Monday, March 21, 2011

How Do Know What You Know?

fresh garlicA few days ago we were having a meal with friends when one of them asked me how I learned to cook. Unfortunately, the blank look on my face was not exactly the cleverest response. Neither was:


Which garnered a quizzical look from my friend.

“I just did, I guess.”

Of course the answer is a lot more complicated than that. Later that evening I had a chance to really think about it.

I watched my mother, my father, and other relatives cook. When I was very little, my grandmother let me play at cooking by mixing flour and water to make dough and then making shapes with cookie cutters. And my great-grandmother was sometimes called G.G. Pickle because of her scrumptious bread-and-butter pickles.

mandy2 I read a lot, and food and cooking comes up even in children’s literature. Of course there were those Little House books I keep going on about and they contain lots of practical information. But I also remember specifically reading about food in Nancy Drew (baking – cookies, mostly), the Robin Kane Mysteries (set in California, they always grilled their meals outside) and Mandy (a truly wonderful book about an orphan by Julie Andrews – yes, that Julie Andrews).

Now cookbooks are some of my favorite reading fodder.

fanny-farmer Mom let me into the kitchen early. Salads were my responsibility from an early age. I didn’t mind all the cutting and chopping, and while trained chefs would no doubt cringe at my knife skills, I’m pretty dang fast. I started baking sourdough bread in the sixth grade, and was cooking meals by high school.

And I failed, cooking barely – or not even – edible dishes. I experimented. Tried new things. And kept at it until I finally Got how to make some of the things that had defeated me over and over again – like piecrust or enchiladas that don’t get soggy.

Pretty soon I was reading and experimenting and taking classes, and over time have learned more and more. There’s plenty left to learn, too.

This process very much mirrors how I learned to write. As a voracious reader, I first observed others’ writing, both good and bad. My father told me stories, and my parents encouraged my love of books.

Then I dipped my own toe into writing, first with letters to family and then poems and little stories. I have a bag of these letters, and of my first poem, “I Wish I Was a Duck.” My first short story was about a fairy who didn’t believe in little girls.

Pretty soon I was reading about writing, experimenting more with fiction, keeping a journal wedged under my mattress, and churning out school paper after school paper. Practice, practice, practice. Later I wrote a book, read more, took lots of classes and workshops, and rewrote that book several more times. I wrote badly, experimented, and tried new things.

And there’s plenty to left to learn about the craft of writing, too.

How do you know what you know?

1 comment:

  1. I've never heard of Mandy (and never knew Julie Andrews wrote books)--I'm adding it to this week's library list. :)

    Much of what I know, I learned from a combination of being taught and reading. Mom is an excellent cook, but I didn't have that much interest in learning much beyond the basics until I went off to college and had the choice of learning to cook or eating at the dining hall for four years. Friends helped me, and when I was home for breaks I got mom to teach me as well. From there I branched out with cooksbooks and the internet, and lots of trial and error.

    Knitting was kind of the same. Mom taught me the basic knit stitch when I was a kid, and for years I was content to occasionally knit a scarf. A couple years ago I decided to learn how to do it properly, but mom doesn't knit, really, so I was left to knitting books and when I needed a demonstration of something.

    I fell into editing in college--maybe it was a product of all the grammar classes I was taking for my linguistics/English major. I had a knack for it, so I edited the newsletter for the local humane society, then read the Chicago Manual of Style to learn more about it, and went from there. (Eventually I did go to grad school, as it turns out the market for self-taught editors wasn't great except for the occasional freelance work. The main benefit was an internship, which was invaluable.)