Write What You Know?

Of the limitless dangerous activities that can be performed while drinking an adult beverage, writing and cooking are the only ones I can fully condone. I realized this as I was jabbering like a Food Network host to a half-empty bottle of hard cider and holding a chef’s knife in the practiced way that’s as comfortable as gripping a pencil or cradling a book. I was also reworking a troublesome blog premise in my head–paper is sometimes useless–and flashed upon the gleaming nugget oft reiterated by other writers, editors, and teachers in wrinkled blazers: write what you know.

I’ve never had anybody explain exactly what that means to me.

Image courtesy of gogatsby (flickr.com)

Writing, like cooking, satisfies on a whole new level when there’s clarity and purpose and knowledge behind it. I’ll be chopping onions and garlic and I’ll scoop them off the board with the edge of my knife in the exact way I watched my mother/grandmother/father/Jacques Pepin do it and I’ll think, damn, this is some ancestral-level shit. I can feel the tenuous part of myself that identifies with a greater vein running through humanity vibrate like a guitar string or hum like a plucked rubber band. This is right. This is great. This is correct, I think.

Onions and garlic and the perfect verb can connect me to the greater existential ether like this. Each is beautiful and universal (who doesn’t use onions or garlic or verbs?). Cooking and writing, done right, are like alchemy on a plate or a page. The ingredients go together like a poem: the precise shade of blue tinged with orange in the fire heating a sauce, seasonings and adjectives weighted with profound intimacy; anybody walking in on me pinching at the salt like that would walk out of the room in silence like they’d caught me in flagrante delecto.

And soon the cooking is done–on a platter or saved to a thumb drive–and the first bites are as fleeting as a Bigfoot sighting; I can’t believe it and have to audit my senses. Fuck, I think if I’m in company that wouldn’t appreciate such a word choice said aloud, this is good.

Could I make the exact same dish or write the same short story my great grandmother or John Cheever would have crafted? Never. My replicates and duplicates are always, at best, counterfeits, because the perfect verb and the most fragrant onions are fleeting and temporal, dependent on one specific sunrise and one patch of soil, once. Maybe one day science can reduce it to this chemical and that brain temperature and this blood alcohol content, but even then I’d still be chasing somebody else’s pearlescent unicorn.

I can cook or write the thing that will make someone think DAMN, though. That’s all about the beauty I create. The transitive, eyes closed, literal or metaphoric slobbery state everybody can get in from time to time and feel themselves vibrating with history and experience. That vibration comes from intimate knowledge, what I know as a part of being a miserable, ecstatic human being. I can write that; you can write that, too.

Writers have been writing about the human experience since writing started, and they’ve been telling stories about what it means to be human for even longer. And cooking? Humans have been doing that for as long as we’ve had fire.

Thus, nobody should take the advice “write what you know” as a solicitation for literal experience. Relaying the workaday details of how I got blasted on hard cider and Applejack and threw together a blog post does not result in a great piece of writing. There’s always something deeper and tragically, gloriously human to dig out, even in a worn tale of a circuitous blog post. What’s beautiful and universal about that story is the gorgeous vulnerability of casting aside pretense to write something true and, in so doing, expose a part of our true selves to other humans even though it might hurt, how the connection between a writer and the work can fray and frustrate, and even the silly, aw shucks way a wife can slide a peanut butter and honey sandwich across the table to her grown-ass husband and how, at first bite, the only thought available to him is damn.

I know more than I think. And so do you.

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