(by Corbo Eng)
I’m a freelance writer today; but, my journey to this present point has been a circuitous one, indeed. The funny thing is, given that I developed an interest in writing as a boy, I probably should have become a writer much earlier in my life than I ultimately did. Growing up, when my friends would play football or ride their bikes outside, I’d likely be inside with a pencil and a sheet of paper—writing comic books, song lyrics, poems, or even short stories. Looking back, I could easily conclude that I enjoyed writing a lot—though I probably wasn’t aware of it at the time. Writing wasn’t done self-consciously, nor did it imbue any kind of identity onto me as it would later. A kid simply writes.
However, as a young man, my interest in writing only grew. It didn’t dissipate. I had been the editor-in-chief of my high school newspaper—where I not only edited the work of my peers but also wrote feature stories on entertainment, sports, and music. Later, in college, my love of poetry grew stronger as I discovered poets like Paul Celan and Pablo Neruda. I had even thought about becoming a novelist at one point and even took French classes so I could read writers like Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre in the untranslated original. I had entered college undecided about my major; but, rather than majoring in journalism or literature—which would have made all the sense in the world—I majored in sociology instead.
The explanation rests mostly on the fact that, as time passed, I became more driven by idealism than writing per se. Often, feeling restless and searching for meaning in life as a young man—in college, post college, and beyond—I found myself influenced by religion, philosophy, social activism and their moral dictates much more than anything else. Marinating in that kind of thinking, I felt that I needed to serve a greater good—something big and that would have an impact on society. That’s what moved my mind and heart for the longest time. In the end, I wanted my life to be deeply purposeful. That meant writing—which I had deemed a more frivolous pursuit—had to wait. I wanted to act.
At first, once I got my feet wet, urban issues called out to me the most. And, as such, I immersed myself in the inner city to help men combat substance abuse, find jobs, and end homelessness. Subsequently, after earning an MSW, I served as a family therapist and social worker for about seven years (where my primary focus was on helping families and teens resolve interpersonal conflicts). Later, my work with teens led to my becoming a GED instructor; and, then, after earning a teaching degree at the master’s level, I taught ESL at various community colleges where I focused on writing instruction (advanced composition mostly).
It was great work—because, as someone who had always loved the craft of writing—I enjoyed sharing my understanding with my students so that they could become better writers themselves. More importantly, that I could help them find their voice and express themselves was my greatest joy. It was, in so many ways, such a source of reward for me. When students showed me a composition that they were proud of and that was meaningful to them and well-written, I was so happy that I, in some small way, was responsible for midwifing that into being. However, all of that writing instruction only made me hungry, in the end, to become a writer and not just merely an instructor. Something about being so near writing and thinking about it all of the time rekindled a love for it that had never died. It had only been dormant for so many years.
As I wondered how I wanted to realize this desire, I immediately thought of the many online sites and print magazines that had helped make my reading habits so robust. Many focused on food. Food writing had exploded with media coverage of food raising it to a status it had never had before; and, the thought of writing about food excited me—not only because I had always loved food, having grown up in a household where both of my parents had careers working in restaurants—but, additionally, my parents, relished restaurant culture and enjoyed eating out. And, those interests rubbed off on me. As an adult, I’ve been an avid food enthusiast who has loved good food of all kinds.
But, once I began writing about food—about specific dishes, flavors, restaurants, and trends—food writing (in its most conventional sense) felt too narrow. I realized that I had more varied interests as a writer. That’s not to suggest that I wanted, necessarily, to revisit the subject matter that captivated me when I was in my twenties. It just meant that I wanted the freedom to explore a variety of topics. To write a story about a vulture trainer, a deep sea diver, a line cook who moonlights as an air conditioning repairman, or a company that sells foot powder made from potato starch if such opportunities should so arise.
That is to say, although I do enjoy focusing on the food scene, I realize, really, that food writing or, at least, the food writing that speaks to me the most, is more about people, ideas, and culture. It isn’t even about food necessarily. As Helen Rosner, the distinguished executive editor at Eater once wrote, “Any story can be a food story if you add a sandwich to it.” To me, that makes all the sense in the world. Now, when a story idea pops into my head, I ask myself, “Can I add a sandwich to it?” If I can, it’s a food story; and, I put on my food writer’s hat. If not, I’m a freelance writer in the broadest sense. And, I go from there.
Copyright 2015 (Corbo Eng). All rights reserved.