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…
Who 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—
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.
When 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.
- "Fresh Fried Potato Chips" © Paul Gallian; used by permission
- "Cheetos" © Alex Peña; used by permission
- "Bitten Chocolate Peanut Butter Candy" © D. Sharon Pruitt; stock image
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."