Writing Is Like Cooking

It’s been too long since I celebrated Déjà vu Thursday; consider this post me bringing the tradition back. I love to cook (and to eat) and today, while it’s cold and blowy out, the urge to fill the house with comforting smells and heat is stronger than ever. Enjoy!
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

. . . writing is like cooking is like painting is like sculpture is like music is like gardening is like tying flies is like carving is like making bread is like making wine is like singing is like dancing is like cooking is like writing . . .

I’ve been thinking a lot about creative endeavours as a whole lately—thoughts sparked, I’m sure, by two gallery openings I got to attend (Noreen Spence’s took my breath away), but kindled into full flame by Laura Best’s great post on the same topic, my summer gallivants to the local farmer’s market and all the cooking I’ve been doing lately.

I love writing more than almost anything, playing with words, fighting with words, praying with words, crying and bleeding in words, loving through words, and yet—

When I cook, particularly when I’ve using fresh good ingredients, a feeling kindred to what I experience when I write wells up in me.

In concocting the perfect meal, there’s the same search for just the right bits and just the right balance of those bits—too much spice overpowers, diminishing/desensitizing the tastes buds, and flavour is actually lost, not enhanced. Too little seasoning and there’s no interest, no pizzazz.

And to cook well, you have to be brave, willing to experiment, not afraid to fail . . .

But you also have to build on prior knowledge—yours and others. Cooking is a pleasure and an art. It is also darn hard (and hot!) work sometimes. And there will always be those who don’t appreciate what you have to offer.

What you put into your work always counts. You can wreck quality ingredients, but it is hard to totally ruin them. On the other hand, however, if you start with crap—processed, chemically enhanced, super sugary, high fat junk—well, people might ingest it, might even think they like it, but for how long? That kind of meal does nothing for a person over the long term, has no lasting satisfaction and makes you feel empty sooner than later.

Good meals take time to prepare and they can be labour intensive, but the subtle flavours, complex layers and textures, the sensuous details—they give something to you that lasts far after you’ve finished the last bite. They become a part of your overall health and well-being. They create a feeling of abundance and community, and even if the taste was bittersweet, you’re better off for having experienced it.

Cooking and writing. I’ve yet to find better forms of nourishment. How about you? Is there something else that you do in life that echoes the joy and satisfaction that writing gives you?

p.s. My extended metaphor may have been a little over top for some of you (especially if cooking is your nemesis), but if you enjoyed it—or want a different analogy altogether—check out Jen Brubacher’s rather brilliant comparison between writing and building a house. It’s fun and very apt!

p.p.s. I’ve talked about cooking here before, if you’re interested in souping it up . . . 🙂

Inspiring Blips

Read it! :)

Read it! 🙂

I was having a so-so week. You might know the kind. I got in some new words, but none were wildly inspired. I kept up with the business side of my writing life. I did the odd bit of reading for “professional development.” I felt good about being disciplined, if not overly rah-rah about what I was accomplishing. I had faith though—having learned by now that inspiration usually comes on the heels of perspiration, not before.

Sure enough toward the end of the week, a little flame flared. I’d worked in my WIP enough to break through the plodding slump. New ideas zipped through my brain, sparking fires. I’m pretty confident I’m going to finish the rough draft of a new Toni Sheridan novella this month!

I took Thursday night off and went out for coffee with an editing/writing colleague and gained fresh energy, listening to her excitement over upcoming plans to step back from her editing and focus more on her own novels.

A friend, who’d needed some encouragement in her own artistic pursuits and found the pep talk she needed in a speech by Neil Gaiman, referred said speech to me. He had so many good, thought-provoking things to say that I plan to listen to it again soon with a pen and notebook in hand to jot down quotes. Perhaps what spoke to me the most was his advice to enjoy what we’re doing and where we’re at right now . . . and his observations about friends who are so unhappy in the work they do, and how lucky we are to have something we love.

And then, the icing on my week! Author Liz Schulte (who I’ve raved about before because of her talent and her amazing work ethic) gave me the most fantastic news. One of her latest books, Easy Bake Coven, was selected by iBooks for their Break Out Books in the UK and Ireland list. So exciting and so deserved!

The news followed contact made by Amazon last month, asking Liz if they could set up pre-orders for her next book (Easy Bake Coven’s sequel, Hungry, Hungry Hoodoo) because her sales are that good. I’m beyond excited to see her breaking out and her books becoming mainstream. She offers fast-paced, edge of your seat mysteries and page-turning urban fantasy adventures, and her characters are great. If you haven’t tried her yet, you should. 🙂

Goals and dreams—however fun, sometimes silly, and “too big” they may sometimes seem—do come true. Can be achieved.

