Homemade Bread and the Writing Process

Bread - finished product - Guenette photo

Homemade bread. Ah . . . the feelings those words evoke – everything from nostalgic images of Little House on the Prairie to mouth-watering memories of Grandma’s kitchen.

Bread Book - Guenette photoI’ve had various flirtations and more than a couple of long-term relationships with homemade bread over the years – all of them satisfying. More years ago than I want to admit, I received a gift copy of a book by Ellen Foscue Johnson entitled: The Garden Way Bread Book: A Baker’s Almanac. What a jewel of a cookbook. The book is sprinkled with black and white line drawings and filled with recipes time tested over the years to a level of perfection. Ellen Foscue Johnson and I have been through a lot!

My latest foray into the bread making world has me thinking about the parallels between making bread from scratch and the writing process.

Line drawing of wheat - Guenette photo

I’ll say from the outset – there is nothing particularly difficult about making bread. No special talent is required beyond patience and a bit of elbