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Mise en Place for Writers

Subtitle
French cooking, working fast and clean
Date
Mar 6, 2021
Type
Notes
Words
1348

I usually get a "really?" when I share my goal of starting and publishing an essay within a single sit-down. But a hour-and-a-half is more than enough time to ink mind on canvas. It's way more lenient than Bob Dylan's pace. "If it takes you more than 15 minutes to write a song, you're doing it wrong."

How is that possible?

Bob Dylan had internalized the mechanics of folk by dissecting hundreds of early 20th century songs. He also had a distraction-free writing environment, where he had access to binders of lyrics waiting to be squeezed into melodies.

The answer can also be distilled into a single term:

"Mise-en place."

Only one profession has developed a comprehensive philosophy on how to work, the culinary arts, and that philosophy is mise-en-place, a French phrase which means “to put in place.”

The mystery behind rapid creation can be understood clearly through the lens of French cooking. A well-designed kitchen with a corresponding sequence of prep-work enables a chef to produce meals in a miraculously short period of time. I use the world "miraculous" because Mise-en place is sacred to it's followers. They hold an unquestionable faith in the value of process. Equally important to the art of cooking is the science of organization, planning, communication, and behavior.

Mise-en place is a knife that cuts through the excuses of the inspiration junkies. It proves that a concrete foundation of meticulous design enables the artist to be more automatic, exploratory, and quick during the act of making.

Dan Charnas draws a distinction between "process time" and "immersive time" in his 2016 book Work Clean:

"The really good stuff happens in immersive time, especially if you are in one of the creative professions. Immersive time is time to think, time to write, time to experiment, time to explore. But process time — because much of it happens with your "hands off" — actually produces more results in some cases. It's true, we need to make and honor time for immersive work. But we shouldn't undervalue process work."

The creator needs to shift back and forth between these two states of mind. You want preparation to be handled by a control freak, but things will be much more exciting if a drunk poet shows up to cook. Said more elegantly: Practice analytically, perform intuitively.

This essay links my writing system to the practice of Mise-en place. It's a peak into the meticulously designed Notion systems I go through before I even show up to write.

  • Daily Meeze: The nightly act of cleaning & returning to equilibrium
  • Meal Prep: The weekend ritual to determine your scope for next week
  • Kitchen Design: The spatial arrangement of your drafting environment
  • The Serving Window: The path to publishing with the least friction

Using this method I've published 36 essays in the last 11 weeks. I was totally unaware to the parallels of Mise-en place (I'm more of a Shake Shack guy). For writers looking to push out ambitious work at a consistent interval, French cooking is a clear symbol that we can lodge in our head and build a system around.

Writing systems are tool-agnostic. Mise-en place can be implemented in a variety of different ways. That being said, my whole process really clicked into place when I decided to shift the entirety of my writing stack into Notion. Even if you can tell my website is a public Notion page, you don't see how each essay is directly linked into my second brain, planning system, and drafting environment.

The restaurant is visible, but here's a look into the kitchen:

The Daily Meeze

(link to essay)

Meal Prep for Writing

Chef's don't make meals when ideas come to them on a whim. Based on a meal-schedule for the week ahead, they work backwards, and batch-prepare the ingredients they need for upcoming sessions.

Out of a pantry of all possible ingredients, they curate, arrange, order, and store for later. When they show up, the act of cooking happens in a shockingly short period of time, compared to the cook who didn't do anything in advance.

By building a Sunday ritual of "Meal Prep for Writing," we could publish more essays in a week that we think we're capable of.

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When my wife and make the habit to Meal Prep on Sunday, we feel the difference. By making a meal plan, shopping for ingredients, and preparing them in advance, a week of calmness awaits us. If we skip this, the act of finding food during the week resembles a panic-stricken cave man. Indecision, rushing between meetings, ultimately leading us to Pizza or Shake Shack.

Chef's at a restaurant don't have the option to not plan. There is a menu of complex meals that people will show up for, demand, and expect in short periods of time (in exchange for USD). The ritual of dining is only possible at scale because of prep-work.

