What vegan cheese can teach us about writing
Bear with me; I'm not even vegan
Before I dive into this week’s newsletter, here are some ways you can find me in the upcoming weeks:
Book Cougars podcast, out today! I had a blast talking to Chris Wolak and Emily Fine for their newest episode. We discuss bookbinding, Judaism, the word “genderqueer,” and a whole lot more. I hope you’ll give it a listen!
Upcoming In-Person Events:
Reading / Q&A at Hobart and William Smith Colleges
March 30, 2023, 7:00–8:30 p.m.
Demarest Hall, Blackwell Room
Reading and Conversation with Vanessa Cuti, author of The Tip Line
April 24, 2023, 7:00 p.m.
The Next Chapter
204 New York Ave.
Last Sunday when I was loading my groceries onto the conveyor belt, the cashier asked me about the vegan cheese I was buying. “Does it melt?” he wanted to know. “Because I have some vegan friends I want to make pizza for.” I’ve heard and asked this same question a million times: Does it melt? It’s the first thing everyone wants to know about vegan cheese, and it’s a fair question since most beloved cheese dishes require melting.
But what I’ve learned after years of being married to someone who’s mostly vegan and cooking loads of vegan dishes is that if you’re trying to faithfully recreate a favorite non-vegan dish with vegan ingredients, most of the time you’ll be in for a world of hurt. Vegan food tastes and behaves differently from its non-vegan counterparts, especially home-cooked vegan food, which is less processed than an Impossible burger or a Gardein chick’n wing.
But I’ve also figured out that different is not bad. After struggling forever to recreate traditional cheese pizza with vegan shreds, for example, I finally gave in to the reality that even though the shreds melt just fine, they’ll never taste or feel like cheese. What I’ve begun to do instead — much to the delight of my taste buds and my family’s — is find vegan cheeses I do like (usually cashew based because they taste more like cheese and also are delicious in their own right) and make a pie that’s tasty with dollops of cheese instead of melted. Or I ditch the cheese altogether and make a pizza that’s delicious without it.
Since this is a newsletter about writing and not cooking, I’ll leave the food talk there. And to be clear, I’m not trying to convert anyone to veganism. My point is only that when we try to force something to do what it’s not meant to do, the results are mixed: sometimes you end up with something great; often it’s disappointing or inedible.
On Friday evening, I was catching up with a friend. She told me about the novel she’s writing, which is outside her usual genre, and her whole face lit up as she said she couldn’t wait to get back to it. It was all she wanted to do. It reminded me of a recent idea for a long story or novella that’s been shouting inside my brain to PLEASE WRITE ME RIGHT NOW. But I’ve been trying to shut the voice down because I have other deadlines and I should be focusing on the new novel I’ve started, which has a much better chance of getting published than a novella, even if I make it part of a collection.
The truth is I’m equally excited about my new novel, but I want to write BOTH, and I’ve been telling myself I should write the novel first, and only when I finish will I get my prize.
But as my friend talked about her novel and the next one she’s equally keen to write, her excitement was infectious. And it occurred to me that these stories that call to us so strongly are not superfluous, but maybe the most important things we can write. Sometimes they feel like guilty pleasures because we fear they’re not serious enough or marketable enough or [insert your own worry here] enough. But if we are this moved to write them, then there is surely something there.
Like a good vegan pizza, writing is so much more enjoyable — and I would argue successful — when we don’t try to force our projects into the mold we think we’re supposed to use. If you’re a literary writer who has an amazing idea for a rom-com that won’t let go or a sci-fi writer that can’t stop thinking about a historical war novel or a novelist who really needs to write that novella, maybe you can make space for it all.
In short, I’m inspired to see what happens when we take away the shoulds, when we let our interests guide us toward our own voices and our own, new visions. If we’re true to ourselves and the voices that are steering us in new directions — instead of forcing ourselves to melt — maybe we’ll end up with a piece of writing that changes everyone’s expectations.
Until next time, I wish you happy experimenting.
Thanks for reading First Draft! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.