Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Book That Doesn't Want to Be Born...Yet

The photo to the left (it's a Bitmoji) is me. It's me and it sums up everything I am feeling right now about writing my American Gothic House memoir.

I am trying to get my story down -- my whole story -- about my four years of misadventures living in a rural Iowa tourist attraction. I made pie (god, did I make pie!)  I fended off snakes and tourists and mean neighbors (who could forget The Binoculars!)  I wrangled the flow of houseguests, pie customers, and media (I never should have said yes to Larry "Git 'er Done" the Cable Guy).  I made new friends--of all ages and backgrounds (think bib overalls, pickup trucks, and Bingo).  I learned about Midwestern cuisine and was treated to an eye-opening array of cultural experiences.  I wrote two books -- and even went on two national book tours.  I looked for new love and -- after several ill-fated attempts (remember the guy with the guinea pig and the big-screen TV who moved in?) -- I finally found it.

That's a lot of good material. But the words are just not flowing.

I've been working on this book for nine months and four years. Nine months since I came back all pumped up and bursting with mojo from my writers' retreat in Taos. And four years since I first determined -- while still living in the famous house -- that this was a book I had to write and that I would -- and could -- commit to it.

Do I have the interest and drive to finish a book-length work on this subject? This is the first question to answer before starting the long journey. (In my case, really long. Painfully, crookedly, stuck in stop-start traffic long.) And my answer, of course, was yes.

Approaching my memoir like a novel, I had also already cross-examined myself on the questions agents and publishers will ask:
What is this book about? How would you sum it up in two sentences? Who is this book for? Who is your audience? What is the protagonist's struggle? What are the obstacles she needs to overcome? Who are the other characters in your story? What are the elements of suspense that will keep the reader turning the pages?
In other words, Why the fuck would anyone want to buy my book, let alone read it?!

Why? "Because you write it in a way that makes it interesting," writing coach Jen Louden told me tenderly when I went to her in tears during the Taos retreat last April/May.

My experiences living in the American Gothic House -- and in Eldon, Iowa, in general -- were definitely interesting. But how to corral all those snapshots into a narrative album that that gels into a cohesive story, flows with emotional resonance, that shows not tells, that doesn't drone on for 412 frickin' pages (like it does in its current draft form)? How to weave all those outlandish (and outrageous) tales into a tapestry of well-crafted prose and make it sound more "literary" with clever metaphors, fresh new insights, and philosophical revelations? How to write it in a way that ensures reviewers will praise my book instead of ripping it apart? How to make it so goddamn brilliant it lands on the New York Times bestseller list?!
This is what to say to all that self-doubt and inner chatter.

How? How about just not worrying about it? How about writing and not stopping until you reach the end? I've heard more than one writing instructor say, "Don't think about editing until you have a complete draft." (Otherwise known as the Shitty First Draft.) "Then you can go back and deepen and thicken it. We are storytellers. Just tell your story."

Besides, as Jen has said, "It's the attitude you bring to your writing that's far more important than your inborn talent."

Attitude? Oh yeah, I copped an attitude. After Taos, my attitude was Git. Er. Done. (You know things are bad when you start quoting Larry the Cable Guy.)



When I got back from Taos in early May I set up a new office in the farmhouse. I put on my big girl overalls. And I got to work. I had the momentum. I really had it going. My start -- after four or five previous attempts -- was not a false one this time. I was cranking out the chapters (38 of them!) and making steady progress toward those golden words: "And she lived happily ever after." (Or maybe just "The End." But most likely "To be continued.")

I was feeling good about the majority of my work. I had even shared pages with a few of my most critical friends and got positive feedback. There was humor and heartache and honesty and detailed descriptions to put the reader in the scene. My words were flowing like warm honey on toast, baby. I was staying disciplined and keeping my butt in the chair. And, most important, the muzzle I put on my Inner Critic was holding tight. I was almost done with my first draft. Almost. Until I was derailed by a trifecta of interruptions. The Holidays. My dog Jack getting sick. (He almost died!) And the hard drive on my 4-month-old MacBook crashing (It died! Luckily I didn't lose my data.) Fun times.

My writing came to a standstill for more than a month.
Writer, Interrupted.

Last week I got my butt back in the chair and opened up the Word doc for my neglected manuscript. In order to get started again I read back a few chapters.

And that's where the exasperated, book-throwing bitmoji comes in.

I texted this bitmoji to my sister (she is the one who introduced me to this amusing app) with the message, "My writing totally sucks."

She replied with her usual quick wisdom: "You are exactly where you are supposed to be in the book-writing process."



