Thursday, February 26, 2009

What the Top Chef finale taught me about writing


With Top Chef*, you expect to learn about regional flavor profiles or how to butcher an alligator (yes, I Googled that phrase). But to learn about writing? That's the secret ingredient that comes out only in the finale.

And thank god it taught me that, because otherwise the finale was boring and lackluster. But I digress ...

Carla, Hosea, and Stefan -- all good chefs with distinctive personalities -- illustrated three essential writing tenets in their journeys to Judges' Table, despite their medium being spice and flame rather than grammar and narrative. Here goes ...

TRUST YOUR INSTINCT.

Hosea went with his gut instinct to not cook a dessert -- and won the competition. Stefan's best dish was one he grew up cooking -- and judges said it was the evening's most memorable. And Carla (aka Beaker, according to my Aunt Rita) -- well, Carla bent to the suggestions of her sous chef and changed her menu. Her original items? Stellar. The new items? Total flops.

As she said in tears at the end, "I've proven that when I cook my food, it's really delicious. Do I think that my food is good? Yes. When I make it? Yes."

Writers, take note: Heed your gut on your copy. If something feels awkward, forced, or stilted, recalibrate it while you're editing. You wouldn't send an undercooked dish out to a restaurant patron; so why should your half-baked, half-hearted copy be given reluctant life for a client? Fix it fast, fix it right, and send out work you can stand 110% behind.

CREATE WITH CONFIDENCE, LEARN WITH HUMILITY.

Carla struggled with this all season, often producing dishes she thoughts others wanted to see, rather than owning her decisions and making food true to her ethos. Stefan, on the other hand, tilted to the cocky side, which resulted in the occasional lazy or blah dish. And Hosea walked the line, always believing he could win the top spot while learning quickly from his missteps.

Writers often waver between all these mindsets. We want people to love and approve our work. But we sometimes believe we're right on the first draft, and won't listen to edits otherwise.

To best develop technique and style, you first need to recognize and embrace what makes your approach unique ... and then recognize and embrace where you fall short. After all, there's always something to learn and improve, and you'll make the greatest strides when you believe in your talent, worth, and maximum capacity for development.

ENGAGE IN HEALTHY COMPETITION.

Hosea and Stefan sparred all season, while Carla instead professed love for the world and never seemed out for blood. No surprise, then, that the contestants who pushed their own limits by competing with one another were the last two at judges' table.

Believe me, I'm all for love. You're never going to get anywhere with teamwork and understanding la la la let's all hold hands and rainbow-gaze. But to really sharpen your skills and your game, it helps to have a challenger.

If you're self-disciplined, that person can be yourself and your personal limits. Most other times, it's another colleague or peer who inspires you to write faster, write sharper, write clearer. In the end, though, the challenger's identity doesn't matter -- just his or her existence. So get ready to face off.

Oh, and for the record, I think Fabio, Jaime, or Jeff should have won. But that's all roux under the gumbo now. I'm just here to learn about writing.

* I'd like to reiterate at this point that I used to have a life not watch reality programming. But my IMS activates with shows like Top Chef, so please indulge me. Or do what I do and blame Jacob for triggering my addiction. That works too.

Image by FngKestrel

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