Wednesday, February 29, 2012

"One Egg" is Not a Measurement

Yes, this has something to do with writing. In fact it's advice about writing advice, which feels very something-or-other. Postmodern. Meta.

But it starts with cornbread.

I've been making a lot of cornbread lately. The last two loaves of bread we bought became science experiments before we could eat them, so we haven't been buying it. Therefore, when my body says "feed me something plain, please," we don't have the "ingredients" for toast. But cornbread works. Plus it's relatively easy to make.

Today is a howling-wind day, and I am suffering (and I do mean suffering) from a cold (though I imagine those around me are suffering more from my suffering), so today seemed like a good day to make cornbread. Except that because of said cold, we haven't been grocery shopping. So our stash of cornmeal is low.

Instead of the 3/4 cup of cornmeal, I had only 1/2 cup. "Excellent," I said (not really). "I will simply 2/3 the entire recipe." Next measurement: 1 1/4 cup flour. Which is, 1.25 divided by three, carry the...hmm, multiply...huh. Um, 0.8 cup and a bit of flour. (Seriously? 0.8 cup?)

Still. With the help of a calculator, I could figure out approximations for the ingredients.

Until we got to the egg. You can't 2/3 an egg. So the whole thing went in. Which will be fine, I'm sure, and here's how I know this.

Decades ago, a coworker shared a valuable lesson: "one egg" is not a measurement. She was trying to replicate a Christmas cookie from her youth and was running into trouble with the recipe she had, because eggs come in sizes. Extra large. Medium. Et cetera. So her recipe wasn't working until she figured out her problem.

Most recipes, however tried-and-true, are approximations, designed to guide someone who isn't working under controlled conditions. I had a friend who had an infallible recipe for candy, as long as he made it on a day when the weather was right. Seriously, falling or rising air pressure kept it from reaching the softball stage. Or hardball stage. Something. (This is why scientific experiments are conducted in laboratories. Also why I don't make candy.)

Many cooks will tell you that the real thrill, the creativity, comes when you have to wing it. Now, I am not an adventuresome cook, so the thrill I get from putting in THE WHOLE EGG is plenty, but someone else may need excitement at a different level. Like trying a brand-new recipe for a dinner party for people who don't love you already.

So, writing. More specifically, writing advice. There's a lot of it, and people tend to hand it around like a cherished recipe, guaranteed to work. Do/n't start with dialogue. Show/tell. Passive voice = bad.

There's also a fair bit of writing career advice. Write what you love (great, as long as you don't count on paying the mortgage with it). Try everything -- it shows your versatility and that you're flexible (great, as long as you aren't ignoring your desire to specialize).

The thing is, some advice applies to you, today. Maybe a lot of it does. But some may not. "One egg" is not a measurement. Today's weather may not be conducive to successful candy-making.

Sometimes you just gotta throw in the whole egg (and turn down the heat a little and hover impatiently so it doesn't get overdone) and see what happens. Write about vampires or ghosts, if they're calling out to you, even though paranormal is "so over." Write an entire story in passive voice, or dialogue, or telling, just to see if you can, and to see how it turns out.

Here's what happened for me: it's cornbread. Yes, it tastes a little different. I wouldn't make it for company, but it suits me fine. Excuse me, please; I have some breakfast to attend to.