Monday, November 23, 2015

Remember the Recipe by Victoria Chatham

I had it all. Characters. Setting. Plot.

I worked on it all summer, jotting down names, incidents, and snatches of dialogue. I volunteered time with a Riding For the Disabled Group, learning what made a good RDA horse or pony, how it was trained, how riding benefited both mentally and physically challenged children and adults. I shared in the simple pleasures the riders derived from their lessons, and learnt a whole new language from the young man with Touretts Syndrome. Thrilled with successfully negotiating his first jump he let rip with such a stream of invective that even his horse laid its ears flat to its head as if to shut it out.

At the time the details of this book were circulating in my mind, I was working in a bookstore where I was a Jill of all trades. Occasionally I worked in the store but mostly I invoiced books to go to any one of my two hundred (or thereabout) school accounts. The best part though was unpacking new stock. And, in that new stock that fall, was my story. I held the book in my hands and looked at the cover in disbelief. The illustration was one I could have drawn myself. The characters and plot could have been pulled out of my mind. I flicked through it, barely cognizant of my boss asking me what was wrong.

“This is my story,” I wailed, tossing the book onto the unpacking counter. I continued to rant and rave, mostly that I was going to give up writing because what was the point if another author beat me to the punch line, so to speak. My boss wisely said nothing until I’d finished venting. Then he smiled and simply said, “Remember the recipe”.

Recipe? What recipe? What was he talking about? And then it hit me. My own personal ‘Aha’ moment. I had a Victoria sponge cake recipe that never failed. My friend made the best dinner rolls. We swapped recipes but she could never get her cake to rise like mine while my dinner rolls were a disaster. Same recipe, same ingredients, but in another person's hands the recipe had totally different results.

My boss’s analogy was an apt one and was something I shared when I taught Introductory Creative Writing. One of the first questions my students asked of me was how could they make their writing different. In the first class we brainstormed a character, the popular vote decided whether it was male or female; they chose hair and eye color, physical attributes, the character’s strengths and weaknesses, what was their deepest, darkest secret? What did they fear the most and why? What was the character’s family background? What was their biggest ambition? By the end of the first class, we had the character with which they worked for the ensuing weeks. At the end of the course it was always a thrill for me to listen to my students read their first stories, all starting out with the same character, but each and every story being so very, very different.

When I read books today that might sound a little like mine, I look deeper into my own writing to see what I can change to really make it my own. As my boss so wisely said all those years ago, ‘Remember the recipe’.  

Victoria Chatham