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On the Hidden History of Queer Women in Baseball

baseballs

I’d already been reporting the story of queer women in baseball during World War II for four months by the time I finally cracked open Lynn Ames’ book, The Bright Lights of Summer. I didn’t really think the historical fiction novel had anything to help my story. It was based on the life of Dot Wilkinson, a softball player from the same era I was reporting on. It was about a different sport and didn’t overlap with the league whose players I was researching at all. But there, in the very first chapter, a single sentence sparked an idea that would lead me to discover a treasure trove of previously unreported information.

A character in the book, Julie, is researching women who played softball in the 1940s after she discovers that her mother had been one of them. Julie knows that in the present day, a lot of women who play softball are gay. But in the 1940s, being gay was still unacceptable and dangerous—not to mention that homosexuality was still considered a mental disorder. Obviously there were no mentions of lesbians in old newspaper write-ups of the American Softball Association teams. But in her research, Julie finds a few present-day items that tell her she’s on the right track: obituaries, including that of Ricki Caito, Wilkinson’s longtime partner, who is mentioned in the obit as such.

I read that and I thought, what if the answers I’m looking for are in the obituaries? I’d been searching for months, coming up on dead ends and still-living All-American Girls Professional Baseball League players who refused to talk to me about the issue, even after I disclosed my own queerness in an attempt to connect. But it turned out the answers were in the obits, hiding in plain sight. The obituaries unlocked a story that had long been hidden—the story of the queer women who played hardball—and provided a glimpse into the lives these women lived when they stepped off the diamond.

The answers were in the obits, hiding in plain sight.

“I read obituaries every day to learn what sorts of lives are available to us,” writes Sarah Manguso in her book The Guardians: An Elegy for a Friend. Obituaries are an often overlooked source, tiny little tributes that are littered with clues about a person’s life. It’s where we learn who the most important people in someone’s life were, what they were like, what they liked to do.

Sometimes, obits can be something else, too: honest. “The obit as news, the obit as scoop, the obit that tells the stories that couldn’t be told while the subject was still in a litigious state,” Marilyn Johnson writes in her book about obituaries, The Dead Beat.

Obits are also historical documents, which, as researchers, we can interpret through our modern lens. For example, today we know that “loving companion” was often coded language to describe a same-sex partner. In one obituary I found, a player had a dreaded “special friend”; perhaps the only thing more insulting than being given the “special friend” title in your longtime partner’s obituary would be being left out completely. Jude Law’s character in the movie Closer, an obit writer, decoded some of this language: “‘He valued his privacy’—gay. ‘He enjoyed his privacy’—raging queen!”

And yet, despite being able to garner the clues about women who may have spent their lives with other women—who may or may not have identified as gay or a lesbian or queer—choosing to share these findings with the world at-large was another place for me to stop and consider. Yes, obituaries are public documents, so no, I wouldn’t necessarily be outing someone by sharing their name. But there is a good chance that these women were not out in their own lives. It’s possible that these women called their life partners simply a longtime roommate, a close friend, or a cousin. And while the stigma of queerness in 2019 is minimized in many ways from what it was when these women lived , it’s not gone completely; it’s just changed shape. We are still so close to their lifetimes. Their partners may still be alive. Some former players and teammates are still living. Is it disrespectful to write about a relationship that may have been a source of danger or shame or fear for someone?

On the other hand, isn’t it important to tell queer stories, to unearth them so that they are not lost? Isn’t it important for young queer people to see that we have always existed, that we have always been here, and if you know where to look, you can find yourself reflected even in an era that desperately tried to force us underground or completely erase us from existence? There are several books published over the last half a century that use a queer lens to look back at U.S. history in an attempt to center these oft-buried stories: Gay American History by Jonathan Ned Katz, A Queer History of the United States by Michael Bronski, Queer America by Vicki L. Eaklor. We’ve always been here and we’ve always been queer, and many of us have been hiding in plain sight.

For people who didn’t feel comfortable being publicly out during their lives, their obituary may have been a safe place to allow their full truth to live.

And for people who didn’t feel comfortable being publicly out during their lives, their obituary may have been a safe place to allow their full truth to live. Astronaut Sally Ride’s longtime female partner didn’t become known until Ride died, and her partner was listed in her obituary. When former member of the Texas House of Representatives, Barbara Jordan, died in 1996, her obituary named her longtime partner, Nancy Earl (the clues were public earlier than that, though; a 1988 story about Jordan being hospitalized after being rescued from the pool at her home mentions “Nancy Earl, who lives with Jordan.”).

