mise en place

By profession I am a writer, but I love to cook. I love the everyday challenge of making simple and delicious food, with whatever time and ingredients I have on hand. While I certainly enjoy the end results (usually a tasty meal), I equally enjoy the process and the feeling of absorption and flow that cooking offers. For me, the sensation of absorption and flow is akin to the feeling I get when work is going well. It’s a stress-free experience of being in the moment, but also thinking about the future – the next step, the other dishes to prepare, the optimal sequence.

I suspect that there are some parallels between cooking and writing that might be useful in allowing us to think about the writing process. These observations might be a little bit half-baked (pardon the pun), but here goes.

Working with what’s available

Both cooking and writing typically begin with surveying the ingredients or materials on hand. The invention or discovery phases of writing is, I think, akin to the rummage through the fridge, pantry, or garden. You often won’t have the time (or the resources) necessary to source all the materials you’d like or to search exhaustively for recipes. There is dinner to make and deadlines to meet.

Getting organized

Both cooking and writing reward organization and patience. Taking some time to organize your work station or mise en place – and your thoughts – will pay dividends later. Thinking through work flow and sequence will save you time and dishes. Sometimes when there’s time pressure it makes sense to start sautéing the onions or pulling out some promising bits from your notes, before you’ve completely settled on a menu or outline. I often find that taking those simple first steps is an opportunity to think through what will come next and to avoid panic.

Putting it all together

Both writing and cooking entail combining many smaller things into larger units (dishes or paragraphs) and ultimately into some whole, whether a meal or a piece of writing. It is important to think about how the parts will cohere into a whole and how you are creating an experience with consistency as well as variety or surprise. Too much sameness exhausts, while too many unexpected combinations bewilder. Somewhere in the middle there is a sweet spot that needs to be rediscovered each time.

Improvising and course correcting

With both writing and cooking you typically begin with a plan and then adapt and adjust that plan as you encounter the unexpected. You might start with a recipe or a standard dish that is then changed based on mood, season, or what’s in the fridge. The writer may start with an outline that evolves or changes utterly as he or she works through the process of translating a stepping stone path of ideas into sentences and paragraphs.

Of course, cooking and writing are not entirely alike. For one, it’s much easier when writing to go back and change something at the beginning than it usually is with cooking. And the metaphor frays in other ways as well. But, I find it useful to think about writing as a sort of cooking as it reminds me that ingredients matter, that organization and preparation are essential, and that writing – every bit as much as cooking – is an art of transformation and improvisation.

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