Confusing craft with voice … when baked beans & banana cake go wrong.

Meet Grandma Hestand.

She cooked, baked, and fried with the biggest cast iron skillet and mixing bowls in Sumner County, Kansas. The mere clatter of her kitchen utensils set my stomach on the growl. She was the dame of her domain. Her food was to resurrect for.

Grandma mostly cooked from scratch. And it was work! Just the right action (whisking, stirring, beating, baking, frying, tossing, kneading, etc.) coupled with the right duration. All of which required effort.

Yet she also had this “knack” for creating dishes that were unsurpassed. That knack went beyond mere craft. It was, in my estimation, a divine gift. We might call it a talent these days.

She’s since gone on to cook with Jesus. And don’t EVEN think about getting in line before me to get at her baked beans and banana cake. I’ll fetch the Archangel Michael and a flaming sword to hold you at bay – no harm (it is heaven after all), just a momentary diversion. I promise I’ll share, and I assure you there’ll be plenty to go around. Grandma will see to that.

You’ve heard it said that too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the broth or a derivative about a lot of hands in the pot. The grist of this Milligan (that was grandma’s maiden name) is that when too many people are trying to do the same thing, something is bound to go wrong.

That wrongness, in cooking as in writing, is catering to the “bland of boring”. You hear the publishing industry professionals saying that your writing is good but it has to be monumentally outstanding to sate the palate of your audience. You’ve got to leave them craving for seconds, even thirds.

Your writing MUST sing!

So here’s Grandma Hestand’s saving graces for craving faces – She cooked from scratch AND she cooked alone. Digest that for a second.

What it means is that she wasn’t afraid to take risks, to try something different AND she knew when advice was just so much fat. A cup of this, a teaspoon of that, a dash, a pinch, a palm-full or a vat … and her secret ingredients remain secret. I watched her and learned the following:

  1. Grandma knew how to cook (the craft) quite well, yet she practiced cooking all the time and she shared the relevant skills with anyone who graced her kitchen in the truest sense of a grandmother. She NEVER stopped the “practice” of cooking.
  2. BUT … when it came time to create a delectable dish (her art), she cooked alone.
  3. She exercised her cooking voice by cooking from scratch—she experimented. She tried different ingredients and failed. She NEVER gave up! In essence, she took voice lessons in the kitchen.

From one above: I liken grandma’s commitment to the “craft” of cooking to the admonition in 2 Timothy 4:2 “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.” And the best way to do this is to model the behavior.
From two above: There were times though when she would shoo everyone from the kitchen so she could work on her utmost creations. That was alone time with her voice and her creator’s presence. Think Psalm 46:10a “Be still, and know that I am God;”
From three above: Grandma believed her utmost was not so much perfectionism but “kitcheneering” with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord who blessed her with culinary talent. She accepted the delicious gifts he bestowed upon her and exercised her voice in that regard—ever and always doing her utmost for him. All of us partakers in her foodstuffs were blessed as a result. Call that common grace. See Colossians 3:23 “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.”

And those secret ingredients? I like to think of those as the intimacy between creator and creation.

So what is your take-away from this, as a word-creative?

FIRST. Practice the craft ALL the time! Just like the scriptures tell use to pray without ceasing, write without ceasing.

SECOND. It’s okay to cook alone. Here’s the secret. You’re not really alone. You’re cooking with your creator at your side. And I checked in the Old Testament where there are several references to the Lord liking a “sweet savor”. I say fire up that word processor grill and make her smoke!

THIRD. Don’t confuse grandma’s “art” of cooking with the fun of having her grandchildren in the kitchen! She did “good food” and good times with us and any company that might show up on the farm. There’s no denying that. Take time out to read. Consume some art (You ARE what you eat).

Then get right back in the kitchen.

It was when grandma worked on her culinary masterpieces that she cleared her throat and went solo. It was time for voice lessons.

And at the risk of being roasted on the spit … here’s a kitchen caution.

Critique groups are good for practicing craft. Embrace that. But be on guard. It is all too easy to lose your voice in the stew of critique. Keep the support group aspect, keep the encouragement partners, but be ready to push away from the table when you can no longer hear your voice.

Too many opinions are like the crying from onions. They blur your story, scratch your voice, and make you cry.

