Messages from Writers on Writing and Education
The Process of Writing as a Spontaneous Act of Storytelling: From the Classroom to a Published Essay
Reflection with Article Excerpt
Chiara De Santi
If I think about the development of my writing style and philosophy, I see it as a learning process that never ends. However, there was a starting point. Mine dates back to when I was a little girl in Tuscany, Italy, writing in her diary. I thought that my entire family—not just my parents—was interested in my journal entries, so I typed up the words from my written diary on my father’s typing machine (an old Olivetti), made copies, created a cover, and gave it to everybody as a Christmas gift. I was very proud of that accomplishment, but I am not too sure how happy my family members were with what they received. This was my first publication, and as far as I was concerned, it might have been my last. It was not the case, as I discovered decades later.
My writing process became a little bit more serious in high school, including some notable disasters, such as getting an F in Italian composition on the final exam before going to college. It is not that I was a total disaster in writing (earning lower C’s), but I never did as poorly at writing in K–12 as I did during this last exam before leaving high school. Therefore, I completed my teenage school years believing that I was not able to write, and I started my university degree in languages at the University of Florence—eventually graduating in Russian and French—laboring under this certainty. However, something changed during a seminar that was taught by well-known and renowned British historian, Paul Ginsborg. Students had to write a long research paper (35–40 pages) on a European modern history topic, and I candidly and openly stated to the whole group of students and my professor as well that I was not able to write decently. Ginsborg’s assistant gave me confidence just by saying that this was more my perception than the reality, and that writing is a process that can be learned. It seems that I have learned some lessons since then.
With a Ph.D. in history and a second one in Italian, I am now an academic with several publications both in Italian and in English, in a myriad of formats: books, book chapters, printed and online articles, encyclopedia entries, translations, newspapers articles, book reviews, and also a (self-published) children’s book that I did with my family: C’era una volta un Pidocchione who travelled the world (later translated into Italian by my mother). Academically, I mostly write on pedagogy, film, history, and literature, and if you ask me what type of writer I am, I can say that I am a spontaneous one. We all learn differently and we all write differently, following processes that work best for us. In K–12, my mother, who is a retired high school teacher, tried to make me study like she did; unsuccessfully I would have to say, because I found my own personal way of learning that is rather different from hers. I believe that graduating with honors from the University of Florence—where Paul Ginsborg taught for many years—proved to my mother that I had found a way of learning that suited me and brought me success.
The relationship I had back then with my mother with regard to my reflection upon the writing process has been mirrored within a more recent family dynamic. This time, my husband is involved. He is a former attorney and academic who is now an administrator. He has a different way of writing, for he is a far less spontaneous writer, but rather a more structured one, who diligently plans and follows outlines. I can’t create an outline for my writing—I get allergic reactions to it!—and I am not as structured as he is. He tried to teach me how to write by starting with an outline, again unsuccessfully. It is not that his way is better than mine, or vice versa; they are simply different ways of approaching the same process. This was made clear to us when we attended together a workshop on writing at our previous institution, where we were reassured that both ways are fine, just different. Back then, I discovered that I am a spontaneous writer. Now, let’s see how my writing process may start—“may” because it does not follow the same process every time.
Usually, the topic of a writing piece emerges by chance. It can be informed by my teaching, by having read a novel, or having watched a film that stimulates my curiosity; and with me, curiosity is the key. Once my curiosity has been set in motion and I chose the main subject of analysis, I think of how to tackle it, namely my focus, the points that I want to make, my main thesis. My analytical approach also informs my research on that specific primary source. Researching and reading secondary sources is a process that continues throughout the actual writing, however I certainly always start with research. Then, I start writing: I sit at the desk and type, usually starting from the introduction. Although professors, mentors, and advisors (and my husband) have tried to teach me that the introduction and conclusion should be written last, I start with the introduction because I need to have a beginning, and I can’t start from the second paragraph, omitting the opening. Obviously, I revise the introduction multiple times, and sometimes the introduction becomes something completely different from the first draft, but mentally it gives me structure and order.
