Perfectionism, Novels, Songs and The Great British Bake-Off

posted July 23, 2021
white icing covered cake in bokeh photography
Photo by Dmitry Zvolskiy on

Stacey from Hertfordshire is desperate to be crowned star baker, which is why she is sitting on the floor in front of her oven holding its door shut with her hands with the patience and determination of Churchill, or Queen Elizabeth (either Queen Elizabeth). A moment ago, the oven door fell off its hinges, but since she had perfectly pre-heated it for her Victorian Savoy cake––and it’s the quarter finals of The Great British Bake-Off––she is just going to sit on the floor, pressing on the broken door with her two hands for the next thirty-five minutes until that cake is good and done.

         As usual, Stacey has made overly elaborate plans, but as a Savoy cake is meant to be 90% decorative (in its heyday was rarely consumed, or if it was, rarely enjoyed) this is understandable: Stacey’s cake must not only look the show-stopper it is, but also taste divine. Fortunately, she has learned, lo these last eight weeks, to plan ahead, and thus she’s already prepped her decorative jellies, choux buns and macaroons. She actually does have the time to simply sit here on the floor holding the oven door shut, and thus I admire her and am learning from her example. Prepare strategically, hold on with tenacity, never give up!

         My family has taken to watching The Great British Bake-Off on Sundays and Tuesdays––evenings when I don’t work but also don’t want to give my full attention to a show that demands it––say, a show with subtitles. Or a show that actually has a plot and acting. I learned, during the Pandemic, that I like to sit in South Couchland with my dog Hudson on my lap, my MacBook to my right, and my family scattered about me, each on their own little screens. The GBBO is good background noise for things like planning the grocery list and meals for the week, rectifying my checkbook, paying bills, responding to emails that don’t require a lot of thought.

I watched Stacey’s struggles one night as I paged through three novels I’d recently read, marking passages with two different colored post-its in order to write an essay on the narrator’s temporal position in each of these texts. (Essentially, I was trying to determine what the narrator knew and when she knew it.) I was trying to figure out how exactly the authors accomplished the weaving of a present/past structure––where present story weaves with past story, such as in Angle of Repose, The Remains of the Day and Americanah. Visual learner that I am, it helps me to see these movements.

Sometimes I ask myself why I am taking so much time with these critical essay requirements of my MFA program. It’s not as though I’m being graded. The worst that can happen should I write a “bad” essay is that I’ll have to feel ashamed when my faculty advisor responds with a scathing comment. But of course, that means I’ll have to live with my own shame––not doing my best. I sometimes forget that I am not at grad school to be published. I am at grad school to be taught. One of the things I need to be taught is how to practice experiencing failure and rejection.

         Stacey should not be ashamed if she doesn’t get star baker, and I’m already confident she won’t get kicked off the island, because she did second best in the “technical” bake, producing something called a “Rum Nicky,” which looked like an alcoholic fruit tart; and she did well in the signature bake, making a disgusting looking thing called a “clanger.” The worst that can happen is that Paul will stare at her with his cruel blue eyes and say, “I don’t think that worked,” or “it’s a little bit stodgy,” or Prue will pull her upper lip down and say, “It’s not worth the calories,” or––worse––“No one likes to eat raw dough.”

But anyone who remembers “Sticks and stones can break my bones…” knows full well that names––and pretty much any kind of disapprobation––can hurt plenty, and from the looks on the poor bakers’ faces after a Paul Hollywood dismissive comment, it seems bad enough for them, too. And it’s part of what makes me keep scribbling away on these essays, writing multiple drafts when I should just toss them off.

There’s also that I don’t want anyone to see me struggling.

But it’s not just that I want to be star baker at my grad school. I actually want the satisfaction of nailing something. In the real world, the only judge for these bakers will be the clients or supervisors at the future restaurant at which they might become employed, where it will all come down to consumption. Do they like it? Does it work? If they don’t, if it doesn’t, the average eater might not be able to articulate why as clearly as Paul Hollywood, who would say something like, “I’m not getting any strawberry. The rhubarb overwhelms.” Similarly, my essay or short story might not get chosen for publication by an editor who can’t necessarily put her finger on why she doesn’t like it as clearly as my faculty advisor can.

I decided finally to commit to an MFA Writing program in fiction exactly a year ago today. Although I’d thought about it for almost twenty years, the timing never felt justifiable. How could I devote 25 hours a week to an academic program when I already had achieved a measure of literary success without an Masters in Fine Arts? I was gone from home too much as it was, traveling around for gigs. Pandemic or not, I have always had to scramble to make a living in my patchwork career of teaching, writing, recording and performing, so who has time for school? I still have fairly young children at home who need me and with whom I need and want to spend time. Also, my husband. I like him a lot, and it would be nice to stay married. Last but not least, I don’t need a degree. I don’t want to work in an institution. I have my own institution, and I’m a pretty avid perpetual learner without an advisor breathing down my neck, bothering me with their opinions.

