Slowing Down, Sourdough Style
As a freelance writer querying one novel and writing a second, all I did was write.
In between polishing magazine pitches and churning out digital marketing content, I wrote and story-planned for one to two hours a day. Since I’d given up daily Facebook trawls and automated tweets in the name of productivity, activities like researching small presses and sending out essays constituted work breaks. I was self-employed and living the dream… but I was also approaching burnout.
I needed a hobby–something I did just for fun. Only it felt like everything I did was in some way related to writing. Take reading, an obvious corollary, even if it wasn’t for research. Television became an exercise in craft and marketability: What did Riverdale have to teach me about writing for teens or modernizing story tropes? What was Riverdale, anyway, other than a long rendition of what John Gardner claimed was one of only two kinds of stories–a stranger comes to town?
I tried sewing, then watercolor, looking for a creative outlet that felt materially different from writing. But I could never figure out why my sewing machine kept jamming, and by the time I set up to paint, I was impatient to get back to work. So when my wife gave me a Dutch oven as a gift, I figured I’d try bread baking–specifically, sourdough. I’d fallen in love with the whole-wheat heft and rustic tang of a local sourdough. The baker even gifted me starter, so I could bake my own, but I stuck it in my fridge, neglected to feed it often enough, and it molded.
Baking naturally leavened bread felt of a piece with my 180-year-old farmhouse. A photo of the original occupants hung in my living room, gifted to me from the woman who lived here previously, who received the photo anonymously by mail. The “summer kitchen” out back, where an ancient, crumbling hearth suggested a cook’s domain, had found new life as my writer’s shed, and the front yard had been turned into a vegetable garden. This hobby fit my house as much as it fit me: when the original farmstead owners lived here, they couldn’t grab a yeast packet and bake bread because commercial yeast hadn’t been invented.
I decided to start from scratch by capturing my own wild yeast. I mixed white and whole wheat flour, added water, and left the sludge on my counter. For days, I added flour and water as the mixture rose and fell. My results didn’t mimic online photos. But something was happening, so I kept at it, feeding my baby starter for a week. It was late winter, and I figured the yeast might be sluggish because we kept the thermostat at sixty.
I chose low stakes for the first bake. No fancy Tartine recipes with smug artisanal grains. Nope, it would be a Joy of Cooking, plain-Jane, 100-percent white sourdough recipe, gussied up with a three-seed crust. I dutifully measured, mixed, and waited...and waited...for the dough to rise. When I could stand it no longer, I placed my loaf in the Dutch oven and baked it. Less than an hour later, I had a loaf, risen in the oven and split where I’d scored it with a paring knife.
The sourdough was dense, brick-like. Internet searches suggested a dozen variables and fixes: More water, less water, longer rise times, more gluten development (kneading), less gluten development. I slathered a slice in butter and served it with soup. Sure, I wanted better quality bread, but right now, I was happy enough to have created the thing. I felt out of my element with sourdough, too–and I craved that newness.
It helped that I could be a sourdough baker in ten-minute increments. What made sourdough so vexing for folks with 9-to-5 jobs (lengthy rise times interspersed with pokes, prods, and folds) made it ideal for a work-at-home writer. I could set a timer for my next set of folds, bang out a few scenes, then mull over my writing while I tended the dough. My new hobby provided that critical mental break writers often speak of–that time away from the work in which, lost in doing, the ideal solution arises from within. Reader, I solved plot problems.
Buoyed by my semi-successful first loaf, I started baking once a week. I switched to a high-hydration sourdough recipe and by my third try, I had what I wanted: a chewy loaf with an open crumb and good crust. It was much better than supermarket bread and almost as good as my inspiration, but it was also an accident. I upped the water level, microwaved hot water to create a proofer, and gave the bread more rising time. I didn’t understand which factor produced the desired result.
But that was okay. I’d made a pretty good mystery.
What I learned from sourdough baking was maybe what I needed to learn, or re-learn, in writing. Chasing publication and literary success, my attention had shifted from the writing process to its outcome. In my efforts to push my career to the next level, I tried to map out the moves that would get me what I desired. I studied the formulas of much-faved Twitter pitches to create epic loglines, built elaborate color-coded spreadsheets of agents to query, and crafted scene-by-scene outlines that adhered to three-act story structures. I knew I was good–and yet so much remained outside of my control.
Yeast-leavened bread was fairly predictable. You followed a recipe, kneading for the appropriate amount of time and waiting the prescribed rise time, and you wound up with a nice loaf. There were few surprises. Sourdough was unpredictable; that was the nature of wild yeast, which varied in strength. You needed to pay attention, and you needed to wait for the yeast to do its thing. What control you had, as baker, came with a mastery of what felt like art, or sometimes mysticism, but was in essence science. You could only control the loaf by controlling the process, an axiom I’d forgotten in my quest for literary acclaim (hah).
As I stayed present with the dough (Had it risen enough or was I jumping the gun again? Was it passing the poke test? Was I sure?), I stretched my ability to rest in the present moment. To have patience for what was, rather than fixate on the horizon line of possible outcomes.
I didn’t let go of my hopes for writerly success, but I did renegotiate my relationship with the journey, and sourdough baking helped me see my blind spots. I no longer obsessed over what lay outside my control. I began to trust that, like the sourdough, I had my own divine timing. And a funny thing happened: as I let go of an attachment to a particular path to success (with this agent, or that contest), more good things found their way to me.