Do go and check out Liz Schulte’s books, and if there’s anything you take away from my meh-to-motivated week, let it be the lovely reminders I received: Do the work. Make time to refuel. Celebrate what you’ve already accomplished. Dream and make plans!

Is the universe trying to tell me something?

Photo by bibliothekarin on flickr. Click picture to see more of his/her art.

Photo by bibliothekarin on flickr. Click picture to see more of his/her art.

So I’ve been sitting at my computer for over an hour this lovely Saturday morning, and are new words pouring forth? Or am I churning out pages of tightly edited prose?

Uh . . . In a word, no.

In more words: not even close, though I have played enough Tetris Battle on Facebook that I’m out of energy and can’t play anymore (which is a relief, because if I was waiting for willpower to get me off the stupid game, I’d be there ’til tonight). I keep getting stuck between Level 20 and 21–but I digress. Where was I? Oh, right . . . Out of energy.

So I opened my planner because rather than actually get started, I figured why end a perfectly good stretch of procrastination when I can continue it by industriously planning to to start . . .

And what’s the first thing I see? The inspirational quote for this weekend:

“Romance and procrastination do not go hand in hand.” ~ Chris Howden.

I have no idea what Chris meant by those words exactly, but seeing as my current WIP is a romance and I’ve been stalling most of week, writing only in fits and spurts, it felt like pretty pointed commentary. Disliking being pointed at, not feeling inspired, I decided to turn the planner’s page. Surely better, sager, less mean advice would be there to motivate me.

What meets me?

“I’m a huge fan of my iPad, but the question remains: is it an incredibly useful piece of technology or the ultimate portal for distraction?” Noel Hudson.

Okay, fine. I can take hints wielded as subtly as a baseball bat. I’m getting to work now.

(As soon as I refill my coffee!)

Good For What Ails Me

"Spring Always Arrives" - Photo by Ev Bishop

“Spring Always Arrives” – Photo by Ev Bishop

Sometimes I romanticize the writing life. (Well, pretty much every aspect of life actually, but I’ll just focus on the writing aspects for now.) And while normally I feel this is a lovely quality, it has a downside. It can make me feel, when writing sessions are more tedious than magical, that maybe it’s because of some inherent flaw in me. Maybe I’m an impostor. A fraud.

I want “perfect” writing days:

Sessions where every penned nuance and detail is rife with significance.

Times with the texture and quality of embossed leather or whiskey soaked velvet (though if I think about it, I’m not really sure how either of those would describe a day at all).

Sprees filled with rambling, writerly chats, obscure poems found wedged between the floor boards in a bedroom of a long vacant house (again, a detail that seems sort of impossible to randomly happen upon when my butt is planted in my office chair, but don’t over think things: this is a perfect day, people!), and wine drank from pewter goblets.

Weather that’s all sunrise, sunset, or storm. Lavender-grey sky. Charcoal-soot clouds. Pounding rain that bends the trees and echoes my heart.

Hours when time pauses and my prose falls effortlessly upon the page, as moving and powerful as a wind that shakes leaves, bends boughs, and changes the season.

I want to be the poet in the turret, the crazy longhaired maiden-crone in the attic (but one whose family doesn’t disown her!).

So, although I often find that the reality of being a writer is pretty great, by comparison to the stuff of my daydream writer life, it’s sometimes a little disappointing. Or a lot, depending on the day. I’m continually surprised that writing is actually work—sometimes really hard work. It’s something I have to schedule in. It rarely just happens. And often it’s painful, like I’m a surgeon charged with the task of removing my own organs without anaesthetic and spreading them around for the world to see. But worse than the pain is the fear.

The fear that I actually have nothing to say. That perhaps the story “The Emperor’s New Clothes” was written with me in mind (“Aren’t they beautiful?” “Isn’t what beautiful? There’s nothing there.”) Fear that I am mediocre at best. Fear that people will see me naked and laugh, or worse, avert their eyes, turn away—ashamed, unable to relate, embarrassed for me. And even more fear: that I will never be read or connected with at all. I will send parts of myself into the void and be met with . . . silence.

How silly I am to worry about such things hit me afresh yesterday.

I’d fled my computer for a break to work in the yard. The air had a quality that, I don’t know, just made me want to laugh. Sweet and fresh, yet here and there, tinged with the earthy scent of dead plants, no longer frozen, freed to rot. The fecund smell of approaching spring is so ancient and independent of human involvement that it always seems almost otherworldly to me—yet also somehow makes me feel like every dream is possible.

