The Other Things We Do: Bread and the Creative Process
I started baking professionally around the same time that my official writing career began, and by that I mean my first undergraduate workshop.
When I think about those early days of baking, waking up at 11:30pm to walk to my midnight shift, tired rubbery skin and watery eyes, I first see a giant orange bucket and then I hear hot water rumbling into it. This is the start of the first batch of bread. I pop in a cassette tape, probably The Velvet Underground, and scoot the coffee pot onto the machine’s burner, click the little black lever, and water piddles into the grounds.
Water, yeast, salt, sugar, flour. The big mixer’s curved hook kneads the messy glop round and round. Then the mound of luscious dough on the counter, rising. I punch it down, cut and weigh it. Roll the dough into loaves and into pans; wait for the rise again. I push the heavy pans into the oven, wait for the crust to bake crisp, pull them out, tip the loaves, let them tumble onto the woodblock, line them up on the front rack for the customers.
Some days after my shift finished at 7am, I put together a box of treats, drove to class (a floury mess) and slid into my workshop seat. What I remember from class is a kind of earnest exhaustion, all of us working hard to understand what we were doing. Writing but not really knowing yet who we were. Trying out our creative patience, working toward goals that were still unclear.
I found that the inner patience I applied to baking was just as effective with my writing. Drafting, thinking, revising, waiting, revising, workshopping, revising, sending out, waiting, waiting, waiting.
Of course, a baker doesn’t just bake bread. She starts the coffee and pulls the Danish from the walk-in so they can begin to rise. She scoops some muffins and bakes those too. She re-fills the flour bins and checks to make sure the nuts and molasses containers are full. Sometimes she chops onions for the soup the next baker will make. Sometimes she waits on customers who straggle in still half-asleep. She does this while never losing track of where her loaves of bread are, in what stage, what comes next.
The impulse to bake and the impulse to write are the same creative process to me. Writing, baking. While I’m working on a story, even if I’m grocery shopping or paying bills or meeting a friend for a drink, I have those words there, rising.
As soon as the weather turns to fall—right about now, for instance—I start the bread in the morning. I knead it, wait for the sticky dough to grow silky under my hands as I push and fold and roll it against the counter. While I knead, I think. While the dough rises, I write. After an hour, I check on the bread. Punch it down; form it into two plump loaves, rest a dishtowel over the bumps, and let them rise again. I turn back to shaping my story—condensing, expanding. I shut the laptop. Let it sit.
There’s something involuntary going on in my brain while I do this—a kind of hum. I’m multi-tasking, but it’s all one big picture. Writing, baking, walking the dog, the dishes, laundry, student papers, the garden, books, my husband, the glass of wine on the deck, the Pittsburgh skyline.
I draw it all close inside of me. This is how I write.