How to Make a Cake out of Cupcakes: or How to Turn Your Essays into a Book
November 5, 2015 § 21 Comments
Steven Church shares his remarks from the recent NonfictioNow Conference panel “Hydra-Headed Memoirs and Well-Connected Essays: Negotiating Your Book-Length Nonfiction Thing,” wherein he pondered aloud about hearing that his own “book-length nonfiction thing,” was too fragmented and associative and didn’t have unifying narrative line; and, second, about the challenges of an MFA program, where we focus on teaching student how to write really great essays and then, in their last year, expect them to submit an entire unified “book-length nonfiction thing.”
By Steven Church
Step 1: Learn to bake, from scratch, a couple of really good cupcakes—perfect little cakes that share the same basic form and thematic structure of a larger cake, the complete idea for which hasn’t actually formed completely in your head yet, but which exists just beneath the surface of your waking thoughts. Start small. If necessary, pay a lot of money to take some classes and spend 2-3 years studying how to make a really delicious cupcake from people who have made a lot of cupcakes. Learn to appreciate the cupcakes of others. Begin to develop a critical appreciation for “cupcakeness.” Teach Freshmen how to make bland, mostly flavorless cupcakes. Mention, in casual conversation at parties, that Montaigne was the father of cupcakes.
Step 2: Share your small successful cupcakes with other people. Enter them in cupcake contests and post pictures of them on social media. Test your cupcakes against public opinion, subject them to criticism, and make sure they hold up well under scrutiny. Don’t get too excited about the relative success of your cupcakes, but enjoy the feeling of acceptance, and ignore the few people who don’t like your cupcakes and keep working to perfect your recipe.
Step 3: Decide that, due to the relative success of your cupcakes, you’d like to make a whole cake, a real cake that a lot of people could eat, something popular with cake-lovers who can afford to buy an entire cake and do so, regularly–perhaps the kind of cake-lovers who host a popular TV show or write cake reviews and organize entire clubs dedicated to cake-loving. Commit to this idea of a whole cake and, when that idea terrifies you, reproduce those small, successful cupcakes again and again, editing out any mistakes and responding to the smallest criticisms from your audience. Make sure those cupcakes are absolutely fucking perfect. Then hide them away in small cabinets where nobody will eat them.
Step 4: Stay up late. Wake up early. Work on new recipes. Try different flavors. Look admiringly at your cupcakes. Stare at them. Move them around on a plate. Try unique arrangements of your tiny cakes. Stack them up, or spread them out randomly on the table. Put two different cupcakes next to each other, playing around with the juxtaposition of their flavors. Take the frosting from one cupcake and put it on another one. But eventually you’ll have to resist the urge to revise your cupcakes further. Ignore the nagging thought that, perhaps, you actually enjoy collections of cupcakes as much or more than whole cakes. Don’t listen to the voice in your head telling you that whole cakes are overrated. Put your cupcakes back in the container. Leave them there and focus, instead, on teaching other people how to make really great cupcakes.
Step 5: Wait a month. Or two. Or twelve. Or until it’s summer and you have some time to work on this idea of a cake you have. Then pick up your cupcakes again, peel off the wrappers, and hold them in your hands. Marvel at their completeness, their perfect melding of form and function, their manifestation of your refined idea of “cupcakeness.” Post something on Facebook about “cupcakeness.” Draw a picture of the larger, whole cake you want to make. Pay other people to talk to you about your idea for a cake. Attend conferences and panels where other cake-makers talk about their successful whole cakes. Taste other cakes that seem similar to the one you want to make, but not too much or you’ll just decide that your cake has already been made and what’s the fucking point anyway.
Step 6: Take all of your cupcakes—all the different flavors–and cram them together into a big pile of crumbly cake and frosting. Step back. Look at the mess you’ve made. Try not to weep. Instead, using your hands, try to mold the crumbled individual cupcakes into something that resembles a whole cake, but which will actually more closely resemble something from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Still, you must cling to the belief that the cupcakes are like clay and that you can just break them apart and re-shape them into a full-size cake, into something that other smart, professional cake-lovers can look at and say, “Yes. That is a cake,” so you keep squeezing the mess of cupcakes, pressing it into different forms and shapes; but nothing seems to work, and it keeps falling apart in your hands. Sometimes you think maybe you have enough material to make two whole cakes, so you try that for a while until your hands are sticky and everything is all mixed up. This doesn’t work either, but you keep doing it for a few months or a few years; and when other people ask what you’re working on, you tell them, “Oh, you know. Just this cake,” and when they ask what kind of cake, you say, “It’s kind of hard to describe.”
Step 7: Wash your hands, rinse, and repeat.
Steven Church is a force of nature. He is also a Founding Editor and Nonfiction Editor for The Normal School; and he teaches in the MFA Program at Fresno State.