I don’t pretend to know what I am doing in the kitchen. My culinary accomplishments max out at chocolate chip cookies that are not flat or overcooked, an achievement that is still one I pat myself on the back for. And while I have yet to put much in to practice, I do love a good cooking show and have watched enough Top Chef to learn a few things about the basics of culinary excellence, my favorite among those tenants being the concept of mise en place.
‘Mise en place’ is a French phrase that means “everything in its place.” It refers to the setup required before cooking: chopping all the vegetables, measuring out all the spices, preparing the cuts of meat or any other ingredient needed for the dish. It means all of the necessary utensils are ready, the pots and pans are out, and the oven is preheated. For the chef, mise en place is all about being prepared. Having ‘everything in its place’ helps ensures that when the cooking begins there are fewer errors, interruptions, forgotten ingredients or time wasted. And as I watch the seasoned chefs on television take their craft so seriously, from the setup to the plating and presentation, I can’t help but think about how mise en place works in my writing, too.
The image that first comes to my mind is my big white desk. I love this desk. It is beat up and scratched, the middle drawer is broken and the whole thing needs to be sanded and re-painted, but this desk has been good to me. It’s seen me cry more than my husband, it knows how much time I’ve wasted on social media when I should have been working, and it’s given me a place big enough for my Bible and books and all the bills, too. This desk would be the first thing that goes on my mise en place list. Next would be my coffee. Cold brew coffee, that is, and maybe French press if we are out, because I’m rather picky and I cannot drink just any ole kind of coffee if I’m going to be productive. Then I would probably light a candle, because I write mostly early in the morning, and those pre-dawn hours are complimented so beautifully by the company of a pretty candle. I’d certainly have my journal and my sharpie pens out, and likely the book I am currently reading in case I remember a sentence that had given me an idea while I read. And finally my computer, placed gently in the middle of it all. Of course the house would have to be quiet, because I tend to need total silence to write anything decent. And as mentioned, it would be about 5:30am, before anyone is awake and any events of the day have stolen my mental margin for creating. Yes, this is a good mise en place.
The problem is, I hardly ever write like that.
And I think one of the biggest problems plaguing writers and creators of all kinds, is that we think we need that in order to write.
I have spent so much time pinning pictures of writing spaces or researching the best planners, hoping that if I can just organize what writing looks like it will somehow inspire the words in a new way. And I don’t think I am alone in this, as I have seen a whole lot of great flat lay pictures of hands around a coffee cup with an open computer on someone’s lap. They are usually in bed, often with a decorative throw blanket nearby for some color and if they are really spiritual, an open Bible, too.
(I meant no offense if you have recently taken that very picture. I’m all about the pretty flat lays and I would totally open my Bible for a picture, too. I am that girl.)
I can get so caught up in thinking I need everything in its place to write that I don’t have any time left to do the actual work of writing. I want to create, but I’m stalling. I love the mental image of a writer and I sure love the finished product, but that space in between – when it is just me and my words, battling for territory in the most true and honest places – that’s not always an easy place to be.
It is so much easier to just take the pretty picture, and in the meantime, see what everyone else is doing with what was supposed to be my writing time.
I would love to simplify writing down to a three-step formula, or the ever-popular five-point list of ‘things you need to write, and write well’. But like so much of life, writing has proven to me again and again how low-maintenance its friendship is, and that it simply does not need all that much in place. Sure, a big desk and a nice candle are luxuries, but I’ve written some of the most profound and honest words of my life in the most unlikely of places: on the small screen of my phone in the waiting room at the hospital; in the basement of my parents’ house while we lived with them in the middle of our move; short sentences that inspired entire essays while I waited for coffee or in the carpool line at preschool; at the kitchen table with Daniel Tiger in the background – because the idea came and I knew it was fleeting, and I needed thirty more minutes of help from the screen to occupy my kids before that idea left for good.
When I think about all of the writing I have done for the last eight years, I would have completed virtually none of it if I had waited until everything was in its perfect place. Because inspiration rarely waits for you to get ready; if you’re going to write, you need to be ready. Thinking that I need more than I already have in order to write is writing from a place of scarcity. But knowing, believing, and being confident that I already have far more than I need is looking at what is right in front of me and seeing the generosity of it all, and then writing from a place of abundance. And it’s a reminder I preach to myself every single day.
For me, the creative process has been so generous and so forgiving, and also so unpredictable. Our hearts don’t follow a schedule as much as they capitalize on a mind that has been searching for that inspiration all along. When I am constantly looking, always learning, and disciplined enough to be writing in as many margins as I can find, that is usually when the best words come to life.
Mise en place is an ethic, a mindset, that I love. But when it comes to creating, there are truly only a few things I need in place – and they aren’t really things at all: a love of writing and a desire to keep at it no matter what, and a belief that God, our creator, delights in creation. I do my best to live, learn, pray, write, and repeat. And I keep at it, wanting all the stories I tell to point back to One who gave them to me.