Baking, Reading, Writing

It’s baking hot here in Alabama. I step out of the front door, and a wave of heat envelops me. The heat messes with my brain and burns my skin. I have headaches, and get light sunburn from walking out to the car.

The heat is bad for my head, but good for some vegetables. 

Bounty from my parents’ garden

We have more squash and zucchini than I know what to do with. And not tiny little squashes and zucchinis, either.

Furball and Zucchini

Zuchinni the size of a small cat.

I’ve never been someone who likes to cook anything beyond very simple meals that involve lots of cans and pasta. My attitude for a long time has been that it would be wasteful to try to learn even rudimentary cooking, like baking. I’m afraid of using up a lot of ingredients and making food that is completely inedible.

But we got a huge bag of zucchini from my parents this week, and I’m determined to use it before it goes bad. There are a few foods I remember making with my mom when I was a kid, and one of them was zucchini bread.

So I found a recipe for zucchini muffins online, and I started gathering the ingredients. Then I started to panic. Wait – no applesauce. Maybe I could chop some apples in the food processor? Wait – we don’t have brown sugar. Would our other, non-bleached sugar still work?

I started to freak out. The scales were slowly tipping. With every missing ingredient the voice in my head said “Give up now. Don’t be wasteful, the muffins aren’t going to turn out right anyways.”

So I took a break. I searched for a different recipe. And in just a few minutes, I found a recipe for banana zucchini muffins. This one had just three steps, fewer ingredients, and hey, even called for over-ripe bananas, three of which I had sitting on the kitchen table.

To someone who cooks regularly, I’m sure watching me as I mixed together the ingredients would have been a painfully boring experience. I went really slowly, making sure I wasn’t confusing tablespoons and teaspoons, repeating the directions out loud. But my boyfriend was at work and even my cats were taking naps. If I failed, I planned to throw away the evidence, take out the trash, and never tell anyone that this had happened. I could be wasteful once, I reasoned.

But my muffins came out great. They didn’t have the delicious alchemy of a gifted chef like my boyfriend, but they were solid, tasty muffins.

Banana Zucchini Muffin – My first baked thing

My attitude about wastefulness also applies to my writing. I’ve been wanting to try writing a novel for a while, but I’ve been holding off, reasoning that I need to get better at writing short stories first. The thought of spending a year or more on a novel, and never seeing it published, is terrifying. The same voice that keeps me from trying to cook also tells me how complicated writing a novel would be, how much time it would take, and how in the end it wouldn’t hold together. I’m afraid I’d be forced to throw the whole thing out, and pretend my first novel never existed.

Supporting this voice are the novels that I love most. I like complicated, lengthy novels with twists in perception that creep up on you. I’ve just broken a two-month long novel-reading drought with Sarah Waters’ Affinity. It’s a gorgeous book, and I’m reading it slowly, because I love the characters and I don’t want to stop hanging out with them.

I’m worried about writing a novel because I feel like I don’t have all the skills that an amazing book calls for. How can I hope for the expert alchemy of Peter Carey or Sarah Waters or John Crowley when I’m still learning how to make short stories?

What I think I need to do is plan a novel in steps: make an outline of a character’s journey and set myself the small task of taking each step. Tell myself not to stress over writing the best novel the world has ever seen. But write a good novel, that holds together, and that I’ll share with a few friends. Tell myself as many times at it takes that trying something new isn’t wasteful.

*
{Here’s the easy, yummy Recipe I used to make my muffins.} 
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7 thoughts on “Baking, Reading, Writing

  1. Diatryma says:

    Yeah, that's a hard one. I have learned not to save ideas for when I can do them justice. It never happens.

  2. Alisa says:

    I like to cook but I too am so anti-wastage that you'd think I grew up during the Depression. And I feel exactly the same way about writing–I hate “wasting” all that time and all those pages on stories (or even paragraphs) that aren't going to work out or ever get published or turn out to be useful. I just never thought to connect these two attitudes before.

  3. eliza says:

    Your muffins make me *almost* wish I was sweltering down there with you. Also-Sarah Waters is super delicious reading. Have you read Fingersmith?

    Now, with that out of the way, I think you're headed in the absolute right direction, as far as writing a novel. I was terrified, too, when I first started contemplating what seemed like the totally insurmountable task of putting together–OMG!–a book! Which is when I discovered NaNoWriMo. It's not for everyone, and based on what I know of your writing process it may not even be an option for you, but I found it crazy liberating. It combines the headlong rush of creation with the support that a strong online community can give, and it helped me hurtle facefirt through the glass separating 'me as a person who has only written shorts” and “me as a person who's written a novel”. The first one wasn't great, but I learned a hell of a lot. The second one, same deal. Third book–not going anywhere. Finally, and my whole-cloth rewrite of the fourth novel under my belt, I feel like I have something. And I would never have gotten here if I didn't take the plunge in the first place.

    The only time you waste is the time you don't use.

    (also- Save the Cat, and Larry Brooks StoryFix website are both amazing tools to use when learning about structure)

  4. Jenni Moody says:

    I get caught in an endless whirlpool of rewriting story ideas (as you've probably guessed from my crit group submissions). Gah! I don't save ideas, but I guess I kinda fetishize them a bit.

  5. Jenni Moody says:

    I'm glad to hear you have the same mindset, too! I thought it was some weird wiring in my brain. Did you ever try to sew the holes in your socks when you were a kid? I did that after reading _The Long Winter_.

  6. Jenni Moody says:

    I will have to make a batch of muffins for the Clarion West CAAMF Crew 5 year reunion! 😀

    Fingersmith is the only other book I've read by Waters, and I was blown away. “Super delicious” is the perfect description. 🙂

    Four novels! That is impressive! I was considering NaNo. Maybe plan out my novel really well leading up to NaNo, and then just push myself to get out a first draft during November. Like you said, my writing process is all meandery and resists fast typing. But my later stories at CW that I started outlining and planning in advance held together much better than my earlier emo walk on the beach stories. 🙂

    I've heard great things about Save the Cat. Thanks for reminding me to check out a copy! 😀

  7. Ashley Cowger says:

    Wow, those muffins even LOOK amazing. I would have expected for your first attempt that they would taste good but look iffy. Now, use that success to create that novel! 🙂

    I totally know how you feel about waste. I wrote a really, really, really lousy novel as an undergrad. While I was writing it, i thought it was brilliant. If I had known what a piece of crap it was, I probably wouldn't have finished, but I'm glad I did because it gave me practice and experience to write another novel–which is also not good enough to get published, it turns out, but which is waaaaaaaay better than my first attempt. I believe my next novel will be “the one” (I'm gearing up to write a new novel this coming year–let's workshop our novels together when we have complete drafts!). But here's the thing: I don't think of those first two failed novels as a waste. I learned all kinds of things by trial and error, and I couldn't have learned those things from just reading novels, studying about how to write novels, or talking to novel writers about their experiences–those things are valuable too, of course, but sooner or later, you just have to get your hands dirty and try it yourself.

    You're a MUCH better writer than I was when I wrote my first lousy novel, Jenni, so there's no telling what amazing book you're going to produce. Your first attempt might end up publishable! But at this point, I hope you don't worry about the end result too much either way. Just remember that the process of writing the novel is valuable in itself, so no matter what happens with the finished product, writing this novel could never be a waste.

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