Monday, December 21, 2009

What Gordon Ramsay Can Teach Us About Writing

You're familiar with Gordon Ramsay, yes? If not, a quick rundown: he's a Scottish chef (with an English accent, but I'm not going to harp on that), famous for his swearing and ability to cut through crap, and host of several TV shows. In the US, these include Hell's Kitchen and Kitchen Nightmares, neither of which hold a candle to his British show, Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares. (The US television market clearly thinks audiences require a tear jerkey moment in order to be entertained, whereas the British version knows that he shines through without that malarkey.) I watch the British Kitchen Nightmares on BBC America. You should too.

Gordon (who I sometimes like to refer to as GordHun on account of the fact that he signed to play for Glasgow Rangers in his youth before a knee injury ended his football career; I am not a fan of Rangers, and "hun" is the less than flattering name by which we refer to them) has a real talent for cutting through people's crap and turning their failing restaurants around. I love the show because he identifies very quickly where and why restaurants fail.

So what does Gordhun have to do with writing? Let's have a look:

For people with mediocre cooking talent or no organizational or business skills, ego is a good cover up--until their businesses start to crumble and they have to call Gordhun to please come help them. So much of our ego gets in the way of our writing, starting with delusions about our skills and ending with how we take criticism. When we remove our big fat bloated egos from our work, our writing is so much stronger. When you stop pretending you can cook a lamb shank when all you're doing is heating a vacuum pack of chemical meat in the microwave, or stop pretending your genius crap is going to make you rich in a year from a 16-book publishing deal, then you have removed ego. When you stop pretending that you can do things you can't, and that maybe reading a book on plot might be in order, you have removed ego. Unfortunately, this is the hardest obstacle. Ego is like a tick. It buries its head in and removing it is never painless.

Fresh and simple
Another mainstay on almost every episode of Kitchen Nightmares is Gordhun's chorus of "fresh and simple." He implores people to stop complicating things by adding things they don't need. One of the first things he does at a restuarant, almost without fail, is to pare down bloated, heavy, and impossible menus to a few fresh dishes cooked with local produce. He goes absolutely mental if he finds people using pre-made packaged crap in restaurant kitchens. Of course we should be fresh and simple in our writing, too. Don't load things with flowery words or pre-packaged phrases or adverbs. Don't use big words because you think that's what good writing consists of. Just write simply and honestly, and use language that is true to you and where you're from. The story's strength will follow.

Most failing restaurants lack organization in the kitchen or with the owner. One of the things Gordon does is institute a clear chain of command in the kitchen so that things flow. He asks that the head chef communicate with his staff. He does this in every episode where the head chef is a problem--and usually a problem head chef doesn't communicate with his assistants to tell them what's needed. (This goes back to ego, of course. Everything relates.) You've got to have all your elements connect in a clear, organized fashion, or else you'll have your chicken kiev burnt on the stove while the steak diane goes out undercooked. Get a sense of a plan, know how plot works, and know what your character wants.

I've learned a lot from watching Gordhun, not the least of which is that it is possible for a person to be ex-ranger and still be a decent human being* (I'm not quite ready to add him to my BFF list, although if he called I might allow myself to be talked into it). His no-nonsense, down to basics solutions have a lot of lessons in them. And like the chefs and restaurant owners he helps, it's up to them in the end to listen and apply the lessons.

*never mind reports of adultery or whatnot; he manages to come across on his show as decent enough, and that's really saying something for an ex-hun.


jdcoughlin said...

I actually used to watch his show when I needed a kick in the butt to get myself writing again. He really trounces people for being slackers. Love him. Don't necessarily want to ever meet him, but love the show.

Sierra Godfrey said...

Ha ha, couldn't agree more JD.

Dawn Simon said...

Great tips. In critique group, when suggestions for a problem spot are being put out there, it helps if I tell myself to keep it simple. (In fact, our writing mentor reminds us of that, too.)

I have something for you at my blog. :)

Tina Lynn said...

This is an awesome post! Just what I needed. I don't have an ego problem, thank goodness. I think that is actually one of my strengths. But when it comes to keeping it fresh and simple...ugh...well, let's just say, I could use some help there.

Sierra Godfrey said...

We all could, Tina, or else GordHUN would be out of a job! :)

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