The keyboard and the stove are both major tools in my world. I literally burn through multiple keyboards a year. Fortunately the stove holds up a lot longer.
However, I approach both pretty much the same way.
There’s a reason I don’t teach writing. Well, first, I don’t wanna. But over and above? I can’t tell you. I can’t analyze the process, break it down into parts and steps because I run on instinct.
I don’t write from an outline, or have a board filled with sticky notes, character points, photographs. I don’t have a notebook where I sketch out the ebb and flow of a story in chapter blocks. I don’t use colored index cards to track plot, setting, dialogue. And seriously, I can’t tell you about POV shifts, scene transitions, pace and rhythm. They just happen. I do scribble notes along the way, then often go back and scratch my head over them.
What the hell does that MEAN?
I start with a basic concept, a setting, character types. I ask myself who are these people anyway? If she’s a photographer like the female protagonist in the upcoming The Obsession, I know I’m going to be researching that area, and in researching (which is why I do my own) I’m going to discover something that ends up weaving into the story, often in a major way. But I also need to know–or find out–why she chose that profession. Why isn’t she a lawyer instead, or a musician? WHY photography?
I have to give her a name, have a mental sketch of what she looks like, how she speaks. I need to know why she lives where she lives–and what it looks like there. Smells like there, feels like. And in researching the where, I’m going to stumble on something else that ends up being important to the story.
I only know the bare bones when I begin, so I sit down with those bones and start writing. I discover as I go. That’s why the first draft of a story is called the discovery draft. It’s a process that works well for me–my temperament, my skill sets, my instincts.
Other’s mileage not only may but does vary. No right way, no wrong way to approach the art and science and mystery of storytelling. What works for any individual writer is absolutely correct for that individual writer. Anyone says otherwise? Bullshit. And arrogant bullshit at that.
I cook pretty much as I write, which is why I not only don’t but can’t answer the calls for recipes after I post a blog on cooking. Please, please, don’t ask me!
When I cook, I generally have a baseline. Yesterday my Kayla and I spent a long day in the kitchen. She wanted to make pretzel bread, ham and potato soup, and my mother’s famed pound cake. Okay, kid, let’s see what we’ve got.
I have a launch point for the bread and soup, but I spring off that. It’s more fun, more creative. And I like to think it teaches a young girl to be creative, that everything doesn’t have to be precise and exact and set in stone. I substitute. Don’t have any of that, use this. Or I don’t like that anyway, we’ll use this.
Like writing, some is trial and error, some is layer as you go, then go back and tweak. Some is experience.
For the bread, Kayla uses the baseline recipe with the tweaks or changes or the what-the-hells I’ve added in or taken out. And I watch her learn, enjoy. I loved showing her how to knead the dough, watching her discover how it changes texture under her hands. How she gets the feel, rather than the precise recipe direction of ‘knead for ten minutes.’
Then, while the dough rises, it’s onto the cake batter. How long do you mix the butter and sugar together? Until it looks right–and since she’s been learning under my process, she gets this. A little vanilla, a little lemon extract–and she’s pleased with the scent, notices, comments. This is no whimpy cake, so I’ll tell you recipe hounds it calls for a half pound of butter and three cups of sugar. I think the extracts were a teaspoon each. Maybe there’s two of the vanilla. Then it’s six eggs–one at a time–which she likes cracking (and no shells in the batter). It might be three cups of flour–unsifted. My mother called for cake flour, but I didn’t have any, so I used standard. Some salt, some baking soda, mixed together. And a cup of sour cream.
Kayla diligently alternates adding the dry mix with the sour cream, and mixing, mixing, mixing. How long? Until it looks right.
She’s charmed by the angel food cake pan. I don’t know if that tool is standard for pound cake, but it’s what my mother used. So we use it. Spraying it with Pam, lining the bottom (again, fascinating my girl) with waxed paper. It bakes at 325 for thirty minutes, then at 300 for another 60 or in our case about 65 until a toothpick comes out clean. That’s the closest I can tell you. I’m marginally more precise with baking than cooking.
