The life of the mind can be bad for the body. Not risky: There are few muscle tears in research libraries and fewer workers’ comp claims along the keyboard’s home row. Bad for the body, I mean, in its neglect of the body.
I am a writer. A poet at heart, but more recently a scholar at work on a doctoral dissertation. I spend my days reading and writing in a variety of slouches, leans, and slumps. The body doesn’t throb from use at the end of the day; it aches for use.
So I learned during a year of fellowship support from the University of Michigan, during which my sole task was to draft my dissertation—which I did, mostly. But I also learned the particular restlessness of those whose closest working companions are LED screens, whose daily triumph might be the proper placement (finally) of a comma. I needed to move. I needed to make something. So I learned to cook.
That’s not quite right. I could already cook some, but I needed to cook well. I was a kitchen hack with haute cuisine pretensions. The kindest thing you could say about my coq au vin was that I made a decent omelet. A talented friend tutored me, but like any cook (or writer, for that matter), I needed to make my own failures. Some of those omelets became scrambles.
But I also fell in love with the iambic a-chock, a-chock of the chef ‘s knife as I prepped vegetables, even when I nicked my own knuckles. I relished the jargon: the fond scraped from a pan, the mother that starts bread or vinegar. Not only could I watch bacon render its fat as I added onions, jalapeño, and garlic (Michael Symon’s recipe for collard greens), but the whole house would breathe the smell—smoky and floral—afterward. As an engineer/poet friend likes to say, I was thinking in the tips of my fingers. I was making something from something else.
Both writing and cooking are solitary endeavors with communal aspirations. The worry over the right word is cousin to the watch kept over the bubbling pot, and the adage about too many cooks is as much literary truism as culinary. It’s much faster, though, from kitchen to plate than from notebook to shelf. We speak of ingredients in superlatives of freshness: farm to table, flash frozen, shipped overnight. Most of the meals I cook require an hour of my time, including prep, and are consumed in 30 minutes—40 if we linger over another glass of wine. The work is brisk, the pleasures immediate.
I’d like an easy metaphor for the slow work of language, but neither braise nor barbecue will do. Neither is it the calf bred, fatted, and slaughtered. Maybe a few seeds dropped in a bad patch of earth and forgotten unless something unlikely shoots forth, something thorned but cultivable. Some days, a good day’s work is to strike out the paragraph I wrote the day before. Alexander Pope advised waiting two years before publishing something you’ve written; Horace suggested nine. If you have that kind of patience, you’re better suited for the distillery than the produce section.
Writers fall helplessly in love with our words; cooks are harder to convince. The mind is easier to fool than the tongue, and the ubiquity of words belies their difficulty. We eat our daily bread, yes, but we live in language, and words for all their use are duller blades. The uninitiated tend to demur from knives, but if you speak or think at all you already traffic in language. Those of us who revise and publish have only commercialized the matter.
By the time we reach an audience, it’s too late to do anything about it but hector our guests and readers. Does this make sense? Could I have used less salt? Are you sure? Positive? The kind among them will offer the usual reassurances, knowing these make little difference to us. The praise of others is never quite enough, grateful though we are for the company.
So I work. I read my books; I write. When that fails, I write out the grocery list instead. Walking among those aisles, as promising and daunting as the blank page, I am between thoughts of bread and words. We live by both.