Clerestory

Writing as Cooking

April 21, 2020

Today I’ve been thinking about writing as cooking. If we don’t quite control the output, then at least we control the initial conditions.

Cooking is a chemistry experiment, a kind of transmutation. It is almost alchemical, in that it transforms ingredients into something that is more than the sum of its parts. If all goes well, that is; certainly into something that’s different from the sum of its parts, though whether that difference amounts to more or less depends on experience, attention, and a bit of luck.

This is true even of extremely simple operations, say steaming and salting, which already change food quite a bit. So does chopping raw ingredients. I really believe that a julienned carrot is not a carrot (though I won’t take the stand that “a white horse is not a horse”).

If the process amounts to only chopping, then perhaps it is in our control, but anything heated, or marinated, or fermented, is somehow “not us” at work. We set the starting conditions, then we pay attention at the appropriate times, and take corrective action. Our unimportance in this process is less obvious in vigorous cooking (like a stir-fry) than it is in slower cooking (like slow-cooking a stew). It’s not that we do nothing, but it’s more like we sustain the correct conditions for the right amount of time than it is like we produce something ourselves.

(“Cooking from scratch,” incidentally, always struck me as a fantasy, if by scratch you mean something like unprocessed ingredients. It’s not that “scratch” so often includes things like flour or butter, which are already processed. It’s that even raw ingredients have been perfected and homogenised, not just by industrial processes, nor by our selection of them in the store, but by ten thousand years of artificial selection. Michael Pollan’s difficulty in foraging a meal is testament to this.)

Cooking from raw ingredients, though, requires about a bit of effort, time, temperature, and to some extent attention. The apparent magic of this process probably accounts for the adulation of chefs, and my own faint wonder every time my bumbling produces something edible.

But the same is true of writing. The ingredients matter. You get to pick what you read — though you can’t pick what it contains. You do get to pick how you read it, though, and how much you read.

In the same way, you get to choose how and how much you write, even if you don’t, at least not to any great extent, consciously decide what words you will write, when it comes time to put your pen to paper. This all seems to lead back to the point about method as our primary control knob.

As in cooking, a lot of churning goes on out-of-sight. Most of the result comes from the quality of the ingredients, the amount of time, and the quality of attention, not from any conscious composition or meddling. At the end of cooking or writing, you can tweak the result, but you can’t alter it entirely, unless of course you start from scratch (and here I mean to start from nothing). Which amounts to a new experiment.

scratch, n. OED 4b. The starting-point in a handicap of a competitor who receives no odds; sometimes colloquially used elliptically for such a competitor. Also figurative; esp. in from scratch, from a position of no advantage, knowledge, influence, etc., from nothing.

At least that has been my experience with writing. There may be others who can radically alter the course of a piece of already-written writing. But I always have to start again. That’s part of why I’m writing frequent short pieces here: as a series of experiments.


I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.