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night kitchen

Illustration by Maurice Sendak, 1970

When I was a kid, and obsessed with reading, no-one was as magical as Maurice Sendak, with Where the Wild Things Are and In The Night Kitchen. I read other books more often, but reserved a sort of reverence for Sendak’s surreal stories of a childhood full of secret doors and ways into hidden worlds. The others were great stories, but Sendak was mythology. There were whispers there of deeper truths, mysteries and better worlds to be found.

In the Night Kitchen is the story of Mickey, who one night falls out of his clothes and into the night kitchen where giant bakers are making batter for the Morning Cake. For me, as a little kid, it was like getting a glimpse into the secret workings of the universe. The kitchen was a mysterious, loud place, that only adults had control over, but also where all the food came from. Recognizing that most children would see it that way, in a way no adult would, is Sendak’s genius of course, and what gives his stories their mythic weight.

I was talking with a friend earlier this morning about working in creative businesses. She has been a circus performer and promoter for many years, but now makes her living as a writer, and I’m a sculptor. Our businesses are very different on many levels, but at their most basic level, their secret workings are exactly the same.

It strikes me that most people who want to start a business, or make a living as an artist, or do anything more creative aren’t so much working toward that goal, as they’re waiting for permission to receive it. If the world is a restaurant, they’re sitting at the buffet, eagerly watching as new dishes are brought out, hoping the next one will be their novel, or their one-woman show, or their cafe. Their dreams. They’re waiting for recognition. They’re waiting to be found.

And they never will be.

They never will be because the mystery of creation doesn’t happen in the dining room. They will never be given permission there, or discovered, or recognized. Their dreams won’t be brought out to them on a platter by a polite waiter. There’s no point waiting for magic in the dining room. All the real magic happens in the kitchen.

Most of us spend our lives either assuming we can’t touch the kitchen door, and never even thinking to go near it. Or we spend our lives peeking through it when it opens desperate to see what’s inside, hoping something good will come out. Very few of us ever have the guts to just kick down the door. Usually, only the very entitled, or the very desperate even think to do it.

Listen. The first time I ever got up the courage to ask someone for a sculpture job I cared about, I was 32. I was over at a wealthy couple’s house for a party. They had seen some of my work, I’d given them a few very small sculptures as casual gifts hoping to get them thinking that way (a kind of exclusive generosity with your talents goes a long way), and that night they asked if I could do a piece for them, and if so what would be involved. I quickly looked on the web at a few other sculptors websites and found that more established people were charging about five grand for what I was thinking of making them, so I walked back over to them and their friends and told them I wanted five thousand dollars. It was an insane risk. The husband looked like his head might explode for a second, and felt my face go hot as I turned red, thinking, holy shit, I just asked two random people for five thousand dollars for a piece of clay. But the wife, put her hand on her husbands arm and smiled and said “I think we can make that work.”. And just like that, 30 seconds later, I was a professional sculptor.

They could have said no too. But it wouldn’t matter anymore then, because after that moment I knew that I could ask. I knew I was worthy to demand it. If I could ask once, I could do it 100 more times until I heard yes.

In the end every one of us has to stop waiting for permission. Or more truthfully, everyone has to realize one day that no-one else is qualified to give them permission. None of us built the restaurant. we just work here. You choose to do the work, or you don’t.

The thing about reaching out and touching the kitchen door, is that once you’re there, you realize you don’t have to kick anything down at all. The door has been open the entire time. But it’s not a place for customers, or those who want to be waited on, or those who are hoping to receive a meal. Once you step through, you’re in the back of the house, where decisions get made, and things are created. It’s a place to work.

Generally though, people are happy to have you there, and will welcome you in, to help bake the Morning Cake, or hell, the Morning Waffles or Sushi, if they’re new and amazing. It’s possible not everyone will like what you make. You may need to work for a long time and hear a lot of “no” before people get a taste for your cooking. You may see the others sometimes, outside in the dining room, waiting for something good to come out to them, but still waiting, unwilling to just make it happen, not understanding.

That doesn’t matter though. You’re in the kitchen now, in the secret night-time clockwork of the universe, and that’s where the grownups live. It’s the place where things that matter happen, and you are welcome there, as much as anyone.


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