Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘America’s Test Kitchen

Thinking with your gut

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The other night, my wife and I were having dinner at the home of a couple of friends when the subject of cooking came up. Everyone in the room knew their way around a kitchen—my wife and I cook at home every night, and while we aren’t great, we aren’t half bad, either—but we were all very conscious of the fact that we still rely largely on recipes. The ideal cook, we agreed, was someone who never looks at a recipe at all, but who can walk into a kitchen full of ingredients and throw something together without thinking about it too much. This is the approach of everyone’s grandmother, and while the result can sometimes be unpredictable (our friend described her Indian mother as being pleasantly surprised whenever a dish came out better than expected—”This is really good, isn’t it?”), it comes much closer to our idea of a good cook than someone like me, who dutifully follows whatever Cooks Illustrated says.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this applies to every kind of acquired skill. It probably applies to medicine, for example—one of our friends is an anesthesiologist—and it certainly applies to writing. A recipe is really just an algorithm, a set of steps for solving a problem, and the goal of any profession is to internalize these steps to the point where they turn into intuition. Intuition, as I’ve noted before, is really just an acceleration of rational thought—you learn to skip, combine, or speed up certain steps, so the result seems like magic, when in fact you’ve gone through the same process as always in the twinkling of an eye. (This is what Robert Graves means when he talks about proleptic thinking.) And my goal as a writer has always been to internalize craft, to look at the elements of a story and throw them together in an appetizing way without having to think through each step.

But you have to know the recipe first. I talked a bit yesterday about young writers who imitate the likes of Nabokov or Salinger without understanding the process it took to get there, which is something like trying to cook like Ferran Adrià without knowing how to make spaghetti. In the context of cooking, it sounds ridiculous, but the world is full of writers who are trying to do something very much like this in fiction. And while there isn’t anything like a culinary school or apprenticeship track for novelists—it certainly isn’t the standard MFA program—there are plenty of ways for a writer to develop craft on his own. Christopher Kimball, the founder of America’s Test Kitchen, says that the way to become a good chef is to cook your twenty favorite recipes until you’ve totally internalized them, then go from there. This is essentially what a young writer needs to do: write in the genres you care about most, looking to the rules as much as possible, and gradually work your way up to the literary equivalent of molecular gastronomy.

And it’s also important to remember that for a real artist, intuition isn’t the goal, but a means of doing hard, nonintuitive things. Recently, I’ve been browsing through a big coffee table book about the restaurant Alinea, and I was struck by Grant Achatz’s description of his own creative process:

People like to think the creative process is romantic…The truth, for me at least, is that creativity is primarily the result of hard work and study…In the still silence of the dining room, with the lights dimmed to a shadowy glow, I surround myself with my resources: a laptop, a notepad, pens, a glass of wine, a few reference books, a stack of C-fold towels with scribbled notes accumulated throughout the day, and a list of seasonal ingredients.

This is a lovely description of how any artist ultimately spends most of his or her time, complete with nice homely details—those C-fold towels!—and it’s a reminder that even after you’ve developed some degree of intuition, the process never ends. In the end, you’re still there in the kitchen, late at night, with your notes and glass of wine, working laboriously on new ideas, and only dimly seeing the point when even those recipes, transformed into intuition, will have been cast aside as well.

Written by nevalalee

April 24, 2012 at 9:52 am

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