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The Main Ingredient

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When I was a child, I loved watching my maternal and paternal grandmother cook whenever I visited for the weekend or for a family gathering. I’d stand beside them full of questions and learn that the blackened skillet they used to fry a batch of chicken or catfish in, or to make skillet cornbread, was what seasoned the food and gave it flavor. I’d watch as they added fresh herbs or spices to their recipes, and get lessons on snapping the ends off of string beans, and how to clean collard greens. I treasured being in their company as delicious aromas wafted through their kitchens. I especially loved when they lifted a pot lid off of a pot of stew or soup simmering on the stovetop and let me peek inside. Whenever I asked what was in it, knowing it was more than what I saw with my eyes, after they named all the ingredients, they would smile and say, “But the main ingredient is a heaping tablespoonful of love.”

For us writers, we not only put a heaping tablespoonful of love into our craft, but equally heaping tablespoonfuls of commitment, skillfulness, and creativity into our stewpots as essayists, novelists, authors, journalists, poets, bloggers, etc. We too add main ingredients that season our writing and cause it to stand apart from the competition. These are our unique blend of seasonings that we sprinkle liberally throughout our stories, articles, books, or podcast scripts, causing editors, publishers, and readers, to want to dig in, knowing they are in for something delectable and filling once they get to the last page.  

I’ve been thinking a lot about main ingredients of lately when it comes to my own writing. What have I been putting a heaping tablespoonful of in my stories to catch an editor or publisher’s eye to get them out of the slush pile? What do I add a bit of this and a bit of that to, to flavor them and make an editor or publisher smack their lips and want more. Not just those essential story ingredients a good story should have such as, an attention grabbing opening, intriguing/relatable characters, great dialogue, conflict/contrast, and engaging plot and a satisfying ending, but something more substantial.

I’ve concluded that for me, that heaping tablespoonful, that main ingredient, I am putting more of in my stories is unflinching transparency. As I get older I am developing a fearlessness that I never had before and divulging parts of my life that I was once too uncomfortable to talk about, yet write about. Whether it’s an essay or fiction, I am allowing myself and my characters to be willing  to be split open as author Natalie Goldberg who wrote, “Writing Down The Bones; Freeing The Writer Within,” is quoted in her book as saying, “Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.”


Our voices as writers are dynamic and multihued, each different but just as needed, just as empowering or inspiring as others, due to the main ingredients we add. Some of us may add a heaping tablespoonful of humor throughout our writing to keep readers laughing as they turn every page. For some, the main ingredient might be the stellar research done when writing about a specialized subject; the way no stone is left unturned. And for some, the main ingredient may be ones attention to detail, or ones descriptive writing; the use of sensory imagery and figurative language that makes readers feel as if they have a window seat in a protagonist or character’s life.  

Great cooks like my maternal and paternal grandmothers knew how to enhance their food with their main ingredient, “a heaping tablespoonful of love.” Great writers, yes you dear writer, also know how to enhance your writing with a main ingredient or two or more. It’s an ingredient that’s distinctly yours, that makes both you and your writing stand out. 

                                                                 -Jeanine DeHoney

Jeanine DeHoney has had her writing published in several magazines, anthologies, and online. One of her essays is being published in the upcoming Chicken Soup For The Soul anthology, “I’m Speaking Now.” 

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