So you wanna be a writer: What Anthony Bourdain can tell you even when he's not talking about writing

There’s a great essay called “So You Wanna Be a Chef” by Anthony Bourdain, who wrote Kitchen Confidential. Based on “So You Wanna Be a Chef,” culinary schools sound rather like MFA programs. Money drives both decisions, even when artistry is supposed to:

But the minute you graduate from school—unless you have a deep-pocketed Mommy and Daddy or substantial savings—you’re already up against the wall. Two nearly unpaid years wandering Europe or New York, learning from the masters, is rarely an option. You need to make money NOW.

You could replace “cooking” with “writing” and “being a chef” with “being a writer” in Bourdain’s essay and have more or less the same outcome. Going into the “hotels and country clubs” side of the business is like getting tenure as a professor. There are a few differences between the fields—you’re never too old to be a writer—but similarities proliferate. Like this:

Male, female, gay, straight, legal, illegal, country of origin—who cares? You can either cook an omelet or you can’t. You can either cook five hundred omelets in three hours—like you said you could, and like the job requires—or you can’t. There’s no lying in the kitchen.

You can either sit (or stand) at a computer for years, producing words, or you can’t. There’s no lying at the keyboard. If you want to be a writer, the keyboard is where you’re going to spend a lot of your time (Michael Chabon on book tour in Seattle for The Yiddish Policemen’s Union: “If you want to write a novel you have to sit on your ass.” I can testify that the same is true of writing a blog). All the chatter in the world about how how you prefer early Ian McEwan to late Ian McEwan isn’t going to help you produce words.

As with many disciplines, what’s important is not just being good or adequate—it’s being amazing. “There is, as well, a big difference between good work habits (which I have) and the kind of discipline required of a cook at Robuchon.” There is a big difference between good work habits and being an artist: a surprisingly large number of people can crap out a novel if given sufficient time and motivation. Milan Kundera in The Curtain:

Every novel created with real passion aspires quite naturally to a lasting aesthetic value, meaning to a value capable of surviving its author. To write without having that ambition is cynicism: a mediocre plumber may be useful to people, but a mediocre novelist who consciously produces books that are ephemeral, commonplace, conventional—thus not useful, thus burdensome, thus noxious—is contemptible.

This overstates the case: an indifferent or “mediocre” novel by a “mediocre novelist” does not tangibly hurt anyone, and its most likely fate is to be ignored—which is the most likely fate of any novelist. But the writer needs to aspire “to a lasting aesthetic value,” which means that merely existing and producing something isn’t enough. Hence my derogatory phrase: “crap out a novel.”

Instead of traveling to “Find out how other people live and eat and cook,” as Bourdain tells the chef to do, the writer must read widely and voraciously and omnivorously. If you’re writing in a genre, read the classics. If you’re a literary novelist, read some of the better genre fiction (it’s out there). Read books about writing. Read books not about writing to learn how the world works. Get out of your literary comfort zone with some frequency. You’ll need it.

Also wise: “Treating despair with drugs and alcohol is a time-honored tradition—I’d just advise you to assess honestly if it’s really as bad and as intractable a situation as you think.” Steven King writes in On Writing about his own problems with drugs. He points out that drinking or taking drugs doesn’t make you a writer—if you’re a writer, you might drink or take drugs, but skipping straight to the drugs doesn’t do anything for you.

The bottom line: creative fields and top performers in many disciplines appear to have more in common than not. From what I’ve read, the same basic dynamic described by Bourdain applies not just to cooking and writing, but to software hacking, most kinds of research, athletes, architecture, music, and most forms of art. Don’t pursue these fields unless you want to master them. And you probably don’t. And if you do, you might be better off not realizing how difficult they are before you start, because you might never start.

2 responses

  1. Pingback: Quid plura? | "Those words are all remainders..."

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