What cooking teaches me about writing

I never thought I’d like to cook. I was forced to learn and experiment when I lived on my own after college, and while I’ve always liked to bake, cooking has taken a little longer to enjoy. But I love it now. And I have my husband to thank. His love of cooking was infectious in our early days of dating and marriage. Cooking together was something we looked forward to. Those days are few and far between now but he has taught me so much.

While baking cookies and putting together a beef stew last week, I realized that cooking and writing–both creative endeavors–have some things in common. And what I’ve learned about cooking relates to my writing. Here’s what I discovered that cooking can teach me about writing:

Recipes are a good place to start. Follow the lead of someone who’s done this before. Then improvise. Add your own style. I used to fear deviating from the recipe. I would follow it to the letter, afraid that if I added anything, I would ruin it. When I’ve had to improvise because we didn’t have the ingredients necessary, it’s worked out just fine. In writing, the same goes. There are patterns that work. Devices that others have used that are helpful to learn and follow. That doesn’t mean all my writing is going to sound like someone else’s work, but it’s a good place to start.

Similarly, I need to learn the basics. Knowing the difference between a tablespoon and a teaspoon is essential. Early in our marriage, I misread a recipe that called for a teaspoon of salt. I added a tablespoon. Dish, ruined. If you don’t know the difference between cumin and cinnamon, you’re probably in trouble. Once you know what works and what doesn’t, then you can start experimenting with your own ingredient combinations. In writing, I need to know how to write sentences. Long ones and short ones. How to craft paragraphs and dialogue and chapters. When I’ve learned those things, then I can try something new. I used to think the idea of an outline was too inhibiting for creativity. Now, in the midst of my first novel, I’m wishing I’d done some more pre-work. And I bristle when told to read books about style and story structure, but I know they would help.

It’s not all gourmet. I enjoy cooking for my family. But last week, I was craving boxed mac and cheese. I was burnt out from housework and snow days and my body was tired, so that’s what we ate for dinner. Nothing fancy. Not terribly good for us. But it worked for that night. I’m not going to crank out my best writing every time I sit down to write. Maybe not even every fourth time I sit down to write. It’s going to take practice. And time. And I might not ever be a “gourmet” writer. But not everyone wants gourmet all the time. Maybe my mac-and-cheese-in-a-box writing will be just the food someone needs that day.

Trust my gut. While making  the beef stew, a dish I’ve made several times with my husband but never in this house, with this stove, I hit a snag. The first round of “browning” the meat was more like “blacking” the meat. I had the burner turned up too high. I could have pressed on, convinced that I was doing it right, or I could trust my instincts and start over. That’s what I did. I dumped the oil, rinsed out the pan and melted another scoop of shortening at a lower temperature. I don’t know what my writing instincts are right now, but I know if I do it long enough, I’ll be able to trust my gut more and more.

It’s not about me. (Or you.) Ultimately, when I’m cooking, I’m not cooking for myself. And I’m infinitely more satisfied when I share the food I’ve made with other people. While I do write partly for me (because if I didn’t I think my head might literally explode), the end goal is to have other people read my words. So, I’m willing to do what it takes for that to happen. If I have to alter my dream or work a little harder or spend a little more, then I must.

I’ve been cooking for my family for almost seven years now, and I’m still no expert, but I’m getting better and finding my groove. I’ve been writing a lot longer than that, but I’m still a novice in a lot of ways. Whether cooking or writing, I’ve got a lot to learn, but I’m finding joy in the practice.

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