Writing Books Is Like Making Candy

Orange at the top (which turned out more red than orange), peppermint at the bottom right, and butter mints at the bottom left. 

Orange at the top (which turned out more red than orange), peppermint at the bottom right, and butter mints at the bottom left. 

I made hard candy last night. I used my grandmother Helen's recipe, which one of my relatives informs me she received from yet another, earlier relative. I can remember this candy from when I was a kid--bright reds and greens and yellows pouring out of my grandmother's pots onto marble slabs, and her pulling it into strings and snipping it with shears. The cinnamon ones were my favorite, but last night I just made the ones I could find the ingredients to make--orange, peppermint, and some butter mints. 

I've just published a book, and I'm in talks about another book contract (fingers crossed), and I started thinking about the process of writing a book and the process of making hard candy, and how they are similar. The candy-making stressed me out, because it's long stretches of waiting--trying to get the temperature up to a certain point, watching the thermometer through the steam, doing mental calculations about what the temperature ought to be at 5300 feet when the recipe comes from sea level. That's followed by short periods of terror--adding the color and flavor, pouring out the molten candy, working it into strands and cutting it in those short times between when it's too hot to touch and when it's too cold to work with. Candy-making is a lot hurry-up-and-wait, and you don't really know how it's going to turn out until it's done. And by then it's too late. 

This time last year I was holed up on the beach in North Carolina, not too far from where my grandmother grew up actually, working on the book. (Shout-out to my wife for being extremely understanding about my need to dedicate a few weeks to that task in solitude, leaving her with all of the domestic responsibilities). I remember the same pattern when writing the book--lots of boredom (it's not exciting to write 8 or 10 hours a day), lots of terror (what if I'm wrong), and the persistent feeling that I didn't quite know what I was doing. The book is out now, and there's nothing that I can do to change it. The candy has cooled, as it were, and the form it's in now is the form it will always be in. That's pretty terrifying. 

As I've been working on book proposals recently, those same feelings have returned. What if I don't actually have anything to say? What if I get writer's block? What if, despite my best intentions, it just doesn't turn out that well?

I'm not sure that those fears ever really go away--I can't see any sign that they are lessening--but somehow I'm a little bit addicted to the process. I'm going out tonight to try to find extracts of cinnamon and lemon, because I want to try those flavors. And if those work out, I want to get more adventurous. Cherry, chocolate, maybe even my favorite childhood flavor horehound. Even though I don't always know what I'm doing, the process sure is fun. Stay tuned for news on the book ideas. 

Eric Smith