I Don’t Follow the Recipe — Yeah, Right

cody for writers

Ah, the romantic ideal of creativity! We all know how it works, right? In a flash of brilliance, you sit down and you write/paint/sculpt, and art suddenly appears! That’s how it works, right?

Well, yeah. No.

How many of you, by show of hands, have heard someone say something like this: “I don’t follow the recipe. I just get in the kitchen and cook?”

Okay, thank you. Now put your hands down. You look silly sitting there in the coffee shop/at your house, holding your hand up in front of your screen.

Yes, you have heard people say that. YOU might have even said that. But here’s the thing: it’s not true. If you are going into a kitchen to cook something, you might not follow the recipe precisely, but you ARE following a standard, a guideline. You might tweak things and adjust things, but believe me, whether you want to admit it or not (and I know you don’t, because you want to be a rebel), you are following some kind of recipe when you cook. It might not be written down. But there is a general guideline you are adhering to, even as you experiment with more of this and a splash of that.

The same thing is true in when it comes to creating art. When you sit down to write, if you haven’t learned the “rules” or the guidelines, you won’t create anything really all that good. An artist has a tool box to draw from. And she learns how those tools are used first before she gets all crazy.

Let me put this simply: stop trying to be “original.” Don’t worry about being “creative.” First, learn the rules. Read and copy — yes, copy — some of your favorite authors. Learn how language is used. Get the rules and guidelines down first. AND THEN…

…get in the kitchen and get crazy! Bend some rules. Ignore them. Break them all together— but only AFTER you’ve learned them first. AFTER you’ve figured out how the tools work, THEN use them in all of the wrong ways to make something brilliant.

No cook who says, “I don’t follow the recipe” really means it. If he’s making lasagna, there are some basic principles he will be following, even if he gets creative and tries something new or wild. That cook was shown how to make lasagna at some point or even copied an old recipe first before he ever tried to wing it. Even if all he has done is tasted it at one time, he will be working off of that first exposure.

One of the most freeing things you can do as an artist is to forget about being “creative.” Once you get past that, then you can do some real work. It will be terrible at first. And that’s okay. Rare is the artist who made something fantastic on the first go round. Historically, artists first did things like apprenticing to a master. Often, they copied the master’s work over and over. THEN, once they had the tools in the tool box, they struck out on their own.

I want to grant you that same freedom. Don’t worry about being original and creative. Focus first on learning the tools, the standards, the rules—grammar, punctuation, and what have you. Read MASSIVE amounts of other people’s work. Copy the work of people you love. Not to publish as your own, of course, but just to get a feel for good writing.

And then!! THEN, you are ready! When the genius strikes, you will be ready. You will know your tools, you will know the rules, and now you can bend and blend and break and CREATE!

CodyCody is both a writer and a pastor, and the only Flying M-Inkling Emeritus. He’s an idea generator, partly borne out of his eclectic reading style; he’s willing to discuss any of those ideas with anyone who wants to listen.

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