First Draft Issue 5: No such thing as too much chocolate
Reminder that I’m giving away an advance reader copy of Endpapers on Twitter. If you want to enter for a chance to win it, go here! It's open through Thursday.
Last week, on the first day of Rosh Hashana, I baked two kinds of challah: a traditional round loaf and two twisted chocolate loaves (think: cross between challah and babka). I woke at the crack of dawn to bake before attending my shul’s virtual services, but still I’d timed it poorly. As I left the dough to rise, it struck me that all three loaves would need to be filled and/or shaped right in the middle of the shofar service, most likely when it was my turn to read from the prayer book.
Reader, I’m no baker, so I panicked. I need to take my time — follow every instruction to a T, measure carefully, mix the batter or dough just so. Everyone knows that baking is a science, and if you mess up one step, you can ruin the whole thing. Right? Right??
Wrong. At least sometimes.
As I rushed to get my loaves prepared for the oven, I made an absolute mess. My braid for the round loaf came out over-floured and misshapen. I used too much chocolate mixture in the first chocolate loaf (I didn’t know there was such a thing as too much chocolate either) and ended up with a gooey, overflowing blob instead of a pretty twist.
But you can probably guess where this is going. In the end, all three loaves came out looking okay and tasting delicious. And I was relieved to be reminded that, of course, there's no such thing as too much chocolate. The truth is, when I didn’t have time to obsess over details, I had to use my instincts. And sometimes when we give up control, something wonderful happens.
It’s the same lesson I had to learn when I was starting out as a writer. At the time, I had a Platonic ideal of good writing. It had poetry and elegance to it. It sounded smart and could wind its way effortlessly through long, complicated sentences. Essentially, it was Marilynne Robinson.
It wasn’t that I believed I had to follow any hard-and-fast rules like I do when I’m baking, but I did have to focus hard and work carefully at writing in order to get it right. It was laborious.
Then one day, while I was taking a walk, the beginning of a story came to me. It wasn’t just an idea, but a sentence, followed by another sentence — a story actually writing itself as I walked. When I got home, I wrote the sentences down, but they made me nervous. They were short and clipped, punchy and bold. They sounded nothing like Marilynne Robinson. Yet they kept coming, so I kept writing.
I was so embarrassed to share the story in my writing workshop that it gave me a stomachache. But again, you can probably guess what happened. My writing teacher said it was his favorite thing I’d written. So over the next few weeks, I polished it up and then sent it off to literary magazines. It ended up being the first story I ever published in a national journal.
All these years later, I still love Marilynne Robinson’s writing, and I always will. But when I let go of the idea that I had to be her, I found my own voice. And more than that, I found tremendous joy in writing. That experience taught me to play, try out new things, and never be afraid to take risks.
At the end of the day, the worst that can happen is a piece of writing or a loaf of bread won’t work (though I don’t really believe it’s possible to ruin a challah). But that’s okay, because you’ll still learn something from it. There will be another, better one — and it might be the best thing you’ve ever made.
This week, at least once, let's all set a timer for ten minutes and free-write. Try a scene from a novel you're working on or talk to yourself in a character's voice or do anything you want. But don’t give yourself enough time to think or craft — just write. Let your heart and mind speak freely, and see what comes out. No one has to see it unless you want them to. So you can let it overflow and be messy. Remember: it can't be too much.