Being Julie, Not "Julie"


Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

"How surreal must this be for you?"

In the last month or so, as the hoopla surrounding the upcoming release of the movie Julie & Julia (based on both my memoir of the same name and Julia Child and Alex Prud'homme's My Life in France) has taken over my life, this has become the single question I am asked most often, now on a daily basis. My answer is, usually, "Yep. Pretty crazy." That seems the most diplomatic thing to say, not to mention the simplest. I'm not lying--it is surreal, the whole thing. But the truth is more complicated than what can be evoked by one overused adjective.

The truth is that I've had a movie made about me--or, rather, a version of me that's been made up by a very famous and accomplished person I've met only a handful of times--and I find the whole thing thrilling but also occasionally upsetting and hard to come to terms with. Clearly, one cannot complain about a movie based (in part, anyway) on one's very first book, at least not without coming off as hideously ungrateful. A movie written and directed by Nora Ephron. Starring Meryl Streep, for cripes' sake. There is no bad here. And I'm not--complaining, that is. In any way, shape, or form.

The "Julie Powell" of Julie & Julia: The Movie! has things to teach me, and the lessons are not all easy ones.

That said, I have seen the movie six times now, and there are things about it that scare me a little. The "Julie Powell" of Julie & Julia: The Movie! has things to teach me, and the lessons are not all easy ones.

Ephron's Julie, adorably depicted by Amy Adams, shares with me some traits, history, and relationships, but is emphatically not me. For one thing, I was never editor of the Amherst College literary magazine when I was there. I do not have friends buying up parcels of Manhattan real estate or writing Showtime-series-inspiring blogs about having sex with billionaires in private jets. I did not start a blog to get a book deal--people didn't do that in 2002. I have never dressed up as Julia Child, and I hate Dean & DeLuca.

Ephron's Julie is not particularly funny--she is instead a person to whom funny things happen--whereas one of the great discoveries of my year cooking through Julia Child's marvelous, world-changing book and writing about it was that I could develop a voice people found engaging and humorous. (Possibly the greatest exchange of that entire year--Me: "I never realized I was funny before!" My mom: "I know--neither did I!")

Where things get a little fuzzier, and where the history gets possibly a tad revisionist, is the whole narcissism thing. Nora (Is it strange that I'm referring to this famous powerhouse of a woman I barely know as "Nora"? Probably....) very smartly brings up the subject of blogging as extreme self-absorption. Every time I watch the scene in which Ephron's Eric Powell (played, spot-on, by Chris Messina) calls out Ephron's Julie Powell on her relentless self-involvement, as exemplified by her breakdown over the failure of Judith Jones to come over to her house and give her a book deal, I cringe. "I wasn't like that!" I think to myself. "I was never that much of a twit!"

But was I? I like to think I was more self-aware--just as narcissistic, maybe, but at least conscious of my narcissism and able to poke fun at it. In my experience--even if many contemporary bloggers might take issue with this--the blogging was, at least in part, an exercise in self-involvement. Cooking through Mastering changed my life on many levels. It made me a better cook and a more confident person. And, yes, it wound up getting me a book deal (though that wasn't my intention starting out, I swear!)

But blogging about cooking through Mastering gave me other things. On the one hand, it gave me readers--passionate readers, involved readers, almost insanely devoted readers--who encouraged, cajoled, prodded, and harassed me into both completing the project and developing my voice as a writer. In a very real way, I owe them for everything that has happened to me since: I can think of no better way to get an unpublished, uncertain writer off her duff and working. On the other hand, it created a fishbowl effect. It was easy, even intoxicating, to start reading my own press a little too avidly: the comments from people who thought I was a brilliant writer, a brilliant cook, a brilliant person.

And I didn't one hundred percent resist the temptations of adoration. It wasn't always easy for me to remember that I was just a girl with a blog who'd happened upon an idea that seemed to resonate with people. I occasionally ceased to be grateful. I was never seeking to exploit Julia's fame and general amazing-ness: the Julie/Julia Project was, among other things, a heartfelt tribute to all that that great, great woman has inspired in so many. But once people began identifying with what I was doing, from time to time I forgot to remember how very lucky I was.

Maybe the main difference between "Julie Powell" and Julie Powell is simply a matter of years. I finished the Julie/Julia Project almost exactly six years ago. There's been a lot of water under the bridge since then. Sure, there's been the book, and the movie, and a whole lot of surreal stuff. But I've also been keeping myself busy, learning to be a writer, continuing to learn how to be an adult.

The lessons that "Julie Powell" is just beginning to learn I'm continuing to work on:

1) Remember that the person you have to listen to and be true to is yourself--not adoring strangers, and not a Julia Child who doesn't like what you do.

2) Look beyond the immediate--at other people, places and things. That is, get out of your own fascinating head.

3) Keep doing. Life is way crazier and more unpredictable than we think. Ride the wave.

These are all lessons that Julia Child, in her life and in her writing, exemplified.

My main takeaway from this amazing, exhilarating ride is, I think, just that: It's been a great ride. But I think maybe it's time to take up writing fiction.