The Simple Things Save Me

lemon cake on a pretty plate

Some days I need baking therapy—because the alternative is bourbon, or a punching bag, or a tantrum. I used to love baking: cakes, cookies, cupcakes, and then I stopped. It seemed pointless to make cakes and pies when I lived completely by myself (did I really want an entire cake sitting around? It would go bad if I didn’t eat it, and we couldn’t have that, but then I would just feel guilty for eating the whole dang thing.) I got out of the habit, and I kind of forgot about it. I forgot how calming it could be.

These days I’m craving more calm. And you know what? If my fella doesn’t help me, I’ll eat the WHOLE DAMN THING MYSELF.

Or I’ll share with friends. That’s a better idea.

Because baking therapy is real. And some days, I need it in a real bad way.

My mom was a baker, a collector of recipes. She clipped them from Southern Living, and hand-wrote the ones from friends on cards she kept in special boxes, grouped by savory and sweet. She followed these recipes to the letter, like they were chemistry—one wrong measurement might cause the kitchen to explode. She made notes on the cards as she experimented—more butter, less sugar—until she got them just right. My grandma was also a baker—but she was more of an alchemist. She kept recipes only in her head, and each time she baked something, it was a loose interpretation of what she held there. No cake or pie ever turned out the same way twice, and when she hit gold, we’d say, “Did you write it down as you went?”

“Nope,” she’d say. “I’ll remember.”

I used to bake like my mom. When I was thirteen, I baked a pound cake that won a blue ribbon in the South Carolina state fair. (It was my Granny’s recipe—she was a chemist who wrote things down. My father’s side of the family was more into guidelines.)

Over the years, I’ve become more like my grandma. The recipes are in my head (more or less), and each time things are a little different. I still have some recipes written down on cards, but for the most part, I cook meals by throwing things together and hoping for the best. Usually it works out ok.

Usually.

But that’s COOKING. BAKING is different. There’s still some chemistry to account for with buttermilk and baking soda and whatnot.

A couple of weeks ago, I wanted to bake a cake for my fella’s birthday (because where I come from, you get a homemade cake on your birthday), and I realized that my mom never made a wide variety of cakes. Everyone had their favorite: coconut for Dad, German chocolate for Grandma, apple nut cake for Grandaddy. I can’t even remember the kind I requested as a kid. But as I went through the recipes I’d written down, I realized I never experimented much outside of the family favorites.

So last week I went wild. First I made a lemon cake for my fella (it was actually that blue-ribbon pound cake with a lemon glaze.) Then I wanted to try something totally new, so I pulled a recipe off the interwebs (thanks, addapinch.com) and rolled the dice. I put on my chemist’s apron and went right by the recipe (because despite my grandmother’s tendencies, if I learned anything from my buddy Alton Brown, it is that baking is a science and by god there are RULES) and y’all, this was the most amazing thing that EVER came out of my oven. (You know you want that recipe. It’s here.)

It felt good to make something tasty. But it really felt good to do something that made both me and the fella happy. I felt like I had taken some time to make something I wanted, forget about work, and do something fun. It reminded me why I’d enjoyed baking, and how calming it could be to just focus on a little thing that was going to bring some joy, and forget about the daily aggravations for a minute.

It’s only been a few days since the chocolate cake, but you know what? I needed to get my zen on again, so today I tried a new lemon cake. With orange zest and buttercream frosting. (You can get that one here.) And yes, I have started tabata to balance out all this cake business. I needed some new hobbies, anyway. It’s important to have balance, right? I need to build some muscle anyway, but we need rewards in this life, and cake makes a pretty nice reward.

And like Dorothy Parker said, bless her soul: “Life is uncertain. Have dessert first.”

We always talk about how “it’s the little things” that keep us content. I still need this reminder sometimes, and I need to remember that even when work’s a dumpster fire, and life is driving us bonkers, and our family is pushing all of our buttons, we can still slow down and do one small thing that brings some sweetness into the day. Even if it’s as simple as a cake.

