What Anthony Bourdain Taught Me About Writing

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A few years ago I was teaching writing at a small art and design college in Albuquerque, New Mexico. While I occasionally got to teach a creative writing class, the bulk of my time was spent teaching essay composition. Somewhere between constantly detailing how to develop a strong thesis, endless lessons on how not to plagiarize, and parroting basic essay structure ad nauseum, I could weave in a bit of creativity. Eventually I found myself craving some outlet for my own writing beyond my professional life, but whatever that was I couldn’t seem to feel inspired enough pursue it.

Then, in the midst of a bone-dry summer afternoon, I binge-watched No Reservations until the sun set and the cicadas were so loud I had to put on closed captioning to follow the conversation. Up until then I had dozed in and out while Anthony Bourdain traveled around the world, meeting the locals and eating whatever was put in front of him: usually a wide range of offal, exotic cheeses, and vegetables pulled fresh from a backyard garden. I was mildly engaged, but with the closed captions turned on I could see the words he had crafted to describe each encounter. It transformed the experience.

As writers our key purpose is to manipulate words so skillfully the reader feels like they’re right there with you. It doesn’t matter the medium - even essays need to create connection to persuade effectively. Most of us fail miserably in achieving this. Somewhere between overused clichés, navigating English’s insane grammatical rules, and trying to keep a reader interested long enough to make a point, they disconnect with us and move on to the next shiny thing. In the age of blogs and social media posts, holding a reader’s attention long enough to create meaningful connection is becoming exponentially harder.

But Anthony Bourdain had mastered the ability to have a meaningful conversation with a million people at once. His unfiltered conversational style, combined with the ability to conjure brilliant visuals, set him apart from a crowded field of travel writers, bloggers, and television personalities alike. There, on the screen, I could see how each vivid description, brief bit of historical context, or witty observation created a sense of belonging with the audience. We weren’t watching him travel around Rome, we were with him as he helped crack a fresh wheel of parmesan and ate cacio e pepe at a small café.

Inspired by Bourdain’s lush writing style and his observations about how important food is to cultural connection, I started a food blog. Not the typical blog packed with Pinterest-worthy recipes, but a collection of stories about how food influenced and bound us together. I had no other purpose but to find a way to write again, and without the rules I taught my students day in and day out. Outside of the composition classroom, there is only one rule in writing: make them feel whatever you’re feeling, and from there you will have your connection. Like an artist veering away from literal realism and into the abstract, as a creative writer you can exploit grammar, invent words, and subvert structure - but you must always create a connection.

My beloved little food blog was short lived; not long afterwards I was diagnosed with a digestive disease (my blog was called But, I Digest…I suspect God has a sense of humor), and it became painful to want to write about food when there were now so many things I could not eat. But I never stopped watching Anthony Bourdain travel the world, eating and storytelling his way through countries most Americans will never step foot in during their lifetimes.

Normally celebrity deaths are more clickbait in the newsfeed; this was different. When I heard about Bourdain’s death, it felt like I’d lost a close personal friend. The same conversational style - punctuated with multi-layered descriptions - that made his shows so compelling had also created the feeling of familiarity. I felt like I knew him, like we were on this journey together. Based on the reactions on social media, I wasn’t alone in this sentiment. The best writers are able to take you along on the journey with them; it’s a rare skill, attempted by many and achieved by few. And sometimes you don’t even realize how good they were at it until they are gone.

Writing has many sub-purposes (education, explaining, documenting, etc.) but it’s main purpose is always, always, always about creating meaningful connection. I don’t care if you’re writing an essay for class, a blog post for your business, or even an instructional manual – if you haven’t hooked your reader and taken them along with you on the journey, then you’ve failed. It’s not easy, but if Anthony Bourdain’s influential body of work is any indicator, it’s worth it.

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