I read in a book on the history of wine that grapes grown under the best conditions don’t make the best wine. Great wine comes from vines that are stressed, that have to struggle to survive in poor soil and extreme temperatures.
In bread making, it’s called knocking down—that point where you have to punch down or deflate the risen dough that you’ve so carefully nurtured because that’s the only way to build the bread’s character and develop flavor. You are, in effect, stressing the dough, making it struggle. For the baker, this is an act of faith. You have to believe that it will rise again.
With a book, it’s called re-writing. Pruning out what doesn’t serve the purpose of the story—no matter if it once did. No matter how beautiful the words are, or how much you love them. In fact, Samuel Johnson advised would-be writers, “Read over your compositions and, when you meet a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.” You punch down the story and it rises again, better and stronger for the struggle.
There are hundreds of books on shelves in bookstores and libraries telling you how to write. Each one claims to have a secret that none of the others can show you. Reading those books can be inspiring; taking classes and workshops can be helpful. But in the end, nothing can substitute for trying and failing, trying and learning on your own. There is no secret. You can only write what you can write, and you can only do it in a way that makes sense to you.
The creation of anything—bread, a book, a piece of music, or a life—is an imperfect, spontaneous, organic and on-going process. It’s messy and scary and discouraging. We aren’t given much information about the source and we don’t have ultimate control over the results, but sometimes, if we’re lucky and we work very hard, we can be present. We can assist at the birth.
And that’s enough.
Judith Ryan Hendricks is the author of four novels, including her most recent, The Laws of Harmony (linked to Jennifer’s review). She lives in New Mexico with husband Geoff and dog Blue. Visit her website blog at www.judihendricks.com for the recipe for Sunny’s Blackberry Brownies.