I’ve rarely experienced writer’s block.
I know the trick of just free-writing whatever comes into your head to break through the brain noise preventing me from getting the words to flow. Nonetheless, I am also fully aware that most of my first-pass writing sucks and that’s just part of the process, and my creative work, with the exception of this blog, rarely makes it beyond my own “novel” desktop computer file.
Perhaps if I were more invested in creative writing as a profession rather than a hobby, I’d feel more pressure to produce good work and the looming blank page would visit me more than it does. I’m a vocational writer—for me, words equal money—so I tap away, producing stuff for other people.
This week I experienced a new phenomenon: Baker’s block.
I took my starter out of the fridge to feed (which is my pre-baking ritual) and I just stared at it.
And stared some more.
I wanted to feel the dough on my hands and dig into a process, but I had no road map, no idea where I was going, no idea what I wanted the final product to be. In fact, I dithered for a long time over whether to feed with 100 percent white flour, or with a little rye, or maybe a little whole wheat.
Unlike free writing, you, or at least I, just don’t start baking without a plan to break through a block—that’s when you end up getting up in the middle of the night to stretch-and-fold because you messed up your timing, or you end up switching course midstream and your bread just doesn’t proof as it should (How much hydration? What percentage of flour? What recipe was this? Chaos.)
I started pulling cookbooks off the shelf (I have a small, flour-sprinkled collection). I googled. I went to some of my favorite sites, like ThePerfectLoaf and TheFreshloaf and the Perfect Sourdough Facebook page.
I’ve been thinking about pumpernickel. I’ve been thinking about returning to the basics for a while, back to commercially yeasted doughs, a multi-grain, maybe, or the delicious “pain de mie” white bread we made at school and remains a favorite with Better Burque.
Similarly, these days I’m also metaphorically staring at my personal/professional “starter” without a recipe in mind. My business contracted. The deadlines that come with being an editor and publisher are no longer on the calendar. The typically relentless to-do list remains mostly blank, yet the energy to go out marketing during this poor economy is lacking.
I almost can’t function without a deadline, after 30 years, which is why baking bread, with its many micro-deadlines, keeps me grounded.
What happens next?
What should I make of this one wild and precious life (or starter…hat tip to Mary Oliver)?
Doesn’t everything die at last and too soon … a business, my mother, a baking project?
My starter is ripe, bubbly, very much alive, and so I should perhaps launch the next baked thing—but what?
Sometimes you need to fall into an old groove to find your way toward a new one, so I made chocolate chip cookie dough (everybody’s favorite) with the discard, and then also decided on bagels.
I love bagels. They remind me of home, of Hot Bagels on Teaneck Road in New Jersey, where I grew up. I have never quite achieved the incredible chewy, stretchy combo of Teaneck Road bagels, but the effort of trying to get there has proven a multi-year process I’m enjoyingly perfecting one batch at a time.
I’ve also never made bagels or chocolate chip cookies with sourdough starter, thus this week’s adventures constitute a slight creative movement outside my “groove,” a small, step into the baking unknown. Perhaps a step toward an altogether new direction. I don’t know. The dough felt different, to be sure—stickier, maybe, but no less elastic and extensible.
We’ll see what the results are (below), but, for now, I’m happy to have broken through the block and tried something new. Maybe being infernally blocked by questions such as “What happens next?” is just a necessary step in all creativity, baking included.