Friday, February 11, 2011

Fiction without all the ingredients, or Write like a Roomba

Via Zoe Pollock, I've been meaning to write about Ken Layne's tribute to Mark Bittman's late, great Minimalist column in the NYT. Layne is exactly right:

The best thing about Mark Bittman, to us, is how he validated our particular lifelong half-assed “well that looks pretty good enough” cooking habits. Because we were right, all along! There is no single recipe for anything, and people who obsess over measuring and “having all the ingredients” and everything are, basically, insane people. That is not how you cook to eat, which is the point of cooking: to make a meal you are going to eat, at that point in time.

Until quite recently I was one of those people who would not cook something unless I had all the ingredients. I chalk this up to being, for the most part, an easily thwarted person. I often read interviews with various dreamers-whose-dreams-became-reality, and they usually deliver a line like, "Whenever somebody tells me I can't do something, that makes me all the more determined to do it!" Whereas in the same situation, I would customarily say, "Oh, God, you're right. Thanks for telling me. I will stop immediately."

For example, last night I decided to make the brownies from The Joy of Vegan Baking, only I didn't have applesauce, which the recipe calls for in place of eggs so as to glue those suckers together. My instinct was to give up on the project and return to the sofa, where I would sulkily surf the Internet and long for brownies. But instead I looked in the refrigerator and found...tofu sour cream! (Don't make that face! It's fine! The texture is not like house paint!) I mixed that in, only to discover that I didn't have the requisite 8x8 square pan, so I used a round pan, which meant the brownies had to be cut into irregular shapes...but they taste fabulous, is my point. And I am sure Mark Bittman is in a castle in Spain with Gwyneth Paltrow, applauding.

Cooking and writing are similar enterprises, especially cooking Bittman-style. You gather up what you have around you, and you make the best thing you can at that moment. For the last few days, when I've sat down to write, I've definitely felt I lacked key ingredients (talent, a sufficiently warm cup of coffee, ideas). But then I fire up the inspirational talk I've been giving myself lately, which is, "What the hell else are you going to do with your life, if not this?" And I dive in, reluctantly. Soon enough, something starts to emerge from the back of the refrigerator / my mind, which at first I can't quite see, and then am not quite sure will work, it? It is! The tofu sour cream! And it hasn't gone bad; in fact, in fact, it seems to be working! At least it will hold the thing together till I come back tomorrow and try once again to feed my novel.

Here's another household analogy for both cooking and writing: the Roomba. Those of us with OCD tendencies might be bothered as we watch the Roomba ricochet randomly around the floor, like a very slow molecule of gas. (Go do the corner! Why don't you go do the corner?) But viewed differently, the Roomba's inspiring. See how it bangs its blank little face on a chair leg, and instead of retreating, it comes back, gets the lay of the land, and makes its way around and under. It might not move according to the pattern you have in your mind--but it's getting the job done just fine.

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