Saturday, November 20, 2010

Five ways writing a book is like making gumbo

Last week I posted my personal gumbo recipe, and lest you fear this blog is turning into a cooking show, let me demonstrate my one and only superpower: relating *everything* to writing.  (Okay, maybe it’s more like a sickness than a superpower.)  Anyway, it occurred to me that all creative processes share similarities, and cooking gumbo shares a lot in common with writing a novel.  Allow me to expound:

1)  You need to have the right tools.

I wouldn’t make gumbo without my favorite pot and my long wooden spoon.  A sharp knife helps, too.  If you’re going to write a book, you need your tools, and I don’t just mean grammar and an ear for dialogue.  You need space (mental and physical) to write and your laptop or notebook or typewriter: whatever makes it easy for you to get words on the page.  I could probably make a passable gumbo with an aluminum pot and a dull knife, and I’m sure I could use pen & paper instead of my laptop when I’m writing, but it just wouldn’t feel the same.

2)  Patience pays off

It takes a long time to make a roux.  It’s boring.  Sure, I get some satisfaction out of watching the flour slowly brown, but honestly, there are dozens of things I’d rather be doing.  The thing is, if I rush the roux and stop it before it’s ready, the resulting gumbo is bland an unsatisfying.  I get the same unsatisfying result when I rush a story.  I have to put in the (sometimes boring) time editing every scene until it shines, or the finished product will fall flat. 

3)  It takes time to make it your own

When I first started cooking gumbo, I followed my mother’s recipe to the letter.  I was learning.  I didn’t know enough to improvise.  It took a lot of years and many failed batches before I started to make the recipe my own, and now, I can tell the difference between my gumbo and my mother’s with just one bite.  I don’t love my mother’s gumbo any less just because I’ve got my own version: It’s hers; it tastes like home and family and Christmas Eve in front of the fire.  There’s room in the world for as many variations as are worth eating.  The same holds for writing.  When I started out, I was mimicking some of my favorite authors, but over time, my own voice came through.

4)  Sometimes you have to skim off the fat

With all the sausage and oil and chicken that go into making gumbo, there’s bound to be some fat rising to the top of the pot.  It doesn’t add to the flavor, and it interferes with the texture of the soup, so I skim it off and toss it out. Sometimes I think my brain works the same way.  I’m throwing so many ideas around in my head, there’s always some stuff in there that doesn’t belong in a book.  Once I've got a full draft down, it's easier to see the parts that aren't adding anything to the story.

5)  It’s much better when you share it

I almost always make gumbo for a crowd.  It's not that I don’t love eating it myself, it’s just much more fun to make a big pot, have a group of people over to watch college football, and sit around and talk with our bowls in our laps.  Writing’s the same way.  I’m creating something that’s meant to be consumed.


  1. I love this, especially the bit about having the right tools. When it comes down to it, I'm capable of writing in most settings. But there's something to be said for having things just right.

  2. So true. I never seem to be able to think quite as well unless I've got my netbook. I'm worried that I'm also starting to require an almond croissant and a cup of coffee from a specific cafe on a street near my apartment. I'm never going to be able to move. ;)