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Michael Steinberg's Blog--Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction

Blog #77 How to Make a Cake out of Cupcakes: or How to Turn Your Essays into a Book by Steven Church, Guest Blogger

Blog # 77

How to Make a Cake out of Cupcakes: or How to Turn Your Essays into a Book*

Note:

This was written for a panel at the 2015 NonfictionNow Conference in Flagstaff, Arizona titled, "Hydra-Headed Memoirs and Well-Connected Essays: Negotiating Your Book-Length Nonfiction Thing." As an introduction, I mentioned that I'd written this after, first, hearing yet again that my own "book-length nonfiction thing," was too fragmented and associative and didn't have a unifying narrative line; and, second, after thinking a lot about the challenges of teaching in an MFA program, where we focus on teaching students how to write great essays and then, in their last year, expect them to submit an entire unified "book-length nonfiction thing," but we offer very little instruction on how to actually do that, how to turn that "bag" of essays into a unified book or memoir.

--Steven Church

How to Make a Cake out of Cupcakes: or How to Turn Your Essays into a Book

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 two or three years studying how to make a really delicious cupcake from bakers who have made a lot of cupcakes. Learn to appreciate the cupcakes of your peers. Begin to develop a critical appreciation for “cupcakeness.” Teach Freshmen how to make bland, mostly flavorless cupcakes, and spend countless hours assessing the quality of these cupcakes. Mention in casual conversation at parties or to your undergraduate students, that Montaigne was the father of cupcakes.

Step 2: Share your small successful cupcakes with other people who are learning to make cupcakes. 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. Keep working to perfect your own unique recipe, what some people will call your cupcake, “voice.”

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 perfect. Then hide them away in small cupcake 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, because juxtaposition is cool. Take the frosting from one cupcake and put it on another one. Cut a couple of them in half and throw away everything but a suggestive fragment of the original cupcake. But eventually you’ll have to resist the urge to revise your cupcakes further. You’ll have to 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, even if David Shields says, “Cupcakes are dead. Long live the anti-cupcake.” 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 or Twitter about “cupcakeness.” Draw a picture of the larger, whole cake you want to make and tape it to the wall above your desk. 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 don’t eat too much or you’ll just decide that your cake has already been made and what’s the 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 resembles 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.

*This essay has been previously published by Assay and Brevity.

Steven Church is the author of six books of nonfiction, most recently the collection of essays, I'm Just Getting to the Disturbing Part: on Work, Fear, and Fatherhood. He edited the recently released anthology of essays, The Spirit of Disruption: Selections from The Normal School and he is a founding editor of The Normal School: a Literary Magazine. He coordinates the MFA Program at Fresno State
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