Memoir Lessons Learned from a Birthday Cake

by Matilda Butler on November 17, 2015

catnav-alchemy-activePost #85 – Memoir and Fiction, Writing Alchemy – Matilda Butler

NOTE: We love it when our articles inspire other articles. So it is with great pleasure that I’m providing you a link to Marian Beaman’s article about the birthday cake she baked and the memoir lessons she learned. Thanks Marian for letting us link to your great website–Plain and Fancy Girl.

So, What’s with the Title of this Blog?

Memoir lessons learned from a birthday cake. What a strange title. Actually, I couldn’t think of anything that was clearer for that is exactly what happened. I learned several lessons while baking a birthday cake and quickly saw that they applied to memoir writing.

It All Began with a Birthday
Let me begin with the tale of the cake. We planned a birthday celebration for one of my sons. Families from Portland and Eugene agreed to convene at our place, which is about equidistant from their homes. As soon as a date for a family gathering is decided on, I begin contemplating the menu. I love to cook and especially enjoy the challenge of making something that will please adults and grandchildren alike. Since we were going to have the festivities around 10 in the morning, I decided that my vegan, gluten-free waffles, always a crowd pleaser, would be featured. There would be plenty of fresh fruit–pineapple, strawberries, raspberries, watermelon–to accompany the waffles as well as the absolutely necessary maple syrup.

Birthday cake and memoir writingStep #1: Since this would be a birthday celebration, I next moved on to consider the dessert. I don’t always make a birthday cake as there are a number of other treats that have become favorites over the years. But you know how it is. You get an idea in your head and you just have to follow through. I got the idea that it would be fun to have a four-layer cake. I mean, really how hard can that be? It is just quadruple a single layer cake or double a two-layer cake.

Memoir Lesson #1: Don’t fool yourself with the thought of “how hard can it be?” Everything you do for the first time will be hard. This lesson is not meant to discourage anyone from taking on hard work, such as writing a memoir. It just means that there may be more to be done than originally imagined.

Step #2: Of course, I didn’t have four pans to bake the layers but a quick trip to the local grocery store provided what I needed. I told myself that wasn’t bad since my old cake pans were just that — old, scratched, and not well matched to sit on top of each other.

Memoir Lesson #2: Spend time planning your memoir before you begin. You will still have unexpected situations happen, but early planning will save you in the long run. You see, I hadn’t thought about the actual sequence of baking. The recipe I was using (an absolutely fabulous gluten-free, vegan cake) made enough for one 9-inch pan. There was no way that I could quadruple the recipe and so decided to make the recipe four times. This means I could have gotten by with just one pan or two at the most. If you plan your memoir, you may save yourself wasted research or gathering of documents or interviews with family members. In other words, know where you are headed before you start your journey.

Step #3: I made it through to having the four layers baked and cooled. The sweet scents of vanilla and chocolate mingled in the air. I had decided to make two of the layers chocolate (just a small redo of the recipe) and alternate the vanilla and chocolate layers when I assembled the cake. I remember a couple of early disasters with cakes when I was a young bride and knew the cake layers needed enough time to cool. In fact, I left them on the counter overnight. I was going to do this right. The next day, I prepared my icing and put it in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes. I wanted it soft enough to spread and yet firm enough to stay on the sides. So far so good.

Layer 1 was simple. I got out a beautiful cake plate (that Kendra had given me a few years ago), took a piece of parchment paper, folded it in quarters and cut out the center. I unfolded the paper and put it on the cake plate. At the end, I could then easily remove the paper and with it all the icing drips, leaving a beautifully clean plate for the presentation.

Layer 2 was not quite as simple but not bad. This was one of the chocolate layers and thanks to my tinkering with the recipe, it had a dome top rather than a flat top. I finally decided that I should cut off the dome. That wasn’t too hard and after a couple of tries, I had a level layer. More icing on the top and sides. This was fun. I was half done and imagining all the “oohs” and “aahs” I’d get.

With layer 3 the problems began to be obvious, although they had probably started back with the original idea for a four layer cake. The third layer began to slip as I started icing it. I thought perhaps I hadn’t put it on perfectly and tried to push it back in place. Pretty soon the situation revealed itself. The cake layers, while room temperature, were not actually cold. The frosting, while originally cold, had begun to warm as I worked on each layer. And finally, the more layers I added, the more weight pushed down on the lower layers and on the icing.

At this point, I should have put everything in the refrigerator before proceeding. Instead, I kept icing and meanwhile was letting everything get warmer. I found bamboo skewers that I keep for serving fruit kabobs. I lined up the three layers (a little push here and a little shove there) and inserted one skewer down from the top and finished icing that layer — top and sides.

Birthday cake memoirOh my. Oh my. Oh my. I did get the fourth layer on by removing the single skewer, holding the three layers in place, and putting the top one on. The eight arms of an octopus would have been helpful here. Then I quickly added two skewers at an angle into the four layers in addition to the one down from the top. Think of an “x” and you’ll understand what I did. I didn’t think a single skewer down the middle could really keep this baby together.

Birthday cake memoirAnd it worked. I then iced the top layer of the cake, added more icing to the sides and made the cake festive with rosettes. All seemed fine although I knew I had to get this into the refrigerator.

I went over to the refrigerator and opened the door. Cool air hit my face about the time I realized that I couldn’t get a cake this big into my refrigerator. Not a problem. I had an older refrigerator in the basement and could use that one. I went to the cake to lift it. The combined weight of the cake and the heavy glass cake plate were such that I knew I would be unable to safely walk down the 18 stairs to the basement. I’m quite strong but I could barely lift this. I had a problem on my hands (again).

Memoir Lesson #3. Think about the implications of the organization of your memoir. Select the stories that will fit the story structure you intend to use. Do you have room for all the vignettes you want to include? One woman I coached had written 2000 single spaced pages. Much like my four-layer cake. Too much. How will you know when you have told enough stories? If you know what your message is, if you know what you want readers to get from your memoir, then you will know when you have included enough stories.

For me, going straight up with four layers was going to be a continuing problem. You don’t want similar problems with your memoir.

Step #4. Did I just say “four layers was going to be a continuing problem?” My biggest problem was that I didn’t know I was going to have a continuing problem. I thought I had solved all of the possible problems. I emptied some of the shelves in the kitchen refrigerator, carrying the items to the basement refrigerator. One of the kitchen refrigerator’s shelves could be folded in half after I had removed all the food. This gave me the double height that I needed. I knew I could just leave the cake in the refrigerator until the next day. It would be cold and at that point I could remove the two bamboo skewers. No more problems. No more lessons to be learned.

And if you believe that, I have ocean front property in Phoenix, Arizona I’ll sell you (just as the song says.)

Memoir Lesson #4: Don’t become complacent. Stay on top of your writing and anticipate what will come next. For example, you may want to have the last paragraph of a chapter lead the reader into the next chapter. Put a bit of a teaser at the end so that the reader doesn’t want to put the book down.

Birthday cake and memoir writing lessonsStep #5: Easy peasy. The final step was a no-brainer. Light the candles. Let the birthday boy blow them out. Cut the cake. Put a slice on each plate.

It should have been easy peasy. If I had done a two-layer cake it would have been exactly that. But at the last moment, I was faced with a final challenge. I had put in a lot of work and time and I wasn’t going to turn back now. An hour before everyone arrived, I took out my favorite dessert plates. Something special for the occasion.

Birthday cake memoir writingBut then I looked at the size of the plate and the height of the cake and had that sinking feeling. The plate was too small. That’s okay, I thought. I have some lovely small dessert plates with birds that were a little larger. No. That didn’t work. I have some lovely small dinner plates that I inherited from my mother. They have a blue border that is quite beautiful. No. I measured and they are also too small. Not a problem. It is a little unusual, but I’ll just use a regular dinner plate. I got them out and measured just to make sure. Oh no. The slice would fit, but only if it was allowed to go edge to edge and that would mean that it would be higher on the sides and sink down in the middle. Not an attractive presentation and not what I had in mind. I could have considered standing each piece on its “bottom.” Only a fairly thick slice would work without falling over. And given that each slice already was four layers, I thought they had to be thin.

Birthday cake memoir writingMy solution? I do have a set of plates that are more like chargers…to be used under other plates. They have a 12 inch diameter. Yes. Twelve inches. And yes, they worked perfectly. Last problem solved.

Memoir Lesson #5. Be flexible. You have an image in mind when you begin your memoir. You know what you want. But it may not all work out as you imagined at the start. You may need to change the organization. You may need to cut out certain sections. Be willing to do what it takes to write your memoir. Don’t let the need for changes overwhelm you.

Birthday cake memoir writingStep #6. Eat. Everyone loved the cake. We had the fun of letting our birthday son take half the cake with him to share with friends. By then we had seen the need for an oversized plastic bin to hold the cake. We had even cut a piece of cardboard and covered it with plastic wrap so that the cake could be safely lowered into the bucket and then retrieved. Now, I was getting the hang of this.

Memoir Lesson #6. Enjoy sharing your life stories whether written for yourself, your family, or the broader community of memoir readers. Find pleasure in the final result. You’ve earned it.

Step #7. But even now, even though the cake was declared delicious, even though it all ended well, I have to admit there was one more final problem. In truth, the four layers, even in thin slices, were just too much to eat. The garbage can received the uneaten remnants from several of the plates. Too much of a good thing.

Memoir Lesson #7. Start small and work your way up. The lessons of the four-layer cake stayed with me as I prepared to fix a cake for my next son’s birthday — only a couple of weeks later. I made a one-layer vanilla cake, topped with an apricot icing made of lovely California dried apricots. This smaller, less sweet concoction was declared a winner by all and the second half was happily taken by my son and his family.

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