Curate > Group > Order = Confidence

From the abundance of a vast pantry and infinite supermarket, we need to filter that set down to the ingredients we'll actually need in the week ahead. Meal prep involves grouping ingredients by meal, but then even grouping related objects within that meal: rice in one cup, vegetables in another, sauce in a packet, spice in a container.

Not only are objects arrayed spatially, but they are sequenced in a specific order, based on when they'll need to be accessed. This gives the chef an "outline" of the meal ahead, before he even shows up to cook.

"A cook can't root around for ingredients scattered all over the place." To reduce friction even more, those zones are arrayed in a specific order. Instead of thinking about what comes next, it's implied in the structure that past chef laid out. Essentially, they have a map of their cooking game plan.

"LiPuma tells them they can ease their fears by getting the lay of the land - a "plan" in the literal sense of the term, the French word for "map." Make a mental diagram of where everything is and should be. Know the recipes. And come to class every day with your time line." The result of having this map is a sense of confidence. "Entering a space calmly, under your own control, and without apology, retains your power and dignity."

Like a chef, a writer should first decide on a series of things they want to publish in the week ahead, and then work backwards, with the intention to publish by that deadline, no matter the state of the work (you can't not feed your patrons).

Arranging groups of related ideas is the act of outlining. Instead of a linear process where you can't start outlining a new essay until the prior one is finished, we should follow the method of Meal Prep.

Draft 2

Value of Meal Prep

My wife and I feel the massive difference in our week whether or not we Meal Prep on a Sunday. By going food shopping, and then preparing, state of calmness all week. If not, frantic, order Thai food, or snack. Professional kitchens don't have that option to decide. "Chefs plan, cooks don't." In cooking, there is an act of looking ahead at the meals coming up for next week, and then doing prep work in advance. End products & work backwards.

Curate & Group

Out of a vast closet of ingredients and spices, and a wide range of all possible tools, the chef needs to curate a specific selection of what they need for the next meal at hand. A chef puts everything they need in zones. Spices over here, knives over their, sauces over there. There is a spatial sense, where like objects are grouped together, so the chef can build a simple, near automatic mental mode of where to reach.

Order & Automaticity

It's not just about having all of the ingredients and tools in front of the chef, it's about arranging and order those items, so the chef has easy access to them. "A cook can't root around for ingredients scattered all over the place." To reduce friction even more, those zones are arrayed in a specific order. Instead of thinking about what comes next, it's implied in the structure that past chef laid out. Essentially, they have a map of their cooking game plan.

Confidence

"LiPuma tells them they can ease their fears by getting the lay of the land - a "plan" in the literal sense of the term, the French word for "map." Make a mental diagram of where everything is and should be. Know the recipes. And come to class every day with your time line." The result of having this map is a sense of confidence. "Entering a space calmly, under your own control, and without apology, retains your power and dignity."

Draft

Deciding the Menu for Next Week

Sunday, in addition to meal prep for eating, I do meal prep for writing. Batch-outline the essays (prep work before we show up to write) I want to work on throughout the week, show up, get straight to writing (write faster) ... Information abundance, capturing 100s of notes a week - having all this information isn't useful. It's about curating specific sets from your abundance to make use of. About usefulness. About curation.

On weekends, I have a Notion flow called "Surfing the Backlog." It's a Saturday morning, and the goal is to sift through everything I've gathered in the last week. It's the equivalent of looking into your closet, and imagining what meals are possible. Because of the Daily Meeze, all of the notes are classified, and fall into these neats views.

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These views give me a snapshot of everything important happening.

Trending essays

Look at the new essay ideas you've thought of.

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Bursting essays

Look at the essay ideas that are bursting with associated notes.

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Look at the seeds that you've cut out of past drafts.

Look at the trends in what you've published recently.

Look at where a series of yours wants to go next.

As I go through these views, if anything jumps out to me with promise ("I could make that meal next week"), I flag it as "Upcoming." At the end of this process, I look through that list, and from 10-15 potential ideas, I pick 5 that are ready to tackle next week.

