What Writers Can Learn from a Cake Mix

What Writers Can Learn from a Cake Mix

In the 1950s, General Mills launched cake mix under the Betty Crocker brand. Everything was in powdered form. It was aimed at the busy housewife – all she had to do was add water and bake. But surprisingly, the cake mix didn’t sell. A team of psychologists was brought in to work out why the product just wasn’t appealing to customers. They determined that it was precisely the convenience that robbed consumers of the feeling that they were making a cake. It was too easy.

They decided to make the cake mix less convenient and revised the recipe so that to make the cake you now had to add an egg.

Sales soared.

This is a great lesson for writers.

When we craft our stories, we do not and should not spoonfeed a reader. We want to offer the reader most of the ingredients of our story, but we can and should leave gaps, where the reader has to ‘add an egg.’

The wonderful Israeli writer Nava Semel talks about leaving space in the text so that the reader’s soul map can interact with the text. She says this comes from learning how to delete and edit, so that our narrative is not stifling and dense, but suggestive, inviting the reader to interpret.

One way we can do this as writers is when we show, rather than tell. Instead of telling a reader ‘he was angry,’ we might write, ‘he clenched his fists, and the muscles in his jaw tightened.’ This way, a reader can decide what emotion is being expressed here without being directed to any particular emotion. This is how we open our writing to interpretation and by implication, to different interpretations.

Writing is always a dance between making ourselves understood, offering bridges to readers so they can follow us, but not mapping out their journey so entirely that we rob them of the satisfaction of ‘adding an egg.’

Leaving something out can be an act of generosity, an acknowledgement of the intelligence and sensitivity someone else might bring to the act of reading.

Joanne Fedler

Joanne Fedler

Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?

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In my early twenties, I went on a self-defence course, where I learned how to puncture someone’s Adam’s apple with a key and to perfect the knee-to-groin move should such unfriendly gestures be called for.

I swallowed little pills and purchased boxes of prophylactics lest too much fun lead too soon to too many nappies.

As I stopped caring about pleasing people, I learned deeper and more subtle forms of protection, like how to say no and even a few ‘f*ck off’s.’

I built fortresses around my dreams and only invited people into my life who didn’t drag their shit-laced footprints through the lounge room of my spirit.

As writers, we need to use protection. Here are some suggestions for how to practice safe writing:

  • claim some regular sacred writing time with a DO NOT DISTURB sign on your door;
  • have a sacred writing space which is yours and yours alone (including your own computer);
  • do not talk too much about what you’re writing about until it’s ‘ready’ (you’ll know when that is – it’s not right at the start);
  • invest time and money in getting support to finish your book;
  • do not ask your husband, wife, lover, friend, aunt or mother to read your manuscript and tell you what they think;
  • never, ever read negative reviews.

We protect our bodies, our hearts and our spirits when they’re under threat.

Our writing is an endangered species, which can so easily become extinct if we become blasé about its survival.

Care for it, shelter it. Do not let the world snatch it from you.

Joanne Fedler

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The Art of Shutting Up and Keeping Secrets

When we start writing, we get excited and want to share our happy news like a newly pregnant mother-to-be. We want to blab to everyone, ‘Hey, I’m writing a book.’ It’s hard to keep a secret as big and beautiful as this.

But we must. If we care about what we’re doing, we have to learn to shut up and keep secrets.

A writer I mentor sent me a tearful email because her husband (her number 1 fan and supporter with whom she was sharing all her writing) had innocently asked her, ‘So how exactly is this thing going to become a book?’

And just like that, the beautiful clean kitchen of her self esteem where she was cooking up her story, got trashed.

Even our biggest fans do not understand never to ask how, but when?
When is your book coming out? Not how?

There’s a great book by Peter Block called, The Answer to How is Yes.

‘How?’ is not a creative question and certainly not an empowering one. It is fear based. And as writers-in-the-making, we do not dabble with that devil.

We should not share our writing with the world while our writing is still a little book-foetus inside us.

If we’ve ever been pregnant, and seen our little pea with its beating heart on the ultrasound, we don’t ask, ‘How am I going to turn this blob into a baby?’ No, we just know that something is growing and by some magical alchemy of us, and God, and DNA, and folate, and bit of luck, that a baby will arrive. When it’s ready. We’re part of the process, but there are other forces at work too.

It’s like that with our writing. For a while, it’s a little book-blob. It doesn’t know yet how it’s going to grow its heart and toes and eyelashes. But it will. If we shut up, and let it get on with it. Mysteries don’t like to be interrogated.

Learning to shut up and keep secrets are inherent to the art of gestation. We don’t celebrate conception publicly. We wait for birth.

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Joanne Fedler

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If instead, I look at my behaviour and I think, ‘that’s curious – why do I do this? what is motivating this behaviour?’ I invite a real conversation with the part of myself that is hungry – for something other than chocolate.

The minute we start moralizing, we stop investigating. Writing towards our voice is about honouring ourselves as the source of our own stories and wisdom. It’s about relaxing into who we are. Who we really are.

