So first things first, I love to cook. I didn’t really get into it until after I finished my service in the Marine Corps (because there’s not much opportunity to cook in the barracks. Lots of Chinese take-out, Pizza, roach-coach sandwiches, and commissary sushi for me). I had a brief stint of staying with my parents while I waited to hear about my college application, and I started to experiment with cooking. Things like Hamentashen and many sundry fillings thereof.
After many experiments, I prefer the non-parve dough with apricot filling!
When I got accepted to GWU, I moved to D.C. and had six roommates and we decided to cook communally so that we could better share fridge space, and have real meals more often. We each picked a night every week or every other week to cook. And I LOVED it. I looked forward to my cooking night as a stress reliever. I would turn on my music (it was an unspoken rule that it was okay to have your music on out loud if you were doing kitchen work) and make something, sometimes ridiculous meals that took two hours to make.
I love flavors and spices and savory sauces, I love when it all comes together, I love serving it to people, and I love when they enjoy it. When I want to do something for someone, my first instinct is to offer them food. As a side note, I hope that the old traditions do not die: taking food to someone who has just had a baby, or is going through a rough time, or is healing from an injury. These are good traditions.
Anyhow, a few years back, when I was still doing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (I would love to do it again, but I do not think that pregnancy and BJJ mix well), I wrote a little essay about how cooking and BJJ were similar in the confluence of rule-following and instinct and learning along the way.
I have discovered that the same comparison exists for writing.
There are numerous types of foods that you have to make several times, working through trial and error, before you know how to make them well instinctively. It is as follows:
The first time you follow the recipe.
Maybe it turns out, maybe it doesn’t. If it has some merit to it you…
Make it again, with some modifications
Do that again, this time with a better understanding of how the texture/aromatics/simmering/whatever should be like
Make a few more adjustments the next time
Now you almost know it by heart, and what used to intimidate you (like pastry dough, a good korma, or a mock tender roasted exactly to medium) no longer do. You may still bungle them sometimes, but you can usually tell where you went wrong now.
By now the parallel may be obvious, but I’m going to list it anyway. This all came because I was craving food from a bakery in my hometown, and they make these masterful quiches and I wanted to try one. I kept thinking about how, if you’ve done it enough times, you can eventually skip past the more tedious worrying, and just dive in. You’ll know when the texture is right in the dough, not by teaspoons, but by fingertips.
The first time, you write something.
Maybe it’s good, maybe it’s not. If there’s some remnant there worth salvaging you…
Try again and see what worked and what didn’t.
You start to get a feel for when something is working and when it isn’t. You know when to add a little, take a little away
Now you’re learning on the fine details. The deeper nuances of characterization, working your plotting and illuminating muscles as they get stronger.
Now you know your characters, you know the whole thing by heart, so it’s still hard, and you still bungle it, but you have a intuitive plumb-line to which you are working, and you can always work back to it.
But there is a step seven, far more intimidating for writing, I think, than for home cooking (I mean, I’m not a restaurant chef. I don’t have to impress anybody). Step 7 is when you move on to a new story, a new idea, something where you have to start the process all over again, because it’s a totally different texture and flavor, and it uses spices and unusual root vegetables you’ve never used before (or maybe never heard of), and you might mess the whole thing right up. It might not go anywhere.
But (I keep saying you, but I’m kinda talking to myself here too) how am I supposed to know if I don’t try?
Maybe it goes well.
Maybe I learn a little something.
So I’m going to try. Eventually, it might taste good.