If I should buy jellybeans/Have to eat them all in just one sitting.

That's me, working late at night.

You may have hit upon something for me. I've been on a calorie-restricted/exercise-intensive diet for the past two weeks, trying to work off the winter sludge. I've also been trying to write. The writing isn't going so well. I go to the freezer, pull out one of those 100-calorie ice cream bars. Not quite as satisfying as a Dove Bar or what I really want, a half-bag of M&Ms. Still, trying to enforce this discipline on my body seems to be starving my mind. I'm struggling to pay attention, to give life to the words on the page. You may have pushed me to break my diet. Oh well. I suppose after the book is done, I can go back to dieting. I'll let you know. At the moment, I'm about to go for a two-hour hike with the dogs....

Lorraine, I'd never presume to tell anyone to grab a bag of Cheetos in order to write like a god. (Ha!) There are lots of great reasons not to eat junk food, but it's the Puritanical impulse in me that sticks in my craw. Funny how Cheetos don't stick.

It's funny, Martha. I was thinking about this. I love that you eat junk food, but I notice that you still justify it by saying that you do yoga. Why can't we just admit that we love junk food? Even as writers, we are out trying to be super-achievers when it comes to the food wars.
And, you did inspire me to eat better yesterday, and I wound up writing 17 pages. So there may be something to your junk food=genius writing thing. :)

It's interesting that you thought I was justifying myself by mentioning yoga (and my yoga teacher, who hasn't seen me for months, is probably amused). My intention was to indicate that there are a lot of sides to me—and to acknowledge that folks who've known me for years might be surprised to hear me talking about Cheetos.

But I do love certain kinds of junk food, no apologies (french fries and chips, especially), just as I like certain kinds of erotica—which you state clearly in your own piece. And you're right to pin me on this. That Puritanical impulse; it bleeds into everything. It does not get the creative juices flowing.

I'm so glad you wrote 17 pages!

I'm a food writer, and yet I don't like eating anything when I write. In fact I don't like doing anything else when I write. No TV in the background, no music, and no snacks. I didn't even realize this until I read your piece. But if you ask me what I like to eat when I'm not writing, that's a different story... Great piece Martha!

This is great. What could be worse for you than eating after midnight--and junk food, no less! But then again, what could be better? I can completely identify with that feeling of being "in-the-zone" and hell-bent on finishing a project, everything else be damned. The funny thing is, it's all or nothing: once I've decided to abandon prudence I'll finish off every sweet/crunchy/salty/fatty/artificial thing I can get my grubby hands on, all in the name of servicing my muse, who is laughing the whole time at what a fool I am, knowing what a miserable, regretful self-loathing grouch I will be the next morning...

Okay M, you got me! I was going to write you a little mini-lecture about "rebelling" in ways that only hurt oneself, but.... I am right now on a deadline of sorts, trying to get the first draft of a piece down on paper. What do I have at my fingertips? Well, a small bowl of Nestles chocolate chips. I need that hit of chocolate in times of stress - even stress that is self-induced.

So there you have it, instead of telling you to buck up and stop with the overly salty snacks in a holier than thou tone, I am humbled by the realization that I, too, am susceptible to Junk Food Deadlines.

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