Writing is Like Cooking

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As someone who has outlined two novels, and then written two totally different books than the ones I’d so carefully plotted, I can testify that simply writing down the journey of characters from point a to point b is not the same thing as storytelling—just as tossing the ingredients for a soup into a pot and turning up the heat is not a substitute for the careful preparation, seasoning, and adjustments of real cooking.

I admire the economy in a recipe’s format.  It tells a story quickly, without excess. It whittles the plot down to the bones. Here are the ingredients and their proportions. Here is how you put them together. But I think it’s also a particularly deceptive form of writing, one that can obscure the true challenges, and pleasures, of cooking. The best cooks I know use recipes as guides, starting points for dishes that they will taste and tweak and sometimes disregard all together, swapping in ingredients or changing temperatures when what’s called for makes no sense to them.

So too, the best writers understand the alchemy of story, the strange portals that open when you are trying to follow an outline or an idea about where a plot will go. The characters refuse to obey. The words sound trite and contrived. The heart drains out of the project, the air goes out of the room, and the joy goes out of the work. Don’t get me wrong: having an outline often keeps me going, making me feel as if I know what I’m doing. See! I’ve got plans! It testifies to my ambitions. Fooling myself into thinking that I’ve merely got to get from point a to point b, can get me writing. And once I’m going, I can cast the plan aside and improvise.

In the kitchen, sadly, I’m not much of an improviser. I haven’t logged enough hours to have a sure sense of substitutions or variations myself. But fortunately I can borrow my gumption from other cooks, via online sites like Epicurious and Food52, where people share their experiences with recipes: their adjustments and improvements; their failures and triumphs. It’s like a writing workshop for cooking. We’re all engaged in the same enterprise and we all care deeply about the outcome, so together we praise, we critique, we tweak, we try again.

That this kind of collaboration exists in cooking makes me think it must be intrinsic somehow to the act of creation. To know if something is working, we need to share it, and in sharing it we can discover solutions we wouldn’t have come up with alone. We can borrow ideas and find new courage. That’s what encouragement is: the cultivating of courage.

So I’m grateful for the insights of others, as well as their tips and tricks for getting a recipe to work. I’m terrible at chopping things. I used to blame my knives, but I think it’s my general lack of patience and penchant for perfectionism. My onion dice will never look like Bobby Flay’s. Reading about other’s cooking experiences allows me to realize that hardly anyone’s dice look like Bobby’s, and it doesn’t really matter in the end. We all have skills that we’re better at than others, and we can compensate for a sloppy dice with a passable julienne or, when all else fails, a food processor.

So too with writing. I heard man-of-the-moment George Saunders talk about this idea in a superb, quirky, writing documentary called Bad Writing. He said that writers often only have a couple of talents that they can pull out of their packs—the ability to write witty dialogue, the apt metaphor, the zinging description—and the trick to writing well is figuring out how to bring those good parts together, how to distract the reader from the parts of their writing that are not as accomplished. How to make people appreciate the finished soup instead of noticing the brutally mauled onion.

Writers who realize that they don’t need to be the best at everything, but simply good enough to get to the great parts, are the ones who are most successful. It’s been a long time since I got my MFA but, again and again, when my classmates are successful, it’s often not the superstars, but the ones who have not given up. And so I leave you with the recipe for the Roasted Carrot Soup I made today. It tastes so savory and complex, you’d never know that my dice was sloppy, that I ran out of garlic, or that the carrots got a little overroasted.  One spin of the immersion blender later, I got to the great part. Eat it while you write.