Your Cake and Who You Bake it For

This is a great article in the NY Times by Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours. His main point is about the experience of having his book translated into another language and how ultimately all writing is an act of translation, since what we write is always an approximation of what he calls the "cathedral of fire" we initially construct in our heads. All very interesting and well worth a read, but there was one section in particular that grabbed me.

"I teach writing, and one of the first questions I ask my students every semester is, who are you writing for? The answer, 9 times out of 10, is that they write for themselves. I tell them that I understand — that I go home every night, make an elaborate cake and eat it all by myself. By which I mean that cakes, and books, are meant to be presented to others. And further, that books (unlike cakes) are deep, elaborate interactions between writers and readers, albeit separated by time and space."

Honestly, I think I would have answered that question he posed his students much like they did. I write for myself. Self expression is the driving force behind what I do. I think it's a popular answer to the question. And not an altogether bad one. The reality is that writing is tough and uncertain so if you're not ultimately writing for yourself, for your satisfaction, then it's going to be a heck of a hard road.

And yet that image of a cake you make to eat all by yourself kind of stops me in my tracks. If you acknowledge that you're making a cake to be enjoyed by others, you have to ask how that changes what kind of cake you make and how you make it.

More than maybe any other genre, YA authors know their audience. Teens and young adults. We know they're meant to be our readers, but I think it's important to step back regularly and ask ourselves how are we serving them? Why, in a world of TV and movies and video games and myriad online distractions, should they give us their time? How do we justify what we're doing?

Me? I guess I want to show kids that the imaginative act of reading is just as fun and, at it's best, a far more immersive entertainment experience than any other. For me that's the foundation. I want to entertain.

I'm also just foolish enough to hope that I can communicate something deeper than that as well. Maybe something that will lighten their load a little bit. Something about hope and how they're not alone along with an understanding of how hard the process of becoming who you're meant to be really is.

Anyway, this idea isn't groundbreaking or anything, but I think it's a good one to come back to regularly.

What do you guys think?

Who are you writing for and how does that change what you write? How do you balance your need for self expression with your audience's needs?

Jeff Hirsch
The Long Walk Home
Coming from Scholastic, Fall 2011

Find me at and @jeff_hirsch


Anonymous said...

As a writer AND the daughter of a baker, I can relate to this post on many levels.

I have done writing that was ultimately for me - but most of the work was indulgent at best.

As I send out work to my critique group, they help me see what is good, (but needs more tweaking before being taste tested), what is best (and ready to be served to others) and what should never see the light of day until I add more ingredients so it is palatable for other folks to "taste".

My mom does the same thing when making a new dish. She makes it and shares it with our family - her critique group. We tell her if it is ready to be shared with the general public, or if it needs more work. Even if she likes it a certain way, she is honest enough to say, "This is my preference, but most folks won't eat these ingredients. I need to change it up a bit." But she loves to bake, so she goes back and revamps the recipe.

No matter what I'm writing, there will always be a part of the process that is "for me". I love to write - just like my mom loves to bake. But if I write solely for me, then I will be the only one who enjoys it...and no one will ever ask for seconds.

Laura Pauling said...

I think performance level increases when you write for your audience and not just yourself. I mean face it, the sloppy, falling apart cake I make for family is not the same cake I would present at a wedding (not that anyone would ask me to bake a cake for a wedding.)

Micol Ostow said...

Great post. I do write for myself and, as a writing teacher, do also tell my students that if you're NOT inherently writing for yourself, it can compromise your writing. But that said, it's useless (and unrealistic) not to acknowledge that we are, on some level, writing with the hope of being published and the expectation that there is an audience that will ultimately interact with our work.

Katherine Longshore said...

I think this is a brilliant analogy! I put myself through college working at a bakery as a cake decorator and now write for young adults. Even (way) back then, I liked to have an idea in mind of the person I worked for if I put the effort into a particularly elaborate design. The process is rewarding in itself (the chocolate, the cake scraps, the Kahlua) but so is the end goal of picturing the audience, the cake box opening, the first finger dipped into the buttercream. Thank you for reminding me.

Kelsey (Dominique) Ridge said...

I like the cake analogy. After all, if I wanted to have cake just for me, I'd make cupcakes on the weekends and have one every now and then. I'd just keep telling myself the stories in my head and never flesh them out, fill in the middles, or edit them. When I started making a seven layer devil's food cake (ie: writing it all down, editing, rewriting,etc.) I had to acknowledge I was making it for someone else as well.

Anonymous said...

There's a huge difference between asking "who are you writing for?" and "who is your audience?" And I suspect that most people would answer the questions differently.

I do really like the cake metaphor, but not because I feel like I should stop believing that I'm writing for me. Writing is so hard, and if I wasn't, at my core, doing it for myself... well, I'd find an easier job that comes with health insurance.

Creepy Query Girl said...

I guess the best way to reconcile the two is to say 'I'm making a cake. Because I'm hungery and feel like cake. It's chocolate because I like chocolate. If other people think my cake looks good and want to eat it- they're welcome to it. But I aint a short order cook.' Inevitably, I think if we write for someone else, there'll be a lack of passion and excitement in our work. You gotta write for yourself first and foremost. I mean, we all like to say that 'baking' for others gives a feeling of generosity and sharing. But it will probably taste best if, in the back of ourminds, we're really looking forward to having a piece of our own damn cake.

C. Michael Fontes said...

I love this post. Yes, you need to write for yourself... but if we truly don't care who the audience is, as some (even here in the comments) suggest, then why bother to learn the craft? Why spend the time practicing, avoiding common pitfalls, etc. If it is JUST for you, than who gives a rip what it looks like.

The answer is, that deep down, EVERYONE desires their work to be read, and more importantly, enjoyed. Like the 8 year old who is constantly showing his parents what cool new tricks he can do, we all want the approval of others in our tasks and our art.

To deny that you want others to read your work, is to deny the very essence of writing.

Kate Avery Ellison said...

I always say I'm writing for my "teenage self." Meaning I'm writing the books I wanted to read but couldn't find at that age.

So I'm sort of writing for me and I'm sort of writing for others. Because surely there's teens out there that feel like I did at that age.

It works for me.

Claire Dawn said...

I agree with Katherine C.

I write for my teenage self.