Saturday, September 29, 2012

let it ferment

It came to me as I was making bread the other day that the beginning stages of writing a novel is a lot like the beginning stages of making a sourdough.

I know, I know. You're thinking that's the strangest thing you've ever heard. But this is what I mean:
Sourdough Beginnings

I start by measuring out my flour and my water, mix it all together in a jar, then set it aside and wait.* During the waiting period (days and days) I feed it roughly every twelve hours. (See how committed I am?) Mostly, though, there’s a lot of waiting.

I check on it multiple times a day, but not much happens. And then I... WAIT! Are those bubbles??!! They are bubbles! The starter is alive - only it’s not strong enough to actually make bread with yet. So I keep feeding it. Then I wait some more. Feed it some more. Wait, feed, wait, feed, wait...

This is what I’m waiting for: My starter needs to smell and taste right. It needs to be hearty, and have tang, and the yeast also needs to be strong enough so that the bread won’t collapse when it’s baked (that's what the bubbles are for).

Novel Beginnings

In the beginning, I sit at the computer with a blank word document open. Sometimes it has a title. Sometimes it doesn’t.

I start writing various ideas down: character names, scenes that I think might be in the story, the cool thing that made me want to write the story to begin with. Sometimes I delete all these things and start over. Sometimes it gets to be too much, and I open a new document and start writing things there. And then I open another and another, and soon all of my novel planning spans five or seven documents.

And none of it is cohesive at all.

I do this for weeks. Months, even. Sometimes I open all the documents and just stare at their contents, overwhelmed, until I close them all again and walk away shaking my head. Needless to say, for the first stretch of my novel planning, a whole lot of nothing happens.

The important thing is that I keep bringing myself to it. If I keep feeding the story with ideas, if I stir things up, then - even if nothing happens for a while - inevitably a day will come when…


In bread terms, this means:

The starter is ready. It’s bubbly and strong and tastes just the right amount of sour. When I make bread with it, the bread comes out flavourful, and a bit chewy, and the colour is beautiful.

In novel terms, this means:

A major idea has hit, usually out of nowhere, and as soon as that happens, others follow. Because I’ve laid a foundation of ideas (strung across half a dozen word documents), things begin to fall into place. They aren’t just stand-alone ideas anymore, but ideas that connect, that hold the big parts of the story together. Once I have a more cohesive sense of things - of the characters and conflicts, of how the novel will end and start - then the novel really begins to take shape.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, for me, ideas need to ferment before they’re strong enough and tasty enough to make a whole novel. Just like a starter needs to ferment before it’s strong and tasty enough to make a good sourdough bread.

*I wrote about this process in more detail here.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

holding on

There's a poem I've been clinging to these days. It's called HOLD ON TO WHAT IS GOOD and it's by Nancy Wood: 

Hold on to what is good
even if it is a handful of earth.
Hold on to what you believe
even if it is a tree which stands by itself.
Hold on to what you must do
even if it is a long way from here.
Hold on to life
even when it is easier letting go
Hold on to my hand
even when I have gone away from you.

I have a tendency to hold on to things. Sometimes I hold on to the wrong things. Other times, I hold on to the right things, but end up convincing myself that I'm doing the wrong thing by holding on.

For example: I keep old love letters from various ex-boyfriends in a box beneath my writing desk. They span a period of about seven years. I told my writing group this once and everyone’s mouths dropped open like this was the most scandalous thing they’d ever heard. I never take the letters out; I don’t even remember the last time I opened the box. I keep them because they are a part of my life, a part of the girl I once was, and I don’t want to forget the people and circumstances that have made me who I am. For me, there is pain in those letters, but there is also love, and there’s no shame in either of those things. There’s no shame in remembering them.

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott writes, "You will lose someone you can't live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news." She then goes on to talk about how losing your loved one is like breaking your leg, only your leg never heals right, and you have to "learn to dance with the limp". I remember reading that passage a long time ago and clinging to it the way I've been clinging to Nancy Wood’s poem. And this is why: These days, I'm holding on to a certain place and certain people who are either mostly gone or who will soon be gone, and I won't be able to get them back. There's this inevitability that one day they will no longer be a part of the normal rhythms of my life, or if they are, those rhythms will be drastically changed. 

