April 30, 2004

taste test

What should I write about tonight? The cake I baked today known formally as the Test Cake, a dry run for Damianís upcoming birthday party. Also known as the ďShould we order an expensive cake from Sweet Lady Jane or should we save the bucks and dump a bunch of butter and flour into a mixer?Ē cake.

Or should I write about an interesting article I read online, an interview with the head of USCís screenwriting department? In the first half he talks about writing and his overall career and later he discusses the specifics of how heís currently adapting a book from a series Iíve never heard of before but Iím sure you all have (The Three Investigators).

The cake may be more fun to contemplate, though. It wasnít easy today, finding a good yellow cake recipe. It took a while, much Google searching and cookbooks strewn about the guest room, before I found a likely candidate. I chose it because it included almond extract as well as vanilla, and Iím a sucker for almond anything. I also chose it because it instructs you to separate the eggs and beat the whites until peaks form. I hate beating whites, even with a mixer. Iím terrified Iíll overmix and make mush. But I love the results in cake. Lighter, almost airy. I wanted something that would stand out as Someone Made This, Isnít That Impressive? Because after all if youíre going to go to the trouble, it should be brag-worthy, right?

On the other hand, the interview with David Howard struck an unexpected chord for me. In it, he talks about an enlightening workshop he took with Frank Daniel that changed the course of his life (exciting him enough to make him want to write scripts). He says, in part:

DH: One of the most important things I learned from Frank in the first hour (and throughout our years of working together) was that a story is about the experience you are creating for the audience. Like many beginning writers, I thought all I needed to do was figure out my characters and the world and the conflicts and then the story was done. I didn't realize that is only part of the process. The "telling" in storytelling is consciously striving to have an intended impact on the audience - to give them an exciting and meaningful experience through the lives of the characters. To create that experience we make thousands of decisions about what portion of the lives and world and conflicts we reveal when, in what order, for what impact. That's true storytelling.

I think itís very true. So many writers Ė and here Iím thinking of aspiring screenwriters but also novelists and even bloggers and journallers Ė donít seem to pay attention to this simple principle: youíre not writing in a vacuum. You write to be read or itís just mental masturbation. And if you write to be read, you do need to be aware of your audience, of how your words will affect them. You need to craft your story for the reader, to satisfy (or intentionally leave them unsated). To provoke a laugh or a sigh.

And yet itís not that simple after all. Because you can go too far in the other direction. I know I did. I was so concerned with my readers, with being liked, with seeking approval, that I wasnít writing from the gut. I was second and third guessing myself. I was choosing my story ideas for cleverness rather than personal resonance. Only when a story resonates with the writer does it have enough creative juice to sustain the reader as well.

Back to today and my cake baking exercise. You must understand, this was a serious endeavor. Involving at least four bowls and four sticks of butter (two for the cake, two for the icing). Also much sifting and stirring and folding. Also some questions about proper form: Should I really put the wax paper in the cake tins? Wonít the cake get wrinkly? And: will this work as well if I use regular flour instead of pastry flour? What about the sugar? Am I really supposed to sift it? Itís sugar! How fluffy will it get? And is the icing really supposed to be this hard to spread? Ah, more milk. That's the secret.

When I bake, I feel like a chemist mixing proper amounts of this and that. Though I may use a knife to level the tops of measuring cups instead of a scale to weigh the liquid in beakers, Iím still mixing careful proportions of various elements so they can combine and interact and ultimately transmute under heat into something altogether different and new.

Dare I say it? This process, itís not altogether unlike writing. The work, the disparate ingredients, the careful but ultimately unpredictable melding and of course the outcome. Does it taste good? Is it enjoyable on the palate, in the brain? Is it a good read/a tasty treat? Once again it comes back to audience. The passion of the baker, the enthusiasm of the chef, does it translate?

Dan and Damian came home to find a cake on the table with one piece already removed. The authorís own reread, if you will. They cut their own slices. They declared it a success. Damian had another piece for dessert later. He ate nearly all of it, which if you know Damian means he loves it. Heís not a cake person. Which goes back to why I worked so hard to unearth just the right recipe to lure this birthday-boy-to-be to relish his own birthday cake. A slightly eggy, very buttery yellow cake with a moist crumb, with chocolate icing like frozen waves and strawberry filling between the layers. Apparently this audience, my most important judge, gave it a thumbs up.

Though he did tell me that next time I should make a whole cake, not one with a bite already taken out of it. Not too hard to accommodate. My stomachís so full of cake I donít think Iíll eat any of the next iteration. Just as there comes a time I can no longer reread my own story, I apparently have my cake limits as well. Anyone want a piece of delicious homemade cake? Itís on my dining room table waiting for its moment in the limelight.

Posted by Tamar at April 30, 2004 11:00 PM