Which begs the question: who are you, really?

Who are you when you stop trying? When you stop performing? When you stop pretending to be ‘be someone.’ What would happen if you just showed up as you are? Uncensored?

Writing is about coming as you are.

When we write towards our voice, we have to exercise self-compassion. Pema Chodron says we must have ‘loyalty to our experience,’ to be present with ourselves. We learn to stay with who we are. We avoid being obedient, polite, neat. We duck the cliche.

How to do this?

  • Write as if no-one is looking
  • Go into your shadow energy – invite its wisdom onto the page (what do you dare to admit?)
  • Go for the paradox – where are you ambivalent? Avoid your certainties. They are not nearly as interesting as your doubts, your mistakes.
  • Humour – find yourself funny. Where are you able to laugh at yourself?
  • Squirm – if something makes you squirm or uncomfortable, it’s calling you to look at it. Can you stay with it?

Writing towards our voice is a form of training. Pema Chodron talks about the difference between training a dog by beating it instead of through gentleness. If we beat a dog, we will surely train it to sit, come, go outside at our command. But you will have a terrified, neurotic and confused dog (we once got a dog from the RSPCA who fell to the floor and urinated every time we called her – she’d clearly been traumatized by a previous owner). But if we train a dog by kindness, gently rewarding it when it gets it right, we get a dog who is confident and flexible and happy.

Joanne Fedler

Joanne Fedler

Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?

When we write, we want to expose our defence mechanisms, our negative self-beliefs, our fantasies, desires, expectations, courage, wisdom, neuroses and playfulness.

To access this, we need to write bare, unpracticed, to be lead whoknowswhere. We have to reclaim a sort of innocence, the beginner’s mind. We must come to our writing as if it is a door we want to open, not knowing what we’ll find. And then to allow ourselves to gasp, fall to our knees laughing or in agony. At times we will be stunned into silence. If we are repeating what we’ve heard, or other peoples’ opinions (of ourselves or of anything at all), we are walking the same path twice, a tour guide in our own life: look at that achievement… notice that failure. It’s like we are ready to press ‘play’ on something that’s been prerecorded and retell old fables that are threadbare of emotion. Do you notice how sometimes we appear to be mimicking ourselves instead of being authentic to the moment? How we are ‘expected’ to experience a surprise birthday party in a particular way? Or a tragedy with a particular set of emotions, and if we don’t, there’s something wrong with us? Perhaps we might feel sadness in a moment when we’re expected to be happy? Or an emotion we can’t quite put words to. Or we might feel relief in a moment of grief.

Clarissa Pinkola Estes’s book Women Who Run with the Wolves invites us to reclaim a certain ‘wildness.’ This is not a recklessness. I’m not suggesting we all streak down the main road and smash car windows with a baseball bat. That’s kinda insane. But we can gently question why we do what we do out of habit. Ask: is this me? Is this what I truly want? Is this who I truly am? Is there any business man out there who truly honestly feels like a tie is ‘who he is’? We all live in society and are expected to follow certain conventions to live socially with others but sometimes we may want to shriek, bare our breasts, fall hard or curl up in a ball. Life is not a rehearsal, but we often behave as if it is instead of doing more improv. Doing without our lists or agendas. Something real and true emerges when we allow ourselves to be raw on the page.

There is always that edge of doubt.

Trust it, that’s where the new things come from.

If you can’t live with it, get out,

Because when it’s gone, you’re on Automatic,

Repeating something you’ve learned.

Let your prayer be:

Save me from that tempting certainty that

Leads me back from the Edge,

That dark edge where the first light breaks.

– Alfred Huffstickler, The Edge of Doubt

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Until recently, I thought perhaps I would jettison this book idea and move on. But sifting through these treasures I felt slightly excited again. New possibilities murmured to me. I felt drawn again into the chaos and possibility of the world my subconscious is trying to organize. I was up at 3am last night writing and even missed my 6am spin class as a result.

When I teach that a book must be ‘richly conceived,’ what I mean is that deep thoughts worth sharing often need time like wine or aged cheese to learn what shape they need to take and how they make sense together. What I’m saying is that I’ve done nothing for five years except collect, make notes, catch thoughts with the slight posterior awareness of ‘someday, perhaps.’

I share this with you, if you are an aspiring author, in the hope that it fastens you to patience – a train I have never caught on purpose but for which life has bought me a couple of tickets. Creativity ebbs and then it rushes in. And when it does, we must be ready to lean in and do the best work of our lives.

Most of what we write won’t make it into the final draft, just like most baby turtles don’t make it across the sand to the water’s edge.

But nothing we ever write is wasted – even if it never makes its way into our book. Every word we put down – even the ones we jettison, edit, cut away in the final draft – is imperceptibly sensed, a silent history, an accumulation of effort, a deepening that the reader feels, the way one line spoken by a wise person reflects a lifetime of experience and patience.

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Joanne Fedler

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