Archive for June, 2012

Mise En Place and Writing

June 25, 2012 | Writing

Mise en place is the French term defined by the CIA (that’s the Culinary Institute of America) to mean “everything in place”. I’m a BIG Food Network fan and an even BIGGER fan of Anne Burrell. I watched her on Iron Chef America as Mario Batali’s sous chef and personally believe she got robbed on The Next Iron Chef competition. I watch her show, Secrets of a Restaurant Chef, and root for her team on each round of America’s Worst Cooks. She’s undefeated by the way on that program. She also scares the crap out of me and I want to meet her one day.

It was from Chef Ann I first heard the term, mise en place. She used it in a demonstration and said was it very important for cooks. She explained that mise en place means that before a cook prepares a dish, they must organize, arrange ingredients and utensils before they crack an egg. From Wikipedia “Preparing the mise en place ahead of time allows the chef to cook without having to stop and assemble items, which is desirable in recipes with time constraints.” This is vital to the dish being successful. Only on Chopped will you see cooks running around a well stocked kitchen searching for ingredients. In a normal kitchen, the chef doesn’t have time to track down flour, eggs, or a whisk when assembling a souffle. They have everything within arms reach. Even the oven is preheated to a specific temperature.

I started thinking mise en place could be applicable to my writing life. In the past, I would just sit at my desk, open up my manuscript and start plugging away. If I needed a highlighter or the dictionary I had to search for it. If there was an article I’d printed out for reference, I had to remember where I last put it. This wasted valuable time and I was bound to be distracted and start surfing the Internet looking for shiny things. Or watch the news and then maybe an old episode of The Closer.

Applying mise en place has made my writing time a lot smoother, more productive, and I’ve created a routine. Routine is an absolute necessity in my opinion for a writer. Forming a routine means creating a habit, an effective habit. It takes about six weeks to create a habit, good or bad.

So first, I stand at my desk and survey the territory. Just like a cook this is my prep time. Most of the time my desk is cluttered and requires swift removal of papers not pertaining to the current day’s writing. I stand because I can see the area better and because I’m going to be sitting for a long period of time. A chef can’t cook if their area is messy, I can’t write if my desk is as well. This prep time serves two purposes, first it gives me a clean slate for the day and second it mentally prepares me for work. I sweep everything off my desk not pertinent to the first manuscript I’m going to work on. Other works in progress go on the shelf next to my desk. everything else in neat piles on the floor in a corner. I’m working on the whole ‘must file’ issue.

Like a trained chef, I make sure all my utensils are at the ready. Pencils are sharpened, highlighters are full, email account(s) are signed out of, ink in printer, coffee, ice water, or juice is on the coaster, a piece of fruit or cheese or chocolate and my ever present Writer’s Digest Flip Dictionary. If you wear glasses, clean them. I lineup what I plan on working on that day. I put my phone on silent, sometimes I leave it in the bedroom. Now I’m ready to cook (write). This takes no more than ten minutes. As chefs have a properly preheated oven, I use the timer on my iPod Touch. Crickets or jazz alerts me when my fifteen to thirty minutes of work time is up. Chefs don’t want to burn their food, I don’t want to burn out before my work for the day is completed. Once I hit that fifteen minute mark, if I’m particularly motivated, I reset for another fifteen and keep working. I’m always motivated after the first fifteen. After thirty minutes I need to get up, move around, and maybe do a quick household chore. Then it’s back in the chair and back to work. If I’m finished with the first manuscript, I put it on the shelf and pull out the next one. I’m training myself not to open any email account until I’ve gotten at least an hour and a half of work done. Again – shiny things, sales, gossip. I schedule a time for lunch and decide what’s for dinner. It’s been drilled into unpublished writer’s heads that this is a journey, not a race, or sprint.

So by the end of my writing day, my desk looks like a well used kitchen. No great smells, no frosted cupcakes, no huge lump meat crabcakes. Bummer. Just the smell of future success. It’s time to clean up, return utensils to their proper place, plan for the next day, and relax. And after seeing what a kitchen looks like after cooking, I think my cleanup is easier.

There are a couple of knickknacks on my desk for inspiration. But they’re off in the corner where I can see them. First is a plaque with the poem, ‘Don’t Quit’. Next is a statue of the green wicked witch from Sleeping Beauty. She holds two buttons one in each outstretched hand. One says ‘Write, Revise, Submit’. The other one says ‘Finish the #%&* Book!’. Around the witch’s neck hangs a sign Marilyn Brant passed on to me. It reads: Future Award Winning Author At Work’. So hope to pass it to another Chicago North author one day.

Mise en place rules and thank you Chef Ann.


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