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Sunday, November 11, 2012

Recipes and Writing


I love recipes and cookbooks. In the checkout line at Sprouts, I don’t mind a long line since it gives me time to thumb through Cuisine and Cook’s Illustrated. As I scan the photos and glance at the recipes, I think about who will be sitting at the table with me. Would this recipe be one that would likely lead to a request for seconds? Would my husband beg that I cook it again? Would my guests ask for a copy of the recipe? If yes, I might pluck down my credit card and add it to my ever growing collection of recipes. If no, I pass and save ten bucks.

And so this brings me to the five-paragraph essay: the simple little recipe for writing the academic essay, “that common requisite in American schools.” Instead of one cup of flour, it’s one introduction with a three-pronged thesis statement, followed not by a teaspoon of vanilla and a whisked egg white, but three body paragraphs and a conclusion.  Ah, so easy, so basic. Such a simple recipe.

Yet who wants to sit down to a meal of five paragraph essays? Who feels compelled to read the next one and then devour one more, licking their chops and smiling in delight? Who asks the writer to explain how she wrote it so that you too could serve it up to your reader?  

No one who I know.

So why do we insist that this recipe is one that will lead students to be masters of the art of writing? Is the five paragraph essay really a no-fail recipe? Is it really the “backbone of good writing”?

I want essays to be like those dishes that I love to prepare and serve to my guests: enticing delectables for the mind. I want good food – just look at my waist line and you’ll see that – and I want to read writing that moves me intellectually and spiritually, writing that urges me to see the world in a new way or that helps me think deeper. I want to linger with the ideas, curious about how the writer beguiled me to stay with the movable feast of ideas.

When I cook, I begin with an idea or maybe a question. Desert tonight? A key lime pie could hit the mark, and I envision the finished pie sitting on the table. Only then do I organize the work space and ingredients and begin to create what I hope will be a picture perfect pie.  And near the end as I beat those eggs, I know I’m doing it to create the meringue that peaks just right so it’ll brown up in the oven. It’s about creating my version of a pie that will leave my guests begging for more.

When I write, I think about the questions and ideas that I want to explore and  imagine what the final piece might be. I don’t start with how I’m going to organize my work. After all, if I don’t have the ideas down pat, how do I know what I have to organize or what design will work best? Writers begin with ideas and then comes the work hard of figuring out how to shape the idea into something that a reader would want to linger with. They don’t begin with their organizational framework first, or, at least, I know I don’t unless, of course, I’m writing a limerick, but that’s another story.

I’ve yet to find a piece of writing that is as easy as a recipe to follow. When I’m in the act of writing, I explore ideas; I push back against my thoughts and then play with them, letting them lead me where they will. It’s a messy process, not a nice simple one like determining my three pronged points and tying all those ideas together in a neat little package at the end. No, writing is filled with solving problems and wrestling with one challenge after another.

If there were a magazine at Sprouts called Delectable Five Paragraph Essays, I doubt I’d pick it up. And I know I wouldn’t serve one to my guests.

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