I killed Jolene.
Back from a beach holiday, I opened the fridge to find my sourdough starter had succumbed to black mould.
As I scraped my dearly departed (and very stinky) starter out of her Bonne Maman jam jar and into the compost (the irony was not lost on me), I thought about our time together and all the beautiful loaves that Jolene had mothered. I also returned to an idea that’d been fermenting for a while: making sourdough is a lot like writing. Both take time and dedication. Both rely on a blend of precision and intuition. For both, you’ve got to commit. And even still, there will be inevitable flops (RIP Jolene).
Like so many home bakers, I joined the sourdough brigade during my COVID hermitage. In domestic exile, I had an abundance of time and motivation (lockdown carbs cravings) to try to master this intimidating culinary art.
I used Chad Robertson’s recipe, from Tartine, a revered San Francisco bakery. Chad has revived sourdough baking in America, inspiring thousands of bakers to toss their yeast and return to the ancient art of harnessing yeast and bacteria to create one of the most delicious and nutritious foods imaginable.
My eyes bugged at the recipe. Yield: 2 loaves. Preparation time: 2 WEEKS (!). Well, why not?
I’d tried making this bread years ago, after reading Michael Pollan’s excellent Cooked. My first attempt was a hot–or, rather, a room-temperature–mess. My starter was a flop. After two tries, I had one very dense (but oddly delicious) loaf for my efforts. I gave up.
The pandemic was the perfect time to try again. Time was on my side. Along with flour, water and salt, it’s the key ingredient, after all.
Those early sourdough days reminded me of my first weeks as a new mom, constantly fussing, fretting and tending. I’d wake in the night wondering how my new starter was doing, mildly panicked. Was she still alive?
All along, I had that hope that delicious fresh bread would result from my labours.
I didn’t expect how much sourdough would teach me about life–especially the writing life. Sourdough is a perfect metaphor for creative work. That’s true for writers and content creators and designers, visual artists, filmmakers, photographers–anyone who makes stuff for a living.
Like sourdough, writing has simple ingredients: the alphabet. Twenty-six letters. Infinite possibilities to describe a scene, transport us to the past, make a person come to life, recount a conversation. These basic building blocks worked with care and skill, can yield the most complicated, magnificent results (i.e. Robert Frost’s poems, Tolstoy’s novels, a Lydia Davis essay).
I once interviewed an artist who marvelled at the alchemy of paint, how, in the painter’s hands, it can become an egg, wood, skin, metal or anything else he wants to depict. The alphabet is the same—the raw material of magical alchemy, transforming letters into unique scenes and experiences.
And sourdough and writing both rely on invisible forces to yield tangible results. In bread-making, these are the biological and physical processes that convert three simple ingredients into intensely complex flavours and textures. Likewise, creativity is real but unseen, bubbling in our brains, transforming our ideas and experience into addictively good writing.
But back to the beginning. Getting a starter established, which takes about a week, is like writing a first draft. It’s the painful place from which the magic will ensue.
As the weeks and months of lockdown passed, what had felt awkward and toilsome in the beginning came to be an easy, natural part of my routine. The daily feeding and even the day-long process of making bread came to seem, well, achievable. I didn’t need to pore over the recipe, afraid of making a mistake. I got a feel for how temperature and humidity affected my starter. I could discern at a glance whether my leaven was ready.
There’s a tension in sourdough between exactitude and intuition, between following and breaking the rules. Early on, I rigidly adhered to exact measurements on my kitchen scale as I meted out precise amounts of flour, water and salt. Over time, I began to bake from a place of experience, observation and intuition.
Well, my baking buddies, it’s the same with writing. Stick with it. Over time, it gets easier. And, the more you use the rules of good writing to build your chops and fluency, the more comfortable you will become in breaking them to establish your voice and style.
Baking and writing are not that complicated, but they’re also not easy. In truth, success in both is mostly about showing up. It means taking time every day to feed your starter–or your creative process. For both, the struggle of the unsexy tasks is critical to the success of the end result: a gorgeous, golden loaf or a piece of writing that you’re proud to share.
An ever-expanding fluency with your process and style, communion with your voice, and your ability to spin sentence after sentence about your work and life will always take discipline, time and commitment. It’s rarely going to feel comfortable. But it will feel worthwhile.
I read a quote: “Sourdough is alive. And so are we.” That’s all the metaphor I need to keep making bread, keep writing. As I start my new starter (hello Dolly!) and return to my notebooks, I accept that the best things in life take time and, eventually, their demands become their own reward.