The sun was trying to warm the winter-cold earth, and a brisk breeze carried an invigorating lesson: New life erupts from death. Growth springs forth from decay and rot and . . . well, shit.

Creation can be painful—just listen to my chickens. Yet, day in and day out, they each lay an egg—and though they complain bitterly during the process, they squawk equally proudly about the results of their labour. And as inglorious and common as laying an egg every day may be to some, each speckled brown oval is its own miracle too.

Does the chicken question whether it can lay an egg, or if it can, will it be a good enough egg, or if its worthy of even attempting to lay an egg in the first place? I’m not a chicken whisperer, but I don’t think so. Hens definitely seem to have more of an “I’m a chicken, dammit. Of course I lay eggs. Get over yourself and get cracking” attitude. Can I do any less or be any less pleased with my output?

And the chickens lay regardless of the day, temperature, or individual mood—mild and balmy, or bitter and hideous. And likewise, my hedge puts out buds when it’s supposed to, despite the wind, the danger of frost. . . . It seems to like it when I fuss, but it does its thing whether I’m there or not.

I have perfect dreamy writing days occasionally, and they’re amazing. I mean who doesn’t love to feel their work is going well, that they’ve connected with something deep within themselves, and enjoyed the process? Who doesn’t revel in a bit of romance?

I wonder though—perhaps ironically—if my writing is better on the days it feels like organ-extraction? Or if maybe the revolutions between between angst and toil and ecstasy and pleasure are all necessary? Maybe writing is like the rest of life, a continual shift of seasons. Some more enjoyable than others, perhaps, but all crucial, all inevitable. And maybe it’s just something I shouldn’t think about too much—just enjoy and accept (with a little squawking occasionally!).

A New Year’s Pondering

"Mmmm" - Photo by Ramona Higginson

“Mmmm” – Photo by Ramona Higginson

I was playing on the Internet, avoiding my traditional January look-back/look-ahead (a time I set aside, usually with tea and a journal, to contemplate what I’ve accomplished the past year and make notes about what I’d like to get done in the new one), when I came across the following quote from Ellen Goodman: “We spend January 1 walking through our lives, room by room, drawing up a list of work to be done, cracks to be patched. Maybe this year, to balance the list, we ought to walk through the rooms of our lives . . . not looking for flaws, but for potential.”


It struck me as being both very true and very good advice. My head is usually full of details about things I don’t like about myself and want to change, areas I see myself falling down in that I want to shore up, and aspects of my relationships that need work. And this year (today!) is no different.

If one were to read any or all of my journals (And boy, I pity the poor fool who ever does—how boring and myopic my ramblings are!), he or she would see I’ve been dealing with the same stuff—the same questions, the same passions, the same laments, etc.—my whole life.

I do grow and change (or at least I hope I do!), but no matter what season a tree is in, it is still a tree, and I—much to my frustration at times—am always me.

For almost as long as I can remember, many of my primary goals, plans, and answer seeking have somehow centered around one or more—or some combination of—the following:

Faith. Is there a God? I believe, 100%, unequivocally, yes. What does He want/expect from us? How should I live? That gets trickier and sets the stage for a lot of my quandaries and questions.

Relationships. Why can’t I be all that I want to be for my friends and family—and why can’t they always be what I want/need them to be?

Pain. Personal, but also in the world at large.

My weight. I hate that honesty demands I mention it here. I want to be done having weight/body issues. I have wanted that since I was eleven. I’ll keep you posted if it ever actually comes to pass.

Writing. My grand passion—and the best way of dealing with life I’ve ever found. I always have tons of writing-related hopes and goals.

The point I’m getting to? Well, I’m not exactly sure. Part of me wants to write a ream of resolutions in keeping with my list of obsessions. The other part of me wants to pretend I’ve outgrown my old patterns of constant searching and questions, of discontent and striving.

But that’s why I like the quote. It doesn’t say we should’ve arrived at a place in our lives where we don’t have questions or see what we want to improve—or that there is some magical phase of life where no improvement is needed. It just says we should also look at the good we’ve already accomplished (or, perhaps, that exists without any help from us) and build on it.

And with those thoughts—and a mug of steaming Earl Grey at my side—I’ve decided to look at the rooms of my life with different eyes this year, and to journal about what I notice. I’ll still give time to plans and things I’d like to change, but I’m also aiming to acknowledge what I’ve already started and record things that hopefully I’m doing right, answers I believe I’ve found, areas that have healed, and ways I may have helped others—and can help further. There’s a lot of potential in 2013!

“A New Year’s Pondering” by me, Ev Bishop, was originally published in the Terrace Standard, January 23, 2013 as my monthly column “Just a Thought.”

