I often try to make sure my blog posts have some semblance of order to them, some sort of narrative arc where my thoughts might wander off into tangential asides or weird leaps but ultimately come back together at the end, neat and tidy, full circle.
Probably not going to happen tonight. My brain, and therefore my writing, is like quiche tonight: made up of all the leftovers vegetables (thoughts) in my brain, held together with egg and contained in a flaky crust. Follow me into this weird extended metaphor, won’t you?
The point is, I’m a little jumbled today, too easily keyed up over little things like inconsistencies in the weather and my cold hands and spilling water and planning what I should wear tomorrow (still inconclusive). So I did what I know to do: I made bread.
A few months ago, I tried making a buttermilk bread out of the Bernard Clayton bread cookbook I got my roommate for Christmas one year. Bernard Clayton is something of a master, and he has bread-making down to a science. It’s bread with no mistakes, no foibles, and absolutely no wiggle room.
Enter old powdered buttermilk and my probably-clumsy kneading. I followed the recipe exactly, but the bread wouldn’t rise. I tidied my room and chatted with my mom on the phone, and still, the damn bread wouldn’t rise. I baked it anyway because when you see failure coming, you sometimes don’t quit, you just ride it out to the bitter, flat, tasteless end. And that’s what it was: a dense slab of bread-like matter. Tragic.
Tonight, I tried making bread again. I got a recipe from the allrecipes.com app on my phone, one that 3,113 people have rated with five stars, and that has 2,561 user comments with praise, advice, etc. I wanted white bread, soft and sweet, with a crisp crust. I wanted it to be like the bread I had at Cafe Stella a few weeks ago. I wanted the bread of the people. Nothing masterful. Nothing fancy. Just bread.
And you know what? It is. It turned out sweet and soft and warm; it rose beautifully, twice, and kneaded like a dream. There were no weird ingredients, just things I already had on hand. This bread is meant, I’m convinced, to be prepared while writing, with a collective hour and a half of rising time and easy clean-up.
What’s more, bread-making is an exercise for thinking. It busies the hands so the mind can think. It involves the work of kneading dough, manhandling it but still maintaining a gentle hand, a delicate balance of ruthlessness and care. The stirring is progressively more difficult as more flour is added. Making bread creates a moment in a warm kitchen with messy hands in which a girl can be alone with her thoughts.
And I’ll tell you, I’ve been thinking a lot today – nay, this weekend. I’ve been shuffling along my path, head down, eyes busy, looking for something though I know not what. I’ve found shiny coins, moments of light that make me stop and stoop and find delight in the world. But mostly, it’s been head down, eyes busy, looking. Paying attention. Being present. Perhaps I’m looking down because to look up and ahead is pointless. Perhaps I’m shuffling because to run headlong is impossible. So I shuffle. I stay busy. I watch my path.
I mentioned yesterday that I read this lovely article by Margaret Atwood. Something in it stuck with me. Atwood talks about her journals, which she referred back to, journals from the time when she was writing The Handmaid’s Tale. She kept a count of page numbers, daily activities, “the usual writerly whines, such as: ‘I am working my way back into writing after too long away – I love my nerve, or think instead of the horrors of publication and what I will be accused of in reviews.'” But about the actual composition of the book, she wrote nothing.
I have been nursing Virginia Woolf’s diary for many years now. When I was an undergraduate, I read The Bell Jar and loved it for its honest accounting of depression and the evils of girl world; I had never experienced the full weight of the main character’s feelings, but I would, one day, know something more like it. But I’ve been a girl my whole life, and the weird sense of trumping one another, of judging and sniping and smiling and flirting and showing off and caring for one another was, I think, pretty spot on. And so I began reading Sylvia Plath’s journals, ecstatic that I got to see such an intimate side to the woman who wrote that book; I quit about midway through. Something about it was too real, too heavy. At the time, I thought maybe it was because I knew the end we were working towards. Maybe it’s because I felt the maxims about writing that I so often underline in writers’ journals were too true, too impossible, that I couldn’t take it.
It’s interesting because Virginia Woolf comes to the same end. I read a highly-acclaimed biography of Woolf a few years ago, and when I finished it, I was rather unhappy with the ending (duh). But not the subject. The writing. Something about it was too difficult, too forced. I mentioned this to one of my former professors, and she said she felt the same, but that she figured it was because she was too sad about Virginia Woolf’s early suicide to be able to read about it with much ease. Perhaps.
But I do enjoy reading her diary. I’ve always admired her writing, and her diary creates a snapshot into the process of writing some of my most beloved stories – The Waves and Mrs. Dalloway and To The Lighthouse.
And Virginia Woolf’s maxims are so real, so humble, even in her moments of bravado (like when she cuts down major literary figures like James Joyce). She’s so raw and honest: she writes, but it’s hard, and probably not good, but there’s hope, and there’s the work, and she keeps on. Like with this bit of loveliness (from November 1934):
A note, by way of advising other Virginias with other books that this is the way of the thing: up down up down – and Lord knows the truth.
I blogged at the beginning of the year about the fact that I had stopped using my journal last year. I just didn’t feel the inclination or the drive to take out my journal and write down ideas or thoughts. I used to do that all the time; I wrote my thoughts, my fears, my dreams; I yelled at myself, I consoled myself. I filled up books upon books of these notes, stories, character that I spoke of as if they were real people. I rarely go back to them unless I need a specific note from a specific writing workshop or something. They sit in my closet in a blue plastic crate, collecting dust and holding safe my craziest moments of rage, my most private thoughts, my dearest wishes, my most vulnerable feelings. I worked through complicated issues, those moments of “what next?” and “how to proceed?” and “what if?”.
I guess the reason Atwood’s quote stuck with me is that I have begun to journal again. I have begun recording my thoughts, writing notes. The journal goes with me as I shuffle along, and I keep those shiny coins along my path in the back pocket that comes standard on every Moleskine.
My brain is, yes, like quiche. And so tonight, my writing is too. And so is my journal. Journals. There’s a whole heap of quiche in a blue crate in my closet. A compilation of everything in my brain, held together with ink and good faith, contained in page binding and leather and tree pulp.
You said it, Virginia:
Odd how the creative power at once brings the whole universe to order.