In most professions staying relevant in the digital age requires a lot more writing than ever before. Whether a 140-character tweet, LinkedIn post, blog or old-fashioned book, ideas must be shared and a following created. Even as video or other media replace writing, the professional must still be able to tell a good story. This weekend, as I prepared for yet another attempt at baking artisan Country Bread, I felt the hint of anxiety normally experienced when I sit down to write. I’m a fine business writer but am learning that digital-age writing requires greater frequency, originality, authenticity and visibility. Connecting with this anxiety helped me see that, like bread making, writing is a time-consuming process of trial and error that can neither be rushed nor prolonged. I never know if my bread making effort has paid off until I cut that first slice but I’ve learned that even if not perfect, it always satisfies. I can say the same for writing.
Healthy food is one of my passions. The dangers of our over processed, over engineered food supply are pretty clear so I’ve added my own bread to my diet. I first learned how to make bread in Peter Berley’s North Fork Kitchen which is a lovely place to spend a weekend learning from this great master. I practice at home using Chad Robertson’s book, “Tartine Bread” as my guide. I strive for that perfect combination of flavor, texture and rise. And, when I write, I work hard to find the perfect blend of topic, style and structure.
I embrace these sister challenges for a few simple reasons:
- Feed my soul. Chad Roberts writes that bread was once the foundation of a meal and at the center of daily life. I’d argue that so is the written word, especially in today’s hyper-connected world.
- Protect my health. Writing keeps the mind sharp and forces active knowledge gathering and synthesis. Home made bread with its absence of artificial ingredients is a tasty, nutritious and easily digestible food.
- Keep me grounded. Making bread is a beautiful and simple act that forces me out of the work realm and when I write I connect with others in ways that shape my view of the world.
So come along with me as I describe the parallels of making bread and writing.
The Starter: An idea is to writing is as starter is to artisan bread making. A writer’s ability to dream up a great idea and feed that idea is often the difference between an OK and a great piece of work. The bread maker’s ability to manage fermentation is the difference between a brick hard loaf and one that’s soft and airy in the middle and encased in a crunchy, golden brown crust. The starter, fermented flour and water, requires daily feeding, a watchful eye and an intuitive knowing when it’s ready. The writer needs an idea and then must feed it by jotting notes, thinking and researching until the idea is mature enough to structure the outline.
The Leaven. The leaven gives the bread its character and can be likened to the writer’s outline. The leaven needs about 8 hours to reach its peak, and is best when mixed before bed and left to ferment overnight. The leaven is only ready when a drop of it floats in water. I like to write my outline in a day and then leave it overnight to ferment in my resting mind. This morning, I woke up early, did the float test and mixed the dough and when I finished, I worked on my first draft. Like the leaven, once an idea floats, it’s time to have a productive writing session.
The Dough: Creating the dough is the longest part of bread making and involves many iterations. I’ve found that, aside from self-inflicted distraction the first iteration is the quickest part. It gets laborious as I move to the final version. In bread making this is also when the process gets more technical and intuitive. One must follow the process but also know when the dough has risen just enough, strengthened to perfection and is ready to bake. The dough-making process has three critical repetitive activities: resting, fermenting and shaping.
- Resting is about walking away and letting the dough, well, rest so that the glutens swell and form the gas-trapping structure. By the time the writer is iterating through multiple drafts, the piece needs to start to form strength and cohesion. Resting the dough sets up the process for maximum efficiency and walking away from the draft does the same.
- Fermenting is the when the dough develops its strength, flavor and structure. It’s time consuming and critically important. Like a never-ending draft, dough left too long will be less forgiving and likely will be abandoned. The main action here is to gently turn the dough to let air in and allow it to rise; a simple yet delicate process. This is the part of writing where stuff that doesn’t contribute to the story is removed and the flow and style refined and simplified. Like bread making it takes a trained eye to know when to keep going and when to stop.
- Shaping is when the lump of dough starts to look like a loaf of bread and the baker makes decisions about how much to shape depending on the desired outcome. Shaping is about creating the right tension needed for the loaf to maintain its form through the long final rise and gives the top of the bread it’s beautiful crust. Robertson says that the skill needed in this phase provides “the freedom to craft any bread you imagine.” This is the point in writing when the finishing touches on flow, structure and form are done. I find leaving a near final draft overnight is the best way to bring the effort home.
Baking: This is the fun part and is mostly a technical exercise with precise temperature, ttiming and steps. This is also when the baker scores the top of the bread, to help the loaf expand and allow for a little personal branding. Once in the oven, the mass of flour, water and salt turns a beautiful golden brown with the edges of the score intensifying to a deep chocolate color. The process of baking is the same as putting the final polish on a document. Checking research accuracy and references, fixing syntax and spelling and if publishing online making sure the links work. NOTE: my grammar is far from perfect and so, like my bread, my final document may be a little undercooked.
Eating: Going live with an online article or blog is always a little scary. When I slice into a fresh loaf I can tell by how the knife moves through the crust whether the bread will merely satisfy or delight the senses. It feels almost the same after I’ve shared the article and am waiting to see the reaction. I guess the main parallel here is that my bread improves with each repeated attempt and my following is growing.
My bread is just out of the oven and is a beautiful golden brown. As I devour nearly a quarter of the fresh loaf, I hit the Publish button on this blog. Enjoy!!!