For the past month, my fiction professor has been talking about how little details in your story should do more than one thing. Your main character shouldn't just have a friend named Breeze. Her friend named Breeze should be a bit flighty and easily pushed around. Maybe your character seeks out people she can control. Nothing in your story should ever be wasted. After reading the opening paragraphs of a story in class, one of the girls said that she suspected that the main character's haircut was really a symbol of a much deeper conflict. I jokingly said, "As is often the case," but isn't that true? No one decides to change their hair or buy a new color of lipstick or name their dog based on nothing more than random chance. Even in "real" life, nothing is wasted. Every name, idea, word, or decision is a result of something going on "under the surface."
Which leads me to Sunday afternoon. I had volunteered to make cupcakes for our life group's Super Bowl party. I baked the red velvet cupcakes on Saturday, and planned to make the frosting on Sunday afternoon. We ended up getting a late start on the food preparations. (Steve was also making wings at the same time.) So combine frantic timing with sticky cupcake tops on which the frosting refused to spread without getting little pieces of red cake mixed in, and you have the beginnings of a kitchen meltdown that rivaled anything you see on those cooking reality shows. After fighting with a few cupcakes and declaring them the ugliest cupcakes EVER, my nerves were starting to wear a little thin. When poor Steve (who has never baked in his life) made a suggestion, I grabbed hold of it like a drowning woman clinging to a floating box....it seems like a good idea until the carboard gets all soaked and you start to sink. When his helpful hint not only didn't pan out, but actually made the situation worse, things took a dark turn. It was only intervention on Steve's part that saved the cupcakes from being forcefully chucked into the nearest trash can.
We made it to the Super Bowl party (late), and everyone ate the wings and cupcakes. Everyone said the cupcakes were yummy, and I eventually relented and ate one myself. They were pretty good...just really, really ugly. After the party, our hostess was diligently packing up everyone's containers. When she started to put the two remaining cupcakes back into my carrier, I protested. I never wanted to see those red and white disasters again.
When I got home, I was exhausted, and it wasn't just because of the day's relentless pace or the excitement of watching the Super Bowl. (I still don't get why people like football.) Why had I gotten so upset about those stupid cupcakes? Why was I so angry with myself for taking Steve's well-intentioned (though ill-fated) advice? What did it really matter that my cupcakes looked like they were decorated by an intoxicated four year old? That's when it hit me. This was one of those details that mattered. I wasn't upset about the cupcakes. My stress about the party itself - mingling with a large number of people, some of whom were strangers, and knowing that football games last for HOURS - brought about my meltdown. Sure I wanted to bring great cupcakes. I could control cupcakes (or so I thought.) The cupcakes could give me a purpose and identity. I'm the girl who brings tasty baked goods. I may never be a conversationalist or life of the party, but hey, I can put everyone in a sugar coma. I know, that's a lot of responsibility to place on an inanimate object made up of flour, sugar, and eggs, but in my defense, there was cream cheese icing involved.
This afternoon, I am working on a rewrite of a story that my professor recently critiqued. As I am trying to fill in the gaps left in my last draft, I am going to try to make my details do my work for me. It's not just the simple "show, don't tell" advice. It's more like: Show, and then show how what you've shown shows so much more than you could have possibly shown by telling! :)