4 lessons in creativity from Julia Child

I’ve been in a massive COVID slump lately. While my mood has been up and down since March, I’ve recently found it very hard to remain hopeful for more than an hour at a time. I think it’s finally sinking in just how much longer we’re going to be living this way, and I’ve begun thinking more about the longterm impact this is going to have on my life. For much of quarantine, I’ve been able to deny that this whole thing is in any way traumatizing to me, personally. None of my friends or family members have died of COVID-19, I haven’t lost my job, and for the most part I am very good at being alone.

But knowing that my life, or what I thought was my life, won’t exist for another year or so has implications for the future, and it’s been really hard to shake myself from the idea of finality–that this is the thing that will definitively decide which doors are still open to me, and which are closed. Bleak, right? And aside from not being great for my mental health, that sort of fatalistic thinking serves no actual purpose. If I decide I no longer have options, then what? Do I just give up, accept defeat? Stop trying at anything? Lie down on the floor and scream until there’s an effective vaccine? (This option sounds the best, to be honest.)

Instead, I decided to spend some time this month trying to reprogram my brain. After listening to a recent episode of Blank Check with Griffin and David about Julie and Julia, I borrowed the book that inspired the Julia part of the movie: Julia Child’s memoir, My Life in France. I’ve been listening to the audiobook version; I prefer this for non-fiction books as it allows me to become fully absorbed in what I’m “reading” and drowns out any negative talk track in my head. It felt like maybe a mental escape to 1950s France, along with Julia Child’s noted effervescence, might conspire to create a brief respite from my profound sadness about the world.

I’ve been surprised to find that not only has this been the case, but that Julia’s memoir also offers some lessons for how to be creative, especially when you have no control over your situation. Here are four:

1. Be resourceful.

Julia Child began learning to cook out of necessity. She and her husband Paul met in Kunming, China, where both were working for the U.S. Office of Strategic Services. They soon moved back to the States, where living on government salaries made it a necessity for Julia to become more adept in the kitchen, as they couldn’t afford to eat out regularly. Until her thirties, she’d never taken an interest in cooking, but when she was forced to do so, she leaned all the way in. You might assume, given where Julia Child ended up, that she was a natural in the kitchen, but surprisingly that wasn’t the case. Her early attempts were disastrous, but she stuck with it, methodically improving until she was a competent chef.

2. Be open to adventure.

Two years after they married, Paul’s job took the Childs to Paris, a city where Julia knew few people and didn’t speak the local language. This initially didn’t seem like a huge leap of faith to me, as Julia had lived and worked overseas previously, but she clarifies in the book that her time in Asia hadn’t felt much like living abroad as she spent all of her time working and hardly did any sightseeing. Despite some early concerns, Julia ultimately embraced the opportunity to move to France.

Later, when Julia enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu, she intended to sign up for a six-week cooking class. She soon learned that she had accidentally signed up for a yearlong course instead. Instead of fixing the error, Julia decided to stick with the yearlong course, despite the much-larger investment of time and money it would require. This simple decision ended up playing a pivotal role in Julia’s life.

3. Be a lifelong learner.

Six weeks into her time at Le Cordon Bleu–right around when the course she’d intended to register for would’ve ended–Julia discovered that the more she learned about cooking, the more she realized how little she knew. Instead of being discouraged, Julia found that this lack of knowledge invigorated her and made her even more motivated to perfect new techniques and dishes.

This approach reflected Julia’s overall ethic. When her parents came to visit France, they wanted to stay in top hotels and visit tourist attractions, whch Julia found dismaying: “I don’t like it when everyone speaks perfect English. I’d rather struggle with my phrase book.” She preferred a path that was slightly more difficult along the way, but would ultimately lead to greater knowledge and skill.

4. We can do hard things.

This is something my friend Nicole Antoinette always says, and few people have embodied it as well as Julia Child. In the book, Julia describes how, until her thirties, she’d always wanted a “butterfly life” of ease and merriment–but says that learning to cook changed all that. At one point several months into her time at Le Cordon Bleu, she became frustrated with the complacency of her instructors and classmates: “I wanted to be pushed harder, and further. There was so much more to learn.”

Julia’s willingness to bear difficult things translated into a tenacity that served her well throughout her career. The first time she took the exam to graduate from Le Cordon Bleu, Julia failed. Instead of wallowing, she figured out what had gone wrong, changed her preparation strategy, and showed up to retake the exam ready to ace it. Later, when Mastering the Art of French Cooking went through numerous challenges to find a publisher who understood and supported the authors’ vision, it was Julia who honed the book’s content and how she presented the project to others–a years-long process with many ups and downs–to garner support.

I found everything about this book and its subject aspirational at a time when it’s hard to have aspirations. I’m only watching French-language TV shows and movies this month, but I’m looking forward to diving into some episodes of The French Chef for further inspiration in September.

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