What I learned about writing from cooking

When I was a senior in high school, there were two English classes reading Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News. Our two periods were back-to-back, and as the first period ended, my classmates streamed into the hallway with news about that day’s quiz:

“Jesus is the bread truck! The bread truck stands for Jesus!” they hissed at those of us lined up waiting to be quizzed.

Our reaction:

“Uhhh, what? How were we supposed to get that?

Years (and many, many more books read) later, I understand that we can draw connections between anything. Inspiration can come from anywhere. Anything can be creative. And for me, that’s true with cooking + writing. While dicing carrots, I’ll stop to make a quick note about the way one of my characters handles a knife. While working through a dialogue-free scene, I’ll jot down in my planner that tomorrow’s chili would be incredible with smoky adobo.

For a variety of reasons, 2018 was not a strong year of writing for me. But I never stopped cooking.

Photo by  Gaelle Marcel  on  Unsplash

The simplest ingredients can make a winning composition

Like most students in a writing program, I came in armed with my go-to impressive names to drop. Voltaire. Edward Abbey. Chinua Achebe. One name I didn't yet know — but whose work I would come to love and try my best to emulate — was Raymond Carver.

I've since written at length about his sparse prose and how his storytelling finally partnered me with short stories, which I'd ignorantly denounced as the form for lazy writers who couldn't sustain a narrative. (Silly me, as now my first published book is a collection of short stories. I've since changed my tune.)

What Carver's work does for me is employ Strunk and White's advice to omit needless words. Carver is concise, both in how he describes his scenes and how he acquaints readers with his characters. We only know what we need to, and every word has a job.

Though soup is my favorite dish to make — there's all that vegetable chopping, the aroma of caramelizing onion, the wintry sky, that too-big ladle I overfill that always sloshes broth onto the counter — my very favorite meals are those when the cupboard's nearly bare. How is one to make do?

Here's the recipe for a satisfying, well-composed à la carte union:

Wine + fruit + meat + cheese + bread = meal.

That might look like:

Wine + blueberries + shaved prosciutto + Camembert wedge + focaccia

or

Wine + sliced banana + diced ham + cheddar cubes + baguette

From costly ingredients to the simplest, this makes a beautiful plate. You get to (get to!) eat with your fingers, like back when you sat in a high chair or on your mother's lap trying to figure out how your hands worked, with nary a care if the pieces of food you mashed between gums made sense together.

"Whether things were ever simpler than they are now, or better if they were, we can't know. We do know that people have always found ways to eat and live well, whether on boiling water or bread or beans, and that some of our best eating hasn't been our most foreign or expensive or elaborate, but quite plain and quite familiar. And knowing that is probably the best way to cook, and certainly the best way to live."
— Tamar Adler, An Everlasting Meal

Don't be timid

I’ve made a lot of pasta in my mumble-mumble years. (I don’t know why I dodged giving my age. I’m 33, going gray and proud, dammit.) Most of my body was made of penne pasta in college — so much so that penne turns my stomach now. For reasons unknown to me, I’d add a dash of salt to the pot along with the water because I heard you ought to, much like how I tap a soda can’s tab with my fingernail before popping it open. (Which, BTW, does nothing.)

Then I read how your pasta water should taste like the sea because the water you cook in is an ingredient as well. Friends. My pasta has never been better. What an improvement I tasted once I stopped cooking timidly and started tossing a handful of Diamond Crystal Kosher into the water.

With nearly every writer whose work I edit, I mention the importance of writing boldly. I recommend removing those bothersome words and phrases we employ to hedge. You know them:

  • kind of

  • sort of

  • slightly

  • a bit

  • somewhat

The list goes on. We rely on these crutches because they’re safe and for some reason it’s hard to label a character as ornery when it feels more comfortable to write “somewhat ornery.” But guess what? Sometimes that grouch is downright cantankerous. So say it. You’re making up these characters anyhow. You can’t hurt their feelings.

When we evade writing with abandon, we do both our writing skills and our readers’ time a disservice. Be daring and dauntless. It’s ever so much fun, and your writing is stronger because of it.

Sometimes you just do it because it's good for you

OK, confession: I used to follow the school of thought that believed I could only write when the creative spirit moved me, that I couldn’t sit and force myself to write. That nothing good would come of it. That forcing creativity was a waste of time.

Picture a fainting couch and a really dramatic writer still in her pajamas.

And maybe you’re still following that school of thought, but please trust me here: Commit time every day to meet yourself at your desk and confront what’s preventing you from writing. Usually it’s self-doubt. Maybe it’s even some self-hatred. We’ve all been there because writing is so hard.

Again: WRITING IS SO HARD.

