Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Cooks Illustrated

Moving past the cookbook

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A view of the author's refrigerator

The formula for a good story is a lot like a recipe. Take one protagonist with a problem, add a sequence of logical actions in pursuit of his or her objectives, throw in an obstacle or two, start as late and end as early as possible, then cut ten percent in the rewrite: that’s as reliable a blueprint as I know, and when you’re done, you’ll probably end up with an edible, if not spectacular, dish. In practice, though, few writers approach the task at hand as systematically as a home chef with a cookbook. It’s more like tinkering around in the kitchen, opening the fridge to see what ingredients you have, trying to figure out any necessary substitutions—I can use a pinch of basil instead of thyme, right?—and making the end result come out as something that you’d conceivably want to eat. If you stop to pick apart the process, you’ll usually find that it’s one part experience, one part intuition, and one part drawing on the dishes you’ve internalized. When I started cooking for myself, I had to look up my favorite stir-fry recipe each time I made it, but now, I just grab what I need and trust to muscle memory for the rest.

It’s different, of course, when you’re preparing something for the first time. All things considered, it’s best if you follow a trusted source, ideally one that explains the rationale behind each of its steps. (That’s why I love Cooks Illustrated, which not only gives detailed instructions but makes its reasoning crystal clear.) When you’re a writer, though, you’ll quickly find that the most complicated dishes don’t come with a recipe, at least not one that you can apply immediately to the meal you’re making. Not only will different stories have different requirements—the proportions between plot, character, and language, for instance, can vary radically from one work to the next—but you’ll often discover that the dish is changing as you prepare it, or that the utensils you have at hand aren’t sufficient to get the job done. It’s like arriving at a kitchen with a frozen dessert in mind, only to find that they don’t have an ice cream maker, as recently happened to one of the leading contestants on Top Chef. When that happens, you’ve got to improvise and hope for the best, and fortunately, no one needs to taste your earliest experiments except for you.

The kitchen at Alinea

For writers, it can be hard to find the right balance between what the Austrian social scientist Alfred Schütz called “recipe knowledge”—that is, the basic set of information that you need to get through your daily interactions—and the more difficult kind of knowledge that comes from engagement with inconvenient realities. I’ve always liked what the sociologist Peter Berger had to say on the subject:

Intellectuals have a particular variety of “recipe knowledge”; they know just enough to be able to get through their dealings with other intellectuals. There is a “recipe knowledge” for dealing with modernity in intellectual circles; the individual must be able to reproduce a small number of stock phrases and interpretive schemes, to apply them in “analysis” or “criticism” of new things that come up in discussion, and thereby to authenticate his participation in what has been collectively been defined as reality in these circles. Statistically speaking, the scientific validity of this intellectuals’ “recipe knowledge” is roughly random.

That’s also true, in its own way, of the recipe knowledge that an author develops, as long as you replace “scientific validity” with “artistic truth.” Taken by themselves, the formulas of good narrative provide us with an approach to generating readable fiction, but they tell us nothing about the underlying truth or resonance of the story itself. That’s the kind of thing that can only be developed through patience, practice, and endless tasting. It also requires a good palate, which is why a writer generally spends so much time reading the work of others: it’s the most efficient way to find out what we do and don’t like. And the distinction becomes more stark after you’ve written a few stories. We all know authors who only seem capable of writing one kind of plot—I’ve often worried about falling into that category myself—and we instinctively sense that the culprit isn’t laziness or indifference but caution. It’s easier to stick with what works, just as it’s more convenient to prepare the dishes we already know. In the end, though, it’s essential to try new recipes, both for the sake of variety and because it allows you to move beyond the cookbook altogether. (Although I wouldn’t do it when company is coming.)

Written by nevalalee

February 19, 2014 at 9:17 am

Thinking with your gut

with 5 comments

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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