Mise en place (pour les écrivains)

I want to do some blog entries around writing craft this month, in support of my writerly sisters and brothers immersed in NaNoWriMo, where you try and bang out a 50,000-word novel in a month. For this entry, forget all the fancy artistic stuff about plot and character and symbolism, and let’s focus instead on the French expression mise en place, which is a culinary term literally meaning “putting in place,” but which I translate as “being on top of your shit.”

If you’re a chef or a cook you know what mise en place is, and you live by it. It’s the range of careful work that is required before service begins: all the chopping of raw ingredients, all the checking and double-checking of prep lists, all the sharpening of knives and arranging of utensils so they are in easy reach. It’s the tons of mental and physical preparation required before the work itself can begin.

Cutting carrots on the bias is NOT something most writers have to do, most days.
Cutting carrots on the bias is NOT something most writers have to do, most days.

I don’t think I got to be any good as a writer until I learned to embrace the notion of mise en place.

So much of what happens during the writing day can’t be planned or controlled. You have a vague idea, or maybe even a good idea, of what is going to happen in the chapter or scene you’re working on, but you don’t know for sure. You discover as you go, and this uncertainty is thrilling but also terrifying and overwhelming—the idea of sitting down before the blank page ,or the page covered in your own scribbled notes, or the page covered in a first draft that you know isn’t working yet.

So to counter that sense of the unknown—which can lead to a feeling of helplessness, which can lead to going to check your email or whatever you do to throw time down the gutter—the counterweight to that weightlessness and wildness is controlling as much as can possibly be controlled.

Meaning, don’t just sit down and say “I’m going to write today. Here I go!” And then, what, you lean and loaf under a tree like Whitman and wait for the muse to start singing?

No way. You sit down with a goddamn plan.

“For 45 minutes today, from 9:15 to 10, I’m going to work on the first chapter. Then, from 10:05 to 11:30, I’m going to revise my outline. From 11:30 to 12 I am going to do some research on oil rigs, because I am writing a scene about a roustabout.”

That’s mise en place. Time is one of your ingredients, right? It’s your resource. Use it with intention.

And yes, of course, if at 10:00 there’s more you want to do on the first chapter, if you’ve caught the spark of the idea and your fingers are on fire, you keep going. That’s the beauty of being your own boss! But start with walls, and let the walls fall away when you hit them. That’s a lot better than spending 9:15 to 10:00 asking yourself where to start, trying to gin yourself up to get going, and then checking Facebook…and then checking Twitter…and then putting in a laundry…

Know, too, before you begin, all the nitty-gritty mundane details of the writing process. Where are you going to work tomorrow? Library? Home office? Starbucks? Is there an outlet there, or do you have enough battery power? Is there a bathroom you feel comfortable with? Do people talk too much there? Are you going to run into a friend who wants to (God forbid) settle in for a chat?

Make your plan. Start the day exactly where you want to be. That’s mise en place! Preparation. Intention. Control—control in this case of your physical environment. Know where you’re going to be, so that there will be no unwelcome distractions (which are really welcome distractions, because by trying to write in a bad place, you have probably purposefully sabotaged yourself so as not to do the hard thing, which is sit and actually write.)

It’s weird, but there is always a part of your brain, when you sit down to write, that wants to be doing something else. Something easier, emotionally and intellectually. Something you might get paid for, in some immediate logical salary-based way. One of your jobs as a writer—not as a fancy-pants artiste, but as a real serious day-to-day craftsperson Writer— is to find strategies to trick that shifty, nervous, terrified person and keep her at her desk.

So that’s today’s strategy: mise en place.

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1 comment

  1. This post may show my age more so than my continued use of a “hotmail” email address, but I agree the successful execution of a writer’s “mise en place” strategy involving an alternative writing venue directly depends upon advance acknowledge of restroom acceptability … BTW, I enjoyed your NPR interview.

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