She then suggested a few books for me to read, starting with Reasons to Stay Alive (by Matt Haig.) Geez, did I sound that despondent?! She also recommended watching a recent 60 Minutes interview with John le Carré (aka David Cornwell.) I checked out both.

Matt Haig writes, "Beware of the gap. The gap between where you are and where you want to be. Simply thinking of the gap widens it. And you end up falling through."

Funny, I had just heard Jen Louden say this very thing in an online class last week. She reassured the audience that everyone has a gap. Even the most successful authors. "Post a note above your desk and write this on it," she suggested. "Everybody has a gap."

Haig also wrote in his book (that I always mistakenly call Reasons Not To Kill Yourself,) "Don't worry about the time you lose to despair. The time you will have afterward has just doubled its value."

Again, this struck me, as I had just watched an interview on YouTube of memoirist Dani Shapiro talking about her writing process. She had stepped away from a manuscript for a few months and when she came back to it she wanted to take a pickaxe to it!
That moment when you realize you need to restructure.

She despaired, but she called it "productive despair," claiming that the time away was necessary and useful because it gave her perspective. Only after coming back could she see with clarity that her book needed restructuring. She said it's the second to last stage of the book writing when you have to move through the murky waters before touching the bottom, and that the bottom is what it takes to propel yourself back "up, up, up" to the surface. "There's light up there," she said, "but first we have to live in the depths."
I've been living in the murky depths longer than my short attention span allows. Three months is a comfortable length of time for me to immerse myself in a project. Three months, not nine months and four years. (I finished my other two books in well under a year.) Worse, my stalled-out period is pushing the finish line even farther out. How much longer is this going to take?!
Enter John le Carré. I watched the "60 Minutes" interview my sister recommended.

Le Carré said of his first book, the bestseller The Spy Who Came in from The Cold, "I wrote it very fast, the story. But I had no idea where I was going at first. And it just flowed."

That's how I felt about writing Making Piece. It flowed so easily I felt like someone else was writing it and I was just there to type. So why has my American Gothic House memoir been such hard work? Why does it feel like it's a baby that doesn't want to be born?

Le Carré  answered the questions for me as he continued, "I think you get a break like that once in your writing life. I really believe -- nothing else came to me so naturally, so fast."

There you have it. Le Carré had his gaps. He had his productive despair. He had to work at his writing -- really work. And look where it got him. He's made enough money to buy a private jet. (Though he is so humble he would never think of it.)

As I continued to listen, I exhaled (as one must do when Scuba diving in the murky depths of productive despair.) I could feel the air leave my lungs, percolating out in a stream of little bubbles. The fact that I was still breathing was as encouraging as John le Carré's admission that writing is hard even for him.




I take in all of this as encouragement, a new inventory of helpful wisdom from those who have dredged the sea bottom before me. But I'm still underwater, still struggling. Especially with the overall theme of the book. Because the most important question of all to me is What will the reader take away from my story? Will they be inspired to choose their own fork in the road and follow the path that beckons to a new and unknowable adventure? Or will the reader wonder, "Girl, why the hell didn't you just move out when you saw that first snake?" and then dismiss the rest of the story.

So while I wait to hit bottom (Seriously?! It's going to get worse before it gets better?!) I will accept that this is my gap.



I will do the breast stroke through the dark waters and trust that I will eventually swim back to the surface.

I will look for new methods of silencing my Inner Critic.

I will stop putting time pressure on myself. (Who cares how long it takes? Some authors take five, ten years to write their books. And they end up being classics. Hello? Ever heard of Gone With the Wind, Harry Potter, The Hobbit?)

I will clean off my mask and snorkel, and grab my surfboard. Because that flow is coming back and I'm going to be ready to ride that wave when it does.

I will finish (and publish) this book. And once I'm done I will text my sister. I already have the perfect bitmoji for it.
"Never, never, never give up." - Winston Churchill

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Bread Making Class: When the Teacher Becomes the Student

The Pie Lady goes to bread school.
On Saturday I took an artisanal bread making class. I have been teaching baking classes for the past 11 years, not the student of them. But I believe in continuing education, in stretching, growing and expanding. I hunger for new information, crave new ideas and skills, and I’m always up for a new challenge.

Bread is that new challenge.

I’ve made bread before, but I could never get it to rise and, after it baked, it bore a texture and weight—and taste—closer to that of a cinder block than a loaf of edible leavened ground wheat. I may not live in the culinary capital of the world—Southeast Iowa fare (like pork tenderloin sandwiches the size of a dinner plate, Jell-o salad topped with mini marshmallows, and white dinner rolls slathered in margarine) is not exactly refined and sophisticated cuisine—but what SE Iowa does have is The Villages Folk School.