If I have to visualize my writing, I see it as a flow of words that splash out of my thoughts like a waterfall, continuous and incessant. I love to write, and I do it out of passion and for fun, although it is required for my job. And I see it as a storytelling act; namely I am telling the readers a story, something that they might be curious about. As storytelling has become my current approach to writing, I can recognize that my style has changed over the years. When I started writing academic pieces years ago, I tended to have a very academic style, strictly following the formal rules of my disciplines, the dos and don’ts. With time, I have developed a more conversational and less formal approach to writing, precisely because I see it as being in conversation with the readers. This means that if you are reading these lines, I might have stimulated your curiosity until this point, but if you had stopped earlier, it might indicate that I was not able to converse with you. As a writer, my goal is to keep the attention of the reader until the end of the essay, and if it doesn’t happen, it means that I was not able to communicate with the reader in the right way. Obviously, one doesn’t know how many readers can reach the end, but a writer of any sort still hopes to have achieved this goal because writers want to be read, not just published. Now let’s look at the sample I provide here to explain how the essay entitled “‘Eat First’: Motherhood and Italian American Gastronomy in the Films of Martin Scorsese” was born.
The piece I’m going to talk about is part of conference proceedings published first online in the spring of 2017 through the University of Toronto, and later that year in print. I believe that everything one writes has a story behind it that might link together various layers of their lives, from the professional side to the private, from interests to il caso (fate), as we say in Italian. When I can, I try to explain to my readers the story behind my work to help them understand why I wrote it. In this case, I will share with you the behind-the-scenes process that brought me to this publication, since I did not disclose it in the publication itself.
To tell the story in one sentence: I first presented the research at a conference organized by the University of Toronto at Mississauga in mid-March 2016, and then I published an essay based on the presentation the following year. The story is not as simple as one might think. Let’s start with the conference, devoted to Gastronomy, Culture, and the Arts: A Scholarly Exchange of Epic Portions. In my conference paper and later published essay, I focus on some of Martin Scorsese’s films, but how did I choose to present them, specifically focusing on motherhood and gastronomy? Certainly, Scorsese is a well-known Italian American director, but few critics, academics, and film studies scholars have focused on a theme that is so specific and possibly, in the view of some, narrow. To further understand, we have to step back in time.
Let me tell you that everything started at my prior institution several years previously. I was asked to teach a course on documentary history and criticism. A colleague of mine, who was scheduled to teach it, had to take a leave of absence, so she suggested me as her substitute. Although I can’t say that I had specialized in the documentary genre back then, this course ended up being one of the most fulfilling experiences of my career so far, letting me dive deeper into documentaries from the United States and other countries. While I was expanding my horizons in this territory, I bumped into Scorsese’s documentary Italianamerican (1974) and then his first short, filmed while he was still at New York University, It’s Not Just You, Murray (1964). Watching them, I noticed the presence of Scorsese’s mother, and the connections between mother, motherhood, and gastronomy, specifically Italian and Italian American gastronomy. I became curious and watched other Scorsese films, adding more titles to the list that exemplify this connection. When the Call for Papers for the University of Toronto at Mississauga’s conference was circulated, I decided to send an abstract and I wrote the first full-length one included below (635 words):
When Martin Scorsese filmed It’s Not Just You, Murray, it was 1964, and the Italian American filmmaker was 22 years old and still attending New York University. In this short film (15 minutes), Scorsese’s mother, Catherine, portrays the mother of the titular Murray, who always offers her son a plate of spaghetti (“eat first”, she tells her son), thereby establishing two important features of Scorsese’s filmmaking: the importance of the family and of food as identifying ethnic values of Italian Americans. With this in mind, my intention is to analyze the films by Scorsese where his own mother, Catherine Cappa Scorsese, plays the role of a mother of a character to evaluate the role of food and motherhood, especially considering that she often actually cooked the meals for some of the scenes and for the cast (Catherine Scorsese, Italianamerican: Il libro di