I recently read a delightful post, Tomato Therapy, by Michelle Johnson, whose Magical things. Beautiful things blog is a treasure of both well-written posts and excellent resources for writers. Michelle writes:
I found myself re-potting my tomatoes the other day, and chuckling as I realized that every time I have gotten a rejection letter, I find myself up to my elbows in dirt. Tomato therapy. For some reason, I need to balance the life-killing rejection letters by nurturing and giving life to my plants. Another interesting correlation perhaps, is that this year marks the first I have had a garden (which is surviving my decidedly NON ‘green-thumb’!), and also the first in which I have taken something I’ve written, and sent it on, in hopes of being considered for publishing.
She goes on to say that cooking is a similar ritual/therapy for her, and that reminded me of another post I want to move from my Everyday Intensity blog to this one:
Stirring Up Some Words
“I dedicate this book to every wannabe cook who will dare criticism by getting into the kitchen and stirring up some groceries. ~ ”Maya Angelou’s Hallelujah! The Welcome Table: A Lifetime of Memories with Recipes (Random House, 2004)
Maya Angelou, whose writing accomplishments include children’s books, poetry, essays and autobiography—most notably I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970)—could have just as easily been referring to writing in her dedication above. “Stirring up some groceries” is much like “stirring up some words.” In each case, we delve into the unknown and emerge with something new, something that did not exist just minutes before, something that is a part of us that we give to others, and something that dares, almost invites, criticism.
I stumbled upon Hallelujah! The Welcome Table at just the right time a few years ago. My own writing was a bit stuck. The problem wasn’t writer’s block as much as it was a lack of inspiration, a feeling that when I sat down, intending to write, my experience was more work than play, more job than joy.
Of course, writing—like all creative work—is both work and play, job and joy, but when one overwhelms the other, we risk becoming either too mundane and mechanical on the one side, or too insubstantial and flimsy on the other.
Angelou’s book is a wonderful combination of short essays about the place of food in her life and recipes for everything from Pickled Pig’s Feet to Puffed Pastry, Moroccan Stew to Meringue. One of my favorite sections recounts a foray she took into the kitchen one night when her “writing was going badly,” when, in her words, she couldn’t write her “way out of a brown paper sack”:
“I decided to cook a complicated dish, one that would take my mind off the exacting task of writing. I chose to make chocolate éclairs with whipped cream and custard filling. From the moment I decided to cook, I forgot about writing. Gone was my concern with nouns, pronouns, verbs, and dangling participles.” (pp. 179-80)
She bakes éclair after éclair, serves them to her husband morning, noon, and night, who eats éclairs happily until he can eat no more, and then she gives away the rest, but keeps one, “as proof that cooking helps me to write.” She then returns to her manuscripts, rejuvenated and re-inspired.
When I’m writing well, I also usually cook every day. When I cook less, I write less. The precise reason for this remains a mystery to me, but one difference between writing and cooking is that writing provides little instant gratification, save for the intrinsic pleasure of the writing itself. Cooking, however, gives us immediate “criticism” as well as sustenance as we watch those we love enjoy what we’ve made. Even when a dish does not turn out perfectly, we have a tangible creation to consider, to revise, and to revisit. This process is crucial to writers, but harder to practice when the “product” exists as mere words in an unfinished work.
Of course, cooking is not the magic answer. For other writers, the answer may not be cooking. It might be photography or scrapbooking, gardening or yoga. Karen Schrock, author of “Imaginary Worlds Are Early Sign of Highly Creative Kids,” writes that “most highly creative people are polymaths—they enjoy and excel at a range of challenging activities. For instance,…nearly all Nobel Prize winners in science have at least one other creative activity that they pursue seriously.”
Are you stuck in your writing? The answer may not be to try to force words that won’t come, but instead to find a different way to stir them up.