Thursday, May 7, 2009

Without a Recipe

I'm a pretty enthusiastic cook ... I often say if I wasn't writing for a living, I'd be cooking for a living. Although I've cooked in a bunch of restaurants as a line cook, I'm not educated. But looking back, I can see how I gave myself an education. Not deliberately. It just happened. Years ago, I used to read cookbooks cover to cover, for fun, and I made it a point every week to try something I'd never done before. I went through phases. I went through an artisan bread phase, when I was making hand-kneaded whole wheat peasant loaves. I went through a pastry phase. A BBQ phase. A grill phase. Pan sauces. Chinese. Thai. Indian. Cilantro (don't ask ...) Fish sauce (magic ingredient).

And I often buy ingredients I'm wholly unfamiliar with, just to see what happens. I love the feeling of circling a bag of live crab in my kitchen, thinking, "Now I got you home. What am I gonna do with you?"

The other night, I was cooking something or another, and I had a minor insight. I hadn't even considered cracking a cookbook. It wasn't that I had mastered the recipe. I actually wasn't using a recipe. I was just ... cooking. I knew what I had on hand, and I had a pretty good idea where I wanted to end up. I was looking for a lemon sage sherry cream sauce over pork with caramelized onions. Or something like that.

I'm not saying I'm the world's best cook. I'm not even the best cook in my family. My sister and my aunt, for instance, could roll me up and smoke me any day of the week. And any professional chef is operating in a totally different league.

Last night, I was thinking more about this rewrite I'm working on. With writing, I'm big on process, on cookbooks and outlines. But lately, I've noticed I'm using them less and less. I still do my detailed outlines, and I still fill notebooks with world notes and plot tricks. But when I'm actually writing, I find myself only rarely turning to my own notes.

"You know your world well enough," my wife said, as we were walking and talking about it. "Why don't you just trust your characters once they're inside it? Let them make decisions. Trust them."

It's like cooking without a recipe.


Mark Terry said...

It's just like cooking without a recipe, and like that, you generally either know what your ingredients are or what the hell you're trying to come up with in the end.

I think we get into problems when we say, "Hmmm, I got no idea what the hell I'm writing, but I think I'll start. First, we throw in the stones for the soup and hope that somebody comes along with, you know, a chicken or something."

Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't.

LurkerMonkey said...


That does seem to be most people's problem. They start books with a cool concept and a character they liked, but no story and then get stuck in the wilderness. But it's never been mine. I'm the other way around. I was launching half-formed characters into fully formed plots and worlds ...

As for chickens and pots, I'm a fan.

Erica Orloff said...

Love this post. I definitely do not follow recipes, and I don't outline, as you know. But I generally have a solid story arc. Then I just start and keep writing. Sometimes the results are surprising.


LurkerMonkey said...

I don't think I'll ever stop outlining or putting a great deal of thought into world-building and plot. I like the intricate plots, full of interwoven pieces. But I do need to work on keep all three elements (plot, setting, character) in balance.

Mark Terry said...

I've said it before and I'll say it here. Best writing advice I ever got: think more, write less.

Melanie Avila said...

What a great analogy. Lately I've caught myself regurgitating writing advice that I've read in various books to other writers, and it makes sense! I think I'm retaining something, yay. :)

And there should be no need to explain the cilantro. Love it.