How writing is like cake making. #acwri

this week's home-made asymmetrical Aussie Rule football cake

this week’s home-made Aussie Rules football cake

Why cake ? Because joy and deliciousness are nutrients in their own right. ~ Jude Blereau

I make about two cakes a year, one for each of my children’s birthdays. One year ago, baking and decorating my eldest son’s cake prompted a blog post in which I compared making a novelty birthday cake to doing a PhD. This year, baking his double-layer chocolate cake (decorated as an AFL football field) had me thinking: this cake making business is a lot like writing, particularly academic writing.

My boys are 4 and (just) 6, so on my one-cake-per-child’s-birthday / two-cakes-per-year average, I haven’t baked that many cakes. Yet this week’s cake (pictured above), is the first cake that has felt stress-free to make, and first one for which I haven’t made big mistakes in the making. In the past my cake and icing mixes have split and curdled. I have broken cakes trying to get them out of the pan. There have been times when I decorated cakes the day before serving and the colours from the candy bled into the icing. Once, a heavy cake topper figurine sunk into the cake overnight. Earlier this year, I got a knife caught in the beaters while making icing, which resulted in me icing myself and the whole kitchen, including the ceiling. I didn’t feel quite the Nigella-esque image of domestic goddessery when I couldn’t see through my tears and icing-splattered spectacles.

This week there was none of the cake-anxiety drama. Baking and decorating were calm and enjoyable. Much of this was due to the knowledge and skills I have gained over time, as well as processes I have developed for this task. I knew to leave my ingredients out so that they were room temperature when I used them, preventing mixes from splitting. I knew to alternate mixing in dry and wet ingredients. I knew to take the time to cover the whole inside of the pan with carefully-traced-and-cut-and-placed bake paper so that the cake would slide out easily, with a now-practiced flourish, onto a wire rack. I knew to ice the cake while it was partly frozen to prevent crumbs in the icing, and to leave the extra decorations off until the icing was set so that the colours didn’t bleed. I had a familiar routine set out over a few days which made the process manageable. I also knew my materials better, what they could and couldn’t do. My expectations were managed. The cake was a bit lopsided, the icing a bit uneven, the drawn lines a bit skewwhiff. These imperfections were the marks of me as the maker, and I was ok with those idiosyncrasies. They were the ‘voice’ or the ‘me’ in the cake.

And so, from baking and decorating to writing …

My reflections on my journey as a novice baker and decorator remind me of my arc as an academic writer. The brief for each cake (footy! outer space! race track!), or each paper or chapter (this journal! that book! this field! that theory!), is different, requiring planning and consideration at the outset about how to proceed in order to reach a particular end point. Academic writing requires a nuanced understanding of its ingredients, materials and processes. The writer needs to understand, and be able to expertly manipulate, the language of particular disciplines and the language of particular journals. They build a growing knowledge of theories and literatures.

Like the baker, the writer develops a routine, a flow, an individualised writing process that works for them, including how to time their work, how to structure it, how to build layers of meaning, how to perfect and polish it in the final stages. They acquire tools and strategies for their work, things that make the work smoother and produce a better product. Some knowings and doings become internalized over time, with the writer having to think less about them, able to turn their attentions to refining their craft, developing deeper understandings and pushing the scope of their work beyond the limits of its previous iterations. Writers hone their voice, the ‘me’-ness in their writing, while watching out for their writing tics.

Like a cake made for a particular individual and a specific celebration, a piece of writing is often constructed with a particular audience in mind. Peer review of cake at a child’s birthday party is gentler than that in academia, but the party guest’s purpose is to appreciate and thank the host, while the peer reviewer’s purpose is to critically judge and improve the work. Once writing is published, more feedback comes in the forms of citations, downloads, reviews and social media shares. The audiences are different, but for both baking and writing there are accepted norms of feedback from others. A baker might dread the grimaced smiles of guests pretending to enjoy their cake while they leave slices unfinished, just as a writer might fear Reviewer 3’s scathing critique or the deafening silence of an uncited, un-clicked-upon piece, lying unread in physical and online spaces. Peer review is, after all, often like getting a punch in the face and a high five simultaneously.

While I am a sometimes-baker, I am a regular writer. I’m sure that if I baked with the constancy of my writing, it would improve markedly. I write something almost every day, for different purposes or different audiences. One distinction for me between baking and writing (obviously there are many differences!) is that I find I write my way into understanding, into knowing my own thinking and into interrogating my worlds and the writings of others. Writing is inquiry, identity work, illuminator. It is joy and struggle. And while a cake is devoured until only crumbs remain, writing lives on.

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Easy as pie? How a PhD, & other complex work, is like a cake

Metaphors have a way of holding the most truth in the least space. ~ Orson Scott Card

Number 3 racetrack cake by @debsnet

Number 3 racetrack cake, with handmade bunting & teeny cars

As an English and Literature teacher, I love a metaphor, especially an extended one. I have spoken about one of my PhD metaphors before: thesis as a stone sculpture. Metaphors even bubbled up unexpectedly in my PhD data as participants searched for meaningful language to explore their identities.

In some ways this post is a response to, or extension of, Anitra Nottingham’s Thesis Whisperer post ‘My thesis is a cupcake, not a dragon.’ In it, she talks about making novelty birthday cakes for her children. She goes on to use the metaphor of cupcake for her Masters thesis and cake for a PhD thesis.