This is true, too, the obituaries of AAGPBL players. As a queer writer and baseball fan, it is with gratitude that I read these obituaries. I am grateful for the women who came before me, who found love with someone even when the world told them their love was wrong. I am grateful to the family members and obit writers who recognized that love and honored those partnerships by including partners’ names in the obits.

It seems that these relationships resonated with a lot of other people, too. When my story was published in Narratively, it went viral and became the most-read piece on their website in 2018. It was covered by The Lily, the women’s vertical at The Washington Post, I was interviewed on sports writer Dave Zirin’s Edge of Sports podcast, and the story has been nominated for a prestigious baseball writing award. It made visible an entire community whose stories have gone untold despite the fact that their history on the baseball diamond has been well-documented, including in the classic movie A League of Their Own.

I know of several AAGPBL players who are still living, well into their 90s now. They’ve been with their female partners for decades, though none were willing to talk to me about it when I was reporting my story. “We didn’t talk about that,” was all they would say. It’s hard to open up about something you’ve had to keep secret as a matter of survival for the better part of a century. But now, living in a world that I believe is ready for their truth, I still hope to record their history while they are living, to hear the story of their lives and relationships straight from their lips.

I would never want to pressure someone into sharing something publicly that they don’t feel ready to reveal. I can only hope that maybe they read my piece—there’s a good chance they did; the AAGPBL’s Twitter account retweeted it and responded to it—and that they know they are seen and accepted for exactly who they are. I hope they know that their stories matter, to me and to a whole lot of other people. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll learn the full truth before it’s written in the obituary section.

This story originally appeared on Literary Hub

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Why My Students Don’t Call Themselves ‘Southern’ Writers

At the end of a lackluster discussion of Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.” in a college English class last fall, one of my students raised her hand. “I know that Welty is supposed to be really good,” she said, “but I don’t get it.” She objected to the clichés, the cartoonishness.

But does Eudora feel cliché because she invented certain Southern clichés? She read the extremes of Southerners, of human behavior, and immortalized our foibles in words that would influence the next few generations of writers. As Tony Earley observed, “I have a theory—perhaps unformed and, without question, unsubstantiated—that most bad Southern writing is descended directly from Eudora Welty’s ‘Why I Live at the P.O.’”

I defended Welty’s greatness during that class—I even played them an excerpt of the author reading the story aloud, her mouth rolling fast around the syllables like gumballs—but over the course of the semester I couldn’t help marking a shift in how young Southerners, black and white, read the Southern giants: not in awe, but with a sense of exhaustion.

We moved through Mark Twain—hokey—and Flannery O’Connor—melodramatic—and William Faulkner—impenetrable. Southern whiteness doesn’t age well. But even Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, and Alice Walker, however electric their language, felt familiar to these students; yes, those old burdens again. What my students saw was a reflection not of the world they lived in, but the world they inherited. And though we Southerners are unendingly proud of our literary heritage, it bears the marks of a brutality we’re struggling to move past.

The Welty that felt most real to them was “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” In this 1963 story published less than a month after the assassination of Medgar Evers, Welty wormed her way into the addled brain of the white man who murdered him—a man who turned out in actuality to be Byron de la Beckwith, as supernaturally close as a man can get to an invented character. This wasn’t using racism as a setting, but as a problem. It was asking why in the same way my students were.

To be a Southern writer is to live with variants of pain.

As the narrator waits for the civil rights leader to appear, he thinks, “Never seen him before, never seen him since, never seen anything of his black face but his pictures, never seen his face alive, any time at all, or anywheres, and didn’t want to, need to, never hope to see that face and never will.” This is not a passage that provides answers; my students know better than to expect answers. Welty instead reckons with the tragic unknowability of the South while showing us exactly how recognizable the ugliness is: it’s the man next door, the man within us.

