I don’t claim to have the expeditious cooking skills of Rachel Ray nor the culinary expertise of Ina Garten, but I do enjoy cooking. Although whipping up elaborate meals isn’t a nightly ritual, I will, occasionally, create tasty fare that at least satisfies the sophisticated palates of my little boys.
I enjoy cooking because it compliments my creativity as a writer. Just as I carefully select certain herbs to flavor a slow-cooked stew, I choose certain words and phrasing to enhance my stories. After all, cooking like writing is an artistic form of expression. And cooks like writers each have a distinctive personal style, which is reflected in their creations. Creations that can be shaped but not completely formed from recipes, books or manuals.
For a long time, recipes held for me the biblical importance of being the unquestioned word of the expert chef who knows that chicken can be cooked in 8 minutes (it can’t). I believed that these instructions were precise rules that couldn’t be amended. So, although frustrated that my cooking times never matched the times indicated, I always closely adhered to the recipe’s instructions until the day I didn’t.
This day came when I had cooked long enough to have the confidence and knowledge to swap one ingredient for another and understand the discrepancies in various oven temperatures as well as others’ perception of “cooked.” Basically, I had learned enough and practiced long enough to trust my own instincts and creativity. This lesson made me a better writer.
Learning to cook made me a better writer by teaching me to view instructions as guidelines open to interpretation and modification rather than exact orders.
Writing, for those of us who have chosen to do it, is a form of artistic expression based on our love of words and our passion to tell stories. For many of us, however, someone told us along the way that we needed to learn the “right” way to write.
Many of us obediently went to the local bookstore and purchased all the snappy book titles offering advice on how to outline, create characters, establish plot, market and sell.
Seeking the Holy Grail of good, sellable writing, I too have sought, read and tried to follow the information found in these books. Although some tips were useful, it was cooking that taught me the one priceless fact, which is that writing—real, passionate writing—can’t be taught, exactly.
It’s a creative outlet that cannot be constructed by another’s perception of it. Sure, every craft can be improved upon. Grammar, sentence structure, plot consistencies, ways in which to overcome writer’s block and how to set a consistent work schedule are imperative to writing and doing so well but not every piece of advice or bit of knowledge is going to fit every writer’s abilities, talents or skill.
It doesn’t mean that these instructions aren’t useful instead it means that they must be tailored to fit the individual and only the individual can decide in what ways modification is necessary.
Cooking taught me that all artistic endeavors are creative and therefore can’t be constrained by specific rules. No one can “teach” or “instruct” you on how to create. It’s innately part of you—the passion, the effort, and the talent.
You can learn, however, to improve your skills, harness your passion, and enhance your talent. And once you realize and accept that you are the only one who can determine how your craft develops then you will have the freedom to follow your own instincts and the confidence to choose what works and reject what doesn’t.
After that, you can assertively set the oven to 350 degrees, baking that 20-minute cake for 18 minutes and you can allow the words to flow across the page in your voice and in your way, comfortable that you know how to cook up a good book.