Why writing is not like baking or candy making.

I spent with weekend with extended family and we have been cooking! In addition to the ‘real food’ we worked our way through the fun food. The Texas sheet cake my father remembers his mother making. My youngest sister’s childhood memory of our great aunt’s cheese straws. We added a few new recipes including chocolate turtles.  New recipes are easy. The stakes are low. Follow the directions and enjoy your success however imperfect. Next time you can overcome any deficiencies. If the recipe involves a new skill – like making caramel – then it’s a success regardless of outcome. For the record, our Turtles look pretty good and taste amazing! (How can you go wrong with caramel, chocolate and pecans.) My father has made the Texas sheet cake enough times that he no longer says that it’s good but not as good as when his mother made it. We’ve all agreed that this is the nostalgia talking, and that’s okay.  My sister is a harder customer to satisfy. We made several batches of cheese straws, each time making slight variations while texting our cousins to get their opinion (my great aunt is their mother/grandmother and this recipe is more highly protected than a government secret). To sift or not sift the flour, precisely what brand of cheese and butter works best? Do you use a heavy spice hand, use a cookie sheet, cookie sheet with parchment paper, or …? (Turns out ‘or’ is the right answer. I’ve been sworn to absolute secrecy on this recipe so I can’t be more specific.) My sister feels that she has finally mastered the technique, after a final batch to study the exact pressure of the piping tube – the dough released as a column or pressed slightly to flatten the bottom….. you get the idea. I spent the weekend assisting and thinking about how different this is from writing. Baking and candy making are essentially chemistry. The ingredients, the order they are combined, the application of heat, all these details are carefully worked out chemically. Deviate and you may create something new and unexpected, but more likely you will have a disaster unfit for human consumption. This is very different from cooking, where the same ingredients may be combined in unending variety each leading to success. THAT is like writing. There may be a formula or rules, but the combinations are endless and, in fact, successful writing depends on this.  Baking and candy making are rigid. Experimentation must be carried out within the rules. Trust me, caramel comes together at a certain temperature. This is a law of nature. As I sit down this morning to work on a manuscript I’m thankful to leave baking behind for a few hours, I’m looking forward to the freedom of rules without boundaries. 

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