On Loaves of Sourdough and Writing

This week a college friend came into town. He’s this amazing baker and generously gave me some of his sourdough starter. He also spent two hours teaching a very novice bread maker (me) the exact steps to get a perfect loaf. And what we made was indeed a PERFECT loaf. My four-year-old has already slathered two slices with Kerrygold today and devoured them. So tasty.

I am usually a by-the-recipe kind of person when I first cook or bake something new. Later I will play with it, but the first time my measurements are exact and I follow the process exactly the way someone who’s mastered it describes. So you can imagine me, pen in hand, scribbling furiously on the recipe he’s written out for me so that I get the steps right. Meanwhile, he’s just patiently explaining the process, showing me what to do and giving me a chance to try. He’s not referring to any paper or recipe. It’s just something he knows. It’s like his hands would remember what to do even if his mind didn’t. 

It got me thinking about writing and how within each of us there is an innate sense to tell stories, to share our voices, to be heard somehow. We don’t all necessarily act upon that sense, but I believe it’s there. Just like my baker friend has put a lot of time and passion into his bread, good writers do the same with their work. And I realized, that the processes involved in baking a loaf of sourdough and in writing have some interesting parallels.

For one thing, both are truly a process. They take time and patience to master (and really, do we ever really master them? There’s always more to learn). They both take practice too. Even though I’m new to the bread-baking thing, I imagine that if you don’t use those baking muscles often enough, they’ll forget. Same with writing.

Sourdough can be kind of a high-maintenance bread. There are a lot of specific steps and little tricks to know when it’s ready to proof or if it’s risen enough. However, while the ratios of flour and water and starter are pretty important to get right, the rest can be done by feel. In writing, the little things that have to be done right (like capitalization, unless you’re e.e. cummings) help the reader understand your message. But most of it can be done by feel. A good writer knows when the words feel good; an idea rolls off their fingers or around in their mind until what comes out is precisely what they wanted to say. And a good writing day is when those words get put down on paper before you’ve even realized what’s happened.

I’ve learned in baking (other things besides bread) that sometimes it just doesn’t work and you have to start over. You throw out the over-stirred mixture or the burnt muffins and try again. And that’s okay. In writing when it doesn’t work out, though, don’t throw it away, just tuck it into a journal or drawer somewhere. Someday you can make it work (if you want it to).

Sourdough bread also requires quite a long process, and it really can’t be rushed. There is down time when you’re waiting for the dough to rise or proof and eventually bake. As a generally impatient person, this is hard for me. I like my instant gratification as much as the next person and it’s hard to wait. But I feel like there’s waiting in writing too: waiting until the words or ideas come, waiting to look over a finished draft that you need to edit, waiting to hear back from critiques or potential agents. I’ve learned that you can’t rush the writing process. Rushed writing doesn’t sound like the writer but rather a stressed or hurried imposter. Rushed editing leaves sloppy mistakes and distracts the reader. It’s good to slow down and wait.

Perhaps the most obvious connection is that baking bread and writing are both creative endeavors. They take a willingness to learn, a willingness to put in time and effort, a willingness to experiment and live in a place just outside your comfort zone, and a willingness to sometimes fail. However in both, you eventually have a final product, delicious in its own way, and you not only get to savor the completion, but you get to reflect on what you learned along the way.

Currently Baking: I think you know 🙂

Currently Reading:

img_7188I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown. I’m only two chapters in, but I already know this will be an important book for years to come. It reads like a memoir and like you’re sitting across the table from her as she tells you about her life. As someone who grew up in a very privileged “white bubble,” I am often unaware (not on purpose, exactly) of the experiences and emotions and struggles of people who exist outside that bubble. I’m so grateful for writers like her who are willing to share their stories so that the rest of us can’t claim ignorance anymore.

img_7189A Cup of Water Under My Bed: A Memoir by Daisy Hernández. This poetic memoir about a Columbian-Cuban writer’s life growing up in America is beautiful. She describes what it was like to be told she had to learn English in school and leave her native Spanish behind. She talks about cultural and sexual and family issues, and how she found her own identity. I’m a sucker for a good memoir, and this one is no exception. They are, in the words of Atticus Finch, a great way to “climb in {someone’s} skin and walk around in it.”

img_7190Escaping into the Open: The Art of Writing True by Elizabeth Berg. This one is a great read for any writer: newbie, aspiring, or seasoned. The way she describes writing and her process is so calming and gentle and encouraging. And as a bonus, there are a lot of great prompts and writing exercises to get you started when the ideas just aren’t coming. I’m loving it.

Thanks for reading, and until next time, peace and love from my household to yours.






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