Kicking It Up a Notch

Saturdays were early waking days for me in middle school. It was a force of habit, yes, but I also liked to watch TV and, my favorite, make an absolute mess out of the kitchen. I first learned how to make scrambled eggs and after I mastered that, I moved on to pancakes. I had toast popping, butter sizzling, and Aunt Jemima’s heating in the microwave. Sometimes I’d extend my jazzy cooking jam session into the afternoon where I attempted making my own soups, tortilla pizzas, and pastas. What’s strange is that soups are the most memorable because of how often I failed. I refused to look at recipes, thinking that a true chef could master the art on their own, and so would often boil chicken bouillon with oregano, throw in some noodles, and think I’d just reinvented the soup business. Occasionally I’d get all fancy and chop up some onions and some carrots and throw that in. Oh, what’s that? Mom just bought some basil? Guess that’s going in too. Step aside Emeril, shit just got real.

So I was a pretty horrible cook, but back then, when I didn’t know any better, I thought I was the crown prince of the culinary arts. Today, I’m much more skilled in the kitchen, so much so that I’m confident that if you were to ever visit me, I’d be able to give you something you liked. It may not be what you expect, but you’d at least enjoy it. And that’s one of the things I love about cooking. The results aren’t always what you’d expect. And the same can be said about writing. When I started this piece, I had planned to make the parallel between the way a chef and a writer both need to improvise and that over time their improvisations become better–almost habitual. But as I started typing something else came up that (at least to me) was much more revelatory.

As a pre-teen, I had an idealistic conceptualization of a chef. Of course now I realize that Lil’ Emeril didn’t just burst of the womb with a spatula in his hands screaming, “Bam!” Like anyone who wants to improve their craft, he studied and worked hard to improve. But just like my cooking, my philosophy on writing took a similar path. I thought you either had it or you didn’t, that it was something that anyone could improve upon, but only a few could consistently create good results. This perspective on writing lasted a lot longer than it did with cooking. Anything that popped out of my head, I declared brilliant and if someone didn’t get it, well, let’s just say I didn’t think the problem was with me. So, by the time I was in college, I could be told my beer chili wasn’t all that great, and happily accept and change my recipe, but try and tell me that my poetry was a little vague and I’d give a little smile and nod, then deny your existence as soon as I walked out the door.

I was a pretty horrible writer back then. I can acknowledge that now. It wasn’t easy and it took a lot of self-assurances, but I realized that sure, some people are born with natural writing ability (just like athletes, singers, or chefs). But most of us have to work at it. We have to expand our knowledge base. I now know how to make a roux, but back in my middle school days, I was using corn starch to (unsuccessfully) thicken up my soup. If I refused to listen or adapt to my audience, then I would never improve. My fiction from years ago is almost unrecognizable with its current form, but for about three years, I refused to make any changes to it. I concluded that I had discovered my voice, and from there on out, fine tuning was all that was required. Thankfully, I have a wife that isn’t afraid to tell me how it is, and after a few denials, I finally accepted that maybe I wasn’t an undiscovered literary genius. No one likes being rejected to told that their art is inferior, but it’s those who listen and change who are able to kick it up a notch.

Steven E. Athay is an aspiring story designer and connoisseur of all things awesome. Follow him on Twitter at @steveneathay, or read his blog Afflatus.


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