For Christmas, I got two new vegetarian cookbooks: Moosewood Restaurant Favorites and Quick-Fix Vegetarian. (The hubby and I are not vegetarians, but we eat a lot of meat-less meals at home.) I love both books. I’ve already made the lemon and herb baked tofu and the “rumbledethumps” from the Moosewood book, as well as the creamy tortilla soup from the Quick-Fix one. This week when the weather gets cold again, I’m going to try the Quick-Fix Farmer’s Market Stew. My stomach feels warm and happy just thinking about it.
I didn’t always enjoy cooking. More to the point, I didn’t always cook. A few nights ago, I lay in bed trying to remember what I ate during my early twenties. I can picture the kitchen in the apartment where I lived during my first year of teaching, but when I open the refrigerator of my memory, there’s nothing in it but Dr. Pepper, Pop Tarts, and a plastic container of leftover macaroni and cheese. I can’t remember anything else. I have a sneaking suspicion that if I’d peered into the trash can of my memory, I’d have seen a lot of take-out bags from Taco Cabana.
Fortunately, my diet got better in the years that followed, but it wasn’t until 2012 that I finally found the time to cook, and 2013 when I actually started enjoying it. Now, I make dinner four or five times a week, and I’m always looking for something new to try. Whereas in the past, words like “sauté” and “marjoram” would have sent me fleeing from a recipe—Don’t know what that means, don’t know what that is—now I’m pausing, reading, trying to figure it out. And most of the time I do.
The more I cook, the more I understand the flexibility of cooking. I used to think recipes had to be followed exactly, but I’ve learned over time that most of them can be changed, adapted, personalized. Don’t have that vegetable? Throw in a different one! Don’t like ginger? Leave it out! Craving meat? Substitute the soysauge for sausage. If things don’t turn out, it’s a lesson learned and only forty-five minutes until the pizza gets here. But, usually, things turn out just fine, and being willing to take a few risks in the kitchen has allowed me to make some interesting dinners.
Take the rumbledethumps, for instance. The name caught my attention, and when I read the first sentence of Moosewood’s description, I was hooked. “Rumbledethumps is the Scottish version of the Irish colcannon and English bubble and squeak.” At that point, it really didn’t matter what he dish was, I was going to make it. I couldn’t resist telling my husband we were having the Scottish version of bubble and squeak for dinner. It’s basically a potato cabbage broccoli cheese casserole, and it turned out great. My book club enjoyed it and my husband liked it too, even tolerating the broccoli part. You can see the full recipe here at Google books. I went with the leeks (rather than onions) and mustard (rather than nutmeg) variation.
In some respects, finding my way in the kitchen has been like finding my way as a writer.
In 2013, I read six different books on writing, and while each one contained valuable advice and inspiration, no single author provided the “recipe” that worked for me. I tried getting up at six o’clock in the morning to write before the rest of the house woke up, and for a week I produced some lovely sunrise prose. But then I realized that the getting-up-early routine came with the insurmountable downside of having to get up early, so I stopped. I tried sitting down at the computer and not getting up again until I’d written at least two thousand words. But I found that the effort of ignoring the barking dog and the desire to stretch and the need to pee was much more distracting than simply letting the dog in and stretching my legs and going to the bathroom, so I stopped.
I tried lots of things. Some worked, some did not. In the end, I had to extract the flavors that agreed with me, leave out the ones that left a bad taste in my mouth, and mix it all together with some concoctions of my own. I’m still fine-tuning my writing recipe, but it’s come a long way and has produced a few tasty dishes. Here are a some of the ingredients that I find myself reaching for again and again.
The Write Ingredients
** Novel Journals—
Sometimes I miss the scissors and glue aspects of teaching. I found comfort in those days of about-me posters and found poems and character collages, often spending a few minutes of my precious grading time to join my students in their messy creations. One way that I revisit those days is through my novel journals.
For every novel I’ve started (that’s three, but who’s counting) I’ve created a journal for collecting all the random lists and handwritten drafts and midnight post-it notes that may someday find their way into the book. They are not the most organized volumes, but it feels good knowing that all the little pieces of the story are at least in one place. If I abandon a book for awhile (which I invariably do), I can pick it back up again when I’m ready. Or, if I’m busy working on novel #1 but a perfect line of dialogue for novel #2 suddenly pops into my head, I can tuck it inside the appropriate journal, knowing it will be safe there.
