Updated: Oct 1, 2021
The quote: Origin and interpretation
Anyone who has seen Pixar’s animation Ratatouille will be able to recognise this quotation by Auguste Gusteau – France’s most famous chef. He dies of a broken heart at the beginning of the story after an authoritative but old-fashioned critique condemns him and his motto, ‘anyone can cook’.
Remy, an anthropomorphic rat, wants nothing more from life but to be given the chance to become a chef, following in the footsteps of his idol, chef Gusteau. He learns that in order to do that, he has to pretend to be something he is not. There is a happy ending, though (phew!).
On the surface, this is a children’s film about a cute little rat and how everything is possible, and anyone can be anything if they try hard enough. Through a closer look, however, it’s easy to spot concepts like prejudice, race- and class-discrimination, and the absence of open-mindedness and acceptance from those authoritative figures who decide the fates of the raising talents, and whether they should be called that at all. It’s easy to see why Gusteau’s quotation fits so perfectly when it comes to creative writing, right? If not, just replace the words ‘chef’ and ‘cook’ above with ‘writer’ and ‘writing’, and you’ll see what I mean.
What is good writing?
I find it very odd when someone who calls themselves a writer could say ‘this is bad, and this is good.’ Shouldn’t we, as writers, stay away from anything that suggests the world is black and white? Is there such a thing as good or bad writing, and if so, who decides?
The truth is creative writing is not a formula. It’s not something to be cut into with scalpels of arrogance. For me, creative writing is a language that you either grew up speaking, or you learned in time. You can be a great writer without ever having attended a creative writing class, just like you can speak a language without ever having studied what second conditional is, or when and why you should use present perfect instead of past simple. Just because you don’t know this, it doesn’t mean you can’t speak fluently.
Creative writing is a process of individuality, and each writer’s growth is unique. Just like with language learning – some learn by auditory memory and when the time comes to put a sentence together, they know exactly how to do it. But they don’t know why. And vice-versa, some learners need to know the structure, the grammar of a language. They need to know the ‘why’. There’s no right or wrong in language learning, and there’s no simple right or wrong in practising creative writing. And, although many would disagree, I say there is no such thing as good or bad writing because none of this exists without a reader. And a reader’s opinion is subjective. Art is in the eye of the beholder.
Black holes and rejections
So, what if a beholder doesn’t see your rusty piece of bent metal as a work of art? What if the literary critique labels your poem about suicide, or short story against all-fit-one, factory-produced communal behaviour as ‘bad’? And what if that ‘beholder’ is influential enough so that other beholders would copy their opinion without a question? Well, then you are screwed until you’re not.
I’m not sure many would agree, but for me, being disliked and rejected as a writer is actually a good thing. It’s a sign that you’re doing something differently. In fact, the best of the best writers have often been disliked in their own time because their ideas were either too frightening or too inconvenient. Think of books like The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, The Lord of the Flies by William Golding or Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. In some cases, it took decades (and connections to important people) for them to be regarded as masterpieces. It’s heart-breaking when an artist or a writer lives their whole life struggling to make ends meet and coping with rejections because their work is constantly turned down by publishers who only look for what sells to the masses.
Some time ago I had a chat with a friend of mine about how difficult it can be to find a job in the field of publishing. Jobs in this field are, first of all, very scarce. Then, those few positions advertised as available are usually for interns and pay very little (if at all). And to top that up, these positions are almost always in or around London. Now, what does this tell you?
Well, it tells you that unless you are from London or have money to move to London, rent a place and sustain yourself on an internship payslip, you simply don’t have the same chance. And my friend had a very good point here. She said, ‘this has a total knock on effect to the publishing industry. The people who can afford to live in London are going to be the only people qualified to get the jobs, so there’s no diversity of the kind of people in the industry which must affect the books being published.’ And then she finished, ‘Surely there must be a social and economic divide when that’s what a lot of these jobs are asking for.’
Sounds about right.
And that, in short, is the reason why writers like Bulgakov and Golding and Huxley had to go through hell with their novels. Well that and politics, of course. Same difference, right?
But they did it, eventually. It wasn’t easy for them, but they didn’t budge. They stayed true to their writing, their ideologies and their imagination. And thank goodness for that because the world wouldn’t be the same without them. Or without you, for that matter.
Do it as only you can
Sometimes, to be a unique writer, you need to think outside the box of rules on writing. You need to not give a sh** about what’s popular and what sells. You need to question what you’re told and what you think you know about writing, and experiment. Experiment like a mad professor in the basement of a haunted house. Writing by a strict formula leads to no originality, and no originality has never reached milestones in writing.
Be a rebel in your writing – try to achieve something different. Explore new ways and go beyond your comfort zone. See what you’ll find there and only after you’ve discovered that, come back to your comfy living room – the place you know so well that feels so at home – and write, and write, and write.
And remember Gusteau’s words: ‘What I say is true: anyone can [write] … but only the fearless can be great.’