cucina della famiglia Scorsese, 2010: 123). Among the films taken into consideration are It’s Not Just You, Murray (1964), Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1969), The King of Comedy (1982), Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), and the documentary Italianamerican (1974), which stars Scorsese’s parents, who share their families’ history, and which makes the food a central aspect of this (auto)biographical documentary. Important in the analysis of these films and documentary is Simone Cinotto’s study on The Italian American Table (2013), where the historian contextualizes the importance of food and family in the Italian American community of New York City in the first decades of 20th century up to the 1940s. If food defines Italian American ethnicity (Cinotto: 3), as Cinotto explains, “the construction of Italian American food culture was a heavily gendered process, resulting in a feminization of the ethnic domestic sphere and in women’s specialized roles as supervisors of food preparation and consumption” (Cinotto: 11). Furthermore, the role of the mother within the family, principally responsible for preserving the unity of the family and its moral values and traditions (Cinotto: 57–71), helps explain why this role is so embedded in some of Scorsese’s films, to the point of having his own mother play the role of a mother who prepares food for her son, and in this way reproducing the ethnic microcosm of an Italian American family. To understand the presence of the mother in Scorsese’s films, one should not forget that “the prevalent image of the Italian immigrant mother in children’s memories is that of a woman completely absorbed by her role, ‘always’ busy in the kitchen and the home” (Cinotto: 57). This is why Catherine Scorsese continues to act in her son’s films as she acted in her own life, thus blurring the borders between fiction and reality.
However, because the required words for the abstract was limited to 200, I had to reduce my full-length abstract before submitting my proposal to the conference committee (201 words):
When Martin Scorsese filmed It’s Not Just You, Murray, it was 1964, and the Italian American filmmaker was 22 years old and still attending New York University. In this short film (15 minutes), Scorsese’s mother, Catherine, portrays the mother of the titular Murray, who always offers her son a plate of spaghetti (“eat first,” she tells her son), thereby establishing two important features of Scorsese’s filmmaking: the importance of the family and of food as identifying ethnic values of Italian Americans. With this in mind, my intention is to analyze the films by Scorsese where his own mother, Catherine Cappa Scorsese, plays the role of a mother of a character, to evaluate the role of food and motherhood, especially considering that she often actually cooked the meals for some of the scenes and for the cast (Catherine Scorsese, Italianamerican: Il libro di cucina della famiglia Scorsese, 2010: 123). Among the films taken into consideration are It’s Not Just You, Murray (1964), Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1969), The King of Comedy (1982), Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), and the documentary Italianamerican (1974), which stars Scorsese’s parents, who share their families’ history, and which makes the food a central aspect of this (auto)biographical documentary.
For all my abstracts (conference and publications alike), at first, I do not adhere to the maximum required words, but I write my proposal in full and then I reduce it, adjusting to requirements and guidelines. Very often I incorporate the full-length abstract in the actual conference paper or publication, but this part of the story will be shared later.
Once my abstract was accepted for the University of Toronto conference, I started my research. Having an historical background beyond the one in film, literature, and pedagogy, very often my theoretical framework tends to be historical. The conference paper was no exception. To ground the piece within history, my readings started with a book that I had to review for CHOICE, the publishing house of the Association of College and Research Libraries, for which I have been a reviewer since 2009. In 2014, I was assigned to review Simone Cinotto’s academic book, The Italian American Table: Food, Family, and Community in New York City, and this book was fresh in my mind. From there, I dove into more history works—books, book chapters, and articles—dealing with Italian and Italian American gastronomy as a defining identity of this specific group. Once I read what I would call preliminary readings, I wrote the conference paper in a very spontaneous way (namely, without an outline), starting from the full-length abstract and producing four drafts. In my field, at conferences we usually read papers for which we are generally allotted 15–20 minutes. With practice, I learned to calibrate a conference paper for the time that I have at my disposal: in this case, I wrote eight double-spaced pages in 12-point Times New Roman, with a total of 2,724 words.
