Making bread is a fabulous companion to making fiction.
Firstly you have just few simple ingredients to put together – the flour, salt, yeast, warm water, and perhaps sugar, milk, egg yolks, if you are going to do a sweet dough. It shouldn’t require a trip to a specialist shop to get any of this and measuring out is simple. You just put it all together in the same bowl. Breadmaking gurus often suggest the bowl is slightly warmed, and that you let the flour warm up. This may help the process of growing the dough but to me it adds to the general sensuality of the activity. I don’t mean sensuality in a specific sexual way, but in the way of getting you more aware of your five senses which is what you need for writing: a sense of heightened awareness.
The initial mix up, whether you do it by hand or by machine, is very straightforward. I confess I use my Kenwood with the dough hook for this bit, but it’s just as easy by hand, and perhaps even more satisfying. Then you discover you are in possession of a nice lump of dough and you can have a very pleasant initial kneading session.
I love this bit: getting my hands all floury and scooping the dough out onto the worktop and kneading it. I’m no expert. I don’t have any great technique to share with you. I think it’s a rather instinctive process. Faced with a lump of dough and your bare hands you will find you know what to do. You fold and punch, fold and punch, and all the time your hands are occupied, your mind will begin to settle. You can think as you knead what you are soon going to write.
Then after a few minutes you can pop the dough in its oiled dish, cover it with oiled cling film and leave it somewhere warmish (but not too warm). You now have a couple of hours at your disposal. The yeast is going to do it’s magic and you can wash your hands and go and write.
You sit down knowing you have a limited time at your disposal. At some point you must return to your dough and see how it is getting on. That is a good thing – a deadline of the gentlest, least reproachful sort. It lies on your horizon like a pleasant invitation. “Later I will go and knock it back and make it into rolls and that will be very satisfying but first, with my mind both calm and active I can write. As the yeast cells divide and proliferate, I will put down words.”
And with luck you will find, as I have on several occasions, that the bread making ritual has done the trick. I am relaxed and ready to engage with my writing. I am not feeling uncomfortable or self critical. I know I have already achieved something creative and virtuous: I have made bread dough. Now I can do more and write.
And because the dough is proving and you must go back to it eventually you are not faced with the endless blank plain of writing hell to trudge across. You have time, enough time to write, but not too much time. Rationed time is often better for writers. We think if we had all the time in the world we could achieve anything. I think this is a bit of an illusion. Gentle deadlines are very valuable, especially if you are aiming towards a daily word count.
Often when you stop, and return to the dough, you will know you have not written enough. You will be itching to get back, but first you must take a breath and deal with the dough. You have to switch on the oven, grease the baking tray, and take out the dough and knock it back. And in your mind the words will still be with you, the characters will be waiting to say their lines, and perhaps ideas will come to you, problems will be solved as you punch the air out of bread dough. Thank goodness you have to set it to prove again. It’s a chance to go back and finish what you were saying.
Then once you have put you bread it in the oven the house will be full of the incomparable smell of baking. Your family and or housemates will love you. You will have fresh bread to eat and you will have created a nice chunk of prose.