The Magic Chef oven, built in 1935, really is magic.
Villages Folk School, according to its website, specializes in providing learning experiences in traditional arts and skills, while drawing upon the uniqueness of each of the 11 historic Villages of Van Buren County Iowa. Classes are held in peaceful rural settings so students can return to a simpler time and witness the importance of the artisan in village life.

Try finding that in New York or L.A.! Sign me up!

The bread class was held in the village of Bentonsport, the definition of a peaceful and rural setting. In fact, to wind down the road into this sleepy hollow nestled on the banks of the Des Moines River is an exercise in time travel—back to the “simpler time” of the 1800s. The well-preserved village (with a population of 40) consists of the haunted Mason House Inn, a blacksmith and pottery shop called Iron and Lace, a Native American artifact museum (with an impressive arrowhead collection collected and curated by an eccentric resident who travels by bike), a fudge shop, a kayak rental concession, and a campground. Of note is its bridge that spans the river—built in 1883 for wagons to cross (that’s before the invention of cars!) It’s now a footbridge. The nearest stoplight might be at least 30 miles away.
This is what peaceful and rural looks like.

Bentonsport resident Betty Printy—also a potter, weaver, and gardener—was our bread instructor who hosted the class in her home, an historic two-story brick and beam house built in 1869. Stepping through her doorway was to enter another world, indeed a simpler one—and safer one. Surrounded by Betty’s antiques—from her 1935 Magic Chef white enamel gas range to her ceramic butter churns and rooster figures to her cuckoo clock—and enveloped in the sweet fumes of her scented candles, I wanted to spend more time here than the four hours allotted for the class. I wanted to move in! Except that I knew from having met Betty before that she had bull snakes living in her basement, in her laundry room, just like I did when I lived in the American Gothic House. Uh, no thanks. Been there, done that.
Betty's house.
I didn't bring up the subject of snakes during class. But we did discuss her numerous aquariums that lined her living room walls. The tanks were packed with fish, inhabitants that far outnumbered the people in Bentonsport. The aquariums, she told us, were the winter home to the convict fish, black sharks, eels, and goldfish that spent the rest of the year living in the ponds situated in the village rose garden. She was caretaker to all. She tried to pawn off some of the guppies on us—they were reproducing by the hundreds—but got no takers.
Mixing ingredients in a variety of vessels.
Betty is tall and slender with strong cheekbones and waist-length hair twisted up into a knot at the nape of her neck. Dressed in a baggy white blouse and even baggier khakis, her demeanor was as easy and relaxed as her clothes. She greeted us with her warmth and her smile. “Us” was five participants, all women, all eager to learn this new (ancient) skill.

I always talk about how pie originated in Roman times, how the crust was used to preserve and transport meat. But bread has been around even longer than pie—a lot longer, like even before the invention of language or electricity, before civilization. Prehistoric mankind started eating bread 30,000 years ago! (You think it’s hard imagining a 135-year-old iron bridge made for covered wagon river crossings, try wrapping your head around that number!) And now, here we were, in the Dark Year of 2018, the era of divisive politics, tribalism and social media trolls, questionable news sources and reality TV and talk of building 20 billion dollar border walls: five women (of indeterminate and undisclosed political leanings) gathered together to make— and—break bread.

Like I said, I am used to teaching baking classes. But I was a good little student, a well-behaved participant, inquisitive without being too disruptive, curious and interested. I was there to learn.

This razorblade is a lame,
to score the top of the bread.
And I had a lot to learn.

- About the basic ingredients. (flour, water, sourdough starter, salt, yeast, molasses, olive oil, egg, wheat berries)

- About parchment paper and bread whisks and lames and other necessary tools.

- About sourdough starters — and the care and feeding of them. (Still confounding to me!)

- About the various ways and vessels to use for mixing dough. (Kitchen Aid mixers, bread machines, pots, bowls, stirring by hand.)

- About the numerous steps of preparation. (Let’s just say bread seems more complex and temperamental than pie.)
My friend Lisa adds
jalapeños & cheese to hers.

- About the patience required in waiting for the dough to rise—several times. (Patience is not my strong suit.)

- About extra ingredients added to create varieties of breads. (This is where it gets fun—olives, raisins, cinnamon, sundried tomatoes, cheese, garlic, rosemary, the possibilities are endless. Kind of like how you can put “just about anything” in a pie crust, so it goes with bread, though I have yet to test the limitations of this.)

- About scoring the top of the loaf before baking. (Like vent holes in a pie, the gashes relieve the pressure from steam building up as it bakes.)

Shaping the loaf.
- About Dutch ovens and clay cloches and baking stones and how they create the steam necessary to get a crusty outer edge. (You can drop some big cash on this stuff, or you can just remember that the pioneers—hell, the cavemen—made bread without any accoutrements. Even today, the Tuareg nomads in the Sahara Desert still bake their bread right in the sand.)

