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Kalisse L. Van Dellen on Structuring Her Essay “Baking Do” Around a Chocolate Cake Recipe

Capsule Stories Winter 2021 Edition being held net to a KitchenAid mixer with cake batter

Kalisse L. Van Dellen writes about where she’s been and what she’s lost. She is a graduate of Belhaven University in Jackson, Mississippi, and resides as a Canadian expatriate in Greenville, South Carolina. Her work has most recently been featured in 3 Moon Magazine, the Brogue, and Mississippi’s Best Emerging Poets.

Kalisse L. Van Dellen’s essay “Baking Do” is published in Capsule Stories Winter 2021 Edition: Sugar and Spice. “Baking Do” follows the writer through the steps of baking a cake and the homesickness it evokes amid a bought of depression.

Capsule Stories: Where did the idea for this essay come from? What drew you to writing about this experience of baking a cake, especially when the process of baking itself can be difficult for you at times?

Kalisse L. Van Dellen: I started this piece as a little poem about the memory of the Canadian brand of baking powder I used when baking back home. The rest of the piece blossomed out of that as I struggled to untangle the nostalgia and homesickness that had permeated my baking habits. 

I tend to process my thoughts and feelings externally: either by talking with someone or by writing things out. When I write about things that are challenging or painful, it helps me to understand why I may be reacting to something. 

Capsule Stories: “Baking Do” is built around the steps of a cake recipe, and we’re taken with you step by step as you move through the recipe imperfectly, making substitutions, reflecting on past memories of baking with your family. How did you come up with this structure, and what effect do you hope it has on readers?

Kalisse L. Van Dellen: The recipe notes actually started as placeholders. I figured I would go back and try to describe the steps in a prose format at some other point. Much like when I am baking, pushing through the beginning to the next step is critical for me to prevent myself from stopping before I’ve started. 

As I was writing, I enjoyed how each of the ingredients provided a natural place to attach a vignette before moving on. When writing braided narratives, the biggest challenge for me is keeping the piece cohesive. I think the recipe format allows for that. It adds a level of physicality to ground the reader in the present since the narration keeps looking back to the past. 

I also hope someone decides to bake the recipe from the story! It really is a delightful cake.

Capsule Stories: “Baking Do” has an undercurrent of urgency and desperation that captures the feeling of getting yourself to do a thing that your depression has kept you from doing. How do you approach exploring your experience with depression in your writing?

Kalisse L. Van Dellen: It’s common writing advice to write what you know. In a similar vein, I find it helpful to write about what hurts. Taking the time to explore the painful aspects of my life, whether that be depression or loss or something else, helps me identify and evaluate the pain point. 

Writing about depression (or other difficult subjects) also creates a degree of separation between what I have written and what I experienced. That separation is magical. When I look at the piece, I’m no longer focused on the hopelessness or apathy that I may have felt in the moment. Instead, I get to look at it analytically and focus on word choices or formatting decisions or whether or not the pacing is right. I find it very freeing. 

Capsule Stories: What ideas or images did you cut from earlier drafts of this piece?

Kalisse L. Van Dellen: I tend toward brevity, so when I’m workshopping pieces I’m usually told to flesh out concepts rather than cut anything. I think the only thing that didn’t make it in was a small monologue on the difference between cathead biscuits and rolled biscuits. It was a self-indulgent rant that would likely alienate any fervent drop biscuit aficionados who might be reading. I also deleted a paragraph on the science behind executive dysfunction. It was helpful as I was thinking through the piece, but it didn’t have any strong visuals so it was easy for me to cut. 

Capsule Stories: You write about testing a recipe over and over, getting it just right: “Kate and I tested probably a hundred batches of Dad’s cookies until we finally got the right ratio of margarine and flour.” Writers often do the same, returning to a piece over and over, tweaking it until it’s just right. How has your experience baking influenced your writing?

Kalisse L. Van Dellen: I think this is the most frustrating part of both baking and writing! It’s so easy to see someone else’s finished product and become discouraged when my first attempt is not comparable. Of course that’s not fair, but that all-or-nothing mentality is a big struggle for me. If something doesn’t happen right the first time, it is tempting for me to assume impossibility rather than face my failure. 

I think letting go of the pursuit of perfection is important for both writing and baking. I don’t have to make the most elegant or decadent cake in the world; I can make a batch of brownies, and my husband and coworkers will be elated. Similarly, I don’t have to be the next great American poet. I can just write about my experience and hope that it resonates with people. 

Capsule Stories: How has your writing changed since the pandemic began?

Kalisse L. Van Dellen: I hate to say that anything good came out of the pandemic, but it definitely served as a catalyst for my return to writing. Emily Polson, a good friend (and Capsule Stories alumna), organized a Zoom writing group to workshop pieces in progress and provide accountability. I had not written much since I graduated college, and much like baking, I thought it was something I couldn’t do anymore. I had notebooks full of spare thoughts and jotted ideas, but I hadn’t sat down and typed anything out in years. But if anything can muscle past my depression, it is the anxiety that I could be disappointing someone, and so I started writing again just to have something to throw at the group. 

Once I started, it was addictive! I have been writing more consistently than I was even in college. I work in finance by day, so it’s so fulfilling to be creating in my evenings. 

Capsule Stories: What are your favorite recipes to make in winter?

Kalisse L. Van Dellen: I love making pumpkin loaf or other quick breads because they are simple, seasonal, and easy to share! I’ve also been experimenting with other in-season ingredients including, most recently, an orange cake with cranberry topping.

Capsule Stories: What are you working on next?

Kalisse L. Van Dellen: I am always writing poems, but I have also been dabbling in some flash fiction. I’m tempted to think that it’s not going great, but I am trying something new and I have to count that as a victory. My goal this year is to send out submissions to literary magazines every month, and so far I’ve been on track with that. 

On the baking front, I am currently trying to find a rosette iron on eBay so I can make the traditional Scandinavian cookie of the same name.

Kalisse L. Van Dellen posts about her writing on Twitter at @The_Kalisse and posts about her pets on Instagram at @Kalissey. She has a short story called “Just My Own Self Too” recently published in Sage Cigarettes Magazine.

Headshot of Kalisse L. Van Dellen
Kalisse L. Van Dellen

Read Kalisse L. Van Dellen’s essay “Baking Do” in Capsule Stories Winter 2021 Edition: Sugar and Spice, now available in paperback and ebook.

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