Batch Outline

This process ends with "batch-outlining" which is basically "Meal Prep for Writing." Instead of working in a linear process of one essay at a time (outline>write , outline>write), I'll try to write out 5 quick outlines for my upcoming essays.

What do you do?

  • Essentially, the first steps of Crossift
  • Look at the associated notes, find more notes
  • Throw everything onto a page, group things, arrange things

Range from a quick outline, to a sketch, to a full mind-map, depending on how much time I have for batch-outlining. Important is that I, at a minimum, spend 5 minutes on each essay, and then go crazy on one or 2 if I have time.

Map & Momentum

  • When I show up to write, there is no friction or decision paralysis. If you show up to write and you have to decide what to do next, you've already lost. Hemingway would end with writing the first sentence of the next paragraph, so his future self already has momentum pointing somewhere.
  • Outline is just a sketch, a loose idea of what can be covered. Always room to improvise, discover during the act. But the outline has a path that prevents against blank page syndrome, and it has a scope that is achievable within one session. Improvising is good, scope check & path re-calibration.

By limiting all of the outlining into "meal prep" weekend session, it prevents me from getting lost in outlining and rescoping. When you blend activities together (research, outline, write) it's super easy to get distracted from writing.

Working (processed)

Cooking can’t happen without prep coming first.

Can't spontaneously decide, I want to make steak.

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Curating

All the ingredients and tools you need in front of you

"A cooks hands should move inches, not feet"

"A cook can't root around for ingredients scattered all over the place"

Group & Arrange

Everything grouped together in zones

In the proper order that they get added to the plate

Reduce the friction in deciding what to do next - seamless motion, sahving precious seconds off the overall time

"LiPuma tells them they can ease their fears by getting the lay of the land - a "plan" in the literal sense of the term, the French word for "map." Make a mental diagram of where everything is and should be. Know the recipes. And come to class every day with your time line."

image

Surf the Backlog

  • Meal Prep: on a weekend morning, sift through what has been gathered, and identify 5 "bursting" essays that are ready to be written.

Writing from abundance - added clarity - not just volume of notes - but usefulness of them.

Batch-Outlining

When I show up , ready to go, no friction or decision paralysis

Hemingway - start with momentum

If you show up to write and you have to decide what you will be writing about, you have already lost.

Finish one idea, don't know where to take it, friction

Never stuck - freedom to improvise

Range in detail, from a few bullet points, sketch, Mind Map

Why Meal Prep on Weekends

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Small Kitchen, Arm's Reach

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How can we make maps for our essays? Aren't they unpredictable? Chefs have a known meal, and they have the ability to iterate and optimize over the course of months. How can writer's approach this?

Even the final form of an essay might fuzzy (Where a meal isn't)

By

Curate - look in your closet

Meal prep - batch-outlining

We can approach our drafts from a point of confidence, similar to a chef who has done the prep work.

Intro (old)

Meal prep over the weekend, surf the backlog & batch outline

Problem > Approach > New ability:

Complex menu of meals upcoming week

Upfront bulk prep work for many meals- grouping & arranging ingredients

Act of cooking, prepared & accelerated

General principles:

Bulk preparation, one mindset - act of creating is quicker

What writers can learn:

Make a menu of what you will publish, schedule a session to write your piece, and plan out a time to "meal-prep" - batch-ouline

Kitchen Design

Notion template, kitchen design, access to what I need

"A cooks hands should move inches, not feet"

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Draft

Cooks have well-designed and persistent kitchen layouts, enabling them to work from a state of "automaticity." We can learn how to structure our drafting environments based lessons from cooks.

Yui: "Make the kitchen and the spaces within it as small as possible. This is a counterintuitive notion to many Americans for whom the holy grail is a spacious kitcen, with their stove, refrigerator, and sink set up in a perfect triangle. It's not efficient if you have 10 to 12 feet of space between each of those points. "I hate those kitchens. I try to do things so that you don't have to take a step. We make things as small as we can make them."