I think this way when I hear Paul or Prue natter on with what can seem like outsized passion about the exactitude required to make a meringue sculpture or a free-form pie crust out of flour and suet. Or when they say, “If I closed my eyes, I would really love this, but it needs to look good too, and it just falls a little short.”

Oh, boo hoo hoo! I yell at the TV. It’s fucking dessert, people! It’s hardly a life requirement!

At that moment, I looked at the well-worn copy of Angle of Repose dangling in my right hand, and at the piles of manuscript papers to my left––evidence of my second novel-in-progress, about eighty pages of undigested scenes. And I thought, Well, what is novel writing if not dessert?

Strangely, I’ve never had this question when it comes to writing songs. From the age of five, I have always believed that songwriters are anointed with the most important—and difficult—job on the planet. I live in awe of the magic that produces a tiny portable slice of literary and musical art that can become as omnipresent and personal as an earworm or as rare and unique as a single performance of a tune you can’t quite remember—but you’ll never forget the feeling you had when you first heard it.

A song is a message in a bottle, an avatar, a light and lovely virus that infects the population of the world and reproduces indefinitely. I feel grateful for every single song that’s allowed me to write it. A song can change the world, change hearts and minds, involve the entire body the way no other art form can. I dare anyone to challenge me on this. Only theatre comes close to being so universally accessible with its full-bodied opportunities for individual interpretation. But songs, because they are so short and easily memorized, are more efficient. Music gives the words the power of flight, of depth, of soul itself.

Novels, on the other hand, (I grumble at the TV) take years to complete, then years to sell, years to publish, and most writers––even if they are lucky––only have a couple of great books in them.

So why am I torturing myself by trying to write novels? Why not stick to songs?

Well, for one thing, when I lived my life in vans and airplanes, touring the country 340 days out of the year, performing four nights a week, I got to a point where I didn’t want to buy anyone’s album, listen to the radio, or read biographies about musicians. I was tired of songs back then; burned out––almost––on music itself. What I yearned for was an independent book store in the hip side of whatever town in which we’d landed, and in which I could browse for hours. I wanted to fall into a novel, get lost in the world the author had conjured for me. I wanted to read, and then talk with others who had read what I had just read, and maybe write something that had been inspired by the reading.

Novels change minds, hearts and lives, too, after all. I needed to read Beloved, Sing, Unburied, Sing and Giovanni’s Room to understand how the world works, has always worked in this country, in this world. I needed to read Pachinko, Palace Walk, The Golden Notebook, Americanah, Fun Home, White Teeth, City of Angels, Department of Speculation, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead; not to mention James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Jane Austin, Hawthorne, Faulkner, Erica Jong, Margaret Atwood, Ann Patchett, Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, Dave Eggers, Tommy Orange, Zadie Smith, Jennifer Egan, and on and on and on, all the way back to Little Women and Goodnight, Moon. Reading teaches us empathy and compassion just as surely as music does—at times, even more powerfully and directly.

Poor Stacey was booted out in the semi-finals for being too whimsical, too much a suburban mom who loved flamingos and the color hot pink. I, after my essay got to be 16 pages, gave up on trying to get it right––I was in too deep to start over, and too tired to ask for an extension, which is what I would have needed to make it shorter and more cohesive. It did what it needed to for me, reading really like a well-written discussion with my advisor. Writing the essay clarified my own thinking about narrative structure, timelines, protagonist consciousness, not to mention gave me tremendous respect for Stegner, Adichie and Ishiguro. so I pressed send and moved on.

Sometimes I notice, as Paul is scolding a baker standing before him, wringing her hands, because she’s just botched her pastry crust, or failed to adequately proof her dough, he has a look in his eye that is almost beseeching. You need to….he starts, and as he’s telling the less-experienced-than-himself-baker what her mistake was, what she should have done, it occurs to me that he desperately wants this real life baker––all of his contestants–– to learn, to grow, to become the very best versions of themselves, and that the best moments in my academic career might just come when I expose my weaknesses to a teacher who cares deeply about the precision that any art or practice requires. From Paul’s point of view, it is this passion for the art, the word, the music, the cake, that truly distinguishes artists. Indeed. A great artist is painstaking about every detail of her work, details that 95% of her readership, audience, viewers, listeners will miss. No matter. She can go to sleep knowing she has integrity, that she has created something for which she takes full responsibility. When she wakes the next day, she can begin something new, or return to the unfinished mess, with renewed resolve to continue to love those words, that song, that cake until it can’t become any more wholly itself.

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