On Being Gentle

Last week, while tidying up my house, I came across an artifact that looks pretty ordinary, but reminds me of an important idea. It’s one that we hear all the time, and one that all too often falls by the wayside. We’re in a hurry, we’re distracted, we’re frustrated, we aren’t thinking of being gentle.

The artifact is this: a small lidded vessel made of clay. It’s a lovely blue-green glazed piece, only a few inches tall. It has a pattern that reminds me a little of fish scales. I remember the day that I got it, and why, and why I very nearly gave it away.

A few years ago, I taught an eight-week letterpress printing class at the incredible Penland School of Crafts. I was so excited to be there, teaching a skill that I love to students so eager and delightful. My students came from all different skill levels—some had been printing for years, and some had never carved a block or set a single line of type. They were creative, energetic, and determined to make the most of their experience at the school. They created ambitious projects, learned how to make books from the prints they made from these behemoth printing presses, and in short, crushed it every day.

Near the end of sessions at Penland, it’s tradition to have a “show and tell” day, where lots of artists swap their wares. For seven weeks, over a hundred students had been experimenting in metal, clay, painting, and print, and had made new friends, collaborated on projects, and worked out trades for pieces their new friends had made.

On the day of the show and tell, I made my rounds, and a few artists asked to trade their work for mine. When this happens, I always accept. One, because I like collecting art, and two, because if someone likes my work enough to trade me something that they have made with love, then I want to trade, too. I traded my work for earrings, prints, and a small ceramic bowl.

After the show and tell was over, I went back to my classroom to find one of my students, C., in tears. She was one of my most talented, energetic students. She’d always been excited to be in the studio, had a contagious laugh—and always had a huge grin on her face, like her heart was overflowing.

And y’all, this young woman was sobbing while another student whispered to her, her hand on C.’s shoulder. When I walked over and asked C. what had happened, was she all right, she told me.

“I asked R. to trade something,” she said. “And R. said no, because my piece wasn’t an equal value to hers.”

My heart broke for her. C., just out of college, so excited to have found a craft that she loved, had just had another artist tell her that her work wasn’t enough. It wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t valuable enough. And isn’t this the fear that so many artists have? Deep down, we worry that we aren’t good enough, we aren’t creative enough, we aren’t valuable enough.

And this woman, R., maybe not intentionally (I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt for a moment) made that fear realized.

Here’s the thing: that lidded bowl that I’d liked so much and traded a print for? It was made by R. After C. told me her story, and after we’d talked for a while, and her smile had come back, I didn’t want that bowl anymore. It would just remind me of R. and how she had chosen her words so carelessly in that moment, when a young student, in awe of her work, asked to trade only to be hurt. I didn’t want to have something of R.’s anymore, regardless of how much I liked her work.

I finished out my class, and we all traded prints and books. And I kept that bowl, instead of giving it away. For a while, every time I looked at it, I thought of R. and her hurtful words, but then I thought this: I’ll keep that bowl for one reason.

It will help me to remember, first and foremost, always to be kind.

***

P.S. In case you were wondering, C. went on to become an even more inspiring artist. She went to grad school, and did some exhibitions, and continues to be brave and beautiful and amazing.

My Big Reveal: The Next Bayou Sabine Book is Here!

I’m super excited today because the fifth book in the Bayou Sabine series is almost officially out in the world. It took a long, twisting road to get to this point, but it has been an amazing experience. I never expected my first novel to grow into a series, but here we are, five books later.

I was in graduate school when I wrote the earliest draft of my first novel Trouble in Bayou Sabine. My master’s thesis was a “literary” novel (I say that because, was it? Really? It was supposed to be, but you know how these things go), and I started writing another book on the side—one just for fun that felt an awful lot like a romance novel. In fact, I really thought it was a romance novel. I thought this for a lot of reasons, but mainly because the love story was the central part of the book. (I’d later learn that the romance genre has certain expectations that I didn’t always meet in that book—but that’s a different conversation.) This was about 2005.