For one class, my students read excerpts from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, Margaret Walker’s Jubilee (often, reductively, called the black answer to Mitchell’s epic), and Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone, which quite intentionally set fire to the myth of Tara; Randall even faced a lawsuit from the Mitchell heirs. As we moved through these pieces in discussion, the students became increasingly animated. Yes, Mitchell was breezy and readable, but ugh, the whiteness. They pointed out how often she referenced the color in the first chapter alone: “magnolia-white skin,” “small white hands,” “solid masses of white blossoms,” “dogwood dappling with white stars,” “the whitewashed brick plantation house,” “a pleasant land of white houses”; what are we to think when Mammy appears, “shining black, pure African”? The disgust of my students wasn’t appeased much by Jubilee, which, though free from the egregious racism of Gone with the Wind, is still stuck in the antebellum South, complete with dialect and black women under the thumb of white women. It was Alice Randall who lit them up, the tongue-in-cheekness of the plantation “Tata” and the character of Scarlett being renamed “Other,” she in all her shining whiteness finally being reduced to the nameless otherness that Mammy and her kin know all too well. Revenge is what they wanted, not realism.

Pulling my students through the 20th-century canon took some effort, but they came alive when handed Mary Miller’s “Big Bad Love,” Kiese Laymon’s “Hey Mama,” excerpts from Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones. The rhythms of this language matched their own: personal, progressive, fluid, literate. These were Mississippians writing about a state not dripping with Spanish moss and punctuated by mockingbird song, but of surprising intersections, where violence within the self had become as important as violence across racial lines, where poverty was nuanced rather than made perverse, where families were built from intentional love rather than tied to tortured bloodlines. As Kiese wrote, and all my students still wonder, “How am I supposed to hug myself?”

I asked my students to create a piece of Southern art for their final project: a story or poem or painting or song that expressed their own Southern story, whatever that had come to mean for them. Even with this open-ended assignment, I initially faced resistance. A handful of students, born and raised in Mississippi, refused to identify as Southern. And why should they, when the “South” that had been painted by so many Pulitzer winners and Nobel laureates was mired in bigotry, religiosity, and perversity? A Bible salesman steals a spinster’s prosthetic leg. A half-black man nearly marries his slaveowning sister. A man and a boy raft down the Mississippi on the exaggerated current of dialect. (“I knowed jis’ ‘s well ‘at I ‘uz gwineter be rich ag’in as I’s a-stannin’ heah dis minute!”)

But as we laid bare all the disparate elements that make up Southern writing today, my students began to resituate themselves, to hesitantly accept the label. As one of them realized, “I didn’t need to write about tractors or sweet tea to meet the criteria.” Another student wrote a surreal and philosophical story with a narrator who, in one scene, sits in a tree and says to God, “I’m so tired of this particular self.” In an accompanying statement, she explained that the narrator “believes in transformation and overcoming certain aspects of defining character—a very Southern idea. . . . I fit into [a “southern identity”] because I try to ignore it. I fit into it because like many people, it’s only another thing that, for my own peace of mind, I have to manipulate into fantasy so I can tolerate it.”

To be a Southern writer is to live with variants of pain. Reading Eudora Welty and other Southern classics can strike a nerve for students who want that pain to be buried, who read those depictions of race and violence, of magnolias and uncles in kimonos, as stereotypes that non-Southerners use to keep us in boxes. But out of this early and artful recording of Southern messiness came the writers who spin us further still, who reckon with the realness of the 21st century. So should we still teach our giants, cliché as they may now seem? Of course: to love the buds, we must know the roots. But to honor the roots, teach also the buds.

This story originally appeared on Literary Hub

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The Impossibility of Finding a Place to Write in New York

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Like many young people who believe themselves unfit for the demands of real life, I moved to New York after college to become a writer. A guy I sort of knew had a room opening up in his Ridgewood, Queens apartment for $700 per month. I didn’t know where Ridgewood was, and the rent seemed steep—I was coming from St. Louis, where I paid $550 to share, with friends, a two-story suburban house—but I was assured that $700 was a steal. I was also assured that Ridgewood was, if not exactly desirable, then certainly pre-desirable. The place to be, give or take five years. There were rumors that a sitcom set in Ridgewood was in the works at Fox.

The guy and I had met one summer in high school at what can only be described as “poetry camp,” a week of reading and writing verse with other allergy-prone introverts at a Lutheran college in Pennsylvania. I almost didn’t recognize him when he met my bus at Hudson Yards. He was no longer the scrawny, beak-nosed poet I remembered. His shoulders were twice as broad and his biceps were testing the sleeves of his t-shirt. I couldn’t comprehend the transformation. Had he been lifting Norton anthologies?

“Are you still writing poetry?” I asked, dragging one of my duffel bags down the street.

He shouldered my second duffel easily. “Hell no,” he said. “I sell ads for Yelp.”

I was in no position to judge. I had taken my $200,000 undergraduate degree and moved to one of the world’s most expensive cities on the basis of an internship that paid less than the minimum wage—a humiliating if commonplace rite of passage for artsy millennials of privilege.