A Theme of Value

The following was originally posted on my website September 13, 2012 (before it was hacked), but as I was going through material I managed to save, these thoughts still resonated. If you’ve read them before, I hope you don’t mind my re-sharing.

"In the Distance" - Photo by Ev Bishop

“In the Distance” – Photo by Ev Bishop

On holidays this year, I met up with Angela Dorsey and Barb Cameron (wonderful friends who also happen to be excellent fellow BC writers) for a sushi feast, a bookstore binge, and lots and lots of writerly talk. (Such a needed refuelling and refreshing!)

At one point I asked them why they write. I guess I was looking for some grand eureka. I also asked if there were topics and/or subject matter they personally considered taboo or off limits.

The conversation zipped all over the place in a myriad of fascinating (to me, anyway) directions and off shoots. One comment, made by Angela, particularly struck me: everything she writes must explore something that (for her) is a theme of value.

Other than that, she has no rules regarding things she will or will not write about, or how a theme is explored in terms of language used, situations depicted, etc.

She went on to explain modestly, maybe even a little self-consciously, that by saying that she doesn’t mean every story she writes has some big deep theme (though I’d argue most her stories do). A focus can be as simple (or complex!) as looking for home or valuing friendship.

Work must explore a theme of value. The idea, to me, is profound. Is, perhaps, the Eureka I was looking for when I ventured into my forest of questions.

I have long pondered why some novels’ scenes on difficult subject matters, for example, rape—feel somehow wrong or almost sensationalist, while others on the same topics, perhaps even more graphic in their detail, etc., feel somehow right and important to the story and to your reading/relating to it—even while they’re deeply disturbing or unsettling or rage-invoking or whatever.

In my own work, I’ve worried about crossing the line between honestly exploring and rendering what it’s like to be human and being gratuitous.

My worry was foundless. Theme dictates content. If one’s exploring a theme of value—which resonated with me as something I do, too—events in story, regardless of how graphic, disturbing or sexy they may be, will not feel gratuitous. The work’s objective prevents it.

Thoughts? 🙂

Flip a coin?

I used to always advocate going with your gut when it comes to starting a new story.

“I can’t decide what project to start next. I don’t know which story I should focus on completing. . . .” someone would say.

“Oh, that’s easy,” I’d reply. “Just go with whatever story’s louder in your head.”

Easy.

Just.

The problem is that sometimes your head is really darn loud—and there’s more than one thing yelling. Especially, maybe, in the spring when the sap is running and new growth is exploding brilliant and green in every crook and cranny of the natural world.

I feel like one of my newly acquired chicks. Frantic with delight and distraction—everything is new. Everything is exciting. I can’t decide where to peck next, so I flap back and forth, take running leaps, then stutter to a stop—flutter up to practice perching, then flop back to the ground (sometimes face plant) to snack some more. . . .

The problem is that sometimes you can become so accustomed to working on a deadline that you know you can sit down to work, completely uninspired, and within minutes the muse will honour your commitment to your work and suddenly the story that seemed non-existent will roar to life. “Whatever’s loudest in your head” only half applies, because you’re a pro now (or some reasonable facsimile thereof, heh heh) and you can make your head turn up the volume on whatever story you want or need it to.

The problem is that sometimes two stories are completely different from each other in every way, yet are both engaging, tempting . . .

And before you suggest working on the stories in tandem . . . I can edit any number of works at the same time, it seems. And I can work on the odd short story while I’m in the midst of a novel. I can’t (yet!) seem to get into the worlds of two of my own novels simultaneously.

The problem is—I’m indecisive in the extreme the past few months, and now I’m being a big whiner and just making excuses.

Today (my last project, a.k.a. excuse, e-mailed away) was decision day. I came up with a solution. I’d flip a coin. Seriously. I even considered tweeting “Heads or Tails?” on Twitter and going with the choice that came back first.

And then, just short of hitting “enter,” a better idea finally it came to me. One of the stories, already started, is significantly shorter than the other will be and it has a brief chapter-by-chapter outline (something I never do) that will help me refresh myself with the plot almost at a glance. It will write itself quickly and be the perfect “break” piece once I’ve finished the rough draft of the longer novel and am giving it a 4-6 week rest before putting it through edits.

Tomorrow when I perch to write I’ll silence the loudest voice in my head—the stalling, but-what-should-I-focus-on one—and say, “Relax. You’ve decided, remember?” I guess in the end, I still believe in going with my gut. It’s just my guts are messy sometimes. 😉

How about you all? Is it always simple for you to figure out your next project, or do you spend a bit of time lollygagging over the decision?