The Short-Order Writer

Can a grill cook become a master chef? Can a short-order writer aspire to more as well?

I spent a summer in college working as a short-order cook, which taught me how to operate in auto-pilot. There’s no time for reflection when you face a row of clipped order tickets from cranky waitresses knowing their tips are riding on your performance; when each order is from a four-top and the order items need to come out at the same time; and when you need to keep your ingredients prepped and your grill surface (relatively) clean.

Author Michael Swanwick directed me here for a great cheesesteak when I interviewed him in Philly. The cooks were a blur of motion.

The rush would begin around 11:30 am. Moments later I would find myself with a respite, and I’d see it was not a moment later. The clock would read 2:30 pm.

Working as a wire and daily reporter was like working as a short-order cook. News would break, and I would write it up. News events known of in advance involved prep work. Instead of lining up sliced meat, cheese and condiments, I’d line up background graphs and “reaction” quotes gathered before there was something to react to.

I wrote a heck of a lot of words during those years, just as I grilled a lot of burgers at the restaurant. But even the fanciest dish I made at that diner — a grilled ham-cheese-and-pineapple sandwich in which the sourdough bread is coated with grated Parmesan cheese — would never compare with anything from a top-rated restaurant.

The hills of Vermont, taken on my cross-country U.S. road trip last summer. I didn't know I'd be coming back to the state in less than a year.

I don’t need my writing to win the equivalent of a three-star Michelin rating. But my cross-country U.S. road trip, meeting inspiring creatives from all walks of life like musician Rochelle Smith and painter/photographer Amy Buchheit — guided me to the path to an art-committed life. As a result, I do aspire to writing that creates a more lasting impression on the palate than that sourdough sandwich (and goes down smoother than the diner’s most popular item, a greasy bacon cheeseburger).

In June I’ll be away at a writing residency, beginning an MFA in Creative Writing. Fortune smiled upon me, giving me a choice of programs, and it appears I’ll be going to the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

I suspect I will have had more words published than many of my classmates. But I also suspect nearly all of my classmates will have had more experience with “creative” writing than me.

That should make me nervous. But instead it makes me excited.

I want to learn from skilled faculty, and I want to learn from sharp classmates. Part of the path to an art-committed life, for me anyway, is learning, learning, learning. One thing I’ve learned with this blog and with Twitter is that the writing community is very supportive, so I know my classmates will be patient with me as I try to catch up to them in the art and craft of creative writing.

Is it June yet? I’m ready to step into a new kitchen.

21 thoughts on “The Short-Order Writer

  1. Do step into the new kitchen. There’s no shortage of ingredients. And we’re here waiting to get a taste when you’re ready.
    Patrick, not even the sky is a limit when we follow our hearts and keep them open. And all writing is creative writing because -as we all know- it’s never easy to put two words together that make sense. Even if it’s to report the news.
    The best of luck on your new adventure!!


  2. ann simon

    Congratulations on your acceptance. You may not have the most experience in creative writing, but I’m sure you have a ton of experience in creative thinking, which, as you know, is the horse that comes before the cart.


    1. Thanks for the comment, Ann! That’s a great point. A main reason I took the road trip, actually, was to further my study of creativity and the creative process, to learn from actual creatives. At the time my interest was more academic, but they taught me my real fascination with creativity had to do in part with my desire to express my own. No coincidence my Twitter handle is @on_creativity !


  3. Hi readers, I’ll be off comments for most of the day, I’m headed to that writers’ retreat I mentioned in a recent post. It’s not an overnight, just all day Mon-Fri. Don’t worry, I’ve queued up a few tweets and RTs for my Twitter feed, you won’t even know I’m gone!


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  5. Marilyn Jean

    Loved your piece and subscribed to your blog. I just started blogging as a way to create a more disciplined approach to my writing. Here is a link to a post I wrote on the need for self-expression. Enjoy your retreat and I look forward to reading more from you.


  6. Congratulations, Patrick! This sounds like a wonderful next step for you. I’ve always wanted to live in Vermont. I spend a lot of time in New Hampshire, but Vermont is a culture unto itself. No Walmarts, town meetings, proudly socialist senators, etc. And what a wonderfully beautiful place to hole up and do some creative writing. Hope you’ll keep the blog going so we can live vicariously through you!


    1. Hi Sue! I’m excited. It’s a low-residency program, I go there twice a year for 10-day residencies, do the rest of the work remotely with a faculty member (a different one each semester). I’ve got a family and a job in DC, so this works out well for me. I’m looking forward to a VT summer, not sure about the winter!

      The blog will definitely continue!


      1. I like the sounds of the way you are doing your MFA in Creative Writing. 10 days writing residency in the summer, back home to your job and family, then out to do the 10 days another time in the winter. I’ve never been to Vermont but I hear it’s beautiful.

        I suspect you and your classmates can learn from each other.

        Good luck, Patrick, and have a great time doing it!


      2. Ah, how 20th Century of me to think you would move there to do the program! Still, a great opportunity to get to know the place better and have a nice little escape from the urban lifestyle a couple of times a year. Sounds blissful!


  7. I loved every word of this! (And now I’m craving one of those grilled ham-cheese-and-pineapple sandwiches in which the sourdough bread is coated with grated Parmesan cheese.) I love the theme you chose to express yourself with. I love the way this flowed and delighted me at every turn. I adore the big smile I have on my face after reading this.

    I don’t think you have any worries about finding your creative writing groove. You’re already in the groove. Sure, you’ll have amazing new experiences applying that to the types of writing you didn’t have time to focus on during your years of high productivity – but you’re already connected. My heart tells me so.



    1. Milli, thank you once again for your support. I’ll confess, this blog is proving very helpful at finding a creative groove.

      The sandwich is called a Hawaiian Delight. The original recipe called for white or wheat bread, I introduced the sourdough and Parmesan to give a bit of San Francisco and Italian bent to the sandwich. 🙂


  8. Thanks for this post. Inspiring as usual. I never thought of reporting as ‘short-order writing’ but the analogy works! Good for you for seeing your classmates as resources and teachers – that perspective is one of the advantages that adult learners bring to school.

    I suspect that your creative talents had as much to do with your having a choice of MFAs as fortune’s smile. I hope you’re enjoying your retreat!


    1. Thanks, Danielle! I hope to learn from writers’ group members as well once that’s up and running! 🙂

      The retreat is going well, we’re just wrapping up writing, taking a quick break before doing a last group project. I’ve written a ridiculous amount today — about 4,850 words, of which at least 300 are likely salvageable. (It’s hard not to produce words when everyone around you is typing away.)


  9. Another great blog entry, Patrick! I feel like you are getting looser and more creative in your writing with each new post. More personality sneaking in all the time. A good thing! 🙂

    Congratulations on taking the leap with your MFA, how exciting! I am looking forward to what happens next for you. Thanks for giving us a “taste” of your what’s to come here!


    1. Thanks, Amy! I’ll confess, this blog is a great exercise for flexing my creative writing muscles. I was reading an essay yesterday about the art of essay, trying to figure out exactly what an “essay” is, and realized it’s like writing a blog!


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