The best part of the process is making the cover. This is when I take the trip back into middle school art projects. I sit down on the couch with a favorite movie, a pair of scissors, a large stack of old magazines, and a glue stick, and I indulge my youthful, creative side. The idea is to look for words and pictures that match the theme of the book and then combine them into an artistic cover arrangement that will both inspire and amuse me in the course of my novel work. I always have a few images and phrases in mind when I begin, but it’s amazing how many unexpected treasures I discover as I search. Great quotes, strange connections, details of setting—I find so much more than I’m looking for, often having to stop and jot down ideas for characters and scenes as I go.
What begins as a mainly decorative endeavor almost always turns into a great brainstorming session.
** Story Soundtracks—
In addition to visual inspiration, I also work well with audio encouragement.
I learned long ago that when I needed to drown out a loud coffee shop or a meowing cat, putting my entire iTunes collection on shuffle was a bad idea. Too many songs jolted me out of my zone, for a multitude of reasons. Too loud, too soft, too negative, too good at making me want to sing along—whatever the reason, there were too many songs that drew me out of my story.
So I made a “Writing” playlist and filled it with the kind of background music that makes me feel good without demanding my attention. The list includes a lot of Matt the Electrician and Jack Johnson and Coldplay and The Lone Bellow, among many other artists.
The “Writing” playlist works great at keeping me focused on most of my blog pieces and short stories and revisions. (It’s playing a Dandy Warhols song right now.) But for drafting my heftier projects—my long short stories and my novels—I crave a more specific soundtrack. I pull together music that fits the mood and theme of the piece, including any songs that remind me (no matter how randomly) of my characters. The playlist for my young adult novel, which is about an insecure eighth grade boy who is determined to achieve the high score on his school’s arcade game, contains three hours of music, more than enough time for a good solid writing session. Among the songs it shuffles are:
- Pinball Wizard – The Who
- Don’t Stop Believing – Journey
- All Kinds of Time – Fountains of Wayne
- Hero – Family of the Year
- Permanent Record – Matt the Electrician
- No Rain – Blind Melon
- Time to Pretend – MGMT
- Leave Out All the Rest – Linkin Park
- Night at the Arcade – Man Factory
- Sad Song – The Cars
When I’m having a hard time making myself sit down to work or when a scene just isn’t flowing as well as I want it to, sometimes just turning on the soundtrack to the novel is all I need to get back into the groove.
** Giving Myself Homework—
I’ve always been a good student. Deadlines are strong motivators for me, which means that the freedom and timelessness of writing can actually be overwhelming. So, like the nerd that I am, I give myself homework assignments.
There are a lot of magazines and journals that accept submissions year-round, and for that reason, it’s easy to tell myself I’ll get around to submitting to them eventually and then never doing it. So I seek out contests and publications that only read during specified windows. When I see, “We will be closed to submissions from June through September,” I suddenly become highly motivated to get my story in shape by May 31st.
Lots of writers are due-date-motivated and goal-oriented, and I think that’s why NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) draws so many people every November. This year I gave it a shot. The “homework assignment” was to write 50,000 words of my young adult novel in thirty days. I did it, but I needed more than the deadline and my novel journal and my soundtrack to get me there. With two thousand unwritten words staring me in the face every day, I realized I needed smaller victories to help me achieve the bigger ones. If 2,000 words scares me, what number doesn’t scare me? What number can I easily write? The answer was 250. Each day, I wrote eight small chunks of prose (sometimes more), feeling the satisfaction of crossing each one off my daily to-do list, and in that way, I got there. I wrote my 50,000 words in 250-word chunks.
I’m still figuring out what it means for me to be a writer, adjusting my routine and narrowing down those ingredients that bring flavor to my particular writing recipe. Like any writing advice, the little tricks mentioned here don’t always work, not even for me. But sometimes they do, and when something works it can feel pretty good, so feel free to incorporate one of these ideas into your writing concoction. If you do, let me know how it goes.
Next month I’ll be attempting my own version of a Half-NaNoWriMo and maybe a spinach lasagna too. If you have any advice for either endeavor, I’d be glad to hear it.