Eventually I found the perfect place—a persistently-empty used bookstore in Bushwick that seemed to operate outside the bounds of capitalism.

The room was much smaller than I’d anticipated. I could extend my arms and touch the walls on either side. The window, which was jammed in place and wouldn’t shut, overlooked a construction site. The tiny men below appeared to be digging a giant hole. Needless to say, there was no room for a writing desk. A squat wicker end table sat by the apartment door, but my roommate was using it to display a glass skull and a tub of creatine.

With no space to write in the apartment, I began the arduous process of finding a suitable café. The kind of place I had in mind would ideally meet three requirements:

1) Walking distance. The goal is to put physical (and mental) distance between you and your apartment while remaining close enough to walk home for lunch.

2) Low rent. By “rent” I mean the drinks and pastries you are obliged to purchase in exchange for taking up space. Some establishments demand, reasonably, that you spend some money if you’re going to hang around, but some will let you live there for the cost of a drip coffee.

3) Ample space. Nothing makes pursuing your unique artistic vision more difficult than being squeezed between a bunch of people all pursuing their unique artistic visions.

There are other factors, to be sure, like the quality of the baked goods or, if you’re finnicky like me, the height of the chairs in relation to the height of the tables. (I like to tower over my laptop, as though my work is subservient to me, and not the other way around.) I auditioned a number of cafés near my apartment, but none satisfied my key requirements. Eventually I found the perfect place—a persistently-empty used bookstore in Bushwick that seemed to operate outside the bounds of capitalism—but the hours of operation were wildly inconsistent, requiring me to add a fourth requirement:

4) Consistent hours of operation.

When I did manage to time out my visits with the bookstore owner’s unpredictable sleep schedule, I worked on a novel. The protagonist was an old woman in a small Massachusetts town beset by coyotes. After six months of writing I showed the manuscript-in-progress to a friend. She winced and said, “A short story, maybe. But a novel?”

It wasn’t a novel. I could see that now. On the plus side, a few weeks after the internship ended I landed myself an office job making $33,500, which was more money than I could conceive of spending. But after taxes, rent, utilities, my MetroCard, and the coffees I was obliged to buy at the used bookstore, I was coming to see how it was possible.

My girlfriend, who was back in St. Louis finishing her degree, visited Ridgewood one weekend in December. She had the flu and soon I did, too, and for some reason we decided to watch The Pianist on my laptop. We huddled together on my twin bed, noses running as a cold wind blew through the crack in the window, watching as Poland was slowly overtaken by the Nazis.

“How do you get any work done here?” she asked.

The Polish army was moving in on Adrien Brody, who, in an effort to keep warm, had donned the heavy green coat of a German soldier.

“I don’t,” I said.

I wasn’t sure if by here she meant the apartment or New York in general. Even in Ridgewood, where the telltale signs of gentrification—small dogs, coworking spaces, people like me—were only just beginning to crop up, the economic and social pressures of the city made luxuries of time and space.

Rather than solve my problems for myself, I discovered, I could pass them off to my characters.

My novel wasn’t turning out to be a short story, either. I scrapped it and started work on a new project. The protagonist was a cash-strapped young woman who lived in Ridgewood in an apartment overlooking a giant hole. Rather than solve my problems for myself, I discovered, I could pass them off to my characters. My life seemed funnier, and somehow less pathetic, when refracted through a fictional entity. Still, I was losing valuable writing hours standing in the cold like Adrien Brody, waiting for the bookstore owner to wake up and open the shop. And I didn’t even have a heavy coat! The hole outside my bedroom window was growing larger by the day and had begun to take on metaphorical significance.

I dreamed of a quiet, private room to write in. After weeks of searching, I found one in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The landlord had chopped up a townhouse, slapping padlocks on the doors and renting out the rooms as individual “studio apartments.” The rent was $850, but I would have my privacy. When I showed up with the rent and the realtor’s fee—a realtor had posted the room on Craigslist, and for this, I owed her $425—I was informed that there was nothing to sign.

“I don’t do leases,” the landlord said.

“He doesn’t,” the realtor assured me.

My new apartment resembled a boarding house. It was like something out of Balzac. The other tenants were aspiring artists of one kind or another. There was a set designer, a photographer, and a musician. A line cook lived out of a closet downstairs. The shared bathroom and kitchen were ruthlessly policed by our live-in super. He was a paranoiac, and believed one of the tenants was trying to poison his food. He put padlocks on the cabinets and refrigerator.

