Saturday, March 23, 2013
GORDON RAMSEY'S NOVEL-WRITING INSTRUCTION
What? You didn’t realize Chef Gordon Ramsey taught writing? The fact is, he’s one of the best writing teachers in the world.
He disguises it by claiming to reach cooking, but if you understand the code he’s using in his presentations on his show, KITCHEN NIGHTMARES, it’s all about writing.
Actually, it’s about any art form. The rules are pretty much the same, whether it’s in cooking, painting, writing, sculpting or music or anything else in the art world.
Let’s take a look at his shows and see how that works, okay?
First, what’s almost always the chief reason the restaurant he’s called in to help out is failing? While there are a variety of problems, without fail the primary one is that the food the restaurant is serving sucks. Let’s look at that one first and see how it relates to writing.
When he walks into a failing restaurant, the very first thing he does is order a meal. The food he wants to look at and taste is the same as the writing teacher looking at the student’s manuscript. To paraphrase a famous Presidential slogan: “It’s the food, stupid.” Or, in our case as writers: “It’s the writing, stupid.”
The quality of the food is the single biggest obstacle to success for any restaurant. The quality of the writing is the single biggest obstacle to success for any author.
See where we’re going? See how the comparison starts to make sense?
He begins with the food because the truth is, if the food’s good, just about everything else can be wrong and the restaurant still has a chance of succeeding. Conversely, if everything else is perfect—the service, the décor, the location, et al—but the food sucks—all the restaurant owner is going to have is a place that has a great waitstaff, an amazing décor, a prime location… and stands largely empty with those talented waiters and waitresses standing around picking their noses….
It’s the same with writing. The manuscript can be perfectly presented with proper formatting and delivered to the right gatekeepers—agents/publishers—but if the writing sucks, it won’t matter. Two bites into the mss “meal” and if it doesn’t taste good, it’s headed for the circular file, just like the food Ramsey sends back on that initial tasting is headed for the same circular file. What us literary types refer to as being “shitcanned.”
What are the responses of the restaurant owners and chefs when Ramsey tells them their food sucks? It’s predictable. Most are in denial. Most are in way-huge denial. Almost to a person, they feel their food is amazing. They’re convinced that the reasons they’re not rich yet is something else other than the food. The usual response before he delivers his judgment on their menu is that he’ll come in, deliver a few “secrets” that will get them on their way to becoming a four-star establishment. Does this remind you of anything? A new writer in your class or writer’s group, perhaps? Who, before the critique begins is clearly there to glean a few “inside” writing or publishing tips so they can be on their way to the bestseller lists or at least to be signed by an agent or sell their novel?
Look at the responses he gets when he tells them he wouldn’t serve their food to a dog. Many (most?) get angry. It never dawned on them that they couldn’t cook well. In their minds, it was always something else that prevented them from achieving a sold-out restaurant every night. How dare Gordon criticize their work! See any correlation to a writer receiving criticism from a teacher or agent or editor or the writer’s group?
The writer who is also righteously irate, thinks about all those people who told him his writing was “better than Joyce Carol Oates.” Folks like his family, his friends, the friendly faces in his writing group, his English teacher, his workmates. How could they all be wrong and this pretender (teacher/agent/editor) have such a different opinion? Maybe it’s because… this teacher isn’t connected to them emotionally and only judges the product? And has higher standards? A better knowledge of what good writing consists of? And a version of Hemingway’s “built-in bullshit detector?” Maybe…
There’s a supercilious teaching “method” some schools and venues want their writing teachers to adhere to, called by some the “sandwich” method. Start with a piece of praise bread, slip in a bit of criticism, and then finish it off with another piece of praise bread. Does this strike anyone else as perhaps a great example of mollycoddling? Of treating writers less than adults? Schools do this for two reasons. One, they want return customers (students). People who are told bluntly that their work is bad often don’t return. Especially when there are plenty of places who will tell them they’re great. Two, they’ve bought into this New Agey crap where teachers aren’t supposed to let their little charges know that among them are winners and losers. (Kind of like real life…) It’s the mindset that awards “participation trophies” and bullshit like that. Like the school recently in the news that cancelled their annual Honor Days because the ones who didn’t achieve that level would “feel bad.” Well… so frickin’ what… When do you suppose that kids are going to learn that some people are smarter than others, some have gifts others don’t share, some just work harder, and there are even some folks who are smarter, more gifted and also work harder? That just seems more of an USSR attitude than an American one, but I may feel that way just because I’m not up on my Karl Marx reading… And don’t plan to be…
That “sandwich” method of teaching. Two pieces of praise, one piece of criticism. That kind of implies that everybody has two great things they’re doing in writing and only one bad. My experience is that often it’s the reverse ratio and I’ve had more than one beginning writer in class who did nine bad things and only one good one. The “good one” was showing up on time and that was about it. If that’s the case, then I guess the teacher should make up things to praise them about. Wouldn’t that devalue honest praise? I mean, if a person is terrible at writing dialog and you’re out of praiseworthy pieces of bread, should I tell him the only one writing better dialog these days is Elmore Leonard?
