Historian and writer Jill Lepore on how writing is like cooking

Jill Lepore has a great analogy comparing the process of writing to cooking. As a cook with enough experience to make a passably Instagrammable meal for a small gathering, I know that there’s nothing like the embarrassment of getting a meal wrong in front of others. There’s nothing like getting it right, either.

While Lepore admits to being a “terrible” cook, she’s cognisant of how one might get better at it, at least from the perspective of a writer:

You know how, when you cook, you’re supposed to beat the eggs and the butter first, and then you put the dry ingredients in a separate bowl and then slowly mix them together? I am the kind of cook who puts everything in one bowl and mixes it up all at once — whatever, it’s all going to the same place. I am a terrible cook. But writing is like that, too, and I am fussy about writing. Eggs in one bowl, flour in another.

That’s what I mean, about how it’s intricate: There are steps. You mix the wet stuff with the dry stuff, the story with the argument, but only at the right time, and in the right-size bowl. In an essay your reader is interested in getting to the end of the story, if you are telling a good story. What’s going to happen next? How is this all going to end? But your reader — unless it’s a person like me, who wants to read an academic journal article — is not actually interested in getting to the bottom of the argument.

You have to know what you’re making. Mixing ingredients to create something larger than the sum of its parts can be unmanageable if you don’t know how each part reacts to change and stress. There must be a sense of where it’s all going. There are a dozen other funny quotations from the conversation, among them: “I quite hate writing books.” Read the full interview at Harvard.



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