This column explores the myriad ways we can — and maybe should — engage with our creative process beyond actively writing.
To christen my partner and I’s new apartment, I ordered a dried sourdough starter off the internet from a Julliard ballerina turned Utah cattle farmer and began the process of reviving it.
Some of you might be saying: Didn’t we do this sourdough thing already during that first pandemic year? A lot of you did, yes. But I was sent back home from college where my younger brother who has celiac disease was still going to high school. Meaning we don’t keep any flour in the house. Meaning attempting to start living yeast out of flour and water was not the viable pandemic activity for me that it was for almost everyone else.
So moving into my new apartment not only signified the start of my true independence, it also signified my ability to bake again. I had attempted to birth and maintain my own starter (thank you Mary Grace of Mary Grace Bread for your free recipe) but for some reason, it was determined to go acidic. Starting a starter is deceivingly simple. You mix flour, water, and honey (or another sugar source) daily until bubbles form. It can take days; it can take weeks. You have to discard half the mixture each morning for it to mature. You have to get the temperature right: leave the glass jar loosely open on top of your fridge; put the glass jar in your oven with the light on (but make sure to remember it come dinner time); let your starter rest under your microwave’s surface light.
But if you do everything right — or speed up the process by nurturing the offspring of somebody else’s — you end up with a living organism that can last centuries, that can spurn off into a tiny army of creators.
Perhaps you can see where I’m going already. If not, let me be frank: I think baking with sourdough is a lot like maintaining a writing practice. For the starter to be healthy, you have to meet it each morning. Discard half or more of what was needed yesterday but has been reduced to waste today. You have to feed it again, with the same amount of flour and water. Give everything a good stir, and let it rest until you repeat tomorrow.
It sounds a lot like having a 30-minute or 800 word a day practice.
This week, my students were assigned “Short Assignments” by Anne Lamott. This isn’t the first time Lamott has been brought into my classroom — I’m a huge fan of her “Shitty First Drafts” concept and eagerly await the opportunity to shock my students by saying “shit” each time I teach it.
But I hadn’t focused on “Short Assignments” before. Recently, and I’m not sure if it’s purely coincidence or because people are reading this column (how cool would that be!), I’ve noticed an uptick in writer tweets about short assignments. Or, writing as a lifestyle rather than sprint.
Lamott writes, “[All] I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being.”
On Twitter, people are talking about all the ways they write: feeding themselves, taking a walk, drinking water (but never laundry). Maybe all we’re ever trying to do is take things one inch at a time.
Baking sourdough splits your day up by these intervals: you need to fold every hour, bake for ten minutes, then another twenty, and a final fifteen without the lid. The process means submitting to the picture frame model. Thinking in terms of an operational checklist; only getting done what you have the time for.
The loaves I make are what Mary Grace (big fan, if you can’t tell) refers to as “Backwards Bread.” This is because you start it at night and finish it the next morning. Around seven in the evening I’ll mix together a bit of my starter, water, and salt until it becomes milky in color. Another caveat: you have to weight everything out in grams. So I get out my scale and dump in a hefty amount of all-purpose flour and about a third of whole wheat (or what Mary Grace, out in Australia, calls wholemeal) flour.
Mix until all the flour is gone and let it sit for an hour. From there, you do hourly folds (pull and stretch pull and stretch) until you go to bed. Wake up, heat your oven, do some final pulls, confidently slice through the loaf’s surface until all the active yeast underneath rises to fill the gap, and set the bread in to bake.
At the end of forty minutes — in which you oscillate the heat and dutch oven’s lid — you will have a homemade loaf. If you do everything right, if you fall in love with the movements, you will never have to buy bread again.
You will never run out.
Of bread, of stories, to nurture and make and devour.