Your book is not an egg custard

As part of my ongoing quest to be just be better…somehow…I like going to classes. To me adult education represents the idea of change, of improvement. The belief that just because we will never be a professional chef or singer or stuntwoman, it doesn’t mean we can’t learn to bake bread or hit high notes or be shot out of cannons (are there classes in this?) I’ve been to two this week. The first was a cookery course I got as a Christmas present. I’ve always wanted to do one of these – in fact there’s even a scene in The Thirty List involving a cookery class. Mine was on sauces rather than fish-gutting though. I wasn’t sure how we were going to cover 9 sauces in three hours, but we did (I enjoy this kind of heads-down-rattle-through-n0-chitchat night class. Every time I hear ‘now turn to the person on the left and tell them one fact about yourself’, a little piece of me dies.). We covered everything from pesto to egg custard, and then we had dinner, and it was all very fun.

My job was to make the creme patisserie. Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever tried this, but it’s quite high-pressure. You have to ‘stir like crazy’ (I quote) and not let it curdle or burn. You have about a three-second window to get it right or it starts to stick and turn brown and horrible and before you know it everything smells of burning egg. Here’s a picture of me looking tense while stirring.

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It turned out fine, by the way.

Often, people use cookery as a metaphor for writing. Natalie Goldberg talks about it in her book Writing Down the Bones – how you can mix eggs and flour, but if you don’t add the heat, you’ll end up with a big bowl of slop. The heat is what performs the alchemy. In creative terms, ‘heat’ to her is writing fast and not looking back. The ‘car headlights’ approach to writing – the NaNoWriMo sprint. I’ve always been a big fan of this approach.

Now, a book is not a tricky sauce. You have more than three seconds to get it right, and if you mess up you won’t have to throw the whole pan away and unplug your smoke alarm and apologise to the neighbours (again). But you do have to know when to turn up the heat, and when to spend time carefully sorting your ingredients. If you haven’t got the right things in there (story, character, eggs, salt etc), then even if you cook it just right it’s not going to turn out well. This is why some books, however good the writing, just can’t be saved. Or you might get the stove really hot and not have things ready, and then realise you didn’t have any self-raising flour left after all, and either burn things or lose all momentum as you flail around looking for it. I’m a slapdash writer just as I am a cook, and I think a little precision and planning might be a good skill for me to learn.  A mix of the two is what you’re aiming for, ideally. At least you won’t be doing it while people watch…

I went to Cookery School here.

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