It is cold, windy, dank (rained a lot yesterday) and I have at hand a mug of hot chocolate, and in my nose the fragrance of baking bread. Yes, I’m baking bread regularly again. I started with two four-loaf batches of white bread (double recipe) and then moved on to my favorite, brown bread made with both whole-wheat and all-purpose flour. And in the meantime, the book progresses. I hope to get to 100,000 by the end of the day (sitting at 99,373 right now) and thus taking time off to enjoy the hot chocolate, smell the bread (no roses being available) and consider a nap after the bread comes out of the oven. Which won’t be long now.
For me, as a writer, it’s important to be grounded in material reality, including skills learned early and practiced long. This may not be true for all writers, but just as I can’t do without reading and re-reading, I can’t do without making things with my hands, connecting the idea in my head to the actual material stuff (be it yarn and needles, flour and yeast, bones and meat and vegetables, or spade and trowel and seeds) that I use to make useful things (socks, bread, stock and soup, garden) . I need to make music myself, not just listen to it. Draw things myself, not just admire other artists (though I do.) This connects me to a line of people in my ancestry who also made things (even when they made things I can’t, and don’t want to, make), to the kind of people who had ideas and made them into reality. And it connects to the same creativity that invents stories that become books people can hold. (No, I’m not dissing e-books, but for me the satisfaction comes from seeing and holding the physical book, that can’t be yanked back by Amazon.com or Google or Apple.)
It’s important for me to taste food, and not just any food, but food I have cooked, basic foods: bread, soup, stew, hearty casseroles. It’s important for me to know how it’s made, from the seed that went in the earth to produce the carrot, the onion, the celery, the garlic, the beans, the corn, the tomatoes all the way to the pots I use and how they were made, the utensils I use…to connect all that into one understanding of how food gets into people. If I don’t cook for awhile, if I don’t bake bread…I begin to feel afloat, not really in touch with the world.
Knitting connects me to the entire sequence of clothes-making through history (yes, I’ve read a lot about it, but there’s more.) I grew up in an area that then grew long-staple cotton. We all knew about cotton; some of us picked cotton (I spent only a day on that, as a small child, but I will not forget the smells, the feel of the prickles that get you right at the base of the fingernail when you pluck out the boll.) There were the cotton gins, and the tufts of cotton that fell off the trucks before the cotton got to the gin (back then, before cotton was defoliated prior to harvest, it was safe to pick up and use the loose cotton alongside the road. We stuffed pillows with it, seeds and all.) And about 300 miles north was a mill that spun “our” cotton (we didn’t own any cotton fields) into thread and then dyed it and wove it into tablecloths and curtains and checked and patterned cloth for clothes. My mother made my clothes, so I watched as the flat cloth on bolts turned into three-dimensional garments. I understood wool, too, even though we didn’t have sheep for wool where I lived (sheep for meat, yes, but they weren’t “wool sheep.”) But if you grasp how any fiber can turn into cloth, you can grasp how other fibers do it, too. And my mother knitted and crocheted, so…two or more sticks and a long string and there was another way to use fiber.
This may all seem remote from writing stories–especially fiction–but fiction writing requires the writer to connect disparate things–characters, incidents, settings, objects–into a pattern that works as Story for the reader. As with many things, prior experience with one type of “raw material to idea to making the right connections to finished something someone can enjoy” helps with doing the same thing with other materials to make a different something used for a different purpose. Working with materials teaches that all results have a cause (whether intended or not), that an unexpected result may be good (or not) , that the ability to plan and execute a multi-course dinner requires both an overall vision of what is to be achieved, and care with all the details, including the timing. It’s the same with carpentry and its relative cabinetry, with building a chicken house or check dams in a field. If in the course of a book I think up some cool thing for a character to do…and don’t think up what could possibly induce that character to do it…that reality-connection in my mind taps on the inside of my skull and reminds me. “Need a motivation there. Need a cause for that action.”
So the bread’s out and cooling on the rack–not quite as good a batch as last week, but still pretty good. I experimented, leaving the dough a little softer than last week, with the result that the loaves have less flour and are smaller…the largest, on the left, is the same weight as each of the tree was last week. The dough was also harder to work with after punching down–sticky and not cooperative in the dividing, rolling out, or shaping of loaves. For the work I’m doing (enjoyable, but work) I’d rather have the larger loaves to eat, so the next batch will be a stiffer dough with a cup or so more flour in it. The darkest one was in the middle of the oven, and as the smallest got more browning on top.