Camille DePutter

Storytelling with Heart

Camille DePutter. Storytelling with heart.

How Anthony Bourdain Changed My Life

Anthony Bourdain was one of my favourite storytellers, but not just because he inspired me as a writer (which he did). He also had a very big, very real impact on my life. 

Honestly, it’s hard for me to condense and articulate why, but I’ll do my best. 

In my early twenties I still saw the world through a lens of all or nothing, right or wrong, black or white. Deep down I knew there was more to life — that the best parts were hidden in shades of grey — but I was afraid. Mostly of failing, of getting it wrong. 

When I read Kitchen Confidential, followed soon by A Cook’s Tour, it was like Bourdain had come into my kitchen, pulled all the pots and pans out of the cupboards, and thrown them onto the floor like a tyrannical two year old. 

But in a good way. 

He dismantled all the preciousness I’d held about food and health, and spoke to the part of me that was dying to get out and taste life. 

He invited me to roll back my rigidity, discard my perfectionism, and instead, get hungry. Hungry to eat, yes, but also for something more. His invitation was less like a restaurant reservation and something more akin to Captain Picard’s command, “let’s see what’s out there.”

In other words, a mighty big invitation. 

In a world that prizes convenience and familiarity on one end of the spectrum, and a never-ending, flag-planting quest for “the best” on the other, Bourdain scoffed at both. 

He helped me see that our own rules and sacred preferences can function like borders: to keep ourselves contained, and others out. 

And he showed me an alternative. To put exploration over comfort. Experiences over certainty. Curiosity over judgment. Appreciation over curation. 

And so, I made a choice. To be on the side, as best I could, of showing up and taking part in what the world has to offer. To connect with human beings without carrying around my own preconceived notions and judgements like one big, overloaded backpack.

When in doubt, to say yes. To go. To try. To taste.

Of course, I don’t do this (or anything) perfectly. In fact, his loss reminds me not to get too comfortable. But he showed me a different path — actually, endless paths — than the one I started on.

I want to celebrate what he gave me, because Bourdain did something that the best storytellers do. That is, he didn’t just give me his stories, he helped me rewrite my own. 

And for that I’m grateful.

I am not a bracket. (Or, how not to be an accidentally exclusionary writer.)

So I’m about to read a book about a sport I like, about an athlete I admire.

The book is a rock climbing memoir, and it’s co-written by the athlete and by a professional writer/editor.

At the beginning of the book, the sport of free soloing (a style of climbing), is described as: “a man (or woman), with only rock shoes on his feet and chalk on his fingertips for better purchase, against the cliff.”

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Notice that “woman” is in brackets.

Now this curious grammatical choice has nothing to do with women’s participation in the sport of climbing — which is significant — and has everything to do with the inherent assumptions of the editor/author.

Brackets suggest an afterthought. A rarity. An exception to the rule.

Suddenly, I feel excluded. Talked down to. Omitted.

This language and punctuation says: This book is not for me. It is for men. For male climbers.

I feel like putting it down. No, I feel like throwing it off the next cliff I climb.

And I’m only on page 8.

Think I’m over-reacting? This tiny little grammatical choice (not to mention the use of “he” and “his” rather than the gender neutral “they”) speaks volumes.

So here’s the lesson. For all writers and editors, whether you’re professional or not: do not underestimate the effect of choices like this on your reader.

I am not obsessive about grammar. I encourage people to write rather than worrying about getting it perfect. I encourage people to focus on clarity and communication rather than grammatical nuances.

But this, right here, is when grammar (and punctuation and word choice) matters. When you’re accidentally cutting people out.

If this is something you care about — i.e. you don’t want your writing to be exclusive and you do want it to engage all readers — work with an editor who is attuned to these kinds of things. They don’t have to be a professional; they can be a friend or colleague who just really ‘gets it’.  

Preferably, work with someone from a different perspective than you, whether that’s a different gender, industry, age, ethnicity, life experience, etc. They can help you see your work in a different light.

Tell them that you want help identifying and tempering your own bias. Invite them to challenge you. Then be willing to be challenged, to question your assumptions about who you’re writing for and what their perspective will be.

And most of all, never treat a human being like a bracket.


Quiet

This may be one of my favourite stories I've told. 

I remember writing it 2016, while staring at the three sisters mountain range, in Canmore, Alberta. The memory brings me peace. And what I wrote resonates with me because lately, I've felt this need very deeply: 

The need for silence. 

That need might resonate with you, too. So I'm sharing this story again today — along with my permission (not that you need it) to seek out a little silence for yourself.

Does your story need some silence?

This week, I’ll be camping and hiking in the backcountry of the Canadian Rockies. 

Mountain backcountry is a great place for storytelling. Not just because we’ll have a campfire or two. Not just because of the adventure. (Previous reports of me fighting off a bear with my left hook were greatly exaggerated.)

But because of the quiet.

Suddenly, amid the power of mountains that are so much bigger than you, something inside falls silent. 

Words are noticeably absent.

And that is a very good thing. 

The best stories can come from meeting our own speechlessness. 

If you’re struggling to put words to something that feels wordless, if you're trying to talk about something that feels indescribable, one answer may be... to wait.

Don’t rush to tame the feelings with your words. Just be there. Meet the story as it is happening.

Sit with a quiet so powerful that it lays your mind down like a sleepy child for a nap. 

Be with the beauty around you that is so sweet and gentle it hurts.

Hold the pain like a still object in your hands.

Feel that love that has no business being described. 

Speechlessness is a very good thing for stories because it means something is happening. In time, the words will settle within you. In time, you’ll tell them. In time, you’ll share and make something marvellous. 

But for now, just be here. 

Because stories don’t exist without someone there to live them first. 

 

"Things are not as easily understood nor as expressible as people usually would like us to believe. Most happenings are beyond expression: they exist where a word has never intruded." -- R.M. Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet


camille@camilledeputter.com