The Creative Life:
Emily Hyland lives in New York City, where she continues to manifest creativity through poetry, business, and mindfulness. She is the co-founder of Pizza Loves Emily restaurants and the co-author of EMILY: The Cookbook, published by an imprint of Penguin Random House. She spoke to one of Mount Hope’s fiction editors, Jillian Damiani, on the importance of maintaining authenticity and the multiplicity of the creative spirit beyond college education.
Mount Hope: Emily, you have a BFA from Roger Williams and an MFA from Brooklyn College CUNY, but you own restaurants. How have you translated being classically creative as a writer into the real world?
EH: I don't know if I've translated it, per se. Being a poet and a creative person is something I've always been. I didn't expect to fall into the business world. I didn't ever imagine being a restaurateur. Especially when the restaurant group first opened, I got lost in the abyss: I was teaching college; I was adjunct teaching literature, and I was teaching yoga and I was still writing. And then I opened this small mom-and-pop, thinking “I can do it all.” And very quickly realized that I couldn't, and so the restaurant life consumed me. It was only after forced growth: taking on business partners who have more business aptitude than me, and then the dissolution of my marriage to my business partner, that allowed me to take a year off from the restaurants and get my feet back on the ground and come back to what my identity is. And in that, I re-found my writing, and that's a powerful impetus for me now. Learning what it's like to be a founder in a business, learning how to support the business but also support all of those creative things that are much more nourishing, and trying to help keep the culture of the restaurants feeling that same sort of ethos is my work in progress. We all work here, but there's also many dimensions to who we are as people. And especially in the restaurant industry, it's writers, comedians, actors, artists. The goal is to bolster and support the people doing all these things.
MH: How do you maintain your authenticity as a writer though a cookbook? How does that process of expression translate to recipes?
EH: I think first of all it tickles me that my whole life all I've ever wanted to do is publish a collection of poetry and what I've wound up publishing is a cookbook. I know the poetry's coming later but I find it very ironic. I write a lot of trade pen pieces, in Food & Wine magazine I did a piece. I self-identify as a poet but I'm writing in all of these other modalities and it's tricky. I think part of that is taking the ego and self-labeling out of the equation and just going with the flow. Any book that you wind up jumping into is really a team effort. I have the chef that I worked with, the co-writer, the editor, and the whole design team. It was a collaborative effort among many people. My co-writer developed the recipes and I developed the narrative writing, so there was a synthesis. When writing any book, once you get to that process of editing and developing the actual object, you have to relinquish your grip on what you want it to be because it becomes not only about you, it becomes about everybody involved. And I think form equals meaning: there's a specific form to what a recipe is and how that creates a product that is consumed. I've been thinking a lot about, ‘how can I infuse more of my poetic leanings into the next cookbook that I'm going to be writing?’ I'm going to be working on an Emmy Squared cookbook this year. So how can I integrate more of that language? I was thinking of "An Ode to This, An Ode to That," as the foil on the other page of a recipe. So, I think there's ways to mirror that. I could write the recipes as poems, but then, nobody's food would come out as nicely. So, I think it's that there's other avenues of writing within something like a cookbook. A cookbook is not just recipes. There are the acknowledgments, the dedication, the narrative in the beginning and a bit at the end. And then, within each recipe, there's a little nugget of text on the top. There are many opportunities to infuse creativity. But certain things have to be informational, and I think recipes fall into that particular type of language because it is so process-based and it's more mathematical than anything else.
MH: Your poems themselves have a lot of nostalgia, mixed with an uncertainty about the future, and you were at Ghost Ranch. How do you think that influenced your writing? How do you think that that experience may have either prepared you or helped afterwards with all these current obstacles and projects?
EH: Going to Ghost Ranch and meeting Mirabai Starr, who is an amazing teacher, has been transformative. She grew up in the counterculture of New Mexico in the Ram Dass lineage and uses a method called “writing practice,” inspired by Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones,which has been a hugely pivotal practice for me. Coming from a BFA, MFA workshop environment where you're getting constructive feedback, but feedback that can also–– when you're writing vulnerable stuff, which is literature, right?––can challenge your sense of self or your worth, especially if you're an insecure. I always felt like the lesser writer in a workshop group. And when I got to Ghost Ranch and used "writing practice" as a mechanism for moving through grief, any sort of grief, things opened up for me on the page. We all carry things, so any way to use writing is a means to heal. There is no feedback structure. There's no saying, “This is good” because even that's a built-in judgement –– or any sort of gentle critique. It's simply holding space so that the writer can hear themselves, read their work, and then internally digest it. And I have to say––not to knock MFA programs, but that I really have grown and seen my writing improve in a new light through that kind of vehicle than in the constructive facility of an MFA. It helps me keep my feet on the ground. I go twice a year, and I'm going to be leading writing workshops for grief in the fall. It helps me just keep perspective in the restaurant world.
