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.