On afternoons when the air crawls and my words get lost in a cloud in my head, I bake. As cupboards slam, the rattling of cake tins begins to dislodge ideas, shaking them loose like flour through a sifter.
For all its demands of focus and precise amounts, baking draws me into a state of unforced thinking, a mental meander that spills out beyond the countertops, past the lines on the measuring cup and confines of the measuring spoons. Before the hour is up the words begin to rise up, because memory is like yeast.
My chocolate chip cookies have found fans among my children’s friends for about a decade. Even without consulting the recipe, I can make these cookies without paying too much attention to amounts of flour, baking powder, baking soda, two kinds of sugar. I know the space a cup of butter occupies in my mother’s pink mixing bowl.
Sometimes the mixture is a pinch short of salt, or the butter is half an ounce over. Routine dictates deftness and pace, but sometimes I just want my cookies. The mess I make in my kitchen is spectacular. If the batter comes to a texture like down pillows (as it must for today’s sour cream blueberry muffins) it will be beautiful coming out of the oven. Hunger, as Carlo Collodi wrote, is the best sauce. Despite improvisation, a need is satisfied.
Not so when I attempt to write. As a craft, writing is more demanding and less forgiving than baking. So much can fall flat. There are no tried-and-tested recipes. There are no basic ingredients when one has tens of thousands of words to choose from, and only the most carefully selected will do. And even then, an afternoon’s efforts do not guarantee a satisfying result. Where it takes an hour to bake even the most gorgeous of all cupcakes, it can take a lifetime to create a work of substance and elegance.
I think about this when I struggle to craft a 500-word piece I can be happy with. The writer Jane Hirshfield, in taking apart the meticulous writing of Emily Dickinson, has said, “a single word can be as consequential to the experience and meaning as a single link is to the integrity of a chain.” And so I run my fingers over words to find the choicest, freshest ones (never, never use too much), roll them around so I can taste them first, testing them for heat or coolness. I imagine combinations of flavors, scents, and textures, staggered by the possibilities and the responsibility.
No wonder I get stuck. No matter: I head to the kitchen, and begin to bake.