- About baking times and using thermometers to test oven temps and doneness. (As I always tell my pie students, “Never trust your oven. You have to stay vigilant during baking process.” Betty told us the same thing.)


Homework. Get cozy on the couch and curl up with a good book.
Like I do for my pie classes, Betty had a long table set up for us to use as a workspace. She had all her equipment and baking tools at the ready. And she walked us through the process, step by step, each of us making our own dough, forming our own loaves, creating our own personal signatures through the addition of extra ingredients and the scoring patterns on top. She had loaves of fresh baked bread for us to sample as we waited for the dough to rise the first time. She had a library of bread cookbooks to look through as we waited for the dough to rise the second time. She served glasses of super-antioxidant berry juice (homemade from her backyard blackberry, raspberry, aronia berry patches) as we waited for the bread to bake.

Snack time!
Her hospitality made the class so comfortable, but it was her baking methods that especially put me at ease as they echoed my own philosophy. Namely, she didn’t measure precisely.

“Go by feel,” she said as she dug her measuring cup into the flour jar and didn’t level it off or poured molasses out of the bottle letting it flow over the edges of the spoon, or showed us how to feed our sourdough starter adding “some” water as an approximation.

“Your ingredients will vary,” she said, “and sometimes you will need more flour, sometimes less. You have to touch the dough and feel it. If it’s sticky, add more flour.”

Yes! That is how I roll. Maybe I would be able to finally make an edible batard or baguette, ciabatta or pizza crust.
The Victory Shot.
The four-hour class ended with a victory shot. Instead of taking pictures of my pie students, capturing their beaming smiles of pride as they stood behind their freshly baked beauties, it was me in the shot this time standing behind my spectacular (if I may say so myself) golden brown boule of wheatberry sourdough, smiling with pride. I was even saying the very thing I loved hearing my own students say, the thing that makes the teaching so fulfilling, the thing that must have made Betty feel good about her efforts. I said—we all said, "I can't believe I made this!"

Steaming and fragrant, the yeasty scent wafted up in my nostrils. I was tormented with desire, desperate to rip off a hunk and shove it right into my salivating mouth. I managed to maintain my manners and waited until I got home to indulge. (Anyway, I had eaten several slices of Betty’s bread during the class so I wasn't exactly starving.)

Ta da! Mine is the one bottom right.
Betty checks with her thermometer
 to see if the bread is done (at 208 degrees.)

My bread….Oh. My. God. My bread was so fucking excellent, so moist and tender and chewy and perfect I decided to make more the next morning. Betty had given us each our own jar of sourdough starter to take home and I wanted to practice while the steps were still fresh in my head. I wanted the process to take hold, to imprint in my brain and live in my muscle memory the way pie has, to the point where if I lost my vision and my hearing I would still be able to make a damn fine pie. I was determined to achieve the same comfort/skill level with this newfound passion for bread.

I was not so lucky at home, unsupervised without Betty's gentle guidance and instant answers to my questions, like, "Is it okay to use a packet of yeast that's six months past its expiration date?" I stepped through each stage—setting and resetting the timer on my iPhone, running downstairs every 30 minutes to “stretch and fold” the dough, transfer the dough to another bowl to rise some more, preheat the oven to 430 degrees, and finally tuck my baby into a cast iron Dutch oven for baking. My dough did not double in size. Was the room too cold? Was it because of the expired yeast? I did not have parchment paper so I used the “other” method of lining my Dutch oven with cornmeal. The oven smoked so much while the bread baked that the smoke alarm went off and sent the dogs into a panic. I had to open the doors to air out the house, and because it was a 25-degree winter day, the smoke was replaced with a stinging icy breeze.

My first solo-run bread, while half the size of the loaf I produced in class, wasn’t a total disaster. It was edible and, given I had stuffed it with cinnamon, raisins and brown sugar, it was still pretty delicious.

I always preach to my pie students, "Pie is not about perfection! It should look homemade!" As I scrutinized my loaf, I had to preach to myself that bread is not about perfection either. This misshapen lump, a little too dark on top, the scoring lines ripped apart like broken skin, was definitely not perfect. But it qualified as looking homemade and I'd take homemade any day.

I am not deterred. I will keep practicing. I will keep experimenting with ingredients, techniques and tools. I will buy some fresh yeast. And I will remember that if the cavemen could make bread, so can I. And who knows, maybe someday I will get good enough at this I will be able to teach bread making. Regardless, I never want to stop learning, stretching and growing, and am already wondering what other classes I can take. Luckily the Villages Folk School has a long list to choose from.