"A cooks hand should move inches, not feet"

Stove as a central point, where the flames, and pots are, where everything is being mixed, it's the canvas. Left, tools, pans & knives. To the right, the mise-en place (ingredients). Simple pivots, to grab what he needs. Can pivot with the pan, sprinkl ingredient in, pivot back. Pivot point. Triangular layout, circular motion. Everything within arms reach.

A chef's environment persists from meal to meal. Can work in the same place for years. When the arrangement is consistent, they develop a sense of "automaticity." They internalize the movements in their space. You can blindfold a seasoned chef and they would still find what they need and know how to work. There is a sense of muscle memory, and the kitchen becomes an extension of the nervous system.

"Design, not a matter of beauty, but to enable movements that are "free, small, rhythmic, and most important, automatic."

"Repeated often enough, a movement will train our brains in a process called automaticity that allows us to execute that movement without consciously thinking about it."

"Your technology is an extension of your nervous system, and that means you want no friction in its function.

The design of the kitchen is an architectural act.

[spatial arrangement affects behavior through time]

People think architecture is about the language of buildings, walls, columns, details. But a huge component is about seeing into the future. Architects have to think forward, and imagine how people will use their space. Required to have a good understanding of human needs, of clients, solutions for them. Sociology. psychology.

The beauty of studio design is that instead of designing for a theoretical occupant, your occupant is your future self.

The chef designs their kitchen.

The painter designs their studio.

The carpenter designs their workshop.

A good creator is aware of the feedback loop between environment and creation. Points to the act that creators need to see into the future, anticipate the problems they face, and then design their systems and environments, in many cases, spatial solutions, over time, so their future self can operate without friction.

What does a writer's digital drafting environment look like?

My kitchen is a Notion template.

The white canvas is the writer's stove. It's where they can visualize what is happening - how ideas are rising in temperature, exploding onto the page and interacting with other ones.

But embedded at the peripherals, within site, just a scroll away (instead of a tab dive) are all the tools and ingredients I need.

  • Associated notes, planted by past self
  • Ability to search a cluster, within seconds, bring in notes
  • Related essays for reference
  • "Seed bank," a place to throw scraps/tangents for future
  • My timeline, series of timers, allows me to execute in 1 hour

In many writing systems, which use an array of tool - all these things are scattered. Digital equivalent of "moving inches and not feet." Don't need to dive into tabs or other applications. Scroll or click away. Beauty of Notion, not just a single place, but unify all of these functions into a spatially designed template.

Consistent from essay to essay. Ability to reviese the template, move forawrd on all future essays. Speed familiarity, mind has memorized where to go to do X.

Automaticity, leads to a Zen-like flow for creation

Coffee in the morning, show up to the template - outline is there, first sentence starts, access to associated notes, easily refernece th full closet. No friction. Changes the mindset. Past self, the control freak, did all the set up work. Now. ,I can be the drunk poet.

Drafting becomes about how to express the ideas on the page, instead of which ideas and what order should they be in. Structure, flow, clairty, taken care of. Your outline is bumpbers. You have the bones of a good essay.

Dali quote: "why paint something if you know what it's going to be?"

The idea of an essay coming to life is not in tangets or new idaes, but in word choice, in articulation, in imagery, in expression. This is the art of writing. Structure is more of a science, it's about how ideas are conveyed.

Working (processed)

Design of the kitchen, an architectural act

Mise-en place, in it's essence, is an act of architecture.

People think architecture is about the language of buildings, walls, columns, details. But a huge component is about seeing into the future. Architects have to think forward, and imagine how people will use their space. Required to have a good understanding of human needs, of clients, solutions for them.

Intuitive act, for creators, not equiped with "building tools" - but see into the future, the problems they face, and then device spatial solutions so thier future self can operate without friction.

A good creator is mindful of the feedback loop between environment and creation. The spatial arrangement of tools, access to inspiration, the motions of those creating. These are the kinds of problems architects solve for. Architects see into the future, and fuse their understanding of sociology with spatial solutions.

