Career paths are rarely linear. Many of us are unable to accurately chart out where we will end up professionally years, much less decades, out.
In some respects, Julia Bainbridge’s course has been straighter than most. A freelance journalist, podcast host, and author of an upcoming book on non-alcoholic cocktails, she’s been interested in writing and telling other people’s stories from a young age. She wrote for the school paper in college, and one of her first jobs out of school was in journalism. Since then, she’s worked for national outlets including Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, and, most recently, Atlanta Magazine, where she was the food editor.
But beneath this curated trajectory lies twists and unconventional turns. Bainbridge started in food journalism, but her interests have since expanded to include human connection and loneliness—she started a podcast exploring these topics in 2016—and her own shifting relationship to alcohol, which helped land her a book deal last year.
With more than two decades of experience as a professional writer and a bevy of interests and ongoing projects, Bainbridge is at a crossroads: she’s not sure where her writing or life will take her after the book comes out, which is exhilarating on good days and terrifying on bad ones.
Here, Bainbridge reflects on a lifetime of pursuing evolving interests, the solitude (and sometimes loneliness) of freelance life, and why creative uncertainty can be a blessing and a burden.
Q. How did you first get interested in food writing?
A. When I first realized food is one lens through which we can study people. As an anthropology major in college, I learned there was this academic side of food writing and authors who were looking at other cultures through food: what they eat, what they don’t eat, and I found that connection between cooking and identity fascinating. I said, ok! I can combine with the interest in food and studying people and go work for a food magazine.
Q. Which you did, first at Food & Wine, and then stints at Yahoo, Bon Appetit, and Atlanta Magazine. But in 2016, you started The Lonely Hour, a podcast about loneliness and solitude. What drew you to the topic?
A. Food and dining is really about connection. Loneliness is the other side of that. It’s an area I think about a lot: connection and the lack of it. At the time I was 33, living in New York, looking for partnership and not finding it. The video-gamification and commodification of dating people through apps made modern romance seem pretty bleak. Was I going to be alone forever? It’s certainly not the sad single girl show, but my personal interest combined with reports detailing increasing social isolation. I was observing the ways in which technology is distancing us from one another. I saw more and more people freelancing and otherwise working alone. I learned that more people are living alone and aging alone. I wanted to explore what all of that looked like.
I’ve always been acutely aware of how imperfect we are. How hard it is for humans to connect, and feel sated by that connection. We all struggle with personal demons that prevent us from being honest, from being ourselves, for asking for love and then, if we get it, feeling truly worthy of it. It’s why I talk about loneliness the way I do on the show: This is part of the human condition. It’s something we all deal with. It’s a simple message but one we seem to need to hear over and over again.
Q. How does solitude and loneliness inform your creative process?
A. I am my most creative in moments when I am alone—when I’m on a quiet walk, not listening to anything on my iPod. That’s when I come up with ideas. I want to underscore how important this time is for us all. We are constantly entertained today. If there is a void, we are taught to fill it. We have these technologies that are so good, that we’ve just gone with them. I wonder what we’ve lost, and what we want to recover.
There is a distinction between aloneness and loneliness. Aloneness is a state; loneliness is a sad feeling about that state. I do think loneliness can be a rich place from which to write, like any of our dark places can be rich places from which to write. But it can also impede creative work. Sometimes if I am lonely and depressed, I will shut down and isolate and not want to do anything. I just want to numb out. It’s where drinking was helpful and it’s also where shitty reality TV is helpful. So it can also impede work, and it can impede my social life.
It’s a balancing act. I need a significant amount of alone time, but I also need to be around people. I am a social person—we are all social creatures.
Q. You’re working on a book that includes recipes for non-alcoholic cocktails. Alcohol and creativity are often linked—was that the case for you, and how has your relationship to alcohol evolved over the years?
A. It’s unfortunate that alcohol does such a great job at quelling anxiety, in the moment at least. (Laughs.) It’s helped me be free and loose on the page, and loose and free with people. I have a complicated relationship with alcohol that I’m still figuring out, and while I do so, I’ve removed it from my life. I’m not always successful at keeping it there—I have slipped—but I am committed to trying. For now, I am a happier and sharper person, and a better friend and colleague when I am sober.
Q. You recently moved from Atlanta back to New York to write your book and work on your podcast. What was behind that decision?
A. I am in a place right now where I’ve burned it all down and I’m finding out who I am now, and what I care about. I left my full-time job as an editor to focus on these projects that mean something more to me. It was a risk; New York is expensive. But returning also meant being around my people who remind me of who I am. Sometimes other people can know us better than ourselves, or reflect us back to in a way that is clearer. New York is a grind and a hustle and you have to push, but it’s also my home. It’s where all my people are, some of whom I’ve known since I was five years old, who love me warts and all.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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