Writing your cake and eating it too

My birthday book cake, at the Night of the Moon launch party in 2008It’s always inspiring to hear accomplished writers speak about their experiences. This past Sunday I listened to Candace Fleming, while accepting a nonfiction award from the Children’s Book Guild of Washington, DC, share charming anecdotes and tips about her writing. One thing she said especially stood out to me, as someone who derives much satisfaction from baking and having other people enjoy the things I make. Candace described a time when a student at a workshop told her that she preferred to write non-fiction over fiction because non-fiction was “easier.” Disagreeing with the student’s assessment, she likened the process of writing to baking a delicious cake. 

Fiction, she said involved making this cake using whatever ingredients your heart desires, based on a recipe you choose: chocolate chips, coconut, nuts, and so on. On the other hand, she said non-fiction writing was sending someone else to the store, who returns with an assortment of odd ingredients: liver, boiled peanuts, and cabbage, and then trying to make a cake that anyone wants to eat out of them.

I’ve watched countless episodes of Chopped, the Food Network show where aspiring chefs open baskets of mystery ingredients to dramatic music. They inevitably concoct desserts that look pretty palatable out of unusual ingredients like garam masala, cucumbers and basil. But they also get to add whatever they draw from the pantry to mask, dilute or intensify the flavors. As much as I enjoy the show, I’ve always considered the judging of it to be unfairly arbitrary—some chefs get chopped for not using enough of one ingredient, others for too much, some are told they don’t reinvent them, others lost standing because they aren’t true to form. There is no one formula or path to success.

It seems to be the same with writing. All writers, whether they are working with the ingredients they selected or have been given, use the pantries of their imaginations to transform, enhance and elevate their stories. Their struggle, much like the chefs on Chopped, is to create something they find delicious versus guessing what the judges out there want to taste. As I continue to send stories to the chopping blocks of the literary world, I’m hoping to get the balance right. My goal is to write something so irresistible you can’t put it down until it’s done. Anyone out there have the secret ingredient?