The beauty of studio design is that instead of designing for a theoretical occupant, your occupant is your future self.

The chef designs their kitchen.

The painter designs their studio.

The carpenter designs their workshop.

What does a digital writer's studio look like?

Memorization

"Arrangement of ingredients & tools, constant from day to day, so that the cook can learn and internalize the movements in her space."

You should know where all of your tools are blindfolded.

3D modeleres

By refining and iterating on a repeatable system, you build muscle memory, and your studio becomes an extension of your nervous system.

"Design, not a matter of beauty, but to enable movements that are "free, small, rhythmic, and most important, automatic."

"Repeated often enough, a movement will train our brains in a process called automaticity that allows us to execute that movement without consciously thinking about it."

"Your technology is an extension of your nervous system, and that means you want no friction in its function.

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Writing Canvas / Notion Template

Writing canvas is the magic, see things mixing together - the stove

It has the stove where the magic happens.

Everything you need within in arms reach - sequenced

  • Notion Template
    • memorization - related notes, pull in clusters, seeds

The stove, the tools, and the ingredients are all within arms reach. A writer's hand, like a cook's hand, should move inches, not feet. There is no time to go tab diving and get sucked into an internet wormhole. Abundance is dangerous. We need to harness abundance, and filter it down into small workable sets. We need to have our notes groups, ordered, and ready so that notes can flow out of us at the rate our imagination can blink.

The containers of notes are the writer's ingredients. The closet is accessible. Butter, salt, garlic, confit, pistachios, mussels, wines. No time is spent looking for ingredients. If you take your eyes off the stove your essay might catch on fire.

Zen Flow

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No distractions - 26 tabs - mornings

  • Kitchen Design: 8:30 am in the morning, open my Notion template, which has all the notes I need referenced in. Arms reach.
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Wake up, specific routine

Heat up water, in the time it heats I

Turn on the drum set, open the blinds, etc.

Step to my computer, hot coffee, immediate flow

How to express ideas, instead of which ideas, or order of ideas

Flow, clarity, structure - determined before the act of writing.

Bones of an essay

Dali quote - why paint something if you know what it will be

Word choice, articulation, images you show - that is the art of writing, where structure is more about the science of conveying ideas

Any notes that don't have an Essay or Tag get shot into a view called "Note Limbo," where they burn in hell until I dip in to save them

When I open an essay, I have a bundle of notes waiting. Instead of having one Goliath inbox, I have a bunch of small Essay-specific Inboxes. I can pull in even more notes from "Tags" to browse for extra ingredients.

The Serving Window

Hungry Audience

Barrack - full range of the restaurant - for others - a peak in

Military parallel

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Working

Cooking a unique medium

The beauty of the written word is that it doesn't have to disappear into someone's digestive system.

Cooking is different from other arts

Very much a direct communication with artist and consumer

Writers, musicians, painters - easy to say, no go, can do better

Social contract with cooking - guests show up, no option to not share

The pressure of cooking

Assume, someone is going to be digesting your essay after the session

Changes the nature of how you write

Chef's preparation comes from the pressure, knowing at the end of a time constraint, someone's going to eat it!

Know what happens with process gone awry

Strict time constraint, why so much effort goes into process

Effects on your writing

forces you to scope small, what could in finish in X hours?

Mosaic

forces you to write in complete sentences

to exercise your voice, instead of outline & thinking

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Restaurant/Kitchen

Rapid sharing, under a tight deadline

Publish daily, within a one hour ritual

Friction - copy text into Square Space, format it

Restaurant design, relationship between kitchen & tables

Some cases, split, outdoors, walk, drive, layers of complexity, effects in service and what is possible

In Notion, one click publishing - single button

It's a clean window - right from the stove, put the plate up, ring a bell, within seconds, on the table (or the entire Internet)

Foot Notes

  • Big thanks to David Perell, notes from the book "Working Clean"
  • 300 essay goal for this year, mosaic, not masterpieces
  • "Whales" - big works, don't fall into this paradigm, muscle-building
  • Detailed video of my Notion system
  • Email newsletter

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