Did I mention I was on a diet? I can’t complain too much, because I’ve lost seven pounds in two weeks, and it’s actually starting to show in the waist. Still... I wouldn’t complain if one of you slipped me some Doritos.
I’ve used food and cooking before as a metaphor for writing, and I think it’s one that works well. What counts as good food is largely a matter of individual taste, although most of us can agree on a few key things that make food bad. There’s also some good parallels between being a chef and being a writer. Almost all of us can cook, but we recognize that being able to microwave hot dogs doesn’t make me a chef, just like being able to send a text message doesn’t make me a writer. There’s also books and classes for both, but the only way to improve is to just get in there and do it—again and again and again.
Also dieting, like writing, is going to work different ways for different people. I need to make a set diet and follow the rules strictly, but you might be one of those god-awful people who can eat anything you like. Sticking to it is agony for me, but maybe you barely notice you’ve changed what you eat.
This doesn’t mean I can alter my diet to match yours, though. My girlfriend’s also dieting, so we’re shooting for the same basic goal, but we’re not following exactly the same path to get there. This is the Golden Rule I mention here now and then, my one bit of guru-istic advice. What works for me might not work for you, and it definitely won’t work for that other guy. We all need to find what methods and habits work best for us when it comes to getting to that basic goal
So, since starting this diet—I mentioned I was on a diet, yes? And that I would probably be willing to harm two or three of you for some garlic bread?—it’s struck me that there’s another way food and writing are similar, and that’s in how we portion things out.
All of us develop habits in our writing, and they tend to stick with us until we make a serious attempt to change them. And just like eating, most of our initial habits are bad ones. We go for the fun stuff without realizing how bad it is in large quantities. Action. Gore. One-liners. Sex. Melodrama.
The next step, though, is when people now take their writing (or eating) to the other extreme. I think all of us know someone who’s borderline insane about what they eat. They have to know every ingredient in something, the precise number of calories, the recommended daily allowance of saturated fats, the grams of protein. Heck, some of them don’t just want to know what’s in their food, they want to know each ingredient’s pedigree. Was the low-fat cheese made from the milk of grass-fed cows? Was the grain in this bread mechanically threshed or hand-sifted? And it is organic grain grown in non-chemically fertilized soils?
Once I started getting a lot more serious about writing, I tried doing all the outlines and character sketches and charts and index cards. I made sure every character had an extensive backstory (all of which ended up on the page), every object had an elaborate description (all of which ended up on the page), and every location had an array of smells and sounds and sights that could only come from experience and practiced observation (and they all ended up on the page). Because I was a serious writer now. And serious writers take writing seriously.
Just like this diet—I mentioned I was on a diet, yes? And that I would gleefully kill half of you for a chocolate chip cookie?—when I started writing I needed to learn what habits were good and which were bad. What were the things I was doing all the time that were hurting more than helping? I had to figure out what things are good, which were good in moderation, and which were just plain bad.
I mentioned a while back that I worked with a personal trainer for a few years. In his heyday, Jerzy was an Olympic-class weightlifter and went on to set a world record and even win several awards for bodybuilding. One of the keys to his success was a ruthless diet that let him get his fat levels down to minimal levels. To be honest, dangerous levels. Just before a tournament, Jerzy would often get his body fat below two percent. He looked phenomenal, but it actually left him very weak because his body had no reserves whatsoever. It had access to what was in his system right at that moment and not a scrap more.
So the moment the tournament was over, he’d go out and get the biggest, greasiest cheeseburger he could and eat the whole thing. Sometimes two of them. That’s not what you’d normally consider former Olympian-weightlifter food, but Jerzy knew that once he’d reached that heights of success it was imperative that he replenished those fat levels as quickly as possible. His health depended on it.
Y’see, Timmy, sometimes the stuff we think of as bad isn’t just good, sometimes we need it. Because the big secret to eating well—and writing well—isn’t extremes, it’s moderation. Drama needs to be moderated with comedy. Comedy needs a bit of seriousness. Horror needs calm. Chaos needs structure. The great stories, the ones we really remember forever, are never all one thing.
Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird is considered one of the greatest pieces of writing in American literature, an unparalleled drama. Yet the book has a lot of humor in it as we see events interpreted through the eyes of young Scout, a girl who’s a few years from even touching puberty. Christopher Moore’s Lamb is a comedy about Jesus’ older brother, Biff, which gets very grim and serious at points. Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes and Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life are both coming of age stories with a strong horror element. For every skin-crawling moment in Stephen King’s IT, there’s a moment of complete twelve year old goofiness.
Did I mention one of the standard things on this diet is a cheat day? A lot of the best diets have them, because it’s easier to stomach all the food restrictions if you get a break from them every now and then. One day a week I’m supposed to indulge. I get to have Doritos and garlic bread and chocolate chip cookies. And my body will forgive me for it because I’ve established this isn’t the norm.
So nobody has to die for me to get a cookie.
Not this week, anyway.
Next week I might be a bit short on time, but I had a capital idea I wanted to share with you.
Until then, go write.
Until then, go write.