The house was continually under construction. Ceiling plaster often fell on my head, and the entryway was regularly blocked by wood beams or spare appliances. There was a leak in my bedroom ceiling and a colony of flying ants lived in the walls. In place of air conditioning I placed my desk fan atop a stack of hardcover books. A friend suggested I sell the books and use the proceeds to buy a window unit, but this seemed like a betrayal—of what, I’m not sure.

But the space! The ceilings were high and there was plenty of room to pace back and forth. I bought a sturdy wooden desk and set it by the bay window, which faced the street and drew in plenty of light. I was still writing about the young woman in Ridgewood, but she was no longer my sole focus. I gave her a brother, a father, and a deceased mother. Each character had his or her own discrete but intersecting storyline. Alongside scenes set in New York, I was writing chapters set in St. Louis, Boston, Paris, and Zimbabwe. The plot now spanned sixty years. The struggle to find work and make rent in Ridgewood was still a part of the manuscript, but it was no longer the whole story. The novel grew in scope and dimension.

I’m not sure where this influx of ambition came from, but it might have had something to do with the high ceilings, the sturdy desk, the windows, and the privacy. The apartment was not luxurious by any stretch—each morning I dusted the dead ants off my laptop—but in my room, at least, there was space for my ideas to stretch out.

At some point I mistakenly ordered a package to my old address in Ridgewood. When I went to pick it up, I was shocked to see just how small my room had been. It had the same dimensions as a coffin. The hole outside my window was no longer a hole, but the parking lot for an AutoZone. I wondered what had happened to that sitcom.

Charles Bukowski has a poem where he roundly dismisses the idea that good writing can only occur under ideal conditions. “Baby,” the final stanza reads, “air and light and time and space / have nothing to do with it / and don’t create anything / except maybe a longer life to find / new excuses / for.” Well, sure. Air and light and time and space are useless on their own. But they don’t hurt—and since when was I taking life advice from Bukowski? I didn’t even like Bukowski.

After eighteen months in the boarding house, I had written a novel. I would not have started it without Ridgewood, but I would not have finished it, and it would not have become The Altruists, without the room in Brooklyn.

I told the paranoid super I was leaving. My girlfriend had moved to New York and we were going to move in together.

“You know, Drew,” he said, “sometimes in life you just got to move on. Is this a special lady?”

“She is,” I said.

“She doesn’t mess around on you?”

“Not that I’m aware of.”

“You sure?”

“I’m pretty sure.”

“I’m happy for you, Drew,” he said. “You’re going to be alright. And if she ever does you wrong, you can always come back here. We’ll have a room waiting for you.”

This story originally appeared on Literary Hub

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Writing My Novel Turned into Cooking Boot Camp

For fifteen years, my step-grandfather Mr. Bill warned me that if I wanted a husband, I had to learn to cook.

“Learn to cook yet?” he’d goad, jabbing me in the arm and chuckling at every family get-together from my teens through my early 30s. I laughed him off as an old-school southern grandpa and, after college, moved to New York, where no guy I met expected a woman to know her way around a kitchen, if her apartment even had one. As for me, I was entirely comfortable with a rusty half-stove because I never used it. I was raised on Lean Cuisines, WOW chips before we all learned Olestra was killing us, and microwave pancakes. The theme of Adkins family cuisine was expediency with a low-fat subtext, an attitude I happily retained into adulthood. My idea of a homecooked meal was slapping a salmon filet on a skillet and leaving it there until it turned a lighter shade of pink. Seasoning meant salt and pepper. Oil was so things didn’t burn. Until 33, I didn’t know there was difference between “bake” and “broil” on the oven. I once caught fire to my hand trying to use a paper towel as an oven mitt. My dermatologist told me to stop making toast because I kept showing up with burns.

When I did eventually marry, it was a seamless (literally!) transition: We ordered takeout almost every night from the Seamless food delivery app. When we started to feel gross, my husband was the one step up and pull out a pan.

Then I decided to write a novel about a chef because creative impulses don’t always make sense.

While I’d gone through an MFK Fisher obsession in my 20s, it had been years since I’d really read much food writing. I rifled through stacks of $1 books at my local Salvation Army until I came upon a collection of stained, warped copies of The Best Food Writing from the ‘10s, then made my way through them. I pored over forums and discussion board and personal essays online, studying how people in the industry conversed about food. I didn’t learn to cook, but I learned to talk like I did.

