Writing is like cooking: There’s no one way

Almost every time I cook, bake, or prepare something elaborate to eat, I find myself making the same observation: I don’t follow the recipe.

Or rather, I try to follow the recipe, but we don’t have heavy whipping cream in the fridge so I have to substitute half and half, or there isn’t any butter so I have to make do with applesauce, or, as in the case of recent chocolate Kahlua truffles I made for the holidays when I added an extra 66% milk chocolate by accident, I misread something and must adjust everything that follows to compensate. God, it was ridiculous baking macaroni and cheese and quiche in my microwave in Japan–  I had to hunt for infinitesimal bricks of cheese, a meat that resembled bacon and was pig but definitely wasn’t bacon, and then convert units (grams to ounces, Fahrenheit to Celsius, etc.) to boot.

Now, it may seem blindingly obvious to say that there’s no one approach to culinary arts or writing, but I think what I’ve learned in my kitchen experiments has greater implications than that.

Growing up, I suppose I thought of cooking like high school science labs: If you didn’t follow the recipe to the letter, you’d screw it up. Get bad data, the wrong results. An F.

But I have substituted, at times, up to half the ingredients in a recipe. I have guesstimated conversions, made mistakes, adjusted, readjusted. Added garnishes. Subtracted ingredients. And you know what? Some efforts turned out better than others. But the results were always edible, and almost always good.

What I have learned (in cooking, writing, life) is this: Because there are so many variables to play with, so many experiments to make, so many trials that result in similar, but distinctly different results, one can’t– and indeed, shouldn’t– take instructions so seriously. Not that there exists an easy recipe for a novel. But every writer has been given instructions on how to write one, or simply on how to write, at one point or another: the eight point plot arc, the hero’s journey structure, how to write a query letter, “Write what you know,” “Make your characters relatable (likeable, hateable, emotionally-invested, quirky, vulnerable, complex, etc.),” “Avoid tropes,” “Embrace tropes,” etc. ad nauseam.

The tools, tricks, and adages are endless– but like spices impulsively peppered into a soup at taste time, there will always be room for instinctive, inventive play and recipe-bending in writing. So observe the rules– and then follow them, break them, ignore them, tweak them, add them, subtract them, turn them upside down and make them dance.

Ultimately every work you make is your own. So why not treat it that way?