MH: That’s wonderful. You talk about how grief is something everybody carries and so many members of the restaurant world are creators themselves. You’re part of a dynamic community. Do you think having this community helped with this positive mentality you encourage on your social media platforms?
EH: I think community is pivotal to running a business and being a person. We're all layered with storyline boundaries of what our ego is and so regimented into how we should act or what we should be. Our egos are so defined by the collective unconscious and I think that when we can build more of a mindful way of living–– my yoga practice has been imperative, has been a lifesaver since I think I started practicing when I was twenty-four––it changed my ability of trying to be as present as possible. I mean, maybe I'm really present five minutes a day, and that's a win. It's hard but I think choosing to be present is how we start to define community. And I think being tender with each other, being kind to each other and not being afraid of sharing our vulnerability is where real and true connection comes through. The more authentic that we can be in what we share in our writing and on the page, the greater connectivity it has to the larger human experience. When we write 30,000 feet above the ground talking about the soul and life, that's very watery. But when we can distill it down to these actual living moments, is when the magic happens between someone reading my words and saying, “Oh, I feel that way too,” and then building that relationship.
MH: I agree. You wrote this set of poems which was published elsewhere, and one poem was about the speaker packing up belongings that were from her ex-husband’s parent's house. The familiarity of being in that place and having to pack and uproot memories was a poignant image. The intimate small moments matter the most versus these grand allusions to greater things that are almost too hard for anyone to understand.
EH: Yeah. I agree with you. And I think degrees have less to do with success and what I'm learning is that life experience has all to do with it. In terms of drilling down into the particulars, I had that absolute life-changing pleasure of getting to study with Sharon Olds out in Squaw Valley last summer on residency with a community of writers. I couldn't believe I got accepted. She's been my idol, my dream come true. You get seven minute conferences that you can sign up for every day, and I did one with her. I was stuck wanting to write about marriage and relationships, but I felt like I was saying the same sort of things. And she said, “Stick to the objects. Stick to the nouns.” That's when everything shifted for me and I had a bit of an awakening. I told myself “Let me look down into these marital objects, or objects that hold meaning, and then from those objects build some dialogue with your emotional self.” You get so subjectively wedded to your work. I think it was Natalie Goldberg who said, “Kill your darlings.” That growth happens when you can see your writing that you love so much and say, “Nope, that does not belong, I need to take that line out or paragraph out.” That requires a level of metacognition and non-attachment that comes from that mindfulness and life experience because we all want to hold onto everything.
MH: I agree, sometimes, you need to get rid of writing because it's not working, but that’s hard.
EH: I have a document where I put all those little murdered poems or murdered lines and they sit. And maybe I can use one of those lines in another poem that evolves.
MH: I think young writers especially cling to what they’ve already written so much because they question whether or not they can get better than they are now. But everyone is inspired by new things eventually.
EH: Right. I also feel like it goes back to that idea of what we were talking about earlier, about drilling down into the particular. At 20 years old when I was writing about love, I felt like ‘only I understand this and only my words can truly talk about the beauty of this thing.’ And then into my late 30s and I'm talking about love and think, “Oh, I've met a gazillion other people who've been in love, who've been heartbroken. I've been in love more than once before.” So, through that comes this understanding that things come and go, things change, and that's what life is. We don't have to like it but we have to adapt to it especially if our writing is going to get better. And those first poems are like a first boyfriend, right? We get rid of them and we move on. I think it’s kind of scary to write about things that are so close to home. What's interesting for me is to see very close-to-home topics evolve into characters on the page that are not me, but are that speaker or narrator on the page, and watch the evolution of the process there, knowing that those are removals from my life but that are also generated from the essence of who I am. That's been really fascinating and also scary. It's also scary to write about things that come from such personal facets of life. That's just been on my mind a lot. I'm excited to have the courage to be in that space and really try to write my truth as it translates within characters on the page.