Hands On

Updated: May 15

Being a writer means that right now I smell like flour and yeast and ash and warm baked bread, which is to say…I smell amazing and delicious.

An unexpected truth: writing is hard for me. Very hard. When I tell people this, people usually say, "But you love it!" or, "But you're good at it!" And yes, both are true, which in no way mitigates writing's difficulty. I may be "good" at it, but finding the right words, stringing sentences together in pleasing order, building a satisfying story, researching and distilling a difficult concept into something accessibly written—all of it can be painful to the point of deeply unenjoyable. There are other ways to make it worthwhile, though. Being a writer is a tactile, living experience. I don't necessarily mean fingers on the keyboard...

I write both fiction and non-fiction. Today I put on my fiction apron and got my hands dirty (the apron and the dirty hands are both literal and figurative). I could watch other people shaping the world and then describe what I saw, or I could put my hands in and try it myself. For the novel I’m currently working on, that means better understanding how salt affects the baking process. I could read (and watch) Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat and understand it in theory. Or I could wear the floury handprints across my apron, bakery scent soaking into my skin. Tonight, I stood in my character’s shoes when I took an introduction to sourdough baking class at Bellegarde Bakery in New Orleans with Graison Gill. I smelled the levain’s rich yeastiness as I folded it with the salt into the dough (“like a first date,” Graison explained, “as the dough and levain meet and begin to develop who they’ll be together”). That beautiful simile will find its way into a book somehow.

I am reminded often of something I learned in the archive in one of my graduate courses: archivists can learn a reading history—about whether a book was loved or rarely read—by scent, sometimes. In older books that were read by the fireplace, the unmistakable sooty scent of hearth fire permeates the porous pages of the book. That scent lasts hundreds of years. And that’s exactly what the world smells like when fig and pecan couronnes have been pulled fresh from the oven: hearth fire and heaven.

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