Deep Dish Shepherd’s Pie & The Writing Life

Jan 5, 2012

At book readings and events, I’ve been asked to describe ‘the writing life’.  As with many professions, from the outside, it looks pretty good.  And it is.  I am lucky to be home with my kids and, in theory, to work in my pajamas.  (Note: I do not ever work in my pajamas.  Just not me.)

If writing were a movie, we’d pan way out and see a Thomas Hardy style English countryside all fertile and green, a lopsided stone wall, a thatched roof cottage with smoke puffing from the chimney and something in the oven.

The reality?

For me, writing is a tiny patch of scrubby land.  I can see the lovely countryside vista, but my little island isn’t connected.  That’s what we try to do in writing, connect ourselves and readers to the other land.  Sometimes this works and I’m leading a parade of characters – come on, 1920s restaurant owner, modern teen, lovelorn boy with Asperger’s! – and we all arrive at the cottage for tea and scones.

But much of the time, I’m grubby and wandering around the small patch of sandy grit with a bunch of lunatic, half-formed characters all waiting for their lines, to be placed in a setting, to be a part of a cohesive narrative.   That green and pleasant land is a magic place, sort of like Brigadoon in that I’ve been there many times but I don’t know the route.  There aren’t any maps or GoogleEarth to prove its existence.

Is it lonely on the island?  Yes.  So I reach out to other writers.  Our conversation go somehting like this:

“What’cha doing?”

“Trying to write.”  Sigh.  “Or maybe I shouldn’t write anymore.  I should go back to teaching.  Or invent something cool.”

“Yeah!  Let’s invent something everyone needs…Still the same book?”

“No.  I left that one for the time being.  The new one is called…Lydia’s Lament….no, wait.  I hate that title.  Something else.  Maybe Heartbreak Express.”

“That sounds like a chain of misery.”

“Pretty much.  What are you doing?”

“Thinking about how to start the novel that swirling around in my head…I’m also thinking about lunch.”

“Lunch is good.  Plus, nothing is selling right now.  My agent says the market is dead.”


“Yeah.  Maybe a high-concept book would sell.”


And then you keep talking until someone says they have to go try and write more or you need to get back to writing and your characters poke you in the shoulder enough times that you know there’s something there to figure out, to help lead you away from the island and over to the cottage, where there’s deep dish shepherd’s pie that is magically waiting for you.  Enjoy it now, because who knows how or if you’ll get back for seconds.

Deep Dish Shepherd's Pie

~6 cups mashed potatoes

1 1/2 pounds ground meat (I used a combination of pork and beef)

1 onion, chopped

2 carrots, peeled and diced

4 cloves garlic, crushed

2 tbsp olive oil

1 tbsp tomato paste

1 tbsp Marmite (you may sub in Worcestershire sauce)

salt to taste

butter for top (optional but yummy)

Make sure your potatoes are salted and mashed with butter and milk. I leave the skins on if the skins are thin (red/new potatoes or Yukon gold). Cook meat and onion in skillet, adding carrots after a couple of minutes. Once meat has mainly cooked, add garlic and olive oil. Cook for a few minutes until meat is browned. Add paste and marmite. Season to taste. Spread meat mixture into large baking dish. Layer with potatoes. Dot with butter, bake at 350 until top is just starting to brown at the edges. Serve to friends (real or imaginary).

1 comment

  1. UnprofessionalCritic
    January 5, 2012

    I’m not the awesome author you are, but I can really relate to this. 🙂 I don’t have kids, but I do have a full-time job – so yeah, writing is hardly the idyllic process I wish it were.

    And this shepherd’s pie looks yummy! I’ve always been a little scared of shepherd’s pie, but this seems pretty manageable.