December 31, 2016KR BlogUncategorized

Helping Other Writers (and Eating Spider Meat)

In the spirit of cooperation, I would like to offer something that others might find educational. It’s a pitch I sent to a few magazines years ago. It’s about eating spiders.

In the food world, transparency is one of the hot marketing tactics. Show customers the farms where their food comes from, the farmers’ faces and harvest date, and you build trust, a marketable narrative and demand. Some of that holds true in writing.

People ask writers all the time about the way publishing works: how do you come up with ideas? How do you contact magazine editors? Do you pitch articles, or do you send finished pieces? What does a pitch look like? Is there money in it? The way to respond is by being transparent. As long as you’re not just blabbering on and on about yourself, talking down to people or burdening strangers with too many details about work and personal drama they don’t need, then transparency has many practical benefits.

In the writing world, my feeling is that cooperation works better than competition. Sure, editors and writers for commercial publications often compete to get to certain ideas before other people, and journalists need to develop stories that arrived as tips quickly in order to break those stories, but as an essayist, I only compete with myself. Whether I’m writing for a small literary journal or a widely distributed glossy, my objective is to write the best, most engaging, most accurate story possible. But personally, as a writer, I work to research better, to write stronger, more interesting sentences, to create more imaginative stories and deeper explorations. I compete with myself to improve. And when it comes to other writers, I believe there’s room for us all. The pie always appears to be shrinking, and pay rates have plummeted, but new markets always pop up as others close, and the web is infinite, so there’s enough to go around. As Dani Shapiro put it in her outstanding book, Still Writing, “We [writers] realize that we are part of the same species and that we need we need one another to survive.”

When people ask about writing, why not share the answers if you have them? Tell curious students how you got here. Tell aspiring writers and colleagues how you failed, how you succeeded, what you dreamed about and what you’ve learned. Share your system if they’re looking for one, and ask about theirs. Pool your knowledge and experience. We’re stronger in good company. That means opening up your secret vault of tricks and contacts, and, in a sense, reading journals to the group, literally and figuratively. Putting it another way: relax. Don’t be a jerk. Share and assist and promote the stories and books you like. Be what people call a “good literary citizen.”

To that end, I’m opening my inbox to share a failed pitch that I’d titled “Why Can’t We Find Any Tarantula Meat In This Foodie City?” The idea didn’t fail because editors rejected it. It failed to get written because I failed to complete a crucial research step: securing the spider meat.

My wife’s an arachnophobe, so this didn’t go over well. It’s up to you to determine if this pitch is insane, if it’s insightful, or if I’m an idiot. All three might be true. Hopefully, other writers can find something useful in it. If nothing else, maybe you’ll find a new recipe idea.

And if you know any edible spider importers, please let me know. My skillet is ready.

Why Can’t We Find Any Tarantula Meat In This Foodie City?

Making a meal of a spider doesn’t seem so different than having desperate, sordid sex with someone whose naked body repels you. The hairy appendages, hideous undercarriage, a mouth like mandibles chomping your flesh—both regrettable sex and spider-eating are about putting disgusting things in your mouth; yet with all the regrettable fucking that goes on, few Americans would snack on a tarantula. It boils down to this: you might occasionally need to sleep with a repellant stranger, but there’s so much meat in this country that you don’t need spiders for protein. Some of us are curious what that tastes like, though.

Thanks to shows like Bizarre Foods, countless travel blogs, and tourists’ YouTube videos, the fried tarantula vendors of Skuon, Cambodia have become famous. Footage of tarantulas crackling in oiled woks, footage of horrified Yankees crunching hairy abdomens—the images are as terrifying as they are intriguing. Tarantulas are arguably the biggest of all arachnids. One species in South America, the Goliath Birdeater Spider, is so large that it hunts small mammals and reptiles. It can grow a foot long, its fangs to about an inch. The snack spiders of Cambodia are much smaller. Locals gather them in the jungle, remove their fangs and then bring them to market in the city of Skuon. There, cooks buy the spiders in bulk, dress them with garlic, salt, sugar, and chili, and fry them in hot oil right on the street. People drive from as far away as Phnom Penh to eat the delicacy—over fifty miles. So what are you supposed to do if you can’t fly to Cambodia to satisfy your curiosity? Go to Petco and cook a pet rose hair? When I ask myself this question, my inner voice assumes the tone of a nationalistic political candidate speaking from the pulpit: this is America. Shouldn’t you be able to walk into at least one fine restaurant or market and order some spider meat?

Here in Portland, where world class chefs abound, and food carts sell everything from ceviche to vegan phō, you still can’t taste tarantula. It’s a shame that a well-known local chef like Pok Pok’s owner Andy Ricker hasn’t added Cambodian snack spiders as a seasonal offering to his menu. Maybe he can help me source some spiders, though, through his overseas contacts and distribution channels, and then help me cook them in the Skuon style. Maybe he’ll think I’m an idiot. Once I get eating and researching, or find other chefs or places to source it, I can think more about the larger picture: the history of insect-eating, failed attempts at selling edible insects in America, what America’s culinary arachnophobia reveals about us and our culture, etcetera.