Return from Rivendell Writers Workshop 2017 | Erin Byers Murray

The Southern Foodways Alliance tells stories about American food culture. We commission great writing. And we foster emerging writers whose work explores food and foodways. With those goals in mind, host an annual nonfiction writing workshop at Rivendell Writers’ Colony in Sewanee, Tennessee. After our 2017 workshop, participant Erin Byers Murray shared her takeaways.

by Erin Murray

When do we really get the chance to be reflective in our work? To stop, take notice of what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and most important, why?

For me, the opportunity came during this year’s three-day food writing workshop hosted by the SFA at Rivendell, a writers’ retreat in Sewanee, Tennessee. I was one of seven writers accepted into this year’s workshop, led by John T. Edge and Osayi Endolyn, and relished a moment to examine the why.

In my daily work life, I write and edit articles for a monthly magazine. On the side, I work on books. Right now, I’m inching my way towards a deadline for my latest book, a work on grits, but have recently found myself struggling to make progress. Facing half-written chapters and incomplete thoughts, I’d been stagnant, which was hindering my ability to dig deeply into the work.

So, I brought one of my most challenging chapters to the workshop. Over the course of the weekend, we spent the mornings in discussion, mostly around articles published in the most recent Cornbread Nation, and analyzed them critically, both as readers interpreting their meaning, and as writers studying technique and device. Afternoons were spent writing, processing, thinking, resting. Fueling us throughout were meals prepared by others. Our first night, chef Erik Niel of Chattanooga’s Easy Street Bistro incentivized us with a pile of ribeye steaks. For each meal after, the talented Suze Bono, a goat farmer in Nashville and student of Sandor Katz, unveiled dish after dish of vegetable-driven brain food, satiating our need for both sustenance and affection. Between bites of pickled beets, freshly pureed hummus, homemade bagels, and “birthday noodles,” we whispered her praise in gratitude.

The conversations, around writing and everything else, flowed. My fellow participants introduced their own projects, but also shared bits of themselves. April McGreger sweetened the pot with her jams and pickles while Louisa Shafia, writing of her Persian and Jewish backgrounds, shared both joy and pain through a piece involving blueberry pie. I’m pretty sure we all left wanting to go squirrel hunting with Emma Sloan and continue tasting farmhouse ales alongside Tom Wilmes. Vishwesh Bhatt, a chef in Oxford, Mississippi, showed courage reading about the connections he’s deciphered between India and the American South. And my hope is to call on Cynthia Greenlee for a lesson or two on archival research—and maybe pickled herring, too.

Between the banter and meals, I sat down to face my piece. After some long walks and hours in solitude surrounded only by the bare walls and warming light that shape Rivendell’s rooms, the words started to come. Barriers fell away and I felt myself moving forward. Big concepts were suddenly easy to digest and a path made itself clear. I ended up scrapping my first draft altogether and walked away with something utterly transformed.

Now that I’m home, I’m back to writing every day. To my joy, the words still come. The ideas still flow. With the door wide open, I’m remembering how much pleasure I get from doing what I do each day—and how important it is to stop, breathe, and reflect.

Erin Byers Murray is a Nashville-based food writer, cookbook author, and magazine editor whose work often focuses on stories of farmers, cooks, home kitchens, and local food communities. She has written the book, Shucked: Life on a New England Oyster Farm; co-authored the cookbook, The New England Kitchen: Fresh Takes on Seasonal Recipes; edited a collection of chef-written essays called, A Colander, Cake Stand, and My Grandfather’s Iron Skillet; and co-produces the Dirty Pages project. (Photo credit: Danielle Atkins).