While the cake’s in the oven, we start on the soup. Though there was a break in there for a pb&j for a hungry girl. And a beater and bowl to lick. I had a lick myself, and my mother was right there with us. That’s as sweet and real as cake batter on the tongue.
Again, I have a baseline for the soup, but there’s nothing remotely precise about it once we start. How many potatoes? I don’t know. I do know I’ll be sending about half the finished product home with Kayla, so a lot of potatoes need to be peeled, washed, chopped. Some carrots. Some garlic sauted in olive oil. Some water, some bullion, some wine. How much? Until it looks right. Herbs and spices. Stir it up, let it simmer.
Years ago, when our Kat married our Jason, she asked me for a book of my recipes. I did my best, typing them out, adding little notes, compiling them in a pretty book. One day shortly after, she sat in my kitchen and said she didn’t get it. She’d wanted to make my deviled eggs (a crowd favorite) but it didn’t say how much mustard, mayo, various herbs and spices. And neither, she’d discovered, did the vast majority of the other recipes (using the term loosely) have precise measurements. How much???? she asked.
I don’t know, I told her.
Her solution, as Kat is a very clever girl, was to watch me make deviled eggs, and to figure out it’s–for me–about how it looks, smells, tastes. And so she can (and does) use my recipes as her baseline, to make them her own. It’s how I taught both my boys to cook. It’s how I’m teaching Kayla.
Kayla’s interest and enthusiasm are strong right now, so I’m taking full advantage.
When it’s time to punch down the dough, I let her go for it. I show her how to pull some off, make it into a tight ball, then let her go for that. She’s a little bummed the dough has to rise yet again, but we have more to do elsewhere.
The ham has to be diced and added to the soup, and given some time to cook. The cake’s looking like a cake in the oven, and it smells fabulous. Butter needs melting, then flour added to thicken it, then milk to that. Whisked, whisked, whisked until it thickens enough to add to the soup. Precise measurements? Nope. And you know I think more wine wouldn’t hurt that soup at all.
A glass wouldn’t hurt me either.
The cake comes out to cool. The dough balls have risen. It’s time for more fun. Boiling water, baking soda. I give her my big slotted spoon, so we can drop the balls in–and Grandda, who’s joined us, sits at the counter and times them with his phone. About thirty seconds, flip the balls over, another thirty, take them out, put them on the parchment-lined baking sheet, drop in the next batch.
Stir the soup, drop the balls.
We first, use our knife sharpener to get our blade perfectly sharp, then we make crosses on the puffy balls with the knife, sprinkle on some sesame seeds, some sea salt, and pop them in the oven. It’s about 12-15 minutes mostly. I set a timer, but I keep an eye. They’re done when they look done, when they’re a nice golden brown.
And the smells in the kitchen are incredible. Fresh bread, creamy soup, lemony cake. The top of the cake’s crackly, and Kayla and Grandda decide they should sort of peel that off and eat it. After all, when we take it out of the pan, turning it over, shouldn’t it be more even on what will be the bottom?
Why would I argue when they’re having such a good time? And making yummy noises? Plus, the kid baked the cake. She baked it by following her great-grandmother’s baseline, learning, discovering, and making it her own.
She baked the bread–I was barely sous chef on that–the same way. And the soup was a partnership of whatever works.
I know the bread worked as she snagged a roll off the cooling rack so quickly I worried she’d burn her tongue. She didn’t. And had a second one.
I sent her home with a tub of soup, a bag of rolls, and half a pound cake. Her family will enjoy the bounty of her labor. More, she spent the day learning, creating, experimenting. As she goes, she may decide her process works better with the precise. But I have a feeling she’ll continue on the road, discovering as she goes.
Like the first draft of a book, it’s the joy and effort of that discovery that draws the–we’ll say organic–writer and what’s-in-the-pantry cook to create the unique to them with the hope it pleases others.
I’m here to tell you, when it was time for me to sample the day’s labor, it pleased me.
Tomorrow, I go back to the keyboard and my scribbled notes to see what’s cooking there.