Cathy and I were watching one of those holiday baking shows on the Food Network last night. The final challenge in this episode was to make a cream puff Christmas tree. In the midst of the preparation, the host threw a curve ball at the contestants. They would also have to make a chocolate topper for their trees.
Isn’t that the way it always goes? You’re moving along with a plan—let’s say you think you know exactly where your story or novel or poem or essay is going—and then, bam, you run up against a challenge you didn’t see coming. Maybe a plot move has a flaw in it that you didn’t see pages back. Maybe a character does something surprising that you didn’t plan on being part of your narrative, Maybe an image appears in your poem or essay, one that seems anomalous. You thought you were nearing the end of a draft or a revision, and all of a sudden something seems off; something you hadn’t seen coming requires your attention.
On the show last night, the bakers had no choice but to forge ahead and to make those chocolate toppers. They had no time to whine, no time to balk, because the clock was ticking and when time ran out they’d have to present what they had to the judges. No one wanted to give the judges a cream puff tree without a chocolate topper, so they did what they could. One baker’s chocolate star fell and cracked into pieces before his cream puff tree could even make it to the judges. Another baker had trouble with her snowflake topper—one filament broke off—but there it was, imperfect. A third baker had a tree that started to lean from the weight of the heavy chocolate star he’d place atop it—and then that star fell. As with writing, all sorts of things went wrong, but, unlike writers, these bakers had no chance to do a revision. They had to present what they had, flaws and failures included, and they were judged accordingly.
The problems that arise from things we didn’t foresee are extremely frustrating when we’re in the middle of a draft, but we’re so much more fortunate than the bakers in that baking show. We have the chance to work out the problem and to see whether the problem might just be an opportunity. We can take the time to examine the surprise to see what’s inside it that might be a benefit. The character who did or said something unexpected? Maybe that character is bringing something genuine and truthful to the piece, something we hadn’t considered, but now that it’s arrived, we see the depth and texture it provides. So what if we have to back up and better prepare the way for it. Won’t it be worth the extra work to gain the resonance that the surprise brings? Or the image that surprises us in a poem or an essay, the image that’s anomalous—again, we have the time to think about the effect it brings, to maybe even let it become a catalyst for more unplanned associations, those jumps and leaps that bring electricity and a deeper depth of knowing to the piece.
My point is we shouldn’t be afraid of the surprise or the technical challenge it may bring. We need to think of problems as opportunities. We need to embrace them.