Or, why writing is like baking bread.
Not that long ago, I was at a dinner given by a friend who is a really good cook. I’d been baking that day, so I showed up with a loaf of bread hot out of the oven for her and her family to eat when they wanted. When I handed it to her, she said, “– did you make this? Bread is the one thing I am afraid of trying!” And I said, “bread is easy!” And she gave me an I’m not buying it kind of look. “What about proofing yeast? What about kneading?” We both heard the panic in her voice…
A lot of people seem to feel this way about bread baking – friends are always astounded when I admit to baking bread sometimes twice a week. No one believes me when I say it’s easy. But it is easy! I swear!
I was thinking about this the other day because I’m working on a bunch of linked stories that may or may not actually be a novel – or at the very least, novel-ish. And, as so often happens when I’m working on things, I’ll do anything to procrastinate. The kitchen was already clean, so I decided to bake more bread because we were getting low. And while I gathered the ingredients and was stirring things together I found myself thinking about a creative writing student who was anxious because he felt he couldn’t end the stories he started. I am positive at the time that I gave him some meh advice – which was along the lines of “just end it in a place opposite to the way you started it.” As I said it, I was thinking, lame – but once we get into the mechanics of story he’ll see what I mean. (And indeed, click here for a MUCH better description of what I was trying to say to that poor kid.) I don’t know if he did get it – although he had a very nifty piece by the end of the course, with a solid ending – but even so, I wish I’d had something better to say. Something more reassuring, but also instructive.
However, as I was waiting for my dough to rise, it occurred to me that finding/writing the ending of a story is a lot like baking bread in that both require patience – something people who know me know isn’t exactly my strong suit. I need gratification in the instant variety. And yet, I bake bread – which I love to do – and which has taught me that patience and time is like that friend you love dearly but you’re too busy to see, except that once you manage a visit you can’t believe how much you missed her.
Let’s bake –
You know who doesn’t have time, however? All of us, that’s who. Every day I find myself rushing all around – doing things for my girls, taking sick dogs to the vet (almost. every. week), meeting with students, grading papers, doing laundry, emptying the dishwasher ….. Do I have time to wedge several hours of writing and or baking in? I do if I multi-task (the 21st century denizen’s best friend).
So, let’s so some multi-tasking, shall we? Let’s bake some bread and do some writing at the same time. (If you want to just jump to the recipe without my somewhat bossy and definitely rambling commentary click here)
This bread recipe is adapted from several different recipes – which you can find here , here and here for some of those recipes – they are all fabulous and feel free to just head on over there, I won’t be insulted. But – if you want to do two things at once – stick around.
To bake the bread, here’s what you need:
3/4 cup of rolled oats or 85grams (if you don’t have oatmeal add another 1/2 cup of flour – and increase the water by about a 1/4 cup. It’s no big deal.)
3/4 cup of boiling water
3 cups or 400grams of unbleached bread flour or all purpose flour
1 to 2 teaspoons of salt – I use this high mineral salt that is specifically made for baking by King Arthur flour. If you use table salt go with the lesser amount, if you use kosher or sea salt you can add full two teaspoons. OR – if you are like me and like things a bit saltier… I add full 2 teaspoons.
1 tsp to 2 1/4 teaspoons of instant dry yeast – Here too, you have a decision to make. If you are impatient (as I am often) and can’t wait more than a few hours for your dough to rise, use the larger amount. (A yeast packet is 2 1/4 teaspoons, fyi. I use SAF yeast that I buy on the King Arthur website)
OPTIONAL: 1 TBLSP of brown sugar, honey or agave. Sometimes I add this sometimes I don’t. The sugar gives the yeast a bit of a boost – but if you have good yeast it’s really not necessary and doesn’t add to the flavor of the bread.
1 cup of water – just regular old water, it doesn’t have to be warm (be prepared to add up to another 1/4 cup if it looks too dry)
1 TLBSP of neutral oil like grapeseed or sunflower oil, or a spray oil like Spectrum. This is for the bowl you’re mixing the bread in. I do this because it makes cleaning the bowl significantly easier. Though flour and water make delicious bread, they also make glue and you will hate having to clean that bowl of the bits of dough later if you don’t oil it up some in the beginning stages. I speak from experience.
And, here is what you do-
First, gather your ingredients and line them up on one side of the counter. I don’t need to tell those of you who are cooks to do this – but for those of you who aren’t, I will say that I have learned to do this the hard way – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started a recipe only to discover once I’m a third of the way in that I’m missing a key ingredient and have to run to the Acme around the corner. Do yourself a favor and make sure you’ve got it all before starting.
Get yourself a large bowl and dump the oatmeal in the bottom of it, pour your boiling water over it and let it sit and absorb some of that water. Let that oatmeal sit for 10 – 15 minutes:
If you feel like doing some writing while you wait – here’s a fun prompt:
brainstorm a list of words you think best describes you and who you are. Just slam them on the page – don’t think about it and don’t spend more than 3 minutes doing it. Then, for the remainder 7 – 12 minutes pick through the words for the most interesting and unique ones and play with them – move them around on the page or write and rewrite them in different orders using different articles or conjunctions until you have something that makes sense. If you’re ambitious you can put them into a six word memoir and submit here.
After the 15 minutes (and your awesome six word memoir), dump the flour, yeast and salt into the bowl on top of the oatmeal and stir it all around. It’s going to look lumpy – but don’t worry about it.
