“Mise En Place”
Yesterday I said, hey, I’m writing a new book.
And I said, hey, I’m-a take you through all the steps as I stumble through them.
Before I get into that, before I talk about what I’ve already done, I need to make clear that for a while, those steps are not going to include… well, the actual writing of the actual book. I have, during my stumbling, fumbling, and mumbling, come to what is for me a most certain truth: the actual writing itself is perhaps the leastmost part of the process. I don’t mean least or lesser in terms of importance, but in terms of the actual effort, that’s not where the hardest work lies for me. Not anymore.
I used to work that way. I used to just say, “Fuck it!” and jump in.
And, five or six utterly shit-sucking novels later, we see how that worked out.
My two most recent “big ticket” projects — the novel, Blackbirds, and the film, HiM — were the two projects that really turned my thinking around on the writing process. Each project started with minimal planning and maximum writing. The writing was maybe good enough in each. The dialogue was potentially good enough. The characters were… interesting, I guess? But the end result failed to bring it all together. The plot didn’t hang together, the characters didn’t all fit together, the dialogue didn’t work together with the rest of the elements. In terms of the novel, I actually couldn’t even get through it. I had to write and rewrite and rewrite from the ground up to even conceive of where I wanted to go.
Part of this stems, I think, from impatience. Me… well, we all know I’m impatient. I can barely get to the end of a long sentence before I’m gnashing my teeth and screaming aloud, “Is it done? Are we there yet? Nuhtuhgrubblebuh!” And then I punch a mirror.
So, with any creative project, my initial goal was just to write, write, write. Write my way through it. Get it on paper. Make it happen. Write, write, write. Churn and burn. Kick the tires. Light the fires.
For some people, this works out very well. Look over at Dan O’Shea’s blog, where he talks about the Winchester Mansion School of Design, and “flash fictioning” his way to a completed novel. He’s writing, and posting as he goes, and so far, it’s great stuff. He’s got this whole Zen thing going on, and I suspect that’s going to suit him very well. One day, it may suit me very well. For now, though, I’ve tried that. Didn’t work. Oh, it felt like it was working. It felt good until I got to the end of each novel or project (er, if I could make it to the end) and each work felt like a work of pieces rather than a whole product. A lack of planning left it feeling like… well, the Winchester Mansion. Just rooms smashed onto other rooms (and dead-ends aplenty) stuffed into the shape of a house but it wasn’t actually a functional, proper house.
So, for Dan, he’s probably good.
Me, I just end up creating nonsense.
And so I bring it to back to the tried-and-true cooking metaphor.
Hey! Go to hell. I love cooking metaphors. I would marry cooking metaphors. But, since I’m already married, the only thing I can do is make sweet sweet love to the cooking metaphor. I can kiss its ear. I can run my fingers around the small of its back. I can truss it up like an animal and rub duck fat in its hair and keep it in a box and put on the matador’s costume and —
Uhhh. Nothing to see here. Nothing to see here.
So. Cooking metaphor.
You ever cook dinner under pressure? Like, you have nothing ready, and the Prime Minister of, say, Namibia is coming over, and so you race to get dinner made? You’re chopping as something is boiling, you’re seasoning as something is going into the oven, you’re juggling spice containers and trying to remember where you put the shallots and suddenly the Prime Minster is there and you look like some dude who just got Tasered in the face? And something smells like charred donkey’s asshole?
Yeah, for me, that sucks. I always forget something. I always dick something up. I always feel frustrated and stressed out and the meal might be edible but fails to really come together.
Chefs know how to avoid this problem.
They know about the mise-en-place.
Mise-en-place, or, “The Meez,” is the act of getting “everything in place.”
You’re doing up a big dinner or even a single meal, you want things in place. And when those things are in place, for me the cooking goes easily. Dish of cut onions, carrots, celery. Cutting board with meat upon it. Proper spices at-hand. Oven on, pre-set. The squirrel, gutted and skinned. The pineal gland of a velociraptor marinating in the blood of the optimistic.
Not to say you don’t have room for creativity during the cooking — you still have to season to taste, you still might get an idea (“Sweet motherless goatfuckers! Worcestershire sauce!”) during the process.
This, to me, is just like writing.
If I don’t have all my shit together, the writing process is just a mess. It’s a fun mess, admittedly. I can make each piece work as each piece. But to make it all hang together? To not forget things? To not write myself into corners and dead-ends and have to backtrack and rewrite 10,000 words? To make sure the piece is layered and each element is working overtime in double- or triple-duty?
I need to have everything in place.
As a writer, I need my mise-en-place.
That’s what these initial steps are going to be about. When we went back on the script and kicked down the walls and rewrote from the ground up, we outlined the hell out of everything first. We got all the characters together, and we spent a lot — a lot — of time going over all the fiddly bits. When time came to actually write, I’d normally write 3-5 script pages a day, but I more than doubled that this go-around. And I know why. I doubled my output because I was prepared. Writing it was the easiest thing in the world; it was almost effortless because I knew the story and the characters so well. I always knew which way to jump. Even in those bits you can’t plan for — dialogue, the little moments, the interactions, the descriptions — I had it all puzzled out because we had already conceived of the elements. We’d already put everything in its place. The ingredients were prepared.
Oh, and the feedback on the revised script was… well, I’m still happy. A complete turnaround. Major improvements. What were once disparate elements are now the piece of the whole, and that’s ultimately what this is about: I don’t want to serve a dish of ingredients. The act of cooking is bringing those ingredients together, and the act of writing is about the same damn thing.
From spare parts to a unified whole.
In cooking, the preparation is often the hardest part.
The cooking is often the simplest, or at least the most forthright.
At present — and one day, this may change again — I think this is exactly like writing. The effort is in the prep. The effort is in the “meez.” And if you put your effort there, then the writing — the creation! — becomes effortless.
What Anthony Bourdain says about the mise-en-place could be said for my mindset as a writer these days:
“Mise-en-place is the religion of all good line cooks. Do not fuck with a line cook’s ‘meez’ — meaning his setup, his carefully arranged supplies of sea salt, rough-cracked pepper, softened butter, cooking oil, wine, backups, and so on. As a cook, your station, and its condition, its state of readiness, is an extension of your nervous system… The universe is in order when your station is set up the way you like it: you know where to find everything with your eyes closed, everything you need during the course of the shift is at the ready at arm’s reach, your defenses are deployed. If you let your mise-en-place run down, get dirty and disorganized, you’ll quickly find yourself spinning in place and calling for backup. I worked with a chef who used to step behind the line to a dirty cook’s station in the middle of a rush to explain why the offending cook was falling behind. He’d press his palm down on the cutting board, which was littered with peppercorns, spattered sauce, bits of parsley, bread crumbs and the usual flotsam and jetsam that accumulates quickly on a station if not constantly wiped away with a moist side towel. “You see this?” he’d inquire, raising his palm so that the cook could see the bits of dirt and scraps sticking to his chef’s palm. “That’s what the inside of your head looks like now.” — Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential
You need to find your own meez. You need to arrange the elements and do it your way, not somebody else’s way, and that’s what I’m going to fumble through live and in-public. Bourdain goes on to say:
“What exactly is this mystical mise-en-place I keep going on about? Why are some line cooks driven to apoplexy at the pinching of even a few grains of salt, a pinch of parsley? Because it’s ours. Because we set it up the way we want it. Because it’s like our knives, about which you hear the comment: ‘Don’t touch my dick, don’t touch my knife.'” — Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential
So. Tomorrow, for real, I tell you why in my mise-en-place I’m starting with characters, and what I’m doing with those characters to prepare.