Much writing craft I absorbed en passant, while cooking, for example.
Take the humble egg. I underestimated its importance when the in-laws came to Sunday lunch for the first time. My beloved took charge of the roast beef and left me to prepare the Yorkshires.
Here, I must digress. I never cooked at my mother’s side although we baked together throughout my childhood. In school, I studied Caesar’s Gallic Wars book IV instead of suffering cookery lessons. And I would have suffered the pain of the tawse, a leather strap, nearly every day for not eating what I had prepared – porridge, yuck, scrambled egg or rice pudding – looked like sick. As for licking the spoon when we made the Christmas cake, well! Ditches, ramparts and battles, while not scintillating, saved me considerable pain. The volume also revealed an unusual point of view. Caesar wrote of himself in the third person.
As a result, I never learned the importance of the egg. So, studying the recipe in my husband’s cookery tome, I read: eggs – one or two (optional). Please note, no comma. Had a comma followed ‘one’ I would have added an egg. For lack of it, I decided both were optional. The tale has resurfaced regularly for the last forty years.
Mary Berry provided another aide mémoire when she told Bake Off contestants to beware a soggy bottom. I think of her when speakers remind us not on any account to have a soggy middle to our novel. Here sits the lynch pin. Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost in the middle of Act 3 and his confidence dwindles. Shakespeare knew about the plot curve all along although we fifteen-year-olds did not fully appreciate its import.
Having spent decades churning out worksheets for school: study aids, puzzles, competitions, or tests, I realised that I wanted to write stories. Where to begin? My brain, especially at 2.30am fires in dozens of directions at once. My love, having heard the same from several ladies of a certain age, insists we are plotting. I agree but it’s not a book. Which thread to choose? I need direction.
If you are fortunate enough to have a good tutor, and we were, their guidance is invaluable. Each term we all agree that having assignments to do keeps bottom on writing seat. Each term, the challenges become greater. We all groan at the five-minute task, chew our pens in panic and produce a dozen different takes on the same stimulus. This can be a quote, a sweet, an object, a painting or even what national day it is, for example Blue Monday, National Poetry Day or even National Cupcake Day.
I have assiduously copied these efforts on to my computer. They help if the muse is stuck in a morass of mud. Did I really write that in five minutes?
Write about a piece of furniture. Our first homework. Our baby grand. It did not survive moving from a Victorian flat to the little council house and took up half the living-room. My Father turned it on its side, cut the lid into shelves and the undamaged pieces of leg into bun feet. Its new life as a bookcase endured three decades. I remembered it with much love and sorrow that I could not accommodate it after my parents had gone. As we each read our pieces, we recognised that in writing about possessions we had told of people we loved. Our novice efforts moved both readers and listeners to tears. Techniques remained to learn or hone. But that’s the fancy icing on the Christmas Cake. The cake itself must be well made.
When the tutor divulged our next piece, we all groaned. Buy an orange. Describe peeling and eating it. Ugh, how messy! I recalled dining high – eating on the dais with the warden in the Hall of Residence. My heart plummeted to the toes of my stilettoes when I saw that a knife had replaced the dessert fork. As a bejantine, a mere first year student, the salver of fruit would reach me last. Gone, the grapes, the bananas and even the apple. Remaining, two oranges. I wrote of selecting one, dissecting and removing the skin, separating the leaves and eating them with fork and knife under the anxious gaze of 239 girls desperate to watch Top of the Pops. In reality, I declined. However, I had fulfilled the writing brief the way I make Dundee cake. I can’t stand almonds so use none, even ground. No-one suggests that anything is missing. Who would ever think my story fibbed?
Assuming the mantle of one of my ancestors helps. Life in Scotland during the early 1900s fascinates. I feel the torment of a potential suicide or shiver with displaced lodgers packed into cramped family homes. I use real names, taking on their persona. Once the piece is complete, names, dates and places change with a few mouse clicks. What you know becomes what you may share. A meringue becomes a pavlova. Or even an egg by another name.
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