Pantry Skills- What Baking Has In Common With Writing
Years ago, in my heady youth, I reconnected with a guy I’d worked with on the student newspaper. We went away for a weekend.
In those pre-Airbnb days, it must have been a rented house, or maybe a borrowed one, but in any case, it had minimal facilities. When we arrived, after dark, miles from anywhere, with no provisions beyond a few bottles of wine, my boyfriend announced he was going to get to work on writing his novel, and would I prepare something for dinner.
When I confronted the pantry, with its bags of rice, beans, onions, a few eggs, and spices, my heart sank. What could I possibly make from these paltry ingredients? Whatever it was, I did it, and my friend marveled at my ingenuity.
I am really dating myself when I tell you I found this idea rather glamourous – the writer and his muse. Never thinking that I could write myself, even though I had a good job at a publishing house, and he scribbled at a counter-cultural magazine. We have moved on. But the making-something-from-nothing idea has stayed with me. It is a good metaphor for the whole process of novel-writing, come to think of it. That’s the process of creating a fictional world that invites other people in to enjoy a few hours escaping the quotidian.
This memory came back to me this past weekend when unexpectedly, we hosted a party at our house with a couple of hours’ notice. How could I make something from nothing?
As is usually the case, “nothing” turned out to be merely what had been overlooked. From the refrigerator and the pantry, I put together platters of veggies and dips, cheese and crackers, and bruschetta made from a day-old oven-dried baguette, rubbed with garlic and oil and topped with juicy tomatoes and basil from the garden. And a cake. Blueberries are in season, and I had a pint or two, as well as a dozen eggs a friend had given us from his backyard hens. With the addition of flour, sugar, butter, and a lemon, all of which I had on hand, something new and delicious fed and entertained a dozen people.
Perhaps it is no wonder that Camilla, the protagonist of my first novel, Lipstick on the Strawberry, is a caterer. She’s as creative as a novelist, putting together unusual combinations of foodstuffs, just as we writers try out different combinations of scenes and characters.
The richness we have to draw upon because of our imaginations always astonishes me. I’ve been thinking about this lately, because my second novel, which I’m currently pitching, is about a botanist who believes in the intelligence of trees. Current research shows that plants remember, communicate, and act to protect their young. But as far as we know, they do not have imagination. That’s for us alone to have.
So when people ask me how I come up with ideas for a story, I tell them we all have rich ingredients inside us. Memories, stories others have told us, news articles, conversations overheard, natural occurrences that inspire awe. All of it is fodder for the author. That’s a word that means “food.” According to dictionary.com, the word means “material considered as readily available and of little value.”
All that flotsam and jetsam of experience can be dumped out, sorted, sifted, weighed, added to or edited, put into order, and the words magically appear on the page, just as by fishing in my refrigerator I was able to pull out the ingredients for an afternoon’s party.
Of course, writing a novel takes much longer. In my case, getting the confidence to write a novel, let alone to actually finish the manuscript and get it published, took decades.
But over the years I’ve developed my pantry skills to the point that I can skip the recipe and just go immediately to the gathering of ingredients and cooking. And if the sought-for ingredients are not to hand, I’ve learned to adapt and find uses for what’s available from the encyclopedia of cooking experience that rattles around in my head.
Now, having finished my second novel, I feel confident enough to make the analogy. Writing is like baking. Sort your ingredients, outline your steps, measure, cut, mix, and add. Whether the result is good is only partly due to talent. A lot has to do with experience.
Looking back at the memory of that weekend-long ago, I suppose I should have told the boyfriend to get out of the chair and into the kitchen so I could be the writer. Yet the richness of my lifetime of experience in the more domestic arts has led to a sure knowledge that I have many more stories in me now, and I know how to tell them. It’s a matter of looking in the pantry and pulling together something that’s a feast for brain, body, and eye.
About Margaret Ann Spence:
A former journalist and publicist, Margaret has found turning from writing non-fiction to fiction liberating. Fascinated by the interplay of chance and motivation in life, and the opportunity this presents for surprise and mystery, her stories revolve around family relationships. Lipstick on the Strawberry, based in Boston, where Margaret used to live, and Cambridge, U.K., where she’s also spent some time, won the 2015 RWA Beacon Contest, romantic elements category, was a finalist for the 2019 Eric Hoffer Award, and a finalist for “best first novel” in the 2019 Nest Generation Indie Book Awards.
Lipstick on the Strawberry by Margaret Ann Spence, The Wild Rose Press, 2017
About LIPSTICK ON THE STRAWBERRY
Estranged from her English family, Camilla Fetherwell now lives in the United States and owns a successful catering business. Returning home for her father’s funeral, she reunites with her first love, Billy, whom she hasn’t seen since her father broke up their teenage romance. Billy seems eager to resume their love affair. But after one blissful night together, things take a turn.
Camilla suspects her father may have led a secret life, and when Billy reveals something he, too, has discovered, her apprehension grows. Billy holds her heart, but their relationship might be tainted by what her father hid. A reunion seems impossible.
Her life feels as splattered as her catering apron. As she watches her food stylist make a strawberry look luscious with a swipe of lipstick, Camilla wonders if a gloss has been put over a family secret? Can she and Billy survive what’s underneath?
~PUBLISHED IN WOMEN WRITERS, WOMEN'S BOOKS, August 22, 2019