Learning how to write is like learning how to roast a chicken. And vice-versa

I tried a new way to roast a chicken the other night, closely resembling this “Herbed Faux-tisserie Chicken and Potatoes” recipe from Bon Appétit. I’ve roasted a chicken with one recipe or another hundreds of times, but experimenting with a different recipe got me thinking about how learning to cook a simple meal suitable for sharing with others is like learning how to write. And vice-versa.

First, both are things that can be learned and/or taught. I think a lot of people– particularly people who don’t think they can cook or write– believe you either “have it” or you don’t. I’ve met lots of struggling students who have convinced themselves of this about writing, and I’ve also met a lot of creative writing types (from my MFA days long ago and into the present) who ought to know better but still believe this in a particularly naive way.

I believe everyone who manages to get themselves admitted to a college or university can learn from (the typically required) writing classes how to write better and also how to write well enough to express themselves to readers in college classes and beyond. I also believe that everyone with access to some basic tools– I’m thinking here of pots and pans, a rudimentary kitchen, pantry items, not to mention the food itself– can learn how to cook a meal they could serve to others.  Learning how to both write and cook might be more difficult for some people than others and the level of success different writers and cooks can reach will vary (and I’ll come back to this point), but that’s not the same thing as believing some  people “just can’t” cook or write.

Second, I think people who doubt their potential as cooks or writers make things more complicated than necessary, mainly because they just want to skip to the meal or completed essay. Trust the process, take your time, and go through the steps. If an inexperienced writer (and I’m thinking here of students in a class like first year writing) starts with something relatively simple and does the pre-writing, the research, the drafting, the peer review, all the stuff we do and talk about in contemporary writing classes, then they will be able to successfully complete that essay. If an inexperienced cook starts with something relatively simple– say roasting a chicken– and follows a well-written recipe and/or some of the many cooking tutorials on YouTube, then they will be able to roast that chicken.

Third, both writing and cooking take practice and self-reflection in order to improve. This seems logical enough since this is how we improve at almost anything– sports or dancing or painting or writing or cooking. But one of the longstanding challenges in writing pedagogy is “transference,” which is the idea that what a student learns in a first year writing class helps that student in other writing classes and situations.  Long and complex story short, the research suggests  this doesn’t work as well as you might think, possibly because students too often treat their required composition course as just another hoop, and possibly because teachers have to do more to make all this visible to students. Whether or not it gets taken up by students or conveyed by teachers, the goal of any college course (writing and otherwise) is to get better at something.

In my experience, the way this works with food is when you’re first trying to learn how to roast a chicken, you do it for yourself (or close family and/or roommates who basically have the choice to eat what you cook or to not eat anything at all), and you make note of what you would do differently the next time you try to roast that chicken. Next time, I’ll cook it longer or shorter or with more salt or to a different temperature or whatever. A lot of my recipes have notes I’ve added for next time. Then the next time, you make different adjustments; repeat, make different adjustments; and before you know it, you can roast a chicken confidently enough to invite over guests for a dinner party.  Also, the trial and error approach to following a recipe for chicken helps informs other recipes and foods so you can serve those guests some mashed potatoes and green beans with that chicken, maybe even a little gravy.

Both writing and cooking involve skills and practices which build on each other and that then allow you to both improve on those basic skills and also to develop more advanced skills and practices. It was not easy for me to truss a chicken the first time I did it; now it’s no big deal. Writing a good short summary of a piece of an article and incorporating that into a short critique is very hard for a lot of first year writing students. But keep practicing it becomes second nature. I routinely have students in my first year writing class who gasp when I tell them the first essay assignment should be around five pages because they never wrote anything that long in high school. By the end of the semester, it’s no big deal.

Finally, there are limits to teaching and not everyone can succeed at becoming a “great” writer or cook. Never say never of course, but I do not think there is much chance my cooking or recipes will ever be compared to the likes of Julia Childs or Thomas Keller, nor do I think my writing is going to be assigned reading for generations to come. I don’t like words like “gifted” or “genius” because people aren’t better at things because of something magical. But for the top 1% of writers/cooks/athletes/actors/etc., there is something. At the same time, it’s also extremely clear that the top 1% of writers/cooks/whatever get to that level through hard work and obsession. It’s a feedback loop.

So for example: it’d be silly to describe myself as a “gifted” writer, but I am good at it and I have always had a knack for it.  I’ve been praised for my writing since I was in grade school (though I did fail handwriting, but that’s another story) and it isn’t surprising to me that I’ve ended up in this profession and I’m still writing. That praise and reward motivates me to continue to like writing and to work to improve at it. I spend a lot of time revising and changing and obsessing and otherwise fiddling around with things I write (I have revised this post about a dozen or more times since I started it a week ago).

In any event, even if I have some kind of “gift,” it ends up being just one part of a chicken vs. egg argument. Being praised for being a good writer motivates me to write more; writing more improves my writing and earns me praise as I get better. A knack alone is not enough for anything, including writing or cooking.

Oh, and for what it’s worth: I thought that recipe was just okay. I liked the idea of the rotisserie-like spice rub and I can see doing that again, maybe putting it on a few hours or the day before. But cooking at 300 degrees (instead of starting it at say 425 and then dropping it back to 350 after about 20 minutes) meant not a while lot of browning and kind of rubbery skin.