The conference went well, and the paper attracted interest and received feedback, and when the presenters were asked to publish their contributions in the conference proceedings, I accepted with joy because, for me, writing is an act of love for the discipline. It is one of my passions, and I take the opportunity to do it when the occasion knocks at my door, as in the case of the piece that you are reading right now, if you got to this point. Obviously, there is an ocean between a conference paper and a publishable and published work, because a conference paper is still a rough draft, including developing thoughts, with some research still needing to be carried out later (the second phase of readings after the preliminary one, or further readings). In my case, the research for the conference paper did not include the bibliography on Scorsese, which I fully explored through library databases (MLA and JStor among the others) for my published essay.
Once the research and my further readings were completed and I had in mind my final framework, I visualized the puzzle of the various connected pieces, with the pieces representing the ground research (the secondary sources: preliminary and further readings) and Scorsese’s films that I was focusing on (primary sources). I went back to the last draft of the conference paper and saw it as the skeleton of the final product that I wanted to achieve for publication. Between April and June 2016, I produced ten drafts of the essay, which I numbered from one to ten. This means that I wrote, sometimes printed out, read, and revised ten times before submitting my piece to the editors. Some drafts were not so different from the next, but since I let every draft sit for a few days before looking at it again, there was always something to change, adjust, add, and cut.
For the first submission to the editors (yes, there are more than one), I followed the guidelines that we were provided (MLA style, which is the preferred style in my field, but sometimes we also deal with Chicago style, APA, or other options provided by individual publishing houses). At this point, my essay was already quite different from the conference paper if you only think that I ended up with 5,562 words—from the 2,724 of the conference paper—without counting the bibliography, which added another 770 words. The work was not done, though. A few months later, I received the chapter back from the editors with requested revisions, and I worked on them, producing five more drafts of the essay before resubmitting my final version to the editors. In the spring of 2017, the essay was published online and in the fall of the same year, it was published in print. The circle that began with the University of Toronto conference was closed and I felt happy and accomplished. Unfortunately, the ecstatic moment of full enthusiasm and happiness that I experienced with my first publication has never repeated itself again: the subsequent publications have never given me the same level of excitement as the first one, even when they were books.
Anyways, once an essay is published, it can be useful to look back at the process. As for many, for me (and for some of my students) the introduction and conclusion are always the most difficult part of a work because they represent the perfect circle: in the introduction, you present your research to the readers and you tell them what they are going to find in reading it, and in the conclusion, you wrap up your work and you might also open the doors to an expansion of your research, a sort of “wait for the sequel,” even if there might not be one. The introduction is key because you want the readers to become interested in your piece, and you don’t want to lose them at the end of the first page. So, if you are reading this last part, I have been successful. And yes, you want to get the readers curious and ready to go on a journey with you, with an author (in this case, a film director such as Martin Scorsese), and with the characters that you are transposing from a film to the page, electronic or in print. To attract the attention of whoever is reading, if I can find a suitable one, I like to add a meaningful quotation before the introduction. In this case, the quotation is from Martin Scorsese himself:
The Italians of my parents’ generation are held together by the notion of the family. That is why the pasta sauce is so sacred to the Italian family.
This quote immediately tells the readers that the piece is about Scorsese and the notion of an Italian (American) family at whose center are mothers and food. The introduction then becomes academic and reminiscent of the conference abstract:
When Martin Scorsese filmed It’s Not Just You, Murray, the year was 1964, and the Italian American filmmaker was twenty-two years old and still attending New York University. In this short film of roughly fifteen minutes, Scorsese’s mother, Catherine Cappa Scorsese (1912–97), portrays the mother of the titular Murray, who continuously offers her son a plate of spaghetti (“Eat first,” she exhorts her son), thereby establishing two important features of Scorsese’s filmmaking: the importance of the family and gastronomy as identifiers of the ethnic values of Italian Americans in New York City, both of whose production of ethnic identities are explored by Simone Cinotto in his The Italian American Table, published in 2013. With this in mind, those films by Scorsese where his own mother Catherine plays the role of a character’s mother, often portrayed in the act of cooking or serving food, further the “representation of ethnicity” (Braudy 27), which is analyzed in order to evaluate the role of gastronomy and motherhood in Scorsese’s cinema.
