When I was young, I treated recipes with undue reverence. I assumed that the unknown creators possessed knowledge and wisdom that I did not, to the point where, at age eleven, I consulted the back of the SpaghettiOs can to see how long I should cook them and at what temperature. (The instruction to “cook until heated through”—no time, no temperature—left me flummoxed.)
To be fair, I was not raised to cook. My parents cooked; we children did the dishes, but we were not invited to take part in food preparation. I recall one Sunday evening when I was rummaging for supper and came upon a box of macaroni. There being no spaghetti sauce in the house, I said to my father, “Why can’t we just put butter on the macaroni?” I don’t recall his exact response, but the gist was, “Who says you can’t?” So I did, and while it wasn’t a culinary masterpiece, it was my first tiny step along the road from strict recipes and rules to experimentation.
Over the years, my experiments have become bolder. Since I’m a fairly picky eater, I learned not to be shy about omitting or substituting ingredients I dislike. As a result, while I may use ground pepper in a dish, you’ll never find any other kind or form of peppers in anything I cook or serve. I also won’t use cilantro since to me, it tastes like soap. (As it turns out, this is not an indicator that I’m crazy; it’s a genetic trait which is true for as much as twenty (20%) percent of the population.)
These days, I approach recipes as guidelines rather than mandates. Sometimes, I’ll follow a recipe precisely; this happens most often when I’m baking something for the first time since baking is a precise science. When it comes to other types of cooking, however, my tendency is to consult several recipes, note the commonalities, and either rely primarily on one or simply blend them into my own creation. I’d love to take credit for this approach, but it actually comes from the late great Laurie Colwin, my favorite writer. In addition to short stories and novels, Ms. Colwin wrote essays about food that included recipes. (I don’t know who—if anyone—tested her recipes, some of which contain instructions like “add a glass of red wine.”) In “Starting Out in the Kitchen,” an essay in her brilliant Home Cooking, Ms. Colwin’s advice to the novice cook who has invited people to dinner includes counsel that the novice should consult several recipes and read them over a few times until they’ve gotten the parts straight. This recommendation is imbedded in my brain—and not just about cooking.
Every writer has a writing practice, and many of them insist that theirs is the best and only way to be a writer. Some swear by morning pages. Others maintain that a real writer writes every single day—at the same time each day—without exception, no matter what. At the other end of the spectrum are those who others believe in writing only when the muse strikes and focusing on other things when it does not.
I began to focus seriously on writing fiction in 2013. (“Seriously” in this context means working deliberately on craft with an eye toward having my work published by someone who had the right to reject it and would pay me for the privilege of publishing it.) While my experience supports the definite correlation between hours spent writing and work produced, I’ve had long stretches in which I wrote every day, and equally long stretches in which the only writing I did was for my day job. I have not tried morning pages, primarily because when I awaken, my first act is to grab the phone and check my emails to see whether clients have sent paying projects (or news of some calamity requiring immediate attention). Also, as I’ve juggled a larger-than-normal variety of stressors in the past few months, the energy to create has been redirected into coping with these issues.
If I tried to adhere strictly to anybody else’s recipe for how to be a writer, I’d be a failure. Luckily, I’ve learned to manage my writing process in the same way I managed the marinara that is even now simmering in my slow cooker: use what I have on-hand, conduct research to see what’s worked for others, adopt (or test-drive) new techniques or ingredients to see if they bring me closer to the result I want, and skip the stuff I don’t like.
Here are some ingredients commonly found in writers’ recipes. As you can see, some of them work for me, and others don’t, in whole or in part. This list will most likely change as time goes on, but at this stage of my writing career, this is my recipe:
- I don’t subscribe to the “only write when you feel like it or when the muse hits” approach, because I like to think of myself as a professional writer. To me, being a professional means showing up regardless of whether I feel like it. A surgeon doesn’t take a day off because she doesn’t feel like operating. (Granted, the metaphor has limits, but you see what I mean.) This means I frequently open the document and begin typing words even if I don’t know what’s supposed to happen in a particular scene—and sometimes I surprise myself by creating a really good line or moment I didn’t see coming.
- On the other hand, “write every day no matter what” simply isn’t workable for me. Life happens, for better or worse. On some days, by the time I’ve finished dealing with everything that had to be done, my brain is fried. On those days, I exercise my right to say “no,” which is my version of a regular employee’s vacation day.
- And yet sometimes, telling myself, “Suck it up, buttercup—you have to write today,” provides exactly the boost I need to turn off Schitt’s Creek and do my own work. After all, if Dan Levy and Eugene Levy had sat around watching programs created by other people instead of doing their own work, Schitt’s Creek wouldn’t exist. Along those lines, I routinely return to Ann Patchett’s story in “The Getaway Car” of a conversation with composer and double-bassist Edgar Meyer, who told her how he put a sign-in sheet on the door to his studio, noting the time each day that he went in and out, and how the more time he spent composing, the more compositions he finished. She says, “Time applied equaled work completed. I was gobsmacked, and if you think I’m kidding, I’m not.” Turns out, Ann and Edgar are right; even so, I routinely have to remind myself of that simple fact.
- “Write at the same time every day” is completely unreasonable for me even though it probably seems as if I’m the ideal candidate for such an approach since I’m single, childless, and self-employed. That maxim fails to take into account the realities of my day job and elderly parents. Ironically, if I had a traditional day job in someone else’s office or business, I’d probably be better suited to write at the same time every day than I am now. Plus, to be honest, one of the things I hate most is being required to be somewhere at a particular time, because it inevitably requires reorganizing so much else to ensure everything is accomplished. There is literally nothing I do at the same time every day—not getting up or going to bed, not work, not meals—and definitely not writing.
- “Only writing is writing.” I’m completely on board with this one. When I write, I write. I’ve known people who claim to be writing when they’re thinking about their story or doing research. Um, no. Call me old-school, but to me, writing means putting words on the page (or trying to). Thinking and research are important, but they’re their own activities. They’re not writing. Some people like to plan out the entire story before turning on the computer or picking up the pen. I respect this as a way to facilitate the writing that will eventually take place, but planning is not writing—it’s planning. I’m as capable as anybody else of heading down the rabbit hole of research, especially when the story is stalling and I crave a distraction, but I don’t kid myself that I’m writing when I’m crawling all over the internet in search of some fascinating obscure factoid. I’m not writing then. Only writing is writing.
You are, of course, perfectly free to disagree with any of the ingredients in my writing recipe. In fact, you can throw them all out and come up with your own. The only ingredients you need are the ones that will lead you to develop a workable writing practice (or pursue your other creative endeavors, whatever they may be).