One of my oldest and dearest friends doesn’t cook. She can barely make toast. But she loves to eat, and loves really good food. Whenever she’s presented with a home-cooked meal, she is wildly impressed. It’s as if she thinks the cooking process is some sort of magic and we cooks have Harry Potter-like wands.
She could, of course, learn to cook. Anyone can. So, imagine that this is a cooking class and our ingredients are words. As you put your stories together and submit your pages for review, think of the pages as a soup or sauce. If it’s a little bit bland at first, are you going to throw your pots and pans in the trash and vow never to cook again? Hopefully not. It’s only soup after all. And a pinch salt can often remedy a mediocre stock.
Somehow when most writers begin a daunting project, or for the first time, decide to take this craft seriously, they forget that it’s just soup. And I don’t underestimate soup! A good bowl of soup can change your whole day, change how you feel about the day, how your belly feels—soup can take you from cantankerous to blissful in ten minutes; it can nourish you, on both a cellular and psychic level.
So can a good story well told.
But when we cooks screw up a dish, or try something new and it doesn’t turn out as tasty as we’d hoped, we just check back with the recipe, or call a friend who also cooks and try and see where we went wrong. We do a little investigating. Oh, I should’ve caramelized the onions first, we realize. Or, if I cut the sweet potatoes a little smaller, they would have cooked more evenly instead of being soft on the outside but raw in the center. Okay. Good to know. No big deal.
Why does the prospect of writing a book bring up so much crap that other endeavors don’t? I think it’s because we have bought into some weird ideas about applying our natural creativity to an art form that are absolutely not true. For one, that artists are different. They’re drug addicts who grew up in orphanages, dyslexic and obsessed. Their souls are dark, cavernous places, breeding grounds for shocking ideas and self torment. They are unlovable narcissists, misogynists, daredevils, and alcoholics. They certainly don’t do yoga or eat three squares a day. Artists don’t watch Top Chef or get regular oil changes or have happy kids or were happy kids.
I say Bullshit. I can name a hundred fucked up lawyers whose pain and history of pain could sink a ship, and as many talented working artists who are gluten and dairy free.
Another problem we create for ourselves is that fear of telling people we are writing a book. What a dirty little secret! What if they found out that in my spare time I sit at my desk and try to tell stories? Some people would rather admit to an eating disorder or a chronic gambling habit than say out loud that they like to write and want to be a writer. Where the hell did that come from?
And I’m no different. If I’m at a dinner party meeting new people or seeing old friends, the last thing I want to talk about is my writing. If I were, say, taking up sushi making, I’d offer that up without hesitation. Who cares if I’m learning to make sushi or not? No one. But somehow saying you are writing, well, it’s seems to shake some people up a bit. Typical reactions include a look that seems to translate to: who do you think you are? You think you’re interesting enough, smart enough, talented enough, tormented enough to write a book? Or, isn’t that nice, you poor, dumb thing. Like you just stopped being a thinking adult and morphed into a four year old girl who declares she will be a professional superhero when she grows up. And what of that little girl? What would we say to her? No! You can’t be a super hero—you’re just a silly girl. I hope not. Because what the fuck do we know of her future? How do we know that she won’t cure cancer someday or wear a jetpack or find a way to provide clean drinking water to every village in Africa? The smartest thing to do would be to get out of her way in case she’s on to something.
But the most insidious and debilitating reason it seems to me that so many writers are not writing is this. They are convinced that they should already be great at it. And even worse, on a more subterranean level, they believe the work that they do is a mirror image of themselves.
So, what if, at first, like that first soup, their work is bland? That must mean that the writer him or herself is bland. Oh, what a terrible thing to be! Bland is the enemy of art! Art has to be deep and profound, bloody and devastating! Or transformative and life altering; it must sing like angels!
Really? The first time out? Or the third time out?
One of the worst things an emerging writer can do is psyche herself up, get all ready, light candles, pour the expensive wine or the soothing tea and sit before her computer or notepad and expect to be deep or profound. What a set up. In one moment, you’ve decided that you are in fact a writer, that you will commit yourself to this process, that it will be hard, but rewarding, and in the next, you’ve written something boring, wasted the good wine or the soothing tea and decided that you are just too average. That you are not great.
That’s like picking flowers from your garden and expecting ikebana an hour later. I, myself, am not a great cook. Nor have I ever been celebrated for my ability to arrange flowers. But if either of those art forms was important to me, I know that success would just be a matter of time, imagination and technique.
In the equine community there’s a famous trainer named Pat Parelli. In one of his books, he talks about teaching a horse to load into a trailer. For a lot of horses, being asked to walk into a trailer is almost as terrifying as being asked to walk into the mouth of a hungry mountain lion. Pat Parelli has a series of techniques he uses that result in the horse walking willingly and calmly into the trailer. In one of his books he talks about the process. And he says something that has stuck with me ever since. He says that he knows it will work. He doesn’t know if it’ll take twenty minutes or two hours—every horse is different—but it will work and that horse will load.
For amateurs and professionals alike, every new project starts with a bunch of blank paper and an idea. Or just a seed of an idea. A tiny nugget of something juicy. The amateur quickly gets discouraged when the first attempts don’t yield big results. The professional keeps going, adjusts herself to accommodate the new horse, the new story, and finds solutions to the resistance. Because the professional knows it will work.
I think anyone who wants to write a book or cook up a great meal is on to something. So, please, get out of her way.