Memoir Writers: When Is a Pie Not a Pie?

by Matilda Butler on July 20, 2018

catnav-interviews-active-3Post #247– Memoir Writing Tip – Matilda Butler

When Is a Pie Not a Pie?

Before I answer the pie question, let me say that Kendra and I are working on a new website for this wonderful community of women writing their memoirs. We want to keep past content but have a new look and better access for mobile devices. So while we are still working on that, I haven’t added many new articles.

However, we want you to know that we think about you even when we aren’t actively writing articles for you.

And speaking of thinking, I’ve been pondering words and word choice lately. It is easy, in the midst of trying to get our thoughts and memories written, to just use “any old” word. Or perhaps you use a word or words that are meaningful to you and you just assume everyone will know what you mean. But it turns out your meaning doesn’t have the same connotation for others. Let me give a bizarre example. I recently read a recipe in which the person described the way she likes butter. She wrote that she didn’t use butter at room temperature. She said “It should be plastic and cold.”

Stop reading.

Think about your reaction to that description. Butter should be plastic and cold. Although the recipe was interesting, do you really find it appetizing to imagine butter like plastic?

This is a farfetched, but real, example of word choice. I use it to help you think about your words. When you write, when you edit your words, be sure you consider both what you want to say (you may really think butter should be plastic and cold) and how your readers will interpret the way you say it (“Oh yuk. That sounds disgusting.”).

What is the connotation surrounding your word choices? There are, at a minimum, regional differences, generational differences, educational differences in the use of words. Across all the different uses and interpretations of words, we want to be precise in our choices, precise enough that our words enhance rather than distract from our stories.

Recently I was reading a historic novel that took place in England in the mid-1800s. The grounds and large home was called a “plantation” but I thought the word should be “estate.” It turns out that the use of plantation was correct although today the word “farm” would probably be used. However, I don’t associate the word plantation with England and so it was jarring for me. But since the book was written in 1859, I am perfectly willing to believe that the understanding of a person in the 21st century is not the same as a person reading the novel in the 19th century.

Based on the excellent didactics in museums, I’ve expanded my knowledge of such words as ewer and pitcher. Although the former is definitely used less frequently, it sometimes seems just right. As I’ve learned, a ewer is a vase-shaped pitcher. Both have handles and spouts. If you or sometime in your memoir is pouring just-made prickly pear lemonade from a decorated pitcher, you might decide to use the word ewer, especially if you want to draw attention to the pitcher and the drink. If instead you are making a passing reference, the simpler word, pitcher, would be called for.

Apple PieWhen Is a Pie Not a Pie?

To keep with my early example of food-related words, let me share with you eight words that help us to understand when a pie is not a pie:

1. Cobbler: Baked in a casserole dish with fruit on the bottom and biscuit dough in pieces on top. Why this name? The rounds of dough are said to resemble cobblestones.

2. Crumble: Fruit is on the bottom with a crumbly layer of streusel on top. The streusel is usually a combination of sugar, flour and butter. (Note the difference between this and a crisp.)

3. Crisp: Like a crumble, this baked dish has fruit on the bottom and the topping has oatmeal and/or nuts in it.

4. Pandowdy: (Such a lovely, evocative word. Wouldn’t it be fun to say, “Shall we have pandowdy tonight?)) This is another baked dish with fruit on the bottom and rolled pastry on top. The twist here is that once it is cooked and taken out of the oven, the pastry is broken into pieces that allow the edges to absorb the juices.

5. Grunt: This dessert is made like a cobbler, but instead of going into the oven, it is cooked on the stovetop in a skillet. Don’t recognize this name? Sometimes it is called a slump.

6. Buckle: This is one of those “something magical happens here” types of desserts. Cake batter is poured into a pan and then is topped with fruit. As it bakes, the fruit settles toward the bottom and usually ends up suspended in the cake.

7. Betty: Usually apples, but sometimes other fruits, are layered with buttered bread pieces or bread crumbs and then baked.

8. And finally, Pie: Traditionally, a pie has a pastry crust on the bottom, fruit in the middle and (usually) pastry on the top. The top may be a single pastry piece or strips that are woven into a lattice structure.

So there you have it. Words, words, and more words.

Memoir Tip:
It’s impossible to chose the best word for every sentence. But during a reading of your work and during a formal editing, take time to use the most effective words possible. An easy way to get started is to take an opening paragraph of a chapter and work on it until it really shines. The result will be that you draw the reader into the chapter.

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