July 21, 2011 / 1 Comment

Tastes Like Chicken

There’s about a hundred jokes in that title. Hopefully one or two of them will fit with this week’s little rant…

Sorry about missing last week, by the way. I’ve been trying to stay ahead on the new project and prepare for Comic-Con, and the blog somehow slipped right past me. Shouldn’t happen again. Well, not for a little while, anyway.

My dad is a phenomenal cook. Have I ever mentioned that? For a guy who refuses to retire and spends his working hours writing up safety protocols, his cooking skills are just fantastic. There was a time when my mother and brother and I were all trying to convince him to open a restaurant, but he wasn’t interested. Cooking was the fun thing he did to relax. He didn’t want to take that extra step and make a job out of it.

We were all fine with it. Mostly because it worked out great for us. My dad can turn Thanksgiving leftovers into a sandwich you’d gladly pay twelve bucks for, so I’m definitely not going to complain. Not as long as I keep getting invited to Thanksgiving.

No, really, this is all relevant. You’ll understand why soon.

As it happens, I’ve had several different friends and acquaintances ask me for writing advice over the past few months. Granted, they all had different skill levels, but none of their questions were really about writing. They were about improving by buying the right books or starting blogs or catching the interest of publishers. I tried to answer as politely as I could, but I’m pretty sure none of them were really listening. I know at least two weren’t.

So, here’s a better way to look at it.

Should you go to cooking school?

I’m sure a lot of you are shaking your heads at that one, but let’s stop and consider it. Cooking is a great metaphor for writing, on a bunch of levels. It’s an art. The end product has to hit certain benchmarks but it also, to a fair degree, is a matter of personal taste. A few rare people have a natural knack for it but most of us need lots of practice. It’s something most of us do every day, but we know only a small percentage of people are good enough at it to deserve recognition or make a living off it.

So, if you want to get better at cooking, should you go to cooking school?

Right up front, let’s be clear. Any cooking school is going to expect that you have a minimum degree of experience and knowledge right off the bat. They’ll assume you can tell flour from sugar on sight and that you know the difference between basil and oregano. The point of cooking school is not to teach you how to make peanut butter sandwiches. If you’re still struggling with these things, cooking school is really a waste of your time and money.

Now, if you plan on making a living off food, cooking school is almost a necessity at some point. Not everyone needs to take classes on desserts and soups and seafood. We’re just never going to use them. There’s about a hundred better, cheaper things we could be doing to improve our cooking skills. There are free recipes online and on the back of most staple ingredients. There are tons of cooking shows and podcasts where we can learn little tips.

And of course, the easiest thing we can do—what hopefully most of you have already seen as the obvious thing I’ve skirted around—is cook stuff. Just get in the kitchen and cook. If I want to be a better cook, the most useful way to spend my time is cooking. Makes sense, yes?

Y’see, Timmy, if you want to be a chef, there’s a point that you need to take some classes, and you’re probably going to keep skimming through cookbooks forever. But it’s all going to come down to spending time in the kitchen. That’s how you become a good cook. Going to Harvard doesn’t automatically make you a great journalist and going to MIT doesn’t guarantee you’ll be a phenomenal engineer. At the end of the day, it all comes down to just doing the work and how hard you’ve been doing it.

In fact, there’s a fair argument to be made that cooking school won’t help you become a great chef. It can make you into a good chef, but the greatness comes when you go out and start doing stuff on your own. You don’t hear about Wolfgang Puck or Gordon Ramsay taking classes. Neither of them probably has in over a decade, at least. If you just keep going back to cooking school and never really stepping into the kitchen, it should be clear you’re dooming yourself to a life of mediocrity (at least, on the food-preparation front).

You’ll always learn more by doing the job than you will by reading books about doing the job. Doing the job is almost always more educational than taking classes about doing the job.

So, with all that being said… should you go to cooking school?

A bit clearer now, isn’t it?

This pile of rants is cooking school, in a way. Not one of the great French academies, but a bit higher up than the Home Ec class you might’ve taken in seventh grade (if you’re of a certain age). Probably better than those cookbooks aimed at recent college grads.

A few people who are reading this right now desperately want advice on getting agents and publishers interested, but they haven’t bothered to learn how to spell. They’re convinced they’ll learn some magic structure or word (mellonballer…) that will make it all easy for them. They’re so desperate to learn the secrets of a good Hollandaise sauce they haven’t bothered to learn how to boil an egg.

I’m guessing most of you can use about half of the various tips and suggestions I throw up every week. There’s weeks that you learn a clever trick or new approach to an issue in your writing. There’s also those weeks you just skim because it’s something you’ve got a good grip on.

And a few of you… well, you’re probably just killing time here, aren’t you? There isn’t much I go over that you don’t already know. You’re just putting off doing some actual work for half an hour or so.

Learn the basics first. Don’t worry about level five before you’ve mastered level one. If you aren’t sure what the basics are, that’s probably a good sign you haven’t mastered them yet. I’m not being glib. If you’re reading this rant with the goal of becoming a better writer, you should already know what it means when someone says “the basics of writing.”

And then, once you’ve hit that level, start thinking about cooking school.

Next time, just for something different, let’s chat about slasher porn and why it’s not as bad as you may think.

(Yeah, I’m probably misleading you a little with that title…)

Until then, go write.

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