Add 1 cup of water. And stir it up. If all the flour is incorporated and none of it is in the bottom of the bowl – you’re good. If not, add a little more water. (If you’ve weighed your flour and oatmeal, it is likely you’ll only need the cup. Weighing is more accurate and gives you the same amount of ingredient every time. Measuring by volume is less accurate – you may scoop a larger or small amount of ingredient – in which case you might need more water. Don’t worry about it – it’s not rocket science. Just make sure the dough is slightly sticky but holds together when you stir it and that everything is incorporated. )
Cover the dough with a piece of plastic wrap or a towel (dust it with flour or it will stick to the dough if the dough rises above the bowl and that will just be irritating) and let it be for a while. I just discovered this wonderful cover which is worth purchasing if you’re going to make bread a lot –
So, here’s where you have a solid chunk of time to do something else. Sure, you can use this time to do supposedly practical things like empty the dishwasher (nope), fold laundry (double nope), vacuum the dog fur off the couch (I never do this, don’t wear dark pants if you come to my house) OR – you could write something else –
Here’s a prompt I often give students in my creative writing seminar:
Write about a scar you have and where it came from. Or, if you have made it thus far in your life physically unblemished – write about a psychic scar. Or – if you don’t want to do that, write about a scar someone you love or know intimately. If you don’t know how that person got their scar, make it up.
You could also keep going with that six word memoir because who am I to tell you what to do – Have fun with it- expand it write more – give it history and background.
Once you’re dough has doubled in size (if you used the larger amount of yeast this will take 2 hours – if you used a small amount it could take all day – you can even leave it over night if you get so caught up in your story you forget about the whole thing), use your hands or a nifty dough whisk (I’m all about the specialized purchase) to knock it down. At this point you can turn it out on a floured board or your kitchen counter and knead it some, but you don’t have to. It can stay in the bowl, just stir it around enough so it is a little bouncier and looks a bit smoother. I like kneading because it’s kind of therapeutic. (This is my method: Flour your hands first, then fold the dough toward the middle, turn it, fold it again, turn it and fold it again – until it feels bouncier than you did when you turned it out.)
Oil your bowl a little more and put your dough back in to rise again – another hour or so.* Then turn it out onto a floured surface, cut it in half and put it in your loaf pans – if you have them. If you don’t have loaf pans, you can cut it up and make little rolls, (the picture of the little rolls at the beginning of the post are ones I baked recently) or you can just keep it the way it is, in a nice round. If I’m not using loaf pans I plonk the round onto a cookie sheet lined with a piece of parchment. Put a damp towel over the dough again – and again – let it sit another hour or so.* I usually turn my oven on at this point – 450 degrees so the oven get’s really hot.
After about 30 minutes to an hour the dough will have filled out the loaf pans, or will have at least grown in size a bit more. Put it in the oven, and bake for about 30 minutes. Check it. If the bread is uniformly golden – top and sides – it’s done. If it still looks a little pale around the edges, give it another five minutes. Take it out, let it cool (If you can – but you might not be able to if you happen to have a brick of Kerry Gold Butter lying around).
It will be delicious.
* Here’s a writing exercise to keep you busy while you’re waiting:
Go back to that scar you were writing about, and rewrite it from a different point of view. Make it third person, or write it in first person, but in the voice of another person who was there when the injury happened. Or write it in third person but from the point of view of someone seeing the scar for the first time. The point is to see the story differently and perhaps take it to a place you weren’t expecting.
And now, back to my writing is like baking bread metaphor:
Bread takes time (sorry – I know I’m starting to sound a bit like a broken record) You must wait for your dough to double in size and there isn’t much you can do to rush the process. (I know people who put their dough in a warmish oven – but even so, it will take at least two hours).
The same goes for writing a story. It is rare that a first draft is perfect because what I’m writing about needs to bubble up – I don’t know what it is I’m writing about until I come back to it and see the clues my subterranean mind has left. Writing a first draft, I’ll end the story in a place that seems right-ish. Then I read it over, fix a few things and congratulate myself because clearly that first draft is absolutely fabulous and it’s going to win a Pushcart Prize. I’m all hopped up on my brain’s firing creativity and everything is in technicolor and I’m the best writer in the world – And yet – if I can keep myself from sending the first draft off to Tin House that very minute, and instead, sleep on it, come back to it, OY – will I be glad I didn’t hit submit. A story always needs space, You have to step back from it to see what is there.
Here’s an example for you – years and years ago I wrote a story that was published by Seventeen Magazine. It was the strongest story I had written back then, and I was really proud of it. Even so, as I was finishing it, I had the feeling that I was pushing the ending – that it wasn’t actually all that great an ending. Recently, I have been re-reading at all my published stories in order to gather them into a potential collection. Looking at that one, I suddenly saw how it could (and should) be changed for the better. I strengthened some parts, eliminated a few things and gave it a new, and much better ending that I really like. (I’ve posted both here if you want to read them and see the difference.)
The moral of the story here is this: if you don’t know what you’re actually writing about, you can’t possibly know how to end it. And you can’t know what you’re writing about until you get some distance on the whole thing. Writing endings, like baking bread, is easy once you realize it just takes time.
One last point about the similarities between bread and story writing – the longer you let both dough and a story sit, the better it will be. Let the dough rise for two hours it will be good – because home baked bread is always good. But if you let your dough sit over night – punch it down in the morning, maybe let it sit another couple of hours – it will be even better. The dough will be chewier, the bread will develop more flavor, there will be wonderful air bubbles to add crunch.
Patience – time – will do the same for a story. I’m not saying you need to put it aside for years and years – but let it sit for a day, a week, or if you’re brave a month or year. Don’t come back to it until it’s had a chance to rise.