This weekend as I rolled and cut Christmas cookies, it occurred to me that my approach to writing and my approach to Christmas have a lot in common. Both are infused with an awareness of traditions, but both are definitely infused with my own twist as well.
Take Christmas cookies. I’ve always loved making them. One of my earliest memories of Christmastime is of our family friend “Aunt” Meredith coming over and (along with my mom) showing us how to make a delicate cookie she called a “sugar cracker.” These were rolled very thin, with an unforgiving dough that could only be rerolled a limited number of times. Therefore, it was crucial to fit as many cookies as possible onto each sheet of dough.
I continued to make these for many years. However, almost from the start, I began adding differently shaped cookie cutters. It’s been a long time but, if I remember correctly, my family’s collection included a tree, a star, a bell, a Santa, a candle, and a reindeer (my personal favorite). I started by duplicating those, but soon added a teddy bear, a dog, and a duck. Someone gave me a set of “bridge” cutters, so I had a heart, a diamond, a club, and spade. Then there was the circus set that added an assortment of animals… And on and on, until my current collection fills a large plastic “underbed” clothing storage box and smaller box as well.
The sugar crackers were too delicate to frost, but were instead painted with a mixture of egg yolk and food coloring. We’d have three colors: yellow, red, and green. After a few disastrous experiments, we learned to follow Mom and Aunt Meredith’s example, dabbing on tiny bits of “paint” – light brush strokes of green to suggest needles on the tree, minute dots of red and yellow for ornaments. When the cookies were baked just right, the egg yolk “paint” would puff and become shiny. These were definitely the most elegant Christmas sugar cookies around.
I continued to make them for many years but, when I got together with Jim, he really preferred frosted sugar cookies. Since he was the one who would be eating the majority of them, I found a more robust cookie recipe and he asked for his mother’s frosting recipe. We also started collecting sprinkles and various shapes of little sugar doohickeys.
However, my old traditions didn’t vanish entirely. I still roll the cookie dough very thin and I still try to get as many cookies as possible out of each rolling. I suspect this contributes to the flavor. I’ve been told by people who consider themselves connoisseurs of frosted sugar cookies, ours are very, very tasty.
I also added a very spicy gingerbread cookie to the mix, mostly because this gave me an excuse to use even more cutters. We decorate these with a thin border of piped icing, although I noticed that this year the process was evolving and a few colored doohickeys were being added as accents.
Meantime, our neighbors have gotten used to receiving not only Christmas trees (I have five different shapes of these) and bells and stars – as well as a host of other, more usual Christmas shapes – but the odd unicorn, pickup truck, hedgehog, or bat. The variety of shapes makes decorating far from rote, which in turn stimulates amazing creativity. (We often invite friends to join us, because it’s so much fun to see what they come up with.)
And, as I was thinking as I spent several hours rolling and cutting, my writing has evolved much as my cookies have. True, every writer brings his or her “take” to stories but, unlike some writers, I’m not really interested in doing variations on the same thing over and over again. One reason SF/F appeals to me is that there’s room for “different.” And readers seem to enjoy that, too.
In this day and age when digital bookselling sites like nothing more than being able to compare one work to another – the “if you like this, you’ll like that” approach – maybe my twisting isn’t the best thing. Nonetheless, I find being traditionally untraditional keeps me fresh and my writing from going stale.
Now, off for a cookie and some coffee… There’s a gingerbread rhino that’s calling my name.