And by the way, sometimes you have to take opinions not with a grain, but with an entire salt block. Just say’in.

The only time grandma’s baked beans and banana cake went wrong was when another voice entered the kitchen and boasted about, interrupting the recipe or distracting grandma from her work. When someone carries the recipes in their head, a disruption can wreck the product. Be respectful. Be polite.

Or, enter the overzealous and sometimes jealous taste tester, (me)—with expectations. I would dip a finger into the pot, the pan, the bowl, the mixer, and promptly be scolded away. It was only after the churn and turn of ingredients was complete that I would be invited back into the kitchen. I had to be content with the aromas. Delayed gratification is a beautiful thing I finally learned.

How do YOU know when your voice is singing?

I would love to hear your answers to this question. Writing voice seems a nebulous and ethereal thing at times and I know it can be hard as a writer to hear your own voice much less make it sing.

But again, what evidences or signs tell you that you’re cooking in your voice?

Do share!

Here’s a suggestion. I suspect readers of your work will openly tell you. Pay attention. Try to identify when you’re cooking in your voice and see about replicating the atmosphere that brought that on.

For example, (my family laughs at me in this regard), I’m in my voice when I do the ‘Charlie Brown sticking his tongue out as he writes’ thing. Yes! I DO that. I am at that moment, enchanted. And when I catch myself, (after I shuck off the initial embarrassment) it feels so right. I love it and I’ve learned to embrace it.

So then, baked beans and banana cake go right when we understand that BOTH craft and voice have a place in the kitchen. A gifted voice alone is like a cream puff … delightful to ingest but full of mere air. Craft alone is like unleavened bread, flat out flat.

Give me a homemade cinnamon roll instead (yet another of grandma’s awesome creations); spicy and all things nicey. And I just made up a word too, my second one in this post.  :-)

And if you’re still confused about the diff between craft and voice, cool! Let’s be confused together. Seriously. That’s one of the reasons I launched this blog. I want to explore this thing called voice and I hope to find a tribe of “resonators”.

We can take lessons together.

Resonate with me!

Comments

  1. David, I love that expression of the food being “to resurrect for”.

    I’m new to your blog, enjoying your voice and humour, and I’ll be back. Thanks for the illustrations on voice and cooking — they make sense to me. And I’ll be in line for your Grandma’s cooking once I’ve been in the line for my Grammie’s apple pie.

    • Thank you kindly Janet! I appreciate that. It’s good to get feedback from readers and my goal is to delight as much as inform. This is an experiment for me, so I want to thank you for being a test subject. :-)

      Grandma shaped so much of my early years that she deserves mention.

      As I see how my voice resonates, I’ll have a better idea of how to craft my fiction to be satisfying, like a well cooked meal.

      Thanks again and blessings to you!

  2. I think I’d like your grandmother!

    When I got serious about writing in 2008, some of the first things I did was find a good writing organization to join (ACFW), then join some crit groups. Later, I joined the course loop, too.

    All have been invaluable, but it didn’t take long to discover it was impossible to take all the advice and implement all the suggestions offered by crit partners and instructors AND maintain my own voice. Nor could I assimilate all the information offered through writing how-to books and blogs. There’s so much information available, some of it contradictory, that I soon felt like ‘much learning was making me mad’.

    New writers have a tendency to jump right into the mix and soak up every scrap of information and advice that comes their way. I know I did. But you are exactly right in saying there comes a time to opt out of the crit groups, skip the lessons, put down the how-to books and just write.

    Thanks for the reminder, David. Much appreciated!

    • David W. Fry says:

      Ah! We resonate. Thank you Carrie for the comment and observations. There is indeed a tension between the invaluable experiences of craftdom vs. the creative freedom of voice.

      Love your “mad” reference in light of what Festus said to Paul in Acts 26:24 (ironically in a loud voice) and Paul’s response in the NASB translation is intriguing as a follow-on in verse 25.

      But Paul said, “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I utter words of sober truth.”

      Uttering words of sober truth has it’s place at times. As a Charlie Brown melancholy, I sometimes cannot help myself. :-)

      And now I’ll return to careening around the creative bend while screaming over the top of my voice and screeching along the guardrails of craft.

      Thank you Carrie for visiting my blog. I appreciate that.

      P.S. Yes, you would’ve loved grandma.