I was reminded of Anitra’s post over the weekend as I prepared for my eldest child’s 5th birthday. A novelty birthday cake is a lot like a thesis, I thought, as I pierced the galaxy outer-space solar-system cake with the planets I had hand-painted (cake decorating makes for great phdcrastinating).

the weekend's outer space solar system cake

the weekend’s outer space solar system cake; I am a child of the 80s so Pluto, beautiful dwarf planet, is there

I love to make my children’s birthday cakes from scratch, not that I find it easy or that I have an aptitude for it! I rarely bake; it’s not something I’m great at, and often my baking is asymmetrical and (goofily? lovingly?) imperfect. But I feel like a cake is more than the sum of its ingredients. I am convinced that my children and their guests can taste the love and trying-to-make-it-wonderful effort that goes into a homemade birthday cake.

Tootle cake, the Golden Book train who likes to play in meadows rather than stay on the rails

Tootle cake, the Golden Book train who likes to play in meadows rather than stay on the rails

A thesis, too, is more than the sum of its parts, more than the words on its pages. As I revise the full draft of my thesis, I am reading with the reader in mind (and trying to avoid boring or annoying them – see Pat Thomson’s post from an examiner perspective). I am hoping that examiners and other readers will ‘taste’ the passion, the challenges overcome, the obsessive dedication, and the satisfaction and enjoyment that comes with taking a PhD project to completion.

Both cake and thesis start with a problem. How am I going to embody the essence of this? Both cake and thesis require a balance of systematisation and creativity, recipe-following and individuality. What tools and ingredients will I need? What methodological processes will I follow to ensure a sturdy finished product which stands up? How might I make this original and my own interpretation?

Like a thesis, sometimes a cake doesn’t work at first and the creator needs to start again, or find creative solutions (usually involving using icing as glue or camouflage).

Octonauts cake

Octonauts cake, complete with sunken figurine (note to self: add heavy bits at the last minute)

It might seem trivial to compare the PhD thesis to making a cake (and of course there are many many differences between a thesis and a cake!), but I find that metaphors, in distilling meaning down to its simplest and yet most poetic form, help me to make sense of complex work. Their simplicity helps to keep me going.

The quote at the beginning of this post resonates: a metaphor can hold the most truth in the least space.

What are your metaphors for your complex work?

A PhD metaphor: Thesis as sculpture

I saw the angel in the marble and I carved until I set him free. ~ Michelangelo

Metaphors are something that I engage with when I am trying to make sense of something, and this has certainly been true as I have worked through the stages of my PhD.

I have previously explored the notion of a thesis as a sculpture, a collision of imagination and hard, systematic work. As I move towards the end of the first full draft of my PhD thesis, I have been reshaping this personal metaphor into a more specific vision inspired by the work and words of Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo, who saw the sculptor as the free-er of sculptures from their stone slumber.

Seeing the Statue of David in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence was for me an almost spiritual experience. But perhaps even more magical to see and experience were the ‘Slaves’, unfinished figures twisting and writhing inside giant stone blocks. Lining the wide hall of the Galleria dell’Accademia, leading to David, they seem to be the tangible epitome of Michelangelo’s aim: to free existing figures from stone.

The metaphor of the researcher/Michelangelo and thesis/stone-sculpture works for me for a few reasons.

Firstly, like Anitra Nottingham’s metaphor of thesis-as-baking-a-cupcake, producing a thesis takes knowledge, skill, materials and creativity. The artist or researcher must know their materials and their methods. The researcher-sculptor learns, applies and refines their craft and their art. They must learn the basics, practise repeatedly and make many mistakes before their work begins to resemble the skill and originality to which they aspire.

Secondly, like Victoria Graham and Michelle Redman-MacLaren’s metaphor of research as swimming, it is hard and arduous work, requiring patience, persistence, sweat and a focus on doing your own best. Often working alone in his studio, the sculptor carves away at hard, unforgiving stone, systematically testing his tools and techniques against its surface. Some days his body aches. The mental and physical effort of the work keeps him awake at night. He makes excruciatingly slow progress, but sees his vision slowly come into view. Soon, it is no longer a rough cut slab of shapeless stone. The form starts to be revealed, loose but almost recognisable. And in the final stages, the sculptor uses small tools to polish and finely sculpt the finishing details, working obsessively on the most minute aspects.

Stone carving also reflects for me the process of the thesis. The researcher-sculptor begins with a purpose, a question, a vision, a method; but from those beginnings emerges something else. A figure twisting out from stone as a result of the influence of sculptor’s hand, mind, materials and tools. As the researcher-sculptor chips away, the thesis takes shape, influenced by the researcher-sculptor themselves, the pressure and techniques they apply, and the materials, data and methods with which they work.

Perhaps, also, art imitates artist. Seeing the ‘Awakening Slave’ writhing free from his block of marble seems a little like the PhD candidate emerging, through struggle, as a formed researcher from the PhD stone, or perhaps the PhD chrysalis.

There are differences, of course. Michelangelo became a master of his art, whereas the PhD researcher is an apprentice. And a PhD researcher makes mistakes, back tracks, double pikes, and tries again. It is not as though Michelangelo could gouge out a piece of marble, change his mind, and glue it back on, while retaining the integrity of the artwork. The metaphor isn’t perfect, but it allows me to inhabit the internal space of worker, tinkerer and creator, driven by my purpose while sensitive to my materials.

Is your thesis like a sculpture? What is your metaphor for your researcher self?

In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it. ~ Michelangelo

A Google search for 'my thesis is' won't give you inspiration.

A Google search for ‘my thesis is’ won’t give you inspiration.