I have just spent a day in the company of a passionate breadmaker, and I learned more from her in seven hours than I could have gleaned on my own in a similar number of years. And not only did I absorb some of the basics of producing sourdough bread in my own kitchen, but I came away inspired and a little bit obsessed.
As well as complete control of the materials and the complex microbiology of breadmaking, Gabriella has all the attention to detail of the true artist. One glance at a mound of dough, a light brush of its skin with a fingertip, and she knows at once what it needs to become its beautiful best. As our small group of apprentices laboured alongside her, as we struggled to follow her practised moves, certain words and phrases came up again and again.
Everything matters, she told us. Absolutely everything makes a difference. Gabriella was referring to temperature, hydration, the type of flour, water, and salt to be used. But I couldn’t help thinking that the same need for precision is applicable to writing prose.
In the beginning, writers often start out like the would-be breadmaker who buys a couple of kilos of flour, finds a recipe for sourdough and hopes to fumble their way to a good result. The writer’s ideas remain slightly fuzzy because they haven’t thought them through, and much of what they believe they’ve written never reaches the page because, in their mind, they know what they mean, they know their story. Perhaps they use a private system of punctuation, or none at all; worrying about sentence structure will seem too bothersome and dull. As for revision, and proofreading, why trouble once the writing is down.
If a baker operates in this way they may get a wonderful loaf of bread, but the chances are that they will not. Certainly the next batch and the next will be different, and what customers want from the breadmaker is consistency. That is what readers want too.
Everything matters when writing. Absolutely everything counts.
Readers give the writer their time and attention. In return we owe it to them to attend to the detail. In doing so we should aim first for clarity, and for a truth – even in fiction – that the reader will recognise and respond to. We shouldn’t waste their time with needless words and repetition; if we do, they won’t stick with us, because there are so many books to read. We should treat the reader as an equal, and not talk down. We should leave room for them to contribute. We should not teach or preach or persuade. We should not attempt to apologise or explain.
‘Tension’ was a word that came up often during the breadmaking. Our teacher described the dough as ready for more tension, and once again I thought about my novel. I had enrolled in the workshop as research, having decided that my main character needed a relaxing pasttime. But how relaxing was this I wondered as, with floury hands, I attempted to take notes on times and quantities while keeping my dough fully tensed. Not so much a meditative activity as an obsessive one, which happens to suit both me and the character in my novel.
The quest for the perfect loaf of bread is one that will never be satisfied, and I have no doubt that it is the same with writing a book. Having caught the sourdough bug myself, there will be more baking and more drafts of the novel, too. When it is done I want it to be as pleasing in all its aspects as a handmade loaf. I want to feel that I’ve done the best I can with the materials, and I want readers to discern something in it of the truth.