I educated myself in how coconut flour differs from regular flour at high temperatures, how certain oils and butters can be swapped out to varying effect, and how nut flours behave in the oven.

Five years after I’d begun drafting the novel, my agent called to tell me that a publisher had made an offer. I was standing under an awning on Astoria Boulevard in Queens, soaked, caught in the rain without an umbrella. With my phone pressed to my ear I shivered ferociously, unsure if it was from relief, joy, or cold.

“Can you add some recipes?” my editor’s email read several weeks later. I exhaled. I’d created a fictional chef—not just a chef, but Jade Massey, a chef at an award-winning New York restaurant. How was I going to create recipes that Jade would make?

I knew what mattered to Jade, in terms of cooking principles. In the wake of her sister’s early death, she was in an anti-sugar phase, determined to marry delicious cuisine with nutrition. I came up with a couple of theoretical concoctions that might interest her, and then the work began. I educated myself in how coconut flour differs from regular flour at high temperatures, how certain oils and butters can be swapped out to varying effect, and how nut flours behave in the oven. I learned about the astonishing power of egg whites. I read up on the disparate effects of muffin tins, popover pans, and mini-popover pans. Armed with my tentative recipes, I collected my supplies one Thursday afternoon and donned, for the first time ever, the apron I’d been given at my bachelorette party on which my sister had written, “I wear this when I apply heat to food.” I was ready to face that heat.

A PSA: tapioca flour only appears to be a normal, cohesive kind of powder that can be scooped and dumped like other flours. No—the moment it makes contact with any matter, it poofs into a cloud and settles on every surface within a five-foot radius. By my third hour in the kitchen, the walls, floor, and countertop were coated white. I’d also by that point learned that one’s oven is a unique, special snowflake; it doesn’t dare conform to generalizations about oven behavior on the Internet. By the ninth hour, I’d figured out that I did not need to make an entire batch of Brazilian cheese popovers to test a single recipe change; rather, I could make only a couple. That was an eighty-dollar lesson.

For three days, I worked. On the seventeenth round of popovers, I opened my maverick of an oven to find that I—or the culinary gods—had successfully popped over a popover. It was breathtaking. It was gorgeous. I took a picture to send to my husband, then changed the angle and lighting and took a few more, like it was a child, not a ball of cheese and egg. Moments later he wrote back, “How does it taste?”

I didn’t respond.

The next batch was always going to be the last. If I added one more egg white, or took away ¼ a cup of flour, success was imminent.

I went back to work. I was obsessive. Hours passed. I stopped thinking about meals, and stopped having them—I’d tasted so many thick, glue-like lumps of cheesy dough that I couldn’t stomach the idea of eating. I also felt like I’d lose momentum. I was so close. The next batch was always going to be the last. If I added one more egg white, or took away ¼ a cup of flour, success was imminent.

When I answered my husband’s phone call, “What?!” I was, without realizing it, embodying some aspect of Jade—the part of her that stood in contrast to Iris, her sister in the novel.

In my novel Jade’s sister Iris bakes because she loves it; there is no urgency, no frantic drive toward an elusive ideal. Iris bakes the way my own sister bakes—there might be humming involved. Iris would not answer the phone “What?!” while filling a water bath for a cheesecake. But Iris was not an haute-cuisine chef. Or writing one.

Because that’s what my three days of recipe invention really led me to discover: not just what Jade might have created, but who Jade was.

In fiction-writing, we draw from what we know, and then we write past it. We invent. Inevitably, there are moments in which I think, “I don’t understand this character’s experience enough. There is more to discover here.” The farther the characters’ experience from my own, the more often this moment occurs.

Before venturing into popover creation, I knew how it felt to be Jade who experienced loss. I knew how it felt to be Jade who missed her sister; Jade who loved a man who was bad for her; Jade who tried to be a good daughter. But I didn’t know how it felt to be Jade who spent hours in the kitchen.

Through round after round of sticky, pasty experimentation, through disappointment and renewed determination, I found that Jade became more real to me, the author, and thus Jade became more real.

It took a couple more weeks of experimentation before I was satisfied with the results. When I sent off the revised draft several months later, I knew that my time in the kitchen had accomplished more than just one recipe.

Mr. Bill hadn’t been right about cooking to land a spouse, but he’d not been wrong about cooking uniquely leading to somewhere important: For Jade, I’d had to learn.

This story originally appeared on Literary Hub