The Tortured Cake Metaphor



Christopher Keelty is a writer and artist based outside New York City.

It’s been a while since I posted something here other than a cartoon, but I had a few thoughts I wanted to share about writing–by way of talking about cake.

Have you ever baked a cake? It’s more challenging than you might think. Many bakers will tell you that “cooking is an art, but baking is a science.” Getting the right flavor, shape, and texture means carefully balancing ingredients (chemistry actually comes into this, because a lot baking is about balancing pH), methods of mixing and combining ingredients, baking time, and sometimes advanced tricks like freezing layers between baking.

The point is, when someone decides to bake a cake, there are some relatively narrow parameters in which they must operate to get that result. And yet, within the realm of “cake,” the world has dozens, maybe hundreds, perhaps even thousands of variations. We’re even coming up with new ones–lava cake, which seems to be on every menu everywhere, isn’t even 30 years old yet.

How can that be? It’s because a good baker, once they’ve learned the basic technique, can find almost infinite opportunities for little tweaks that will make a big difference. More importantly, they know what changes to make in order to get their desired results. Again, look at lava cake. Its origin was apparently a mistake, but once he identified it, that baker knew exactly how to recreate his happy accident–but only because he first learned the basics.

Talk to a baker, and they’ll tell you they spend years learning the basics. They bake hundreds of plain old sponge cakes before they begin attempting to create something new. It’s not unlike an avant-garde painter: Picasso mastered traditional painting before moving into cubism, and every great jazz musician has to learn the basics before they can start improvising.

You may have guessed where I’m going with this.

If you’re in a writer’s group, or a college writing program, or otherwise have contact with new writers, you’ve no doubt encountered the people who tell you “rules were made to be broken,” or “the only rule is there are no rules.” It’s the slogan they use to negate any criticism, to shield themselves from helpful suggestions, to close themselves off from learning. And the worst part is, they’re right–rules are made to be broken, and some of the best writers ever to hold a pen have proven it.

The thing is, you have to know which rule you’re breaking, and why.

What these young writers are doing, to return to the cake analogy, is serving plates of scrambled ingredients. They may all be there–flour, butter, eggs, milk, sugar–but they’re not in the right proportions, they’re not mixed right, and the result is definitely not cake. Yet still they serve it out, and when people say it doesn’t look right or taste very good, they blithely reply that they’re innovative, that rules were made to be broken. The thing is, they don’t know their cake is bad because they never learned to bake in the first place.

What’s worse, by telling other people that they’re wrong, by insisting that their plate of mashed-up ingredients is so a cake, and a very bold and inventive cake at that, these young people prevent themselves from learning or improving. They tell themselves that they’re great bakers, and anyone who disagrees just isn’t open to new things.

Not only that, but thanks to the advent of inexpensive self-publishing, all these lousy bakers have opened tiny shops where they sell their awful concoctions, even if mom and dad and Aunt Edna are their only customers. Then they show up at baking classes and conventions not to learn, but to harass other bakers to buy their cakes on Amazon and….yeah, I’m torturing the metaphor.

Point is: Don’t be one of these bakers–I mean writers. Don’t close yourself off to criticism, and don’t tell yourself you can invent something new when you haven’t learned to bake a basic cake yet.

Write the basics. Write a simple short story, with a conventional point of view. Write a hundred of those. A thousand. Share them with peers, especially other writers, and ask them how they “taste.” Then take their criticism to heart. Is a character reading untrue? Don’t argue about how the reader missed their motivation, go rewrite and fix it. Plot uninspiring? Motivation muddy? Dialogue hackneyed? Go write another one.

Bake another cake.

Once you can reliably turn out that basic cake, in a way where people tell you they enjoy it (even if it is a bit conventional) then you can start adding things and breaking rules. But not until then–at least, not unless you’re willing to hear people when they say “this isn’t cake you’re serving.”

Cake photo from Flickr user Dani Lurie, used under Creative Commons license.

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