The dirty secret behind my very best writing
I have to make a confession. Yes, I have a blog, both here and on my own website. Yes, I write for a living, which means I get to work with awesome editors at a few different outlets. And yes, I’ve been known to write long-winded Facebook updates that cross over the invisible line between update and essay.
But of all the places I write, there’s one where I enjoy reading my own stuff the most: Yelp. Weird though it may sound, my Yelp reviews include some of my very favourite pieces of my own writing.
Only on Yelp would I confess that I once fantasized about replacing the buttons on my shirt with human eyeballs, describe a sandwich so good it could reverse a vasectomy, or recommend a restaurant for an exceptionally boring date. Only on Yelp would I collect random but valuable information like why you shouldn’t put elk in baskets, or how to cure your children of eating whole grains. Only on Yelp would I share my religious views on shoe worship, the dangers of poorly-aligned chakras, or what God intended McDonalds to be.
As you might infer, my Yelp profile isn’t strategic: I’m not trying to grow my following, and I’m not committed to any particular posting frequency. While I enjoy having that little “Elite” icon next to my name, I don’t think I’ve ever attended an Elite event or received any other material benefit from my Yelping.
What I love about Yelp — or at least, about my own writing on Yelp — is how it allows me to tell a story, and at the same time, to know that what I write is likely to be useful to other people. Here are my favorite ways of putting that power to work:
- Capturing memories. Yelp is our family travelogue: the one time I’m religious about reviewing every single business, restaurant and attraction we patronize is when we’re on vacation. Rather than writing generically useful reviews, I often write reviews that capture special experiences like meeting a favourite author in San Diego, our cruise through the Channel Islands, a pilgrimage to dig for rocks in rural Oregon, an epic afternoon of arts and crafts, and yes, even a trip to Target in San Francisco. I even enjoy remembering our worst moments, like the ten long minutes we spent at Fisherman’s Wharf, our trip to a poop-covered swimming hole, or that time the kid puked in the car.
- Sharing our finds. When we finish a road trip, I collect my reviews into a single list so that I can share our discoveries with friends who make similar trips in the future. I often share the set of reviews from our Vancouver to San Francisco road trip, our Central Oregon road trip, or my list of essential Vancouver restaurants and experiences.
- Curating a collection. I’ve always made a point of seeking out the best ice cream in any place I visit, but Yelp has turned this commitment into a virtual collection of ice cream-eating experiences. I’ve dedicated myself to reviewing as many artisanal ice cream shops as I can — a commitment that, on one memorable road trip, left our children begging to please, please stop having to eat ice cream. My favourite scoops aren’t necessarily the source of my favourite reviews: Bi-Rite Creamery is my favourite ice cream spot (except for maybe the other Bi-Rite, or the Bi-Rite delivered by Instacart), but my nasty take-down of Humphrey Slocombe is the ice cream review I love the most. And Rori’s in Santa Barbara is where my ice cream fanaticism met its match in a scooper who ensured I’d have something to Yelp about.
- External backup. Yelp is how I remember which Mexican restaurant I like to stop at on our cross-border runs, and which one I want to avoid like the plague. It’s how I ensured that once I rediscovered my favourite Seattle restaurant, or the best macarons in Portland, I wouldn’t forget them again.
- Local activism. Working at a restaurant shouldn’t require women to bare their bodies. A Yelp review was the most direct way to draw attention to the absurd dress code at Glowbal restaurant in Vancouver. And when I love a local business, a Yelp review is the best way to lend a hand: I was eager to drum up business for a neighborhood favorite, Masala Cafe, though sadly, it still closed its doors.
- Exacting vengeance. I can’t deny that I sometimes use Yelp to rain down holy hell on a business that has really ticked me off. While I’m sure there’s a special room in hell for people like me, I suspect it will be full of writers I love, because there’s nothing I enjoy reading — or writing — more than a truly vicious review. Two of my personal favorites: this take-down of Connie’s Cook House for ruining Christmas Eve, and this review of sushi served by aliens from another planet.
- Cultural commentary. There are some moments in my cross-border travels where I just , can’t get over the differences between the U.S. and Canada. Our dinner at The Lark was such a moment, as was shopping at Trader Joe’s, or discovering the world’s greatest small-town grocery store.
- Sharing pet theories. Yelp is where I finally found a home for my belief that any dish can be improved by the addition of chocolate, bacon or applewood smoked cheddar; an outlet for my love letter to the California avocado; and a channel for alerting the world to the way our future alien overlords will use our Ikea fetish to destroy us.
- Holding a grudge. My children refuse to eat Mexican food, which means I only had one experience of the greatest tacos in the history of tacos, or maybe it was the greatest charred peppers in the history of charred peppers. So I made sure to review not only the tacos, but also, my children.
- Teaching myself a lesson. I reviewed the Red Lion Hotel at Disneyland in the hope that I would never again forget: you’re not paying for the room, you’re paying for the sleep. I wrote a Fred Meyer review to ensure I would never, ever again go into a Fred Meyer. And by Yelping these lessons, I hope they can help other people, too.
- Helping other parents. Speaking of helping other people: my Yelp reviews are the way I try to save parents from traumatizing their kids with dead animals at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, from drowning their kids in an Oregon speedboat, or from buying their kids a profanity-laden, motherf**ing hamburger.
- Remembering life without Yelp. My Yelp dependence isn’t just for capturing my travel experiences: it’s also crucial to finding new places to eat. That’s why it’s handy to occasionally remind myself that even I can find yummy places without reading a review first.
In our eagerness to build a social media following or a strategic web presence, it’s easy to lose sight of writing for the pure joy of it — or to be of actual, immediate service. But that kind of writing is truly a five-star experience.