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What Kind of Writer are You: Cook or Baker?

29 June 2016

From LitHub:

People who know about food often say you’re either a cook or a baker; either you enjoy the freedom of putting together a savory meal to your own particular specifications, or you like the structure required for making sweets. I’ve always fallen squarely on the cook side of this divide. I’m happy, even excited, to make dinner out of whatever happens to be in my kitchen—in grad school, one of my staples was pasta with canned clams, canned black olives, and kale. I season liberally and always without measuring. Sometimes I don’t even taste a dish until I’m ready to serve it—it feels like cheating, somehow.

Baking, by contrast, has always intimidated me. You have to have all the right ingredients ready beforehand, sometimes even at the correct temperature, and then you have to put precise amounts of them together in just the right order. I love the outcome of baking: I’m always happy to eat a cookie or a scone. What scares me is all the planning.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my writing habits mirror my kitchen preferences. I hate to plot out anything in advance. Instead I like to feel my way through every scene, testing and tinkering as I go. When I start a book, I usually have a vague idea of a premise and a main character, and that’s it. Everything else I make up as I go along.

. . . .

But being a cook-writer also has serious downsides. Sometimes my writing goes completely off the rails—I had to throw out 75 pages of my first novel after it devolved into a bizarre story of collective hallucination. It takes me forever to get into a project—I fiddled around with Sophie Stark for a full year before I found the multiple point-of-view structure that let me really get into the story. And never knowing where you’re going is incredibly stressful—until I finish a project, I’m never sure how, or even if, it will turn out.

. . . .

I didn’t make charts or outlines—a cook can’t become a baker overnight—but I did try to plan ahead of time, especially for essays. I talked through ideas with my friends. I tried to come up with not just the germ of an idea, but an entire arc, before I started writing.

So far, it hasn’t worked. In every case, I end up throwing out my plans by paragraph two. An essay that was going to be about enjoying art we don’t understand turned into one about art created by people in pain (also, it still isn’t finished). Even this essay was supposed to end on a hopeful note—maybe, I was going to say, I’ll learn to use my newfound baking skills in writing someday. But the truth is, I probably won’t.

Link to the rest at LitHub

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19 Comments to “What Kind of Writer are You: Cook or Baker?”

  1. Such a charming metaphor! Which… utterly fails for me! By this standard, I’m a “cook” writer, but I prefer baking. Even so, though, experienced bakers can also ‘throw things together’ and have them work.

    It’s a matter of how long you’ve been doing something. Do it for long enough and you internalize a lot of those rules and relationships, and then you have that sort of freedom that people without your long experience perceive as being characteristic of the process, rather than of the person’s practice. :,

    • +1

      Get enough experience, and you’ll come up with the right stuff, but it’s scary trusting your subconscious.

      I’m just starting the 4th and final book of a series which has an overarching “where did they come from & how does it work” puzzle, and it’s not until now that I have any idea of the actual answer. 🙂

      I do find that tracking a 4-act structure helps me keep a “pantser” book on the rails, especially if I suspect I’ve wandered into a swamp somewhere…

      • ++1 to both

        I cook and bake*. I’ve done the cooking long enough that I unconsciously bake, which I figured out when I learned about the 4-act structure and realized that I was already doing it. Learning about that structure helped me sharpen the edits, and now it makes me less nervous when pantsing.

        *With writing. In an actual kitchen I follow recipes, switching out ingredients according to my preferences. I only “cook” when it’s something I’ve had before and know how I’d customize it.

        • In the kitchen, I read recipes and springboard off them. I actually had a dream about potato cake — a cake made with potato in it. Read a recipe for white cake and adapted it to make potato cake: no sugar, more salt, and more butter and grated Yukon Gold potatoes. It surprised me that I got it right the first time. Made it again. (Very rich side dish. One 8-inch diameter cake yields 16 servings.) Would like to think that I recorded the recipe, but I know better.

          • A potato cake. A potato cake. A potato cake.

            Well that just takes the cake (sorry).

            Actually, I just realized that the things I know of as latkes are also called “potato cakes” or “potato pancakes,” but I think you’re describing something more savory and intriguing. I wish you did remember the recipe, this has got to be seen! And tasted!

  2. Biscuits’n’gravy.

  3. My characters always wanted to take over the kitchen and do things their way. Most of the time I let them.

  4. Candlestick maker.

  5. In the kitchen, I’m definitely not a cook. I wish I were. I envy people who are. But I simply never have food ideas. I need a recipe, although I often adjust said recipe as I follow it.

    I suppose my writing process is similar to my cooking process, with the difference that I do have story ideas – oodles of them – and I make up my own “recipe” to follow (a short, rough outline). Which then gets altered as needed while I write. The finished story never matches the initial outline, but there are many points of congruity between the two.

  6. This analogy doesn’t work for me because I bake like I cook: throw stuff together in approximate proportions and see what comes out. Granted, I only really bake sourdough bread, which is pretty stupid easy, but still.

    • My daughter throws stuff together when baking and always ends up with delicious cookies. I think she’s internalized baking cookies: the necessary ingredients and their proportions, variant ingredients that will work, the way the batter should look and feel and smell, etc. 😀

      • I recall that Alton Brown made biscuits with his grandmother. She never measured anything. He measured everything. Her biscuits looked better.

    • I was thinking the same thing. Baking and cooking aren’t really that specifically separated for the average person.
      But I think a better baking analogy is that learning to bake is like learning the tropes of a genre. Once you understand the basic formula you can play with the proportions or include add ins, and see what happens.

  7. More of a vitamix writer myself.

  8. Smart Debut Author

    I’m a meth-lab cook of a writer.

    Success is when I keep my customers up all night.
    Failure is when halfway through, the book blows up in my face.


  9. I’m as much of a hybrid in the kitchen as I am in the office. In the kitchen I get a ‘mouth feel’ for what I want to eat and the cooking flows from there. In the office, I get a feel for a character or a world and get started that way. Somewhere down the track, however, feeling isn’t enough and I have to /think/ about what I’m doing as well. That said, I’m a better cook than baker, perhaps because cooking is more fun. 🙂

  10. Interesting metaphor. I’m definitely a cook, but my muse is a baker. He’s the one who does all the work setting things up, all the measurements and prep work, I just find out what’s going on behind the scenes when I write the story.

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