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Author of queer, wry sci fi/fantasy books. On Amazon.
Editor of all fiction genres.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

A Loaf of Bread: on Imperfections

Hello hello!

So, my father's been visiting this week. As those who follow my blog and Facebook may know, my familial relationships are somewhat complex and...perhaps the word 'fraught' is applicable. Still, things have gone pretty well. On the weekend, I was eager to show off my baking skills, which now include yeast bread. I don't have a stand mixer and do everything by hand, so as other bakers and cooks will know, this is a bit of an achievement.

Bread (and creative pursuits) are hard 

Bread is easy to mess up. It has to be kneaded the right way, left to rise, the water has to be the right temperature, and people across the internet have pretty fierce debates about when to add the salt for the sake of the gluten structure. Some people recommend a drier dough; some, a wetter dough. Different climates, elevations, and water types affect the taste of the bread. As a friend who went through culinary school explained it, bread made in a particular city will never taste quite the same as bread made elsewhere because of the makeup of the atmosphere. The point is, there's an art to it, not just the science of combining ingredients in a particular order.

While my father walked around the lake to make sure he could handle the carbs, and complimented the taste, he was also quick to look up the science of making bread. He immediately started looking at various ways to make absolutely optimal bread - using a stand mixer, of course, not tearing the dough as it's kneaded, the way to proof yeast, the chemical process of autolysing - and started quizzing me about whether I'd measured everything out to the gram or used volume measures.

I felt quite embarrassed and explained that I wasn't striving for perfection--just a good, edible loaf of bread. Food tastes different depending on whether the cook had their heart in it that day or was doing things perfunctorily. Something doesn't have to be perfect to be enjoyable for what it was. I explained, too, that I'm a relative novice - this is my third loaf of yeast bread ever, which is really not much - and that, as with knitting, one must do garter stitch, then stockinette, then lace stitches. I have to master a simple version of a thing before I start doing it more precisely and better.

My father, seemingly not understanding this, challenged me to a bread-making competition for the next time he visits. Although I laughed at the time, I felt disquieted later. The thing is, he proudly says that he can't cook but can follow a recipe, and that's very applicable to the arts. A paint by numbers kit is perfectly acceptable, but to create something new, diversions from a formula must occur, or will happen inevitably. For writing, bad or mediocre stories precede adequate, good, and excellent ones. And even then, writing is kind of hard.

I spent a long time not even attempting to make yeast breads because they're so difficult and technically challenging. Then I tried a breadmaker and ended up with some bricks. Eventually, I got up the courage to use a conventional oven and start attempting loaves. I'm definitely better at writing than I am at making bread, but that's okay.

At some point, reading about a thing can just be intimidating and make one self-conscious about imperfections. It's easier to criticize than to do, let alone to do well, and even the best art can never be utterly perfect from every single perspective. People are different, and what satisfies one person will leave another hungry and bring another jubilation.

How do you know it's good enough?

There's an anecdote I heard about Tennessee Williams; a friend of his found him sitting at his typewriter, editing a story that had already been accepted for publication. Williams shrugged off his friend's incredulity, saying the story wasn't done.

For my own part, I'm currently re-editing And the Stars Will Sing and The Stolen: Two Short Stories for re-release. I have a lot more bread to make and a lot more projects to knit, and many more books to write and edit. And none of these things will be perfect, but they're part of a process. Finally, at least they may satisfy some people in the moment, and when I release them, they will represent the best efforts I could offer at the time.

Here's the other thing, though - hindsight is a luxury borne of experience. It's easy to say "this ought to have been done a certain way", but that comes about after circumstances have changed. Maybe I shouldn't have torn my dough, maybe I should have left that character alive, but even having that alternative perspective only has come about because a decision was made. It's too easy to beat oneself up and focus on the past rather than using that experience and acquired knowledge to improve the future.

At the end of the day, the best one can do, even if it's imperfect, is better than an ideal creation that never enters the world. I know what the perfect loaf of bread would taste, feel, and smell like, and I can imagine it, but my learner's efforts and the slow process of attempting garlic olive oil bread and brioches will yield more goodness than a hundred dreams of snow-white loaves ever could. After all, as any poor person could tell you, dreams may be enticing, but they leave one's belly empty.

What do you regret? What would you change, and what have you learned from creative failures? Let me know in the comments.


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  1. This post isn't just about imperfections. It's also about overcoming perfectionism, and about family relations, and the corrosive power of competitiveness, and accepting who we really are. Great post!

  2. I really appreciate that! I'm not sure I thought of all those things when I was writing it, but I'm glad they came across.


As always, be excellent unto others, and don't be a dick.