[To self:] Write like you cook!
Solitary Friday nights have become an accepted part of my writer’s regimen. They’re how I tell myself that I’ve had enough fun lately — whether a lot or a little — and that if I want to actually accomplish something meaningful as a writer, I have to…ugh…put some actual work into it.
This past Friday night brought an unusual moment of clarity. I got home from the gym and unpacked some groceries. My mind floated to the question of what assignment to tackle tonight. My hands, without being asked, put on some rice and chopped up some onion.
Should I tweak that personal essay? Whip up a sports blog? Do some homework for my business beat? Write a poem or a letter? I went to the fridge and started tossing stuff onto the counter: mushrooms, green onion, tomato, anything I could get my hands on that seemed vaguely appropriate. A dinner plan was forming in my mind, but I didn’t care that it was still unclear. I had other things on my mind.
I started chopping and fired up the wok. Then it occurred to me: Why don’t I write like this?
Writing is such misery. I’ve been a paid writer for more than ten years now, and my love of wordcraft goes back to my early teens. Even after all these years, I sometimes agonize over the phrasing of a tweet. On more serious work, I often stare into the bright, electric space where my perfect sentence or word should be, and I rage at its emptiness. I rage at its inadequacy. I say — sometimes out loud — god damn it, I am not leaving until I get this right. I spend whole nights this way, until my bleary, dry eyes force surrender. I sleep uneasily, knowing my work undone.
This is what they don’t tell you about writing. It’s tough enough to break in — everybody’s honest and up front about that. But then you get to writing, and the years slide by, and you produce a bunch, and you start to look back at it, and you realize you somehow still haven’t produced that work that shows what (you think) you’re capable of. And you’re running out of explanations.
Is it just that you haven’t landed your “big break” — the sweet magazine gig that just fell into your lap; the radio job of your dreams suddenly available; that 5,000-word freelance piece on which you staked your rent and that is about to go viral and launch you into the writerati?
Or could you have been wrong about what you’re capable of?
C’mon. It’s a reasonable question.
I’m an average cook. I joke to friends that when I cook, the food either looks good or tastes good, but never both. Even in my mediocrity, I find a fair amount of peace and enjoyment in cooking. This is, I suspect, because I set very low standards, and then I meet them. You can cover a fair number of meals this way!
On Friday night, I found my hands throwing stuff into the wok with the order and timing that just kinda felt right. The crushed red pepper, a fairly impulsive add, crackled angrily beneath the growing pile of incongruous veggies. In went the snow peas, god knows if too early or late. Tomatoes — shouldn’t those be in there? — got plopped in too. In a nod to the red states, I decided to add some soy meat. I poured a curry sauce over all.
As I watched my stir-fry bristle and commingle, I remembered all the lousy crap I’ve cooked in my life. You know: the kind of stuff that has people munching quietly around the dinner table, choking back the “mm”s and “oh my god”s that an abler cook often hears.
And then I realize: I barely remember those failures.
My shittiest cooking. It couldn’t matter less today. I’m a less shitty cook now. I say “mm” to shit I made!
Some days, I dread that I will have to face that blinking cursor at night. I know that I’ll clock out of my day job, have a little food or a little gym or a little social time, but that my unwritten assignments are waiting for me. My future’s waiting for me. It’s been waiting for years. It wants to know where I’ve been.
That’s one reason it’s so hard to face that blinking cursor. To a writer, it is the doorway to the future.
As a younger writer, I thought the path was going to get easier with time. I thought a career in writing was like a motorcycle engine, roaring to life once you delivered a sufficiently violent kick.
Experience has shown differently. Each achievement, modest as it was, merely made me aware of some higher, harder goal. Imagine climbing a mountain to its icy peak, only to discover taller, more treacherous peaks jabbing into the clouds.
Why is so hard to write like I cook? How, when I’ve been writing for more than ten years, when it’s my animating passion? And cooking, for me, is barely a hobby?
For one thing, I don’t aspire to be a successful chef. I’m fine with my standard of home cookin’. I’ll get better, but I’m not driven to be the best. I like food but I don’t lust for it.
Words are different.
Because I’ve tasted mortality (more on that another time), I hunger for my words to exist when I can’t. I shudder to think that the last words attached to my name will be on a gravestone. The motto “Live every day to its fullest” feels flat to me. “Write: Live in your contribution to the human story” — that resounds to my core. Writers give something in their words. That’s how they live on.
Maybe that sounds vain, like Male Writer Ego going full peacock. OK. That’s fair.
But perhaps it exculpates me to say that it’s somewhere in the middle. The reason I have to write, I mean. I feel driven to write something that touches someone, that crosses the interstellar vacuum between your heart and mine. I love English, and all language, ferociously. I believe words have power to transmit across the ages, build the body of human work, and maybe even lift up humanity. I think of it like living during the Enlightenment — how can I afford not to be a part of that? Because I have to catch up on House of Cards?
I finished preparing dinner and took a seat at the table. I took a bite. It was…mediocre.
This didn’t bother me. I ate, making mental notes about how to do it better next time. I didn’t agonize about why my dinner was meh. I just said, that’s that. I met my deadline. It wasn’t a disaster. I learned from the process.
I cleaned up. I got to work.
On this solitary Friday night, I think I better understood my own struggle. For me, for my career, for my life, it will be the battle to write like I’m making dinner — to keep churning out meals, good and bad, but never letting the obsession with perfection get in the way. Not every dish will be my best. But it beats going hungry.