It’s like this: suddenly your grandparents announce that they are dropping in for the holidays (something about cancelled cruise plans and pirates on the waters). Your mother is overworked, your father is flu-bitten, and with your plans to get take-out now abolished, you find yourself burdened with the unfathomable task of cooking (the realization, of course, quickly followed by the sharp regret of having ever insisted on being treated like an adult). Is microwaving “cooking”? And what? What do you cook? Well, what do you eat?
Last items to have visited your taste buds were microwaved mac ‘n cheese, a store-bought smoothie, frozen pizza and a Cup-a-Soup (thankfully not in one sitting). Given your proclivities and your distinctively unadventurous palate, you begin to identify a problem: you’re not well-versed in the art of eating. So with this limited culinary knowledge, how are you supposed to churn out a well-constructed menu for a significant family event, much less execute it? A restaurant’s not an option (it would signify a lack of effort and general un-enthusiasm regarding their visit – nobody wants to stick around for that lecture). Your grandparents are notorious foodies (of course). How are you to excite, appease, or satisfy their refined palates?
(I promise this is not a nutritional blog. Just stay on the ride.)
Go back to the basics. Just how did our relatives of generations prior cook? With whatever was available to them. Chances are these were primarily real, elemental food items as close to their natural state as possible ‘off the fat of the land’ (Of Mice and Men, anyone?). So, yes: potatoes, garlic, tomatoes, fresh herbs, carrots, farmed livestock, fresh eggs and milk. While we are not advocating that you relocate to farm country (although we’re certainly not against it), we are encouraging you to consider the elements involved in creating a full-fledged essay – ahem — we mean, meal.
By now, you’ve probably caught on to the analogy at play here. Like cooking, writing requires a developed familiarity with the fundamental building blocks. If cooking, these building blocks are your ingredients: the onion, the garlic, the parsley, etc. In writing, these are your punctuation marks, your sentences, your diction, etc. In other words, the meal is to the essay as the garlic is to the comma; cooking is to writing as eating is to reading. Make sense? Both of these require a constructive engagement with your own sense of taste, or the way in which you discern those things that please you from those that do not.
Given the documented correlation, how do you start to become a better writer? Groom your palate: ingest more material, expose yourself to what’s out there.
If you read good books, when you write, good books will come out of you. Maybe it’s not quite that easy, but if you want to learn something, go to the source. . . . Dogen, a great Zen master, said, “If you walk in the mist, you get wet.” So just listen, read, and write. Little by little, you will come closer to what you need to say and express it through your voice.
Natalie Goldberg. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, rev ed., 2005
Stay tuned for Part 2 of Feed Your Head!