We don’t say it enough. But we push through because it’s our vocation and we aren’t writers if we aren’t writing, right? Nothing may come of it at first, but when you have a set time every day that you sit even for 30 minutes and cobble together some thoughts, the next day isn’t quite as horrible. The day after that is less terrible. Then the adjectives grow progressively more positive until your writing session is absolutely radiant.

JK. It’s rarely radiant. But sometimes it’s satisfactory. And you have to do it anyway, every day, because, my friends, writing is what we do. It’s good for your brain to keep practicing it over and over. (And if you’re still stumped, then my goodness, let yourself outline.)

“There are times when I can’t bear to think about cooking. Food is what I love, and how I communicate love, and how I calm myself. But sometimes, without my knowing why, it is drained of all that. Then cooking becomes just another one of hunger’s jagged edges. So I have ways to take hold of this thing and wrest it from the claws of resentment, and settle it back among things that are mine. … Then the question is: How do you fall in love with it again, or if it has never made you truly happy, fall in love with it for the first time?”
— Tamar Adler, An Everlasting Meal

The joy is in the journey

If I could just XYZ, then I’d be a great writer.

How does this sentence go for you? If you could just get into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop? If you could just make time for a writing retreat? Find a quiet place to write? Afford regular child care? Become Lauren Groff through a body-switching spell?

We spend so much time trying to set ourselves up for perfect experiences when those experiences are already happening, imperfections and all. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to just go through life without really experiencing it. We grow as we go.

I’m still learning how to be a great writer: I was editing an author’s book last summer and found her paragraph transitions to be so smooth that it had me excited to work on my own pieces, to make new attempts, to try out learned skills. I like the behind the scenes. Sometimes — gasp! — I even like hitting a writer’s block and whipping out a stack of writing prompts to get me going again. It feels great to know myself as a writer well enough to understand “OK, here I am, stuck, and these are the tricks I try when I’m blocked.” Journeying into myself as a writer. That’s part of writing.

“Food was magical also because I got to be part of the making.”
— Sarah Waldman, Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, with Recipes

When the outcome isn't stellar, it's tough to shake off

I once completely scorched the most beautiful cuts of filet mignon. It was eight years ago, and I’m still sick over it. It was the most expensive meat I’d ever bought, and it was purchased in a love haze, so delighted was I to be cooking such a grownup meal for my boyfriend.

Scorched. Unsalvageable. He held me while calling in the pizza order.

Another time, I served chicken soup and bit into a piece of raw chicken. It’s really, really hard to come back from raw chicken, so I’ve overcooked it ever since, so fearful am I of repeating the atrocity.

I’d hazard a guess that no writer finds the process of writing to be la-di-da, happy, joyful, perfect. Sometimes the pages are utter shite and the characters derivative. Sometimes you’re 72 pages into your novel when you realize it’s already been written by someone else — and written waaay better than you could ever manage.

It can shake you, and cause you to question this vocation. Don’t question your calling. Every writer has stacks of unfinished and even finished books stowed away in desktop folders labeled That Time You Thought You Could Write. It is part of this writing life. Not every book you write is going to be Invisible Man.

But the writing day will conclude, the sun will set then rise, and you’ll return to it — because that’s what we do. Keep at it, my friend.

Everyone wants to know how to make dinner work because when it works it is a great source of pride, connection, and light at the end of a long day. But when it doesn't work, dinnertime is depleting, depressing, and so unbelievably stressful.
— Sarah Waldman, Feeding a Family: A Real-Life Plan for Making Dinner Work

But it's never a lost cause

Raise your hand if you buy greens at the grocery store every week only to toss a mushy mess of tangled yuck 12 days later. You, too? Thought so.

I grew tired of this waste. But I could use the iron and calcium, so I started sneaking wilting greens into EVERY DAMN THING. Eggs. Soups. Muffins. Smoothies. I’ll show you who’s a mushy mess of tangle yuck now! (Spoiler: it’s me, up all night with a vomiting toddler.)

If you do keep a folder labeled That Time You Thought You Could Write, don’t delete its contents just yet. You’d be surprised what you can repurpose.

  • A sentence you worded just right but didn’t have a place for.

  • A character name you kept bouncing around.

  • A whole scene that didn’t work in the story it was in because it deserved its own, separate story.

The best part of repurposing your work? The feeling of satisfaction and belief in your work.

LOL, JK, it’s adding to your daily word count goal without stretching yourself. Now doesn’t that just feel so damn good?

“You must sharpen strategies for turning failures into successes. It is as essential to cooking as unraveling the small mysteries of heating a pan or boiling an egg. It is inevitable that at some time, something will go wrong, and when it does, there will be something you can do to make it right.”
— Tamar Adler, An Everlasting Meal

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