Thursday, February 13, 2014

How Smoking a Pork Butt is Like Writing

My husband got a Green Egg grill for Christmas and smoked his first pork butt to make BBQ on it that weekend. As he worked on this hours-long process, it occurred to me how similar it is to my writing process.

To take a page from Stephen Covey, we both begin with the end in mind. My husband knows how he wants the BBQ to look, feel and taste. I know the story I want to tell. Getting to our individual ends involves some of the same lessons, compromises and processes.

First  both writing and smoking a pork butt involve following some basic rules.

When smoking a butt, the temperature has to be at a certain level to ensure food safety. There is no way to speed up the process. A lot of personal preference is involved relative to taste or doneness.

Writing isn't all that different. You have to accept certain basic rules of grammar and usage to ensure the reader understands what you are trying to say. Writing will flow at its own pace…inspiration can't be rushed. Everyone writer has his own personal preferences for structure, tone and voice.

Each time you cook a pork butt the circumstances change. Humidity, weather, the source of the meat and other variables can change the cooking process slightly resulting in a longer or shorter cooking time. The meat’s temperature could go into a stall, and you have to wrap it to get it to jump from 165 to 185 degrees.

You can’t throw the meat on the grill and come back eight hours later and expect it to be the same as it was last time you cooked one. You have to tend it, adapt and change along the way.

With writing, circumstances change with everything you write. Variables depend on where you get your inspiration, what is your frame of mind and what is the goal of your piece. Are you on a word count deadline for pay or are you sitting on the porch at the beach writing intense personal reflections? Different types of writing require adapting to the influences of the situation. 

As the meat moves thought the process of breaking down from a raw slab to the deliciousness of BBQ, it absorbs what is around it…the rub, the marinade, the smoke.

As the written piece moves through the process from inspiration to publication, it absorbs the life experiences of the writer…perspective, insights, biases.

Just because the meat reaches the appointed temperature doesn't mean it's ready to eat. Before it can be served, the meat must rest. When you come back to it later, the juices have absorbed, adding another dimension to the final taste of the meat.

The same is true with writing. Just because you have hit the word count doesn't mean your story is ready for publication. Before it goes to the editor, the piece must rest. You come back to it later and see what nuances have absorbed and which ones you may have missed.

Once the meat has rested, it's time to pull it apart, add some sauce and serve up the BBQ that looks completely different from the slab you started with on the grill.

In writing, you want to pull your work apart one last time, add some sauce (or sauciness) and your final product can be something completely different from that slab of a first draft.

Serving up the BBQ to your guests is laying your time, talent and passion out for all to see (and taste). It takes some courage to set that plate down not knowing if your guest will taste it with the same palette you have. Or what if the diner douses it with ketchup to make it more his liking? At that point it becomes more about what your guest likes not what you wanted him to like.

In writing, hitting the send button to the editor is like setting the plate of BBQ in front of your guest. You lay out your thoughts, passions and stories not knowing if they will be loved by the editor or eventually the reader. Your work may be published after lots of red ink (the ketchup of writing) has been spilled on it…and that's when it becomes more about what the reader wants to read not what you wanted to say.

Both writing and cooking must be done for the joy of the process as well as the end result. Sometimes the end result turns out just as you'd hoped but, like everything in life, sometimes it doesn't. Either way the passion for learning through the process is what makes both writing and cooking fun and fulfilling.