As I said, the conclusion closes a circle that was started with the introduction:
As this analysis of films across Scorsese’s career confirms, the Italian American director has undoubtedly paid homage to his ethnicity, which he accomplished in part by casting his own mother in the role of a mother cooking for her son(s) and her family. Moreover, it is the Italian American—possibly Sicilian—food prepared by the mother that carries a precise gendered, social, gastronomic, and ethnic connotation. It is specifically Catherine Scorsese who helps the director to define those family values that are renegotiated by Scorsese himself, as his search for the self passes through Italian American gastronomy and motherhood. Furthermore, Catherine’s mothering roles themselves have transformed across the films: while in both It’s Not Just You, Murray and Who’s That Knocking at My Door she is a silent Italian American mother wearing black, cooking for her children, and very likely intended to invoke an Old World stereotype, in Italianamerican and Goodfellas, as a mother dressed in colors (pink and blue) rather than black, she emerges as a stronger, talkative Italian American woman, prioritizing family and ethnicity through complete meals. In fact, while in the first pair of films Catherine Scorsese serves only a single dish (spaghetti and a sort of meat pie), in the second pair of films she serves full meals, yet still without consuming them in front of the camera. Even as the mother’s role has gone through a (re)definition and maturation in these four films, the gendered and mothered preparation of food continues to be an identifier of ethnicity even as it goes through generational changes. However, notwithstanding an overall development of the mother figure within Italian American society, the mamma’s first and foremost command remains: “Eat first.”
As you can see, the last sentence of the essay is a key one: “the mamma’s first and foremost command remains: ‘Eat first.’” I closed the reading of my paper at the conference in the same way, giving dramatic and theatrical emphasis to the “Eat first” (mangia, in Italian). Why? Because it represents the piece itself: it recalls Scorsese’s short, It’s Not Just You, Murray, where Scorsese’s mother always reminds her son “to eat first,” highlighting the importance of motherhood and food in the Italian American community and in some of Scorsese’s films. And this is also what I always do: before writing…I eat first!
Braudy, Leo. “The Sacraments of Genre: Coppola, DePalma, Scorsese.” Film Quarterly 39/3 (Spring 1986): 17-28.
Cinotto, Simone. The Italian American Table: Food, Family, and Community in New York City. Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2013.
- The extensive Ginsborg bibliography includes A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics, 1943–1988 (Penguin Books, 1990) and Family Politics: Domestic Life, Devastation and Survival, 1900–1950 (Yale UP, 2014). I was still finishing this essay when Paul Ginsborg passed away on May 11, 2022, in Florence, leaving a notable empty space among those who were fortunate enough to have known him. I dedicate this chapter to Paul Ginsborg. ↵
- Chiara De Santi. “'Eat First': Motherhood and Italian American Gastronomy in the Films of Martin Scorsese.” Teresa Lobalsamo, Adriano Pasquali, and Caroline Lebrec (eds.). Gastronomy, Culture, and the Arts: A Scholarly Exchange of Epic Portions (New York, Ottawa, and Toronto: Legas Publishing, 2017), 129–142. ↵
- At this point, I created a folder in my Drop Box where I placed the conference material, including the conference paper, and where I added everything that could be useful for the final piece, such as secondary sources, publishing guidelines, etc. ↵
- My very first publication right after graduating from the University of Florence with a degree in languages (the equivalent of a Master's degree in the United States) was “La donna nell’Asia centrale sovietica negli anni Venti [The Woman in Soviet Central Asia in the 1920s].” Il Calendario del Popolo 659 (Dec. 2001): 26–35. Cristina Carpinelli, who guided me through the publication process, was the first scholar to believe that I could publish what I wrote, to the extent that she later included another essay of mine in a monograph of her own. Let me thank her again from my heart. ↵
- Quoted in Scorsese, Catherine: Italianamerican: The Scorsese Family Cookbook. Edited by Georgia Downard, Random House, 1996, 3. ↵