I make these cookies that have become a hit with friends and family – enough so that I’ve even gotten some commissions via word of mouth for events like birthdays, graduations, weddings, and baby showers, and I’ve managed to earn a little pocket money to boot. I’m not going to lie. These cookies are pretty awesome. They are the fancy kind that you sometimes see in boutique cafes and bakeries, glazed and decorated with royal icing. With time and practice, I’ve gotten quite adept at creating any design I can find a cookie cutter for, and when I can’t find a cookie cutter, like for a recent request that someone made for guitars, I can print or freehand a paper template that does the job. My “portfolio” includes holiday motifs: Christmas trees, snowflakes, candy canes, Valentine’s hearts, Easter eggs, Fourth of July flags, Halloween pumpkins. I’ve made flowers and teddy bears, vinyl records, basketballs and books, elephants and flamingos, and, when my daughter was accepted to the University of Toronto last year, I even managed to recreate the university logo (an intricate two-step process that involved using edible glue to attach a maple leaf cutout to the letter T). I just finished a batch that looks like frosted doughnuts for my next-door neighbor’s first birthday party.
The best thing about these cookies is that they taste as good as they look. They are adapted from an old Martha Stewart sugar cookie recipe that mixes sugary sweetness with a hint of lemon. The glaze frosting uses almond extract, and the combined flavors are delicious. The cookies are my go-to gift for any celebration. I present them in a cellophane bag tied with a cute matching ribbon. They consistently receive rave reviews.
The Paper Chase
I started baking and distributing these cookies in earnest about five years ago, right around the same time that my former agent started approaching publishers and shopping my memoir – a book about family secrets, illness, grief, and learning to be authentic. A book that has asked more of me than anything else I’ve ever done.
The convergence of these two “artistic” endeavors was not really intentional, but it has been, as it turns out, providential. Because here’s the thing: Five years of trying to publish a book that feels in so many ways like an extension of myself (factor in a two-year hiatus after my agent and I parted ways, and I decided to buckle down and complete the manuscript before venturing out on submission again) is a really long time. And this, as most writers know if they have settled into the reality of the literary trenches with me (removed from the early fantasy of a quick and glamorous book deal), means an all-too-steady stream of rejections. Rejections that, despite the ongoing self-pep-talks I’ve given and therapy sessions I’ve endured about separating myself from my art and all that jazz, inevitably feel like a resounding judgment of me and can easily upend the stability of my mental health and send me spiraling toward the dreaded pit of writerly despair.
“Get Used To It”
Rejection, as we are told so often in writing programs and workshops, is a universal part of the territory of being a writer, no matter what your level of acclaim. “Get used to it,” they say. “Grow some thick skin.” What they don’t talk about as much, though, is just how much it hurts. These books and poems and essays and articles – over which we’ve toiled, returned to again and again to craft, sacrificed time with friends and family for, poured so much of ourselves and our emotional energy into – are intricately threaded into the ways we measure our sense of worth. So when an arbitrary editor on the other end of an email query quips, “Not for me,” I can’t help but hold myself up to many of the other writers around me who, if I’m to believe carefully curated social media posts, are achieving mountains of publishing success and feel vulnerably lacking. I start questioning my talent, send whiny texts to writer friends saying, “Why did I become a writer again?,” and panic over wasting years of my life for nothing.
Enter the providence of my cookies. There is nothing high-stakes about them. I gather the ingredients, measure, mix them up, roll out the dough, cut out the shapes, bake, and decorate. If I fail at any point in the process, I know immediately, and it’s never anything I can’t correct. Burn the bottoms? Start over. Mess up the decorating? Leave the smudged ones for my husband and kids to eat. When I’m finished with a batch, I’m really finished with them. I don’t second-guess whether I’ve done them right, wonder if I should have chosen a different frosting color, included another part to the design, or put a pretty enough ribbon on the packaging. I don’t lie awake at night immobilized by bouts of imposter syndrome that have me imagining that people are going to see through my facade and know I’m not a real baker. They are just cookies. Not only do they provide a finite creative project that I can complete in just a few hours, but also they lack any power to bruise my ego and send me on that spiral of self-loathing because when I present people with my cookies, they love them.
Every. Single. Time.
Counterpunching With an Ego-Boost
Not once have I opened my inbox to find any of the following messages in connection to my cookies (adapted directly from my stack of declined memoir queries):
While the cookie has a compelling design, and you are clearly an excellent cookie maker, the timing of your offer is not quite right. We just ate a cookie recently, and we only have room for a certain number of cookies in our pantry, so unfortunately we can’t take your cookie.
Your cookie is beautiful, and the flavor and texture are profoundly tasty. I am afraid, however, that this cookie is not the best fit for our palates. We are looking for a certain type of cookie, and this isn’t quite it.
We were so grateful to have the chance to consider your cookie. It inspired lively conversation here, and we were taken with so much of what the cookie had to offer. However, it’s been a pretty tough cookie market these days, and we just don’t think your cookie is the right one for us to compete with in that market.
I took your cookie to our top tasters meeting today, and we had a very interesting discussion about it. A lot of the tasters really liked it, but a couple of years ago, we had a cookie with a similar shape and also flavored with lemon, and even though it got amazing initial reviews from early tasters, not enough people chose to eat it. Our sales team is reluctant to take on another lemon cookie. So for that reason, we have to pass.
Breakfast of Champions
Instead, here’s just a sampling of how my cookie recipients tend to respond:
One friend texted a photo of one of my cookies next to her mug of coffee with the caption, “Breakfast of champions.”
Another person sent the message, “I couldn’t wait to dive in!” accompanied by the image of an empty cellophane bag on the passenger seat of her car.
My therapist (who gets a basket of them at Christmas) told me that when it dawned on his elementary-aged son that his father wasn’t meeting with clients in person during COVID, the first thing his son said was, “Does that mean we aren’t getting any of those yummy cookies from that lady this Christmas?”
A 100% Acceptance Rate
Knowing that one thing I have to offer basically has a 100% acceptance rate has been its own form of therapy. Since I’ve never actually been able to grow that recommended thicker skin, finding something else separate from my writing (and my entangled ego) that brings me joy and success has shored me up when rejection has threatened to push me over the edge. The calming, no-risk process of baking has allowed room for a temporary change of scenery that refuels my artistic drive. It has bolstered my endurance to continue inhabiting this creative life and kept me hacking away at the other, more daunting, less-welcoming path toward my memoir’s publication. And the best thing about it? No matter where that daunting path leads me, I always, always had snacks.
Melanie Brooks is the author of Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art from Trauma (Beacon, 2017). She teaches creative nonfiction in the MFA program at Bay Path University, and her memoir, A Hard Silence, about living with the ten-year secret of her father’s HIV will be published in September 2023 by Vine Leaves Press.