I have done what I so often do when I feel a need to regain control: baked. One coffee mocha cake and two big batches of vegan cookies (for my plan-based eater son) later, and that feels better. There’s not much that’s imaginative about my cooking. Not these days, at least, in the quotidien monotony of lockdown: tried and trust recipes, with little experimentation. Still, it’s a creative activity of sorts—if creativity can be loosely defined as generating something new with existing ideas, elements, tools. Something of value perhaps, because it provides interest, stimulation; it communicates. A homemade cake says I care about you; here’s something to brighten your day.
“Writing is like baking a cake.” Or so said actor and writer Greta Gerwig of her screenplay for movie Frances Ha (2012). Specifically, she said, “So much of writing is like baking a cake. I can’t tell you where the sugar is.” Meaning, I suppose, that the sweetness is dispersed throughout, along with the blandness of flour, richness of eggs, and a slight scalding of salt—or do I over-extend the image?
Look up ‘writing is like baking a cake’ (or similar) on a search engine and you’ll find dozens of similes—on the writing process or combining of ‘ingredients’; the completed product; the assembly; the frosting; the decorating…
The simile is very limited, of course, as similes typically are. We know that; Gerwig and others employing the figure of speech know that. The comparison made emphasises or communicates one attribute, but does not convey the whole. For all the necessary technique and steps involved, the element missing here is insight. It’s intuition. It’s inspiration. It’s originality. It’s some or all of these things. Far from following a recipe, writing requires not fully knowing we’re you’re going from the outset. So the full writing process may be like making a cake for an innovative pastry chef, but not in the main. Arguably, the aspiring writer is trying to move from happy amateur to consummate artist.
Many attempts have been made to define the generic creative process, to identify what all creative processes have in common, and by various philosophers, social scientists, and psychologists. Here’s a classic example by English social psychologist and educationalist Graham Wallas in his book The Art of Thought in 1926. It’s one you may well have come across before:
1. Preparation – information gathering; understanding; researching…
2. Incubation: taking a step back, letting your unconscious mind, creative instincts take over.
3. Illumination: arrival of insight – or ‘inspiration strikes’.
4. Verification/implementation: build and develop the output…
As we can see, here, most of the important phases are at the pre-production stage.
Whether you’re a writer, a baker, a photographer, painter, knitter, designer… could you apply the above steps to your own creative process?
Below are a few more, well-known, similes about writing. Do any of them chime with your own thoughts and experiences of creating something? What simile or metaphor would you come up with instead?
“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” E. L. Doctorow.
“Writing is like sex. First you do it for love, then you do it for your friends, and then you do it for money.” Virginia Woolf.
“Writing is like having sex. The people who never shut up about doing it are usually the ones who don’t know what the hell they’re doing.” Greg Sisco.
“Good writing is like a windowpane.” George Orwell.
“Good writing is like music. It has its distinctive rhythm, its pace, flow, cadence. It can be hummed. The great stylists seem to have an inner music…” Leonard Teel Ray.
“Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.” John Steinbeck.
But finally and very simply:
“Writing is like most things, the more you do it, the better you get at it.” Iain Banks.