Months before my graduation from Calvin, I tossed my neat plans for a sensible life. Instead, I took aim at full-time writing. So I asked professors, fellow students, and strangers: tell me what I need to know. How do I structure this writing life, how can I not go crazy, what do full-time writers even do?
Several smart people told me: You can’t just write and read all the time. You need a non-verbal hobby. Something you’re passionate about.
Well. You have to know this about me: I love food. As a student, I sometimes read Gourmet magazine instead of doing homework, daydreaming about recipes. I took frantic notes as a friend taught me to make show-stopping curry; I baked pies and butterhorn rolls in my apartment’s dollhouse-sized oven.
A non-verbal hobby? Done.
And the advice is still good. When I run from my writing desk, I run to the kitchen, where my world of food balances my world of words.
Cooking has always been a release for me: if I’m tired, it wakes me up. When my brain feels like slug fodder, a bit of sautéing sparks me with inspiration. I dance while oil heats; I shimmy while I chop. Cooking is a full-sense operation, the perfect antidote to the numbness that settles in at my desk. I celebrate the sensations, even as I nick my fingers with the zester. I hold my face low over a pan to see if it’s warm, I taste as I go, and I smell everything before it goes in, even the salt.
I have cried over good food (it was a goat cheese tart from Home Wine Kitchen and it was perfect and you would have cried too), and I have wept over bad. (A sweet potato risotto that took hours to make. I was starving, and it tasted like feet.)
But that’s part of it: I value the risks in cooking. The hard-won successes. Some days my instincts repay me, and other days they’re challenged and rewritten. There’s the rush of emergency meals, the how-did-that-happen miracles. I rise to the challenge of complex, twenty-seven-step creations, but I also prize the simple. Like avocados on toast.
Or roasted beets. I’m smitten and surprised by beets. You pick clods of dirt off these whiskery, dimpled things, but cut the skin and they bleed purple-pink: they stained-glass dazzle. And the taste! If a potato went into a candy store, had an epiphany, and rethought its whole approach to life, it would become a beet. One part earth, one part sweet.
I know a lot of people who find God everywhere in nature. They see him in sunsets, woods, towering cumulus clouds. I see God in beets. He’s right there: the Creator made intimate, because I’m holding this beet in my hand, and we’re the only two who have seen his perfect marbling work inside, pale white lines slipping through the pink. I see his work all through cooking: in every potato, bean, spice, there’s his boundless creativity as he provides for us, giving me ingredients to transform into a simple supper.
This non-verbal hobby thing? This passion for the cooking process? It’s worked out pretty well.
Actually, I wish I wrote more like I cook.
2013 has been a tough year with a lot of distractions, and frankly, I’ve lost my spark for the whole writing gig. I still love it—there’s ink in my veins, words on my bones, I’m sure of it. But even this dutiful writing girl feels like she’s been slogging through for a little too long. I don’t want my writing to be the creative equivalent of “Ramen for dinner again!”
I want to steal some of that dizzy cooking passion. I want savory, sweet-hot. How can I drizzle salted caramel sauce all over my writing life?
What would that look like? Where is the cooking-writer me, who runs from the kitchen to the writing desk? Who mines for whiskery, dimpled stories, surrounded by dirt, the stories that bleed a little, but delight with brilliant marbled colors just under the skin? That taste a little like earth, but a little sweet?
I need to find a farmers’ market for writers, where I can pick up armfuls of raw paper, measure out markers and pens. Compare my techniques with that of the vendors, see if I can learn something, swap a recipe as we fan the flies away. Bring home the overflowing crates and get to work. I’ll chop the paragraphs and dice adjectives (pick out the stray adverbs that fell in). Give the subplots a good scrub, then prick them all over with a fork and set them in a slow oven.
Maybe if I make this novel like I make a soup—start an idea like some garlic sizzling in oil—maybe if I savor every element that goes in the pot, maybe if I dance a bit as it simmers… maybe that will bring the excitement back.
Jenn Langefeld graduated from Calvin in 2006 and charged into a life of full-time novel writing. She is currently working on an exuberant, adventurous trilogy for middle grade readers. She writes under her great-grandmother’s name, Lucy Flint, and blogs about making a lionhearted writing life at lucyflint.com.