What does making hand-made corn tortillas and dry method caramel sauce have to do with learning to revise your own writing?
You want to earn to make delicious, heavenly luxuries that seem intimidating, impossible—and you fear—out of your grasp as a mere mortal chef. You look at a recipe, a list of 3 ingredients and wonder how a sprinkling of just a few elements can make something that will leave people speechless:
masa, salt, water
sugar, butter, cream
words, perspective, time…
Of course there’s a secret. If there wasn’t everyone would be doing it. (No, you don’t need a magic wand.)
Sometimes what you need is another cook in the kitchen.
How I learned to make tortillas…
A friend of mine ( let’s say she was like the grandmother I never had close by growing up) was someone who knew how to make ‘real’ corn tortillas. Not the kind you buy in a bag. Not the kind she served in her restaurant. The real ones. The ones you just put butter on and consume before they even have time to cool. The one my French husband will be asking about since we’re visiting California and can get the right corn flour…
When I asked this friend to tell me how to make those little discs of heaven, she told me she couldn’t do that. Impossible. She had to come over to my house and show me.
Because some things cannot be explained. They must be worked through. They must be learned by doing.
The messy process of revising your work is a lot like making tortillas.
No one can write you a recipe and anticipate the unique conditions you face as a writer or the singular experiences you bring to the process.
Everyone has different lessons to learn.
When my friend entered my kitchen, she helped me troubleshoot everything. An example?
She saw me open a drawer and told me to never, ever, ever, EVER, store a sharp knife blade side up.
Ok, so you think that doesn’t sound like rocket-science. But to my 20-year-old self, it was something that had just never occured to me. I was self-taught in the kitchen. I had made bold and impressive leaps and bounds.
But I still stored knives sharp-side up.
And as writers? We’re self-taught. Because, let’s face it, there is no place you can go to school and get a piece of paper that says ‘writer’ and just magically find yourself employed or with a bestseller on your hands.
You have to get in there and write.
Maybe you’ve made leaps and bounds on your own. Maybe you’re still missing a fundamental. And when someone takes a look at your writing and points it out?
Oh, it will make so much sense!
Incidentally, I never store knives face up anymore. Ever. Some lessons in writing are like that too.
Which ones do you still need to learn?
A friend in your creative kitchen can be the difference between heaven and a sticky blob of mush.
Here’s the thing about those corn tortillas: you never exactly follow the recipe.
Maybe there’s no such thing as a recipe in some cases. To some extent the outcome depends on the day, the humidity at hand, the material you’re working with.
The thing is to know the textures you want and how to find them again.
Having someone who knows watching you work can be the difference between a finished product you enjoy…and a sticky blob of corn dough that won’t get off your hands.
And as writers?
Sometimes we get the feeling that what we’ve got on our hands is a sticky, tasteless, shapeless blob that we’ll never be able to clean up. Hopeless.
But maybe that’s just your draft. Maybe you’re almost there. Maybe you just needed to wet your hands or hold that tortilla to the burner. Or be bold and turn up the heat.
Maybe the difference between a sad-looking draft and a crunchy story that holds together is a small fix. Something you can handle.
But you won’t know until you get a second cook into the kitchen with you. To a writer, that means, yes, letting someone in to take a look at what you’ve written.
How many times do people tell me they ‘hate their voice’ or that they aren’t satisfied with an ending, that they ‘don’t have a story,’ or that everything they write is ‘depressing,’ or ‘boring.’
I can’t really give advice based on what I hear. There are a few general things I can say, but what I really want is to get into the kitchen. To see what’s actually not working.
Or, more often, to see what actually is working. To see where we’re almost to the crunchy tortilla.
When the caramel comes to a sticky hot mess.
In the end, handmade tortillas are a pretty forgiving medium. But sometimes? You get into a real hot mess.
This summer in California, my brother was teaching me the dry method for making caramel sauce. Once again, you’ve got three ingredients and what can be called an artistic process for getting to your final product.
And here’s the thing. It looks scary. It sounds scary. The real danger here is that you will turn back at just the wrong time.
You melt the sugar right onto the pan (carefully) and start adding things afterward. And if you had the cream to the melted sugar and it’s at the wrong temperature?
The whole thing seizes into a hard chunk inside a molten pool and you’re left panicking.
That’s when you need someone beside you to tell you,
“It’s ok. I’ve been here before. Just keep stirring.”
When you’re writing, sometimes you want to just toss out the whole mess—even the pan—and give up.
That second cook in the kitchen can help you survive the hot mess stage and go on to something that ends up being worth it in the end.
And having walked through the process before, you’ll know what that felt like.
You’ll have the courage to push on.
And better yet? You’ll start gaining the courage to try it on your own.