Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Cooking Up Some Good Writing

What is your favorite thing to do when you're not writing? This question was asked of me once in a blog interview and the answer quite surprised me. It came to me, just like that. I'd be cooking, I said. Comfort foods like chicken pot pies and pork roasts with rosemary and beef stews with cornbread and blackberry cobblers. I never truly realized how much enjoyment I received from cooking until I was caught off-guard. The question for me had always been, what is your favorite thing to do around your full time job, and the answer has always been, to write.

Over New Years, I took stock of things and made lists. One item on my list was to begin a new hobby or resurrect an old one. Cooking naturally came to mind. Not the "what's for dinner, what's in the freezer" kind of cooking. I actually bought a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Yowza.

By now someone is tapping a finger on the keyboard and saying, "I thought this was a blog on writing." It is. But you can't isolate the writing part of yourself and expect to bang out an authentic story. You have to bring your whole self to the process. Everything that makes you tick. If you bury your nose in your manuscript and never come up for fresh air, it will read like so much gray pulp. Those other things that make us tick bring enriching and unexpected insights and originality to our writing. Don't neglect them because you should be writing.

Here are a few things I've learned from my immersion in cooking. Don't get me wrong, I have no illusions of ever becoming a chef. I'm just having fun while learning something new.

  • You must read up on techniques before you can tie on the apron, just as you must know the basics before you type up the rough draft or you'll be wasting your time and throwing it out. For example, to saute mushrooms in butter you must add a bit of oil to keep the butter from burning and know when the foam has subsided enough to add the mushrooms. No one wants to throw out expensive butter and mushrooms. What's more discouraging is thinking you have no talent in writing, even when you have the desire, simply because you do not bother to read up on the basics. Every successful author begins with the basics of grammar, story and character development.
  • You have to understand proper chopping techniques. Learn how to properly grip the knife to make the necessary cut. Be decisive. If you allow your writing to cool off and in a fresh reading realize you have superfluous characters or plot lines, cut them. Too many descriptions? Slice and dice them. Paste them into a plain document and save them if you like. I can almost guarantee that you will never look at them again because the writing will be better for their absence.
  • You need the best quality tools that you can reasonably afford. I finally invested in a small, basic set of Wusthof knives. The serrated knife slices through a tomato like butter. (smile) The basic tools of the writer are a reliable computer with a program that allows you to type documents, and internet access (for both communication and research). Consider investing in a good writers conference. Start out small and local, if that's all you can afford, and build from there. You will not regret it. Basic books on writing, those which are most highly recommended by writers, are always a good investment.
  • You must choose the best spices and seasonings for the job. A few chopped garlic cloves simmered in a small amount of good olive oil is better spread on a ciabatta loaf than slathering copious amounts of butter and powdered garlic and dried herbs. In the same way, one truly delicious literary description left dancing on the tongue is better than the predictable, stale visual that easily comes to mind. Also, a little goes a long way. Know how much information about your character or setting is enough and only provide what is necessary to move the story along. Certain seasonings, like saffron, can overpower a dish. Do you have a supporting character who is trying to take over the story, or too many characters when a few would suffice to enhance the plot?
  • Use the best quality ingredients you can afford. I never understood what chefs meant by 'good' olive oil until I tried olive oil produced by a local grower at the farmer's market. I brought it home and compared it with my grocery story brand. The 'good' stuff tasted mild and, well, like olives, where my store-bought brand was weak and had no real aroma. The good stuff costs a bit more, but it's worth it. Likewise, use your 'good' words, not the easier ones that come to mind prepackaged and don't cost you much. Writing is work, after all. Stick with a passage until its aroma satisfies and is a reflection on your unique writing style.
So, I'm saying all of this to point out that writing is just a part of who we are and can't thrive in a vacuum. Sometimes we have to step away from our writing and see it from a different perspective that originates from other aspects of our lives.

What is your favorite thing to do when you're not writing? Can you draw any insights that apply to your writing? We'd love to hear!


Lori Benton said...

Now I'm hungry and have a craving to go sniff my olive oils! Great post and insights, Debbie.

My favorite thing to do when not writing is hiking/mountain climbing. Lots of writing analogies have been drawn from such activity, so I'll refrain.

I suppose what's less cliche is that often while hiking I like to be target shooting with my bow and arrows. Usually we take out soda cans left behind by less careful hikers and hunters. If they aren't too battered by the time we finish with them, we collect them for their refund. We collect them regardless, but some are too shredded for the machine by that point.

Another analogy for targeting and eliminating the "junk" words in a manuscript?

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Refurbishing furniture. Absolutely, I can apply this to writing and faith in many ways.

I agree our writing can't thrive in a vacuum.
~ Wendy

Bonnie Grove said...

Okay. First, I've been sautéing mushrooms incorrectly. I don't even know what to say about that.

Also, I too hate to vacuum. That's what you meant, right?

Love this post, Debbie. Even if it made me hungry. Which it did. I get great joy from cooking, also. And I've made a recent return to reading poetry because it tugs at my soul differently than prose does. I'm even fiddling with some writing of poems, which one could argue is just more writing, but I could argue it isn't. :)

Thank you for keeping us robust!

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Lori, I like your 'junk' words analogy. My father taught me to use a bow and arrow, too. I imagine that simply getting out in nature recharges your batteries. Jealousss...
Wendy, you must get a lot of satisfaction from your hobby. It also sounds like it could be lucrative!
Bonnie, mushrooms are only the tip of the iceberg of all the things I've been doing wrong. Including vacuuming.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

Music is my other life. Beat and form and staccato and legato and rubato and development and lovers on the side and tragic deaths and noble instruments....crescendo, diminuendo, secondary themes, inversions, inventions and insinuations...

And that glorious moment when you fall on the floor weeping with ecstasy and the knowledge it couldn't be any better and the teacher/editor says......

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

I love it, Henrietta. So many comparisons to writing could be drawn, but being moved by the music is therapeutic and valuable in itself. It stirs creativity. Which one moves you the most?

Henrietta Frankensee said...

Yes, I find writing and making music therapeutic. Exposing the soul in alternative language.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Delicious, Debbie! :-) You made my mouth water.

I love anything aesthetic - painting, drawing, decorating. I pore over interior decorating magazines just for fun, and drive too slowly past pretty houses.

I think being a very visual person helps my writing. I "see" things so vividly in my head and love it when I'm able to describe something with a few well-chosen words. That's possibly the skill I most admire in a writer. The ability to draw pictures in a reader's mind with words as deft and elegant and restrained as Chinese brushstrokes.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Karen, I think being visual is in a writer's DNA, don't you? And I know what you mean about beautiful homes.
I'd like to find a bumper sticker that says 'I brake for Victorians'.

Anonymous said...

Debbie, this is such a great post. I love the analogy between cooking and writing -- especially since of late I've become hooked on the Food & Cooking Channels. You give great advice in your bullet points.