The other day I started thinking about my writing. Questioning the books I admire, and the writers who have influenced me. As with most writers, the experiences that shaped me came from many different people and places, including many of my old teachers. Oddly, some of my best mentors were not English or literature teachers but ones from other disciplines, geology, art, even statistics. My sophomore math professor was a genius, for who but a true literary wiz could write word problems that could have the whole class rolling on the floor laughing?
One of my favorite teachers was the woman who taught the narrative nonfiction graduate level history class, a mandatory class for all majors. She was a writer who had already climbed to dizzying heights with her own nonfiction books, and she simply wouldn’t let us slide by with papers that didn’t inform as well as entertain. One of her tricks was to make us study and write about something so strange that we couldn’t help but leave our comfort zone far behind. She always forced us to tap into something new about our writing and ourselves. One week we studied grave stone epitaphs, another, advertising campaigns from the 1920s. For Women’s History Month she had us study and then perform an original suffrage play. For an audience of course, talk about scaring the stuffing out of a bunch of introverted history students.
One of her writing projects was the dreaded artifact challenge, an event shrouded in secrecy. The mere mention of the challenge would bring covert smiles, or moans of agony, but never any details from the previous year’s class. When the challenge arrived she entered the classroom dragging a huge box filled with stapled shut brown paper lunch bags. One for each of us. She instructed us to take a bag, any bag, and not open it until we got home. The assignment that accompanied the bag said we would find an object inside, and without showing it to anyone, we were to do our best to identify our object. If we solved the mystery, then she wanted a paper about the artifact. If we couldn’t identify the item we were to write about our research process and what we thought the item might be. Our pulses ran wild, and I’m sure many of my classmates ripped open their bags the second they found a moment alone.
Sealed inside my bag I found a small stainless steel implement. When I squeezed the two sides of the handle together the mechanism swept a bar across a small, flat, tear-drop shaped surface. I felt devastated, I saw no way of solving this puzzle, I had nothing to go on, no information to help me, not even a maker’s mark, or some helpful packaging.
I threw myself into an exhausting week of research, and…. I was one of the lucky students, I did identify my artifact.
I had a Foley Cookie Dough Dropper, manufactured by the Foley Company of Minneapolis. It originally sold for .49 cents and promised to drop cream puffs, yeast rolls, doughnuts and cookies with ease. The instructions told me to dip the Foley in the dough, and release it onto a cookie sheet. What could be simpler or faster? No more struggling with sticky dough.
But my quest didn’t end there, for although I knew my item’s name and its purpose, I had to understand it, give some context to the world that created this engendering oddity.
My research plunged me into a strange new historical world, that of the post WWII homemaker. This was a woman obsessed with her new suburban lifestyle. She wanted to have all the labor-saving devices and prided herself on demanding the finest kitchen gadgets. In fact everything to outfit her family and their new track home needed to be the best money could buy. At first I couldn’t understand this woman. Even the price of 49 cents seemed remarkably high for the era. Why did she covet this shiny kitchen implement, when it did absolutely nothing as far as I could tell?
So I did the only thing that made any sense to me, I baked cookies. I baked a lot of cookies. Since I knew the manufacturer advertised ease of use and speed as a selling point, I grabbed a stop watch and created time trials. I dropped sheet after sheet of chunky chocolate chip cookies and smooth peanut butter cookies. I dropped first with my Foley patented (yes you heard me, US patent number 5149161) dough dropper, and then I dropped with a teaspoon, then with two teaspoons and finally I used a scoop with a quick release lever. I kept detailed records, dragging in a friend to help me create all the mathematical averages and charts, eventually I knew the exact amount of time my labor-saving device saved. Almost none. That’s right, the Foley Cookie Dough Dropper took longer than my scoop, however it did narrowly edge out my teaspoons by a few seconds. I collected more data, measuring and documenting the quality of the finished product. I checked the cookies for uniformity of size, thickness and cooking times, and again my Foley let me down. I know these were just cookies, but I was desperate to find some valid reason for anyone spending money on this shiny toy.
Despite my object’s lack of labor-saving properties, my oral report delighted my classmates almost as much as the overflowing platters of cookies. My paper earned me an A, but more importantly it garnered enthusiastic praise from my teacher. For after countless years of teaching this very assignment the Foley had been misidentified, returned in a panic for an easier item and prompted many long feminist and consumer culture rants. But in all those years it never produced a single batch of cookies until mine.
With the beauty of time I can see what my brilliant professor had in mind. The only way we could fail her artifact challenge was to give up, to throw up our hands, put our heads down and bring the objects back to classroom in defeat. I will never be the woman who would buy the Foley Cookie Dough Dropper, nor will I be the one to give up without a fight. Writing is hard, it’s lonely, scary work, and you never feel safe while you’re doing it, but the moment you stop writing is when you fail. It’s not when an agent rejects your query or someone gives you a bad review, it’s when you give up trying. And that’s what I learned about writing from cookies.
Up Next from Robin…. It Is A Wonderful Life