My mother’s standard answer when complimented on her cooking was, ‘I just use good recipes.’ As though, with the right recipe, tasty food just makes itself.
I though it was her English reserve talking, the ‘don’t blow your own horn’ approach I tried to overcome as performing songwriter, where self-promotion is part of the game.
But from here, staring down a new year, I’m rethinking my mama’s humble pie. Where would any of us be if we didn’t have good recipes?
Georgia O’Keeffe, moving west to paint, spent her days exploring the desert terrain. Her recipe involved observation, thought and constant application of paint to canvas. After all, those vistas, vivid to be sure, don’t exactly paint themselves.
‘The cliffs over there - you look at it and it's almost painted for you, you think. Until you try.'
Walter Murch, film editor on movies like The English Patient and The Godfather, Part III, describes his recipe for achieving invisibility in his work.
‘I will keep on working until I can no longer ‘see myself’ in the material. When I review my first assembly of a scene, more often than not I can still vividly (too vividly!) recall making the decisions that led to each of the cuts. But as the scene is reworked and refined, it reaches a point, hopefully, where the shots themselves seem to create each other: This shot ‘makes’ the next shot, which ‘makes’ the next shot, etc. In this way, the Walter Murch who decided things initially gradually recedes until, finally, there comes a point where he has become invisible and the characters take over, the shots, the emotion, the story seems to take over. Sometimes - the best times - this process reaches the point where I can look at the scene and say, “I didn’t have anything to do with that - it just created itself.”’
Walter Murch, In the Blink of an Eye
I gather, from these artists, that none of them think good recipes are substitutes for hard work and creative flow. My mother’s comment about cooking nicely joined O’Keeffe’s ode to ‘try’ with Murch’s acknowledgement that excellence lets you disappear.
Recipes are road maps and measuring tools. Between setting out and calling it a day, there’s work, play, patience, judgement - every painstaking facet of art. The recipe gives an artist a familiar structure within which to dare.
Here's a very good recipe for relationship to anything and anyone you love:
‘Always wave goodbye until they can't see you.’
Because your loved ones, human and created, need your fond attention, until you disappear.
Happy New Year!
Photo credit Alfred Stieglitz, Georgie O'Keeffe