Monday, October 1, 2012
You've probably noticed that it's the rare creative person who is only creative in one aspect of his life. The impulse to make new things--and make things new--can take on many faces in any one individual. We can all think of the singer who is also an actor, the actor who is also a writer, the poet who is also a graphic artist, the comedian who is also a painter, the painter who is also a songwriter, the novelist who is also a terrific web designer. Heck, I know people who wear five or six different creative hats. For me, when I'm not writing, the creative impulse most often takes the form of cooking. Not that I'm constantly concocting the most avande-garde dinners or trying for flavors so new they are alien. With cooking and me, it's creativity in the most fundamental sense: it's the satisfaction of making something with my own two hands. (And maybe a few knives.)
I can't understand people who say they "don't cook." (So you're committing yourself to eternal take-out?) Cooking is one of those essential life skills, isn't it; one of the reasons homosapiens have survived this long? More to the point: What's not to like? More to the point of this blog: It has lessons to teach about writing. (You knew that was coming.) True confession: Possibly my favorite two to three hours of the week are Saturday evenings in the kitchen, listening to NPR or Pandora, sipping from a beer, and assembling an interesting meal. Cooking is a very centering activity; it's extremely peaceful, except perhaps at the very end when you are trying to making sure your plat principal, your salad, and your loaf of bread all are ready at the same moment. (And after a little practice, that's no real sweat either. Just takes a little planning.) There's almost no aspect of food preparation that I don't appreciate. There's nothing like the feeling of knowing that the garlic and onions you are putting into the pan with the heated oil were cut with your own hands. And it's not simply a matter of food freshness--although that's undeniable. What's most important is the feeling that you are participating as fully as possible in the creation of your own meal. No, I don't can my own tomatoes, and I've never handmade my own pasta (although I probably should), but I've certainly passed on the presliced mushrooms at the grocery store in favor of the whole ones, simply because I wanted the pleasure--and the participation--of cutting them myself. I've passed on pre-shredded cheese because I prefer both the taste of the stuff I shred myself and the knowledge that I did so. I won't go near bottled alfredo sauce (or almost any bottled sauce except soy), and it's been a long time since I bought one of those silly lime-shaped containers of lime juice. It takes two seconds to juice a lime, and the flavor of the fresh juice is more than worth it.
Do these activities add time to your meal prep? Of course they do, but what's the rush? You've got a beer, and your Pandora station is on. Life is good. Since when do we all have this notion that meals are supposed to be prepared quickly, and, even worse, that if a meal takes longer to prepare it is automatically degraded in some culinary existentialist equation? For the French, longer is better. For the Italians, slower necessarily means more supple flavors. Only Americans seem to suffer from this strange notion that good meals can be created instantly. No, they can't. And even if they could, that wouldn't make life any better. At least not for me. That would take away my favorite two to three hours of the week. It would also strip me of at least half the satisfaction I take when I bite into one of my Saturday night meals. (Here I should probably clarify that I do cook during the week as well: more "weeknight style," but even weeknights don't justify instant meals.)
There's a quotation I put outside my office door last spring. It's from the nineteenth-centuryAmerican sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, a famously painstaking perfectionist. He said, "A good thing is not better for having been made quickly." (I suspect what he really was trying to say was: "Almost everything made quickly is pointless.") This seems true not only of sculpture, and not only of cooking, but also of writing. Especially novel writing. Most especially historical novel writing. Sure, there are cases of great but quickly wrought poems or stories or essays. Even novels. But there are many more cases of quickly wrought poems and stories and novels that are terrible, or unappetizing, or simply insufficient. The writer was in too much of a hurry to be done. Good cooking certainly requires skill; it requires experience and the knowledge that comes with it; it requires intuition; it requires concentration. But it also requires patience. Rushing a meal can ruin it. It's never worth it, whatever the circumstances. And I feel that way about my own writing. Whenever I've rushed off a manuscript to a magazine or to an editor, thinking the manuscipt was good enough, it's never been a successful move. The flaws that are evident to me are triply so to outside readers. Better to take the time--and maybe that's a hell of a lot of time--to get the manuscript as best as it can be in your own two hands. Because that's the only way the manuscript stands a chance. More importantly, that's the only way it ends up being worth reading. It took me some time to come to this understanding, but it's perfectly clear to me now that no one gets recognized or respected for their middling work, no matter how much of it is published. The only thing worth recollecting--and the only thing that we do recollect--is the truly great stuff. So take your time, chop your own mushrooms, and afford yourself the necessary patience to make something worth eating and worth recollecting.