Thursday, June 16, 2011


When I was in grad school, I worked as a baker making cookies, pastries, muffins, and bread. I even fried donuts every Friday morning, coming in to work at 2 a.m. (ugh) to get the dough ready and then hovering over a vat of hot grease as the donuts puffed up and rose to the surface, sizzling.

I was chronically sleep-deprived. I burned my hands and forearms sliding trays into and out of the huge oven. I had to wear a hairnet. Plenty not to love about being a baker.

And yet. And yet—on many levels, it was a deeply satisfying job. It was creative, for one thing: the sparest of ingredients (plain flour, water, baking powder, yeast…) could be transformed into a huge variety of beautiful products: chewy rye bread, flaky Danish, melt-in-your-mouth butter cookies, tender muffins bursting with berries.

It was also fun to work in a place where people were generally happy. They were treating themselves, spending time with a friend, picking up a little something for a celebration. Not too many Grumpy Gusses go to bakeries.

Perhaps most important to me, though, was that the job offered immediate gratification (and I don’t mean snack-wise, though I did sometimes sample what I was making.) Often at the end of my shift I would find myself stepping back to look at the shelves of fragrant baked goods—toasty brown, just asking to be enjoyed—and feel this enormous sense of pride and abundance. I had done a good day’s work. I had accomplished something—and row upon row of cookies-muffins-toothsome treats was proof.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve had to learn in becoming a writer, in fact, dealt with just that: Where is the proof I got anything done today? Did I make any real progress on structuring my story, on understanding the people who will populate my book? Stepping back at the end of the day, the shelves sometimes seem empty. Where’s all the pumpernickel and rye?? Where are my two dozen cream cheese Danish???

It used to freak me out when I first started writing full-time: I’d work all day, be utterly brain-dead at the end of it (just ask my husband), and there’d be nothing to ‘show’ for it. Some days I didn’t write a single word, or if I did, it was only to scrawl notes from a reference book. Some days were spent in the library, searching (in vain) for some biographical detail or perfect quote. On days like that, I sometimes wondered if I had even justified the $2.50 I spent to park my car in the university library parking lot.

I felt guilty and a bit like a fraud. It seemed weird how much of the time writing a nonfiction book did not involve writing at all.

But all the groundwork, all that pre-writing, is essential. It can take months of research until you uncover enough information and have a good enough sense of your topic to write even the first line. The poking around, the meandering side-trips that look promising but then end up going nowhere, the incremental building of a base of knowledge—they are all part of the process.

I’ve learned to measure progress not by days but by stages: Getting to know my characters? Check. Getting a sense of the story I want to tell? Check. Tossing the six or eight or ten wrong starting places for the right one? Check. I’ve learned to embrace the concept working on faith—faith in the integrity of my story and in its need to be told—to sustain myself through the long slog of doubting whether I will be able to tell it. I’ve learned to keep working on faith until the story takes on a life of its own, and I can hold on, try to keep up, and try to stay out of the way.

I’ve come to understand that a writer actively writes (pen to paper or fingers on the keyboard)—taking an idea from first draft to revisions to finished product—to get a handle on the story, and that an author can’t truly know a story until s/he writes it down. But before the actual writing starts, there is important work to be done—work that can’t always be shown or proven or sometimes even verbalized in any way that would make sense to anyone else. But important work, nonetheless.

It’s a longer incubation period than whipping up a batch of crispy, chewy raisin oatmeal cookies, to be sure. But when the story finally comes together? Tasty, toasty, satisfying, indeed.


jama said...

Enjoyed this post, Barbara. Thank you!!

Jim Murphy said...

So very true, Barbara. I think about what I hope to write much more than I actually write! Of course, my wife Alison is always asking, "Are you awake, Jim?" while we're sitting on the porch late at night. My answer, "I'm working" doesn't always convince her.

Vicki Cobb said...

Barbara, you have beautifully described the intrinsic motivations that sustain a writer--namely the breakthroughs in the process itself. I'm reading Drive:The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink. His thesis is that it is the built-in, intrinsic rewards in the behavior itself that ultimately produce excellence, no matter what the activity. Yet for each specific human endeavor it is hard to figure out just what they are. For us writers, I think that you've nailed them spot-on. Thank you.

Marfe Ferguson Delano said...

Great post, Barbara, and so beautifully written. Thank you.

Linda Zajac said...

I can relate to that "I have nothing to show for myself" feeling. I seem to notice that more at the start of projects when I'm searching for a direction to go in and spend the day eliminating choices.

Vicki, thanks for mentioning that Daniel Pink book. I gave myself a week to finish fact checking an article and polished it off in 12 intense hours. I wrote a blog post on 6/14 wondering why I worked so hard. I'm hoping that book will give me some insight about myself and also how twins can have such differing amounts of drive.

Dorothy Patent said...

Beautiful piece, Barbara. I'm forwarding it to my baker/baking-book-writing hubby, who knows that feeling well and loves the magic transformations baking achieves. Your satisfaction at those rows of yummy treats reminded me of how I used to feel, back when I canned, when I saw the rows of golden peaches and bright red tomatoes in jars in my pantry; winter would taste like summer, thanks to my labors.

Barbara Kerley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Barbara Kerley said...

Thanks, all! I did love being a baker, but I'm thinking that writing kids books springs from the same nurturing, nourishing instinct, yes?