How to cook in a toy kitchen

Play. It's what's for dinner. December 2023.

Every year for the past few years, I have put together a social media post capturing my writing progress to date, usually in a "by the numbers" format. In 2022 I broke with tradition and focused entirely on AMEN?'s publication. At the time I wrote:

"[...] I’m turning the page on a 35-year-old animating vision and creating a new one, the outline of which is sparkly but fuzzy, the text of which is yet unwritten.

As every writer knows, the draft you have in your head is always 1000 times better than the first draft you write, and that’s where I am today—with many ideas, many notes, many bright imaginings of brilliance to come. I enter 2023 with a blank page, and I will resist the temptation to use it for a to-do list rather than a story, because what I really want to measure is not time, but the fullness of it."

Well, guess what I learned in 2023: I don't do well without a to-do list. As the year closes, I still have many ideas, many notes, many bright-but-slightly-more-tarnished imaginings of brilliance to come. What I don't have is any workable drafts in any genre, and I feel their absence keenly, painfully.

This was not a surprise. My creative constipation has been building all year. In an attempt to alleviate it, I read Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way—a 12-week self-guided course in "creative recovery"—to explore what might be holding me back. My first takeaway? I fear success. Easier to let dreams glisten and evaporate like raindrops than to collect them in a bucket and put them to use. But my second takeaway? I deserve compassion for my fear, and offering myself the former is a strong step toward soothing the latter.

For example, at many moments during The Artist's Way, I noticed myself thinking, "I have no one to blame but myself for my current creative stuckitude." A more generative reframing, however, could be to say, "I have more abundance than I realized." And it's true—I have no huge traumas (creative or otherwise) to overcome, a fairly stable life, and enough resources to buy myself that most precious, finite creative commodity: hours.

In my particular case, my ability to envision the future and then execute a plan for getting there can be harnessed as a superpower. I am the queen of incrementalism; I know the cumulative power of tiny steps. So when I look at my next writing project simply as a series of tiny steps, it immediately feels more achievable. (See: aforementioned to-do list.)

Where I've landed—for right now, anyway, in the darkened, saturated final days of 2023—is on a renewed commitment to believe and invest in my creative process. I have refreshed my resolution to use a flashlight, not a flood light, to illuminate my path. I am giving myself permission to pay myself first—to use my time to create, then to discover, and lastly to share.

How transgressive this feels to me, how (gasp) unproductive! But granting myself the freedom to play, to reconnect with the joy of creation, is exactly my most "productive" route right now. I've had too many ideas pawing at my subconscious for the past 12 months; they yearn for release. As I see it, my job is to let them romp in a verdant meadow, permit them a bold escape over the fence, and leave their poop where it lands. I will indulge them, and we will see what indulgence yields.

And when I get stuck (as I invariably will) in the year ahead, I will hold close an example set by my younger child. He adores cooking in his toy kitchen, an environment that has all the fun and none of the risk of the real room, with just enough miniaturization to welcome him and verisimilitude to ground him. He cooks everything he encounters—pompoms, wooden figurines, googly eyes, puzzle pieces—and judges no ingredient inedible. He has his tropes of course—boiling stuff in pots, serving tea, declaring everything "hot!"—but he invents in and around them. Without exception, his creations are funny, surprising, and delightful, because they are born of play.

2024 will be the year I cook in a toy kitchen. Wish me luck.

Prayer #395: How to Cook in a Toy Kitchen

1. Consider everything an ingredient. Chewing is overrated.

2. Turn all burners to volcano.

3. Toast train cars in the oven, and cool stuffed animals in the fridge.

4. Bake a tray of cookies on the coffee table.

5. Serve a healthy side salad in a discarded takeout container.

6. When you can't find a utensil, check the teapot.

7. Make sure to wash your magnifying glass in the sink after each use.

8. Exult in the textures and aromas only you are experiencing.

9. Make no apology or excuse for the feast before you.

10. Believe in your process, even if no one else sees or understands it.

11. Your creativity is the guest of honor. Do your best to serve it first.