There’s been a lot of time in my days lately, for obvious reasons. Because of that, I’ve run out of excuses to avoid doing two of my favorite activities that require slightly more effort than sitting on the couch: cooking and writing. Unrelated on the surface, I’ve found that my enjoyment of one derives from the other, and it’s because of the way their similarities and differences fill two very different creative needs.
Chef’s Block Isn’t Nearly as Bad
Writer’s block is perhaps more notorious than it is bad, but it’s as much a part of writing as the letters themselves. Nothing is worse than sitting down in front of a page, cup of coffee ready to go, fingers itching to type, and…the words just don’t come. All that’s left to do is try and hammer out whatever you can and hope that it’s actually not that bad on re-reading. Or pull your hair out.
When it comes to cooking, however, chef’s block isn’t nearly as bad. Sure, there could be some indecision about what to make, but there are only so many ingredients to choose from. Half the work is already done for you. If all else fails, you toss it all together with some olive oil and stick it in the oven. A little meat, some vegetables, not glamorous, but it gets the job done. And if you really want something fancier or tastier, you can turn to a much more reliable resource than a writer can.
Recipes and Outlines
Both writing and cooking can have varying degrees of preparation. Some writers like to outline, some don’t. Some people like to use recipes, some don’t. The difference is in the outcome.
Good outlines are designed to be deviated from. A final draft that plays out exactly in accordance with the outline is probably not very good, with the natural flows, twists and turns of storytelling suppressed in an effort to stick to the plan. Even when you have an established writing structure, the outline still serves as merely a guide. Thinking there’s a formula to any of this and trying to make A+B=C is a good way to either drive yourself nuts or write a bad story.
On the other hand, a good recipe is designed to be followed. You can take liberties to adjust to your taste, but if you follow the instructions to a recipe properly, you will end up with the promised outcome. A+B should equal C, and following the outline means you end up with a good meal. Sure, you don’t have to follow it perfectly. Hell, you don’t have to use a recipe at all. But there’s something comforting about knowing you can achieve an outcome by following instructions.
The natural progression of writing is a large part of why it’s so appealing. It’s a chance to let your work take you places you didn’t know it could go. But on page 189, when your plot twist suddenly makes your outlined third act irrelevant and nonsensical, it’s nice to turn to an activity where you don’t have to figure out how to make things work. You just have to follow directions.
This may be the single most important factor in why these two activities serve as such perfect foils. Writing is a long-term project. Cooking is not.
Part of my love of writing is that it is the undercurrent to my daily life. Regardless of what I’m working on, whether it’s 2,000 words or 80,000, it’s a daily practice that I can work on, think about, and plan out. It’s ongoing, and it gives me a personal goal no matter what else is going on in my life. And that’s just the rough draft. Then there’s the editing, discovering what I liked and what I didn’t, moving things around, incorporating new ideas, falling back in love with old ones. It’s a process and it takes time. Sometimes, too much time.
If I want to reap the rewards of my work in a few short hours, I cook. Even when meal prepping for the week, I’m rarely in the kitchen for more than a few hours at a time. Cutting up meat and vegetables, deciding on spices, determining how I want to cook everything, it’s all very immediate and quick. Thirty minutes to two hours later, the food is ready to be eaten, often for several days in a row. I get immediate feedback on my experimentations or the quality of the recipe.
Two very different but equally important creative niches are filled when I’m doing both. The long-term planning and execution of a story gives me something constant to work on for weeks and months at a time, while the immediacy of cooking allows me to feel rewarded for completing something. I know the moment it hits my tongue whether it was a job well done, or if I need to go back to a (much more immediate) drawing board.
Sharing it with others
Finally, both mediums come together on a simple truth: They’re better when shared with others. While there’s a lot of value in doing both of them for yourself, it becomes a creative expression when you let others in on the secret.
Food is the more common, more universal one. It’s a powerful social bonding activity, bringing everyone together for a common experience. And it’s made even more special when a person cooks that food for others. By taking the time to share what you’ve created with the people in your life, it brings added value to the time and effort you put into it while bringing you all closer together. Just the concept of cooking brings to mind gatherings and conversation, and who are you to deny that by keeping your food to yourself?
Writing, on the other hand, has romantic connotations of a writer in a room by themselves, pounding away at a keyboard, shut off from the world around them in order to create. But that’s not all writing’s about. It involves editors, feedback, and discussion. Without a second set of eyes, a work never really gets off the ground. And, ultimately, writing deserves an audience. Some avenues are easier than others. There’s much less of a barrier to entry on this blog post than there is on my novel, but even then, the digital world has opened up numerous avenues to share your work with others. Because while you might write for yourself, your writing is meant to be read.
A creative combination
Ultimately, what makes cooking and writing work so well together is that, at their core, they are acts of creation. I’m taking a starting point and building something greater than the sum of its parts. But while my novel might take 10 years to finish and get published, my pork shoulder, sweet potatoes, and vegetables are going to be done in about an hour. And it’s that small victory that helps me keep pushing for that larger one.
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