One day, during my last semester of undergrad, my workshop professor asked the class if we preferred to clean as we cooked or make a mess and leave cleaning ‘til later. We were discussing the revision process for personal essays, in particular. His cooking metaphor framed the question at hand: How did we revise?
It’s a different question than the age-old process question: “How do you write?” And a much better alternative to the disastrous “What do you write?” My professor never failed to mention how literary nonfiction was doomed at cocktail parties.
“So, [insert name here], what do you do?”
“I’m a writer.”
“Oh really? What kind of stuff do you write?”
“Well, um, stories, sort of. Essays, but not boring ones, not the ones you’d write in school. Maybe ‘personal essay’ might give you a better idea of… No? Well, I guess what I write is sort of like if fiction and nonfiction had a strange, unfortunately named baby…”
This could go on for hours without a trace of comprehension from the aggrieved, martini-sipping instigator.
“I mean,” my professor would say, “what the hell is creative nonfiction anyway? What, so now I know what it isn’t? It isn’t destructive fiction?”
He’s pacing around the small classroom at this point, agitated, making a point he’s made countless times before.
“Well, my apologies, I had no idea what you do is write creatively. I’ll be damned.”
It is a bit of a face-palm moment. Of course what essayists do is always in the pursuit of something creative, something more tangible than far-fetched sci-fi, time-melting, plain old fiction. And, of course, that same professor would shake his head and strike through that previous “of course” couplet. He was like that. Get to the point. Question your italics. Say what you mean and don’t assume. Write something, breathtaking or complete shit, and then walk away. Go to sleep or eat some dinner. Don’t overwrite and don’t be afraid to let things get a little messy in the kitchen every now and then.
The chef who cleans as they go is the writer who revises as they go—maybe they polish every paragraph, every sentence, even the smallest of prepositions. Or, as my professor eloquently put it, they're constipated. And if those writers were backed up, then the chef who cooks, makes a mess, and postpones the cleanup is the writer who’s got, well, diarrhea. (Important note here: His analogy, not mine.) Those were the writers who shat words page after page.
When he posed this question, I was stumped. I saw myself as a writer in-between two cleaning methods. Sure, I craved a spotless kitchen, an open page where I was content to perfect the garnish on a perfect little sentence. I mean, if it practically came that way on the plate premade. But other sentences were messier and called for a more erratic environment: eggs left un-whipped, flour covering the stove top, butter melting on the counter.
My professor told us to raise our hand when he said what kind of cook we were. I expressed hesitation, debating when to raise my hand. My fellow small group members scoffed. Behind me I could hear Kelsey, with whom I spent over seven hours in one sitting line editing and revising.
"Of course Ashley's the clean cook."
I smiled. Of course.
But I wouldn't understand until after graduation, weeks after my small group’s intimate (read: poorly attended) reading and days after I turned in my final revision. I wasn't cooking much in college. Back home I started up again. That’s when I noticed how I put back the seasonings in the cabinet while the shrimp bubbled over the stove. How, when I was done with it, I neatly packaged the spinach in its bag, placing it next to the butter, which was safe in its allotted compartment in the fridge.
Everything was in its right place.