Can you imagine Gordon walking into a restaurant and telling them, “Well, the third waitress on the left is doing a great job. The food is atrocious. The bartender served me a perfect Gibson.” Don’t think so. A more likely scenario is that he tells the chef bluntly that his food is terrible and tries to treat him as an adult who can handle the truth. That many can't isn't his lookout. That's kind of their problem. They'll either develop a thick skin or they'll continue to serve bad food and blame others for their lack of success.
Don't believe I've ever seen Ramsey serve a "praise sandwich."
There’s a reason writers don’t have a writer’s union. Well, not one that many people belong to, anyway. It’s because most of us know you succeed by merit and hard work. An organization that’s predicated on the concept of “more money for less work and fewer hours at the expense of others” just isn’t suited for our temperaments as a rule.
Okay. I’m off my soapbox now…
Another correlation Ramsey has with good writing instruction is that he doesn’t differentiate between kinds or even levels of restaurants. He puts as much work into correcting a neighborhood bar and grill in a Midwestern town as he does a pricey French restaurant in NYC. He doesn’t try to make the neighborhood restaurant into the French restaurant or vice versa. No such thing as “literary” restaurants and “genre” restaurants. The only commonality in his mind is that they be the best they can be within their parameters. He knows what constitutes great pub food just as he knows what great Japanese or Italian cuisines requires. Whether it’s a hamburger he’s creating or a soufflé, it’s all about the quality of the individual dish. He thinks like Nabokov who said he didn’t acknowledge any genres other than “good writing and bad writing.”
He also insists the menu be contemporary. That dated dishes, even when prepared well, aren’t going to draw diners. The same thing exists in literature. The writer who insists on creating stories considered archaic or out of fashion, even if written well (within the standards of that day) aren’t going to draw many readers. A writer who absolutely loves the “Dear Reader” style of Victorian literature may write a similar book, but it just isn’t going to sell, any more than an epistolary novel ala Samuel Richardson’s “Pamela” is going to be crowding anyone off the shelves at B&N. Time and again, Gordon encounters these dinosaurs who are trapped in the past and spends days trying to dissuade them of the value of their effort.
Watch his shows and see how often he tells his charges to keep it simple, use fresh ingredients and don’t overcomplicate the recipes. Sounds kind of like Hemingway and Carver, doesn’t it? Or any number of brilliant writers. The first precept I give writers is that one of the biggest keys to becoming a good writer is to pay attention to two things: Make it clear and make it interesting. Kind of what Gordon says about good cooking…
There are no synonyms for the following words in either cooking or in writing:
They state plainly what they mean. There are words that mean the opposite and if a writer works hard enough and pays attention, they can change those descriptions of their writing to:
… but to change those words to the positive ones takes hard work, not unearned, empty words of praise. Just about every writer starts out with the former words as being accurately descriptive of their writing. That’s no sin. What’s a sin is believing when people tell you it’s the latter that describe the work when it doesn’t. When your writing is consistently praised, I’d turn on the b.s. detector and trust it’s in working order.
Watch Gordon Ramsey when he turns around a failing restaurant and imagine he’s instructing you as a writer. The lessons he imparts are exactly the same.
Hope this gives you another source of writing education. It does me.
P.S. If you just cleaned your couch and found a few bucks in change, consider trekking over to Amazon and glomming onto a copy of THE RAPIST. I’d appreciate it!