“Sometimes, you just got to let the fucking cake bake, man.”
These were the words said to me several years ago and, while also forming an inside joke among my friends, some of the best writing advice I’d ever been given.
What makes it even more interesting is the fact that said advice was given to me by a complete stranger who, quite possibly, wasn’t all there in the head.
Allow me to explain.
Back in 2009 I was on my way home from San Francisco via BART, Bay Area Rapid Transit, which is our local high-speed commuter rail. I had spent the day at SF’s annual barley wine festival with some friends and I left my car in Fremont, opting to take public transportation rather than driving because driving in San Francisco makes me crazy and gives me hives. Now, I don’t particularly like taking public transportation, not because I have anything against that method of travel per se but because I always seem to attract the people who talk to other people who don’t appear to exist. Invariably, if I’m on a bus it’ll be a full bus with the last open and available seat next to me which will be filled by the guy looking like Robinson Crusoe wearing the Mickey Mouse shirt two-sizes too small and smelling of feet. When I lived in Santa Cruz this was an almost daily occurrence because I was getting around on buses and by foot (I’ll tell you about the time I was stopped on my way home by the guy who informed me that he’d just gotten out of prison and wanted a friend to spend the night with; I only wish I was kidding) but since I’ve been driving such encounters have largely been rare.
I thought I had prepared well enough for the trip. I had my iPod, headphones, and a very large, very thick Charles Stross book to read in that manner that most people would take as “I’m actively not engaging with you, please leave me alone.” The trip to the City went without disturbance but the trip home? Yeah, not so much. We were probably a third of the way back to Fremont from SF. I had my headphones in and blasting something loud and industrial, my nose buried in the Atrocity Archives, when in my peripheral vision I saw a large figure collapse in the seat in front of me and I felt a tap on my shoulder.
I’ve been approached by strangers on public transit in all manners of fashion, from people starting conversations normally with a question or observation to more unique ways like the guy who just started randomly singing to me or the woman who muttered and whispered obviously about me (she was talking about my clothing) while staring but I never had a complete stranger violate my personal space that much. Sure, I’ve had people sit waaaay too close where inadvertent touching was going to happen but never someone who intentionally made contact before. I figured that if the person who touched me actively ignored all the signs of “I want to be left alone” they weren’t going to be ignored (and, well, it’s better to be safe than have someone believe you’re an alien, stab you to death, and cut your head off) so I decided to look up.
And it was at that point I met Tattoo, my writing fairy godfather.
I call him Tattoo because I don’t know his name and he was covered in them from what I could see. Tattoo was a young black man of indeterminate age, heavy set with hair buzzed close to his scalp. He had “XVZ” tattooed under his right eye. He had tattoos of weird designs along the entire circumference of his neck that I could see and along his wrist and back of his left hand. He wore a black shirt and a black coat, maybe a duster. He asked me what I was reading, the question nothing more than his opening line into telling me about himself.
Tattoo was apparently a writer of screen plays and novels and into sex. Really into sex. And his screen play was apparently also about sex because he said he showed it to a friend of his who said it was just like Boogie Nights.
“But I haven’t ever seen Boogie Nights! Isn’t that weird?”
It sure is, I replied. We were pulling into a station at the time and I quickly caught the name of it and looked down at the map in the seat next to me. We still had five stops to go. I contemplated getting off and catching the next train, I wasn’t in any rush, but I was worried Tattoo might follow me and then I’d be stuck on a train platform, possibly alone, with some stranger who was sharing too many details about his sex life and fantasies that I didn’t really want to know. I sat tight and the train pulled away. Tattoo then proceeded to tell me about some “crazy CEO” who apparently spiked the punch of one of his parties with ecstasy and then brought in a bunch of hookers. Tattoo told me that he figures with the economy being down he’s got a chance with his writing because people, in a down economy, want to have entertainment. And sex. Mustn’t forget the sex.
“Because, you know, I like to get some loving from a woman.”
Tattoo also wrote music. I took a chance that if maybe I involved myself in the conversation with more than “Uh huh” and grunts that maybe we could get it wrapped up. I asked him what kind of music. That was a mistake.
“Oh…it’s like…trance…mixed with hard core gangster rap…so, you know, it’s like old school rap people could be into it and people into electronic might like it too.”
Tattoo then told me he was also a record producer, a promoter, and wanted to start his own record label and a night club “or two.” But he needed the money. Always money. His plan to get money?
“Get rich off the internet.”
I wisely didn’t ask him how he was going to do this.
It was at this point that maybe the fact that I hadn’t committed to the relationship got through to him because he wished me a good night, got up, and immediately collapsed in a seat behind a woman and started talking at her. I breathed a sigh of relief, put my headphones back in, and went back to reading.
Ten minutes later he was back. He proceeded to start asking me questions like my name (“My name is Todd,” I said, using the name of a man who’d drunkenly hit on me at the barley wine festival), if I liked fantasy novels (“Yep”), and if I was a writer (“Yes”). Apparently, writers have circles under his eyes and Tattoo, when writing, gets three circles under his eyes while I only have two, so I must not be as much of a writer (I swear he actually said that).
“But you got keep trying at that writing, you know? You gotta. It’s like when you bake a cake, right? Some people, they’re just going to keep looking in the oven, opening and closing that door; it’s never going to get done. Sometimes, you just got to let that fucking cake bake, man.”
It was a little eerie, the line of questioning and the advice. At the time I had been struggling with a short story, trying to force it along a path that the the story didn’t really want to go (something I’d been thinking about on my way up to SF earlier that day), and so the advice was disturbingly relevant, a first for a stranger encounter like that. Let that fucking cake bake indeed.
At that point we pulled into my station (also the last one of the line) and I let Tattoo get off the train first. He then proceeded to completely vanish from view like some kind of crazed, proverb-spewing, porn-writing ninja. Or maybe my personal writing fairy.
I’ve thought about that night over the last few years and, regardless of the source, the advice is pretty sound. Sometimes, when you have an idea or concept for a story, it’s not finished yet, not ready to be written, and if you try to force it onto paper it won’t be right. Sometimes you need to spend a little bit more time working out the details, rounding the corners, getting the pieces settled right so that it makes sense, so it works.
Sometimes you have to leave the door to the oven closed and let that fucking cake bake.