Burn the Snack Mix

It starts off innocently enough each November. As grocery stores start to stock end caps and islands with stuffing, cranberry sauce and all things pumpkin, I’ll look to my wife and utter a handful of words that are both familiar and eye-rollingly inaccurate.

“Maybe I won’t do too much for Thanksgiving dinner this year.”

Inevitably, as the day draws closer, more things start to catch my eye. An in-store display or recipe linked on Facebook might inspire me, or a conversation at work might spark an idea. I’m good for at least one new recipe floating from the ether during our pre-holiday shopping trip each year as well. Other times, an idea will emerge from the ether at random with no particular origin. No matter the reason, I start on Monday with the first few make ahead items and usually don’t stop until fifteen minutes before we hop in the car to make the drive to my dad’s house, with at least four or five different items in tow.

When you love to cook, Thanksgiving is every bit as joyous as Christmas morning. From family meals to work potlucks, it’s a rare opportunity for your cooking to find a broader audience than the people you share your home with(in my case, my wife and our pets, who aren’t allowed to have any of it). I’m the kind of person who takes recipes as suggestions rather than instructions, and the phrase “I tried something new” is a common refrain in our house.

Monday morning, I busted out the three boxes of not!Chex we bought at the grocery, along with the other usual suspects(pretzels, peanuts and pita chips) and mixed together a little snack we’ll call by the trademark friendly name of party mix. This is a particular favorite of mine, as one of those familiar signs of the holiday season are the boxes of the ubiquitous rice, corn and wheat cereal on end caps with free packets of spice to make your own mix.

When I make mine, I don’t opt for those free packets. A small cabinet in my kitchen overflows with spices, oils and an astonishing array of vinegars and I’ll use any excuse to use them. This year, a combination of ranch seasonings blended with a little buffalo sauce and cheeses to create the mix. While I typically use the oven or, in a pinch, the microwave, I saw a recipe that called for cooking the party mix in a crock pot, so I decided to give it a shot.

The good news is that buffalo ranch cheddar party mix is a fantastic combination of flavors. The bad news is that using the slow cooker gave a result that could best be described as mixed. Even regularly stirring the blend with a rubber spatula, I ended up with softer cereal pieces on the top and some wonderfully scorched bits on the bottom. Only the middle section, like the third bowl of porridge in the home of a certain bear family, turned out quite right.

What’s the takeaway from all of that? Well, I don’t know that I’ll use the slow cooker to make party mix in the future. It was difficult to pick out all the burned bits, the interior of the pot was a pain to clean up and it’s a longer investment of time than other methods. Do I, then, write off the slow cooker experiment as a complete failure?

Not at all, because you never know until you give it a try, and it did yield that really great mix in the middle. I’m not sure I would’ve tried that particular combination of ingredients and spices if I hadn’t decided to try the slow cooker technique in the first place. Sometimes, you have to burn the party mix.

And surprise surprise, there’s a lesson in that for my fellow creatives.

No matter if you’re a writer, photographer, illustrator, chef or underwater basket weaver, it’s easy to fall into a rut. Ruts are comfortable, like a good pair of jeans or that perfect spot on your couch. But, just like your favorite jeans or the couch cushion, if you keep using them over and over again, eventually they’re going to wear down. Even if they don’t, people are going to start to notice. People are going to start to wonder if you have to start every story with dialogue or draw every image in the same post, the same they’ll start to wonder if you own any other pants after a while.

It’s natural to be afraid of trying something new due to the fear of failure. But, SPOILER WARNING, everyone fails at least a little when they try something new. No one’s going to pick up a paint brush for the first time and create a work of art that’ll hang in the Louvre. In his excellent book Telling Lies for Fun and Profti, Lawrence Block reminds us that we all failed and kept at it once in our lives, when we first learned to walk. If you can approach something new with the relentless energy and bountiful optimism of a toddler, then you’re probably on the right path.

Last month, my wife(who’s a fabulously talented artist, check out her stuff here if you don’t believe me) took part in Inktober. It’s a challenge in the same family of insanity as National Novel Writing Month, where artists produce an inked piece each day in the month of October. Over the course of the month, she started experimenting with new ideas. She’ll be the first to admit that some of them didn’t pan out like she hoped, but there were far more examples of work she enjoyed. What’s more, she left the month with a few new techniques that she’ll use going forward, techniques she might never have thought of had she not taken on the Inktober challenge.

I have my own example in NaNoWriMo. For most of my writing life, I’ve lived comfortably in the past… tense. My first exposure to present tense writing came when I flipped through the first Hunger Games book and it struck me as awkward. But after reading young adult books from gifted authors like Marie Lu and Nic Stone, I decided to try and write this year’s NaNo book in the present tense. Since the book’s very much a draft zero at this point, due in large parts to pantsing it(or working without an outline, another new thing for me), I don’t know how it will turn out. Some sections feel awkward, but I’ve also found it’s given an immediacy and tension to action scenes my earlier work hasn’t had.

I might change the tense when I revise the book. I might not. But either way, I think the book will be stronger for having tried something new.

The next time you sit down to create, take a minute to consider stepping out of your comfort zone. Try drawing in a different style, or taking a different style of photo from your normal work. Try a different genre. Write a poem. The more uncomfortable it makes you, the more you might learn from the experience. More often that not, you’ll find some part of that new work that you can use. Even if you can’t, you’ll gain more insight into your creative process on the other side.

Sometimes you burn the snack mix, and that’s okay Toss out the bad bits and keep moving forward. And you never know, you might just make something everyone goes crazy for.

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