Anyway, I graduated with two finished manuscripts—one of them I shopped around, and it was named a finalist for a contest, and the other sat collecting dust. For about eight years.

During those years, I sent out the “literary” novel, and then I started teaching, and then I went back to school for an art degree, and then I moved to the Midwest, and every now and then, I’d think about that couple in the “romance” that was stored somewhere on my old Mac. (Remember the Macs that looked like some helmeted alien head with see-through neon backs? And the clamshell laptops they made to match? That’s how far back in time we’re going here.)

One day, I opened that old file, and I read that manuscript. And sweet baby Jesus, it was terrible. But there was a spark in there. As I read, I thought: This is salvageable. There is something here.

I rewrote it. And then I set it aside.

I did some other things. I read a pile of other books. I took another job. I wrote some short stories. And I kept thinking about that couple, Enza and Jack, and this funny romantic story that wasn’t quite a romance, and wasn’t quite literary, but kept creeping back into my mind. I didn’t know what to do with it, but I couldn’t forget it.

I got serious about rewriting it. I added threads to make it more complex. I created a love triangle, some misunderstandings (because who doesn’t have those in spades?). I deepened the plot, and gave the characters some real-life problems. I added some mystery, some heartache, some comedy, some redemption. And pretty soon, it felt like a real book with a beating heart, and not something I should shove aside anymore.

I got my good friend and writing partner Katie to help me edit and tell me it wasn’t stupid. We found a press that was actively looking for new writers, and that spurred me on to finish. I revised until I felt like I was on my hundredth draft. I knew Enza and Jack like they were my own family. And then I had this book, and I didn’t know if it was romance, or women’s fiction, or something in between, and I wrote a query and crossed my fingers.

That was 2015.

It was published under a different title, and then I wrote a novella to go alongside it and share more of Enza’s history. And then Katie said, “When’s the next Bayou book coming? What happens now?”

And I thought OMIGOD WHAT HAPPENS NOW.

So I wrote the second novel, Bayou Whispers, and kept the threads going. Relationships can always get more complicated, right? We can never know EVERYTHING about a person—our parents, our lovers, our friends—those stories can go on forever. I wrote a second novella to be included in an anthology, and then I suddenly had a spin-off—the two secondary characters from Bayou Whispers had a good love story unfold between Kate and Andre in the novella (Just the Trouble I Needed), and I felt an urge to keep writing about them. I wondered what happened to them, and how their story would continue.

And that what if? led me to Trouble Will Follow. Kate’s story got even more complex, and no matter how hard I tried to keep the tone light (I wanted Hallmark and rom-com, dammit!), that book took a hard right turn and went to the dark place. I’d been going through some difficult things myself, and those feelings kept creeping into this book. It’s the hardest book I’ve ever written because, in a lot of ways, it was the most true. Certainly the book is not autobiographical in the strictest sense, but a lot of my own turmoil found its way into the story. My heroine was dealing with some the hardships I was facing, but dialed up to 11. (I wrote more about that in a previous post, back when I was dialed up to 11, too.)

I fought that for a long time, through a couple of drafts—I tried to tamp down the hard, bitter parts of that story and play up the lighthearted love story. But after a while, it felt like a facade that kept crumbling. The book needed to go to the dark place, and I had to let it take me there, and then write myself out of it. And in the end, writing my heroine into a moment of grace helped me to find a little, too.

Certain parts of our lives are really hard to write about. I mean REALLY hard, like “would anyone ever believe this happened?” hard, or “will my family disown me when they read it” hard. I didn’t start writing that book to work through a trying part of my own life, but by the time I got to the final draft, I realized that it had actually helped me solve some problems of my own and make peace with a few demons that weren’t as fictional as I’d presumed. In other words, I didn’t realize that I needed quite so much healing until I got to the end. I had to take that hard right turn to get there.

When I finished this book, I thought it was the end of the series. I’d written my characters into the dark places and then into redemption, and they’d made their peace and it felt like the end. Not every loose end gets tied up with a bow (because really, when does that happen?), but there’s a “happy for now” finish, and I’d already started thinking about new characters and a new book. And then Katie said, “What happens in the next Bayou book?” And I thought: Well, hell. What, indeed?

***

Trouble Will Follow releases in ebook and paperback on October 1, 2019. You can pre-order it for Kindle today. If you’d like to get the first four books in the Bayou Sabine series, you can get the box set for Kindle.

Suggested reading order:
Trouble in Bayou Sabine (read it for free!)
Back to Bayou Sabine
Bayou Whispers
Just the Trouble I Needed
Trouble Will Follow

Writing Tip #17: Sometimes You Have to Walk Away

A plate from Audubon’s Birds of America. Not my mystery bird, but he’s awfully cute.

Last week I had the good fortune to have a week alone in cabin at a writers’ retreat. Every year I try to carve out a week to spend at a place like this that cuts me out of my day-to-day life and forces me to focus on a creative projects. It’s great because the workaholic in me goes into hyper-creative mode, thinking “Hey, I took this week off of work, which means it’s costing me (hours x hourly wage) to BE HERE. So I’d damn well better BE HERE NOW and do what I came to do” (e.g. the thing I can’t do in the evenings at home).

A caveat: yes, I am a writer. Yes, I can write at home on my laptop. IF I stop doing all of the other daily tasks like doing laundry, cooking dinner, answering emails, taking a shower. Most days, that’s a big IF. I find it extremely difficult to tune out all of the mundane tasks that are competing for my attention and devote time just for myself, to focus on creative work.

So last week, I spent 6 days in a cabin with no internet, no cell service, and no other people.

It was glorious.

A book I’d been thinking about for a long time came pouring out, and I wrote over 25,000 words. And the best part? It was FUN. It didn’t feel like work. It felt like what I was supposed to be doing with my day. But that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t stumbled onto an old book and walked away from my project one day.

I put a lot of pressure on myself to make the most of my time in a place like this: once I settle in and start working, I don’t want to stop for acts like eating and socializing. I had to make myself stop sometimes, and go do something else just so my fingers wouldn’t fall off from all the typing. I went to dinner in the lodge and met some other artists. I took walks in the woods. I went to the old library on site and happened upon a 1942 volume of Audubon’s Birds of America.

This was exciting for two reasons: (1) I love Audubon’s paintings and I geek out over birds like you wouldn’t believe. So this book is basically catnip. (2) My new book in part centers on an unusual bird that’s been sighted—one that was believed to have been extinct. When I went to the library that day, I needed to know what this bird was. I was starting this book, but I had no idea what the bird was, and it was a central character in itself. All along, I’d been thinking it would be something like the ivory-billed woodpecker. Maybe a Carolina parakeet. It needed to be a bird that had a unique call, and one that had been seen in South Carolina.

A quick internet search gave me my answer: a warbler. Just for fun, I flipped through the Audubon book, and there was my mystery bird. A warbler named for Audubon’s best friend, and one that had nested in the southeastern US. It was easily confused with hooded warblers and magnolia warblers, and there were unconfirmed sightings in the 1980s, but it’s thought to be extinct. It was perfect.

That discovery energized me. I went back to my outline, and filled in the gaps. Suddenly the story took more shape, and I felt less worried about how it just felt like a hot mess. The important pieces fell into place—enough to get started on that zero draft—and that’s when the book started pouring out. This bird was a touchstone, much like it is for the heroine in my book, and all I could think was, “Hey, it’s a good thing I wandered into the library today.” It’s a good thing I walked away and took a breath.

The point of all this is that I needed a reminder. I needed to remember that even when we’ve carved out time for ourselves, and we’ve sat down to make this next creative thing, we still have to give ourselves a time-out. We still have to take time to relax, to explore, and to discover. Those moments outside of work time, when we let ourselves daydream, and let our minds wander—those are the moments that let the magic seep in. Those are the moments that happen when we walk away.