A Guest Blog from William Kowalski. William is a novelist, screenwriter, and book reviewer for the Globe and Mail.
Since abandoning the hurly-burly of urban life and moving to the country ten years ago, I’ve become ever more engaged in the production of the food my family eats. I’m now an avid gardener, hunter, and fisherman, and I take satisfaction in knowing that if a natural disaster or zombie apocalypse comes along, I can use these ancient skills to provide for my family. Recently, with the price of bread rocketing to nearly five dollars a loaf, I decided to try baking my own, both as a money-saver and as an experiment. It turned out to be simple and only a little time-consuming, and most importantly, I love doing it. So for the past several months, I’ve turned out between two and four loaves per week of rich, fluffy whole wheat bread flavoured with honey. There is simply no comparison between it and the pallid slabs of pressed, preserved sawdust we used to buy.
What does this have to do with writing? Just as the kind of food we eat affects our health, the way we live affects our state of mind. I’ve always regarded my literary output as a function of my intake. One of the best things young writers can do, for example, is to read as much as possible. At St. John’s College, I studied the Great Books because I wanted to become a writer with something worthwhile to say. In addition to what we read, I think that our overall quality of life can also have a strong impact on the quality of our writing. By this I mean living a life that is authentic, original, and on our own terms. One of the best ways to do this that I’ve discovered is to get more involved in creating the food I eat.
Very few of us are connected to any stage of the production of our food these days. The result is that we know almost nothing about it. This has only increased the sense of disconnectedness that is the malaise of our modern society. Once upon a time, practically everyone knew how to kill a chicken, but today most of us would react with horror if this task were thrust upon us. Thanks to modern methods of farming and production, we are utterly detached from our food, just as other inventions like television and computers render us detached from each other. This manifests itself in too many ways to list here. It was inevitable that this would creep into our literary culture. The result, I feel—and I say this without pointing fingers—has been noticeable.
Am I advocating that you go out and kill a chicken or throw away your computer to become a better writer? Not at all. But I do recommend that we all spend more time getting involved in the seemingly mundane processes of daily life, including making at least some of what we eat, simply so that we can have a stronger sense of who we are.
In my twenties, I spent a total of about six months living in an intentional community, where the practice was to meditate a couple of hours a day. In those days, I embarked upon new experiences for the same reason I read classic works of literature: I hoped that they would somehow make me a better writer. I think they did, but never in the way I expected. At the Buddhist monastery where I was a student, we spent a lot of time performing the basic chores that go along with simply being a person, and much of this had to do with food: growing it, preparing it, serving it, eating it mindfully, and cleaning up afterward. Many hours a day were devoted to nothing more than staying alive, and here is where the real meditation happened. At the time I thought this was strange and even disappointing, but in retrospect it seems completely natural. Next to breathing, after all, eating is the most important thing I’ve ever done.
There is a continuum between making your own food and retiring to your writing chamber to continue your work on your magnum opus. And baking bread, in particular, has many parallels to writing. There is the feeding of the yeast, the initial rising time, the kneading, the second rise, the shaping of the loaves, yet another rise, the baking, and finally the pure delight of biting into a thick, generously buttered slice. All these things have their analog in the creative process.
If you feel your writing has been missing something essential lately, take a step back, and then another. Ask yourself not just how you can become a better writer, but how you can become more involved in the very processes that sustain your life. This need not involve lengthy philosophical discourses with Zen masters or extended sojourns in a mountaintop hermitage. It can consist of simply baking your bread for the week. Little by little, you will find other ways in which you can become more firmly rooted in your own life. And because you are a writer, this will naturally make itself known in your work, rendering it ever more powerful and authentic.
Whole Wheat Honey Bread
3 cups lukewarm water
7-8 cups whole wheat flour
¼ cup honey
½ cup butter + another 1- 2 tablespoons for greasing
4 teaspoons kosher salt
1-1/2 tablespoons dry yeast (2 packets)
Optional: 1 cup skim milk powder
1 large bowl
1 wooden spoon
2 bread pans
A clean cloth
A clean working surface for kneading
A warmish place for rising (I use my oven, gently heated to about 100 degrees F)
Prep time: about 40 minutes
Rising time: about 3-1/2 hours total
Baking time: 40-50 minutes
In a large bowl, mix together the yeast, water, and honey. Gradually stir in three cups flour, until you have a thick mud. (You can substitute skim milk powder for 1 cup flour if desired.) Cover with a damp cloth and set to rise. After about an hour, use your spoon to fold in (not stir) butter (melted or softened) and salt. Then continue adding flour, folding in until the dough can be turned cleanly out onto a lightly floured working surface. Knead in remaining flour until dough is springy, then continue kneading, for about fifteen minutes total. Scrape sides of bowl clean with spoon and grease bowl with butter. Replace dough, cover, and allow to rise again, about one hour. Punch dough completely flat and allow to rise another hour. Preheat oven. Return dough to working surface, cut in half, and knead each half until springy again. Shape into loaves. Make a lengthwise slice along the top of each loaf with a very sharp knife. Place into greased bread pans, cover, and allow to rise on stovetop until the loaves have risen to the top of the pans, about 20-25 minutes. Bake at 325 F (electric oven) or 350 F (gas) for 40-50 minutes, until the tops are completely browned. Remove from pans at once and allow to cool on a rack.