So what happens when the places that you once belonged to and that once belonged to you are no longer yours, no longer accessible to you? What happens when the people who you belong to and who belong to you begin to fade away, or walk away, or stop remembering you, or close their eyes forever? What do you do?

For me, there’s a little voice in my head that says: Everything changes. Everything dies. You have to move on, grow up, put it behind you. But the thing is, that kind of thinking never helps me. It only makes me hold on tighter. Words like these, on the other hand – like Nancy Wood’s or Anne Lamott’s – they say something else. Just like Lamott's limp, this poem suggests that there is something indestructible about really fragile things. You can never truly escape the loss of something or someone that was once a part of you - and that is both the awfulness and the loveliness of it.

It’s okay to move on from things, if that’s what you need to do. But it’s also okay to hold on to things that are important to you. You’ll have a limp, yes, but you'll still be able to dance.

Friday, September 7, 2012

How to Make a Sourdough Starter

If you search for “sourdough starter” in Google, you’ll find half a dozen recipes on the first page alone all saying different things. Some will tell you to add sugar, honey, juice, etc., which can help, but aren’t necessary. Some will say to add yeast and this is definitely not necessary, since the starter will cultivate its own yeast. There are tons of ways to make a starter, and tons of different kinds of starters, but the truth is, all you need is two ingredients:

Water and whole rye flour. 

Seriously. That's it. 

Why whole rye flour? Because it’s high in nutrients and fermentable sugars. Personally, I also use flour that's organic and locally milled - but that sort of thing is up to you.

Okay, are you ready? Let’s begin.

First, take a sealable jar or container. Any kind will do. A mason jar. An old margarine tub. A Tupperware container. Anything with a lid.

Next, measure out ½ a cup of rye flour and dump it in to the container. Go on. I’ll wait while you do it.

Done? Okay. Now measure out ½ a cup of lukewarm water (use your wrist to test it) and dump that in with the rye flour.

Got it? Great. Take a spatula and swish it all around until it’s good and mixed. When you're finished, it should look something like this:

Now clap on the lid, and wait. And wait and wait and wait. 24 hours later, it should look like this:

What? You're not impressed? Yeah, okay, that's because it's not that impressive yet. Right now, at the 24 hour mark, you need to feed it. In this container of soon-to-be starter there is ½ a cup of rye flour and ½ a cup of water (from 24 hours ago), and in order to feed it, you’ll need to add those same portions again. So do that: add in ½ a cup of flour and ½ a cup of water, then mix it around and clap on the lid.

In another 24 hours, it should look something like this:

See how it’s risen? See the bubbles in there? It also might be starting to smell a bit funky - which is good. It's just not quite the funk that we want. That will take a bit longer.

After this, you're now going to want to feed it everyday, twice a day (at 12 hour intervals), for at least seven days before you make your bread. And if your starter is getting too big, just throw half of it out before feeding it, which will keep the size down (and not waste so much flour).

Got all that? Just in case, here's a recap:

Day 1: Add ½ a cup of rye flour to ½ a cup of water, then cover.
Day 2 (24 hours later): Add ½ cup of rye flour and ½ a cup of water to the 1 cup of rye-water mixture from the day before (this is called a feeding).
Day 3 (24 hours later): Throw out half (1 cup) of the rye-water mixture and add 1/2 cup of rye flour and 1/2 cup of water. Do this again 12 hours later.
Day 4,5,6,7... Feed your starter twice a day at 12 hour intervals until you're ready to make bread with it.

And that's it! Happy Baking!!

Addendum: I forgot to mention, if you’re not going to use your starter, put it in the fridge and it will go dormant. But before you use it again, make sure to give it a few feedings, or it will be too acidic.

Sourdough Apple Loaves