Recently I found myself drawn to old-fashioned cooking. Lamb stew made from the leftover roast, with celery and pearl barley. I even made bread pudding. I don’t normally do puddings, we just don’t eat them often enough for it to be worth it – but there was the remains of last week’s loaf, and suddenly I wanted bread pudding. Not because I feel compelled to use up every last scrap of food but because…I just wanted it.
I wanted those smells. The smells of my mother’s kitchen.
And I realised that it was coming up to the anniversary of my mother’s death.
I’m not saying these things are necessarily connected, but it’s not unlikely that they are. The approaching anniversary of a death can manifest in strange ways. A vague restlessness or depression, a desire to get away from old places or to revisit them. And sometimes a longing for the things we remember, like the milky-spice smell of bread pudding.
And what does this have to do with creativity?
Cooking is creative, or can be. And for me, it’s a creativity that is generally without pressure, without any of the anxieties that are tied to writing. It has its frustrations and pitfalls but they are minor, temporary, occasionally amusing, seldom more than mildly annoying at worst.
For a start, cooking is not my job. No-one is paying me to do it – so if I get it wrong, I’m not going to be fired. If it’s inedible, we’ll shove a pizza in the oven or my Dearly Beloved will make one of his own excellent dishes.
And mainly, and perhaps most significantly, I don’t expect great things of myself. I haven’t gone through my entire life thinking of myself as a ‘chef’ the way I’ve thought of myself, from the age of nine or so, as a ‘writer’. If a dish, especially a new one, turns out right, I’m delighted, and usually slightly surprised.
It is very valuable to have creative aspects in your life that are not tied to your sense of self-worth, and that are not monetised. Apart from the pleasure and relaxation they give just of themselves, I believe the sense of joy and achievement also feeds back into other creative work. It helps you relax, and remember why this stuff was supposed to be fun.
And there are lessons to be learned, specifically, from cooking.
From my mother I learned many of the basics, and a handful of dishes that I could do without thinking too hard. But for years they never had quite the flavour they had at her hands – generally because I didn’t take enough trouble. I didn’t add the extra touches, do the specific little things that deepened and rounded out the flavour.
I’ve learned that these little touches matter. And that very definitely applies to other forms of creativity. It’s worth taking the trouble to get the proportions right, to fry this before adding that, to remember the shake of Cayenne in the Bolognese if you want it to taste like your mum’s. Without those touches, you may have something edible – but you won’t have that dish. It won’t have the richness.
If you reach for the first metaphor that happens to be to hand instead of searching for the absolutely right one, the one that intensifies the atmosphere of your scene or gives insight into the thought-process of the character; if you have your character come out with what you or a random work colleague or Action Hero Type A might say, instead of thinking about exactly what words that person would use under those specific circumstances, then you’re throwing something together, it’s fast food. Bland, unsubtle, exactly like every other burger.
And sometimes you have to add your own touches. My mum didn’t put a splash of red wine in her Bolognese sauce, I do. There are things I learned from writers I admire that I do differently, because I want to tell my story, my way, not theirs. This, too, is something you learn – and learn by doing. I didn’t know whether a splash of wine in the Bolognese was going to work until I tried it – and I didn’t know how much works best until I tried it several times.
To return to the origin of this post – creativity can be sparked by unexpected things, by things you’re not aware of. Stuff bubbles up from the subconscious and the mostly-forgotten.
I wasn’t aware, when I wanted to make bread pudding, that I was thinking of my mother’s death, but I was – and of her life. And I might have got a little weepy as the smell of bread pudding spread through the kitchen – but it turned out to be a pretty damn good pudding. Not only that, in the process of making it, I had some thoughts about the relationship of a character with her mother, and about the social standing of cooks in the society I’m creating.
Creativity feeds creativity. You never know where ideas may come from, so be open to them. And taking trouble is generally worth it – even when you’re doing it for fun.