Monday, November 15, 2010

Not by bread alone...

As I’ve mentioned before in these ramblings, I bake all our bread. Twice a month or so, I break out the bowls and measuring cups, loaf pans and cooling racks, and have at it. It’s a form of therapy, almost a meditation.

Recently I’ve noticed how much the process of baking bread is a reflection of my writing life. I’ve studied the cookbooks (how-to writing books galore) from Betty Crocker to Great Breads and more. I know the recipe by heart (words, grammar, punctuation), which ingredients need to be treated with extra care (character development, dialogue) and how everything fits together in order to obtain the desired result (sentence structure, plot arc). I know I can be successful (published); I’ve done it many times.

So why do I always face that moment of self-doubt as I dump the soggy batter (first draft) onto the mat to begin kneading the dough into shape (editing, rewriting, still more editing)? I haven’t ruined a batch of bread in longer than I can remember – knock on wood! – but I worry, every time. Did I get the liquid too hot and kill the yeast? Too cool and not activate it? (too much dialogue/narrative descriptions, not enough action, or vice versa?)

After I’ve kneaded the dough for five minutes or so, it always comes together just fine, as do the words in a manuscript. But now what about that chilly draft in the kitchen (less-than-receptive writers group)? Will the dough rise properly (satisfying dénouement)? And then there’s the baking – too long, and the loaf is dry and tasteless; too short, and it’s gooey and unpalatable. How much time do I invest in rewriting a story? Too much, and I can edit the life right out of the best plot; too little, and the rough edges may frustrate a reader.

Sometimes there are occasions which require a different kind of loaf, something a bit more elegant than my usual oatmeal wheat bread (fiction). My specialties are banana bread from my grandmother’s recipe and a pumpkin bread (long-form essays and the occasional book review ) I stumbled across a few years ago. Each calls for a special set of ingredients (academic vocabulary and style), a different technique (introspection or objectivity). They are a welcome change of pace, and when I’m really daring and try my green chili baguette, a challenge (a full-length novel).

Whichever form I choose on any given day (or week, or month), the bread bakes, and the story is finished (eventually). The bread feeds and nourishes my family, a tasty addition to our meals. I can only hope my stories do the same for my readers.

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