The Writers' Circle: Cupcakes and critiques


By Hank Slikker

PREVIEW Columnist

As a teenager, I used to decorate cupcakes for my dad in the family bakery. He said I had sufficient decorating talent and wanted his bakers to do more important things. Not that cupcakes weren’t important in the bakery store, but they needed staging, nonetheless.

Bigger cakes called for talent I didn’t have yet, like crafting buttercream roses or handwriting “best wishes” or “happy birthday” on their tops. Since my father was the artist and I was the apprentice, before I put the cupcakes into their showcase, he looked them over for shortcomings.

I offer this vignette because baking artistry has a lot in common with writing artistry. Mainly, skill in each craft takes a combined effort. Before putting out attractive pieces for public consumption, the artist often takes his/her work to a friend or expert for another viewpoint. We call it critique.

But critique doesn’t always feel good. You spend a year, or 10 years, getting your story just like you want it, then give it to someone to look it over for you and he tells you you might think about throwing out the first half, but the second half reads well except for the ending. Your reaction to your reader might be something like Ann Lamott’s to a reviewer of one of her books, “Well, I’m sorry, I can’t be friends with you anymore, because you have too many problems. And you have a bad personality.”

We call the effect of our work on others reader response. Or, in baking parlance, “Does it taste good?” Better for someone to sample your brownies before the party to make sure you included the sugar.

Critiquing is an art, too, because it involves our feelings. To tell a budding artist, “You might want to try something else,” won’t encourage many to keep working. He or she needs someone who can tell the truth and remain your friend at the same time. You might call it “friendly fire.” My father had that skill and, because he did, I turned into a tolerable baker.

And, I think, a tolerable writer. I’ve got plenty of “paper cuts” adorning lots of my work, their red ink bleeding into the black. Cuts like, “I’m not sure you made this point clear enough at the beginning” or “You’re not telling the reader everything you know” or “Why would anyone want to read this?” However, these injuries to my self-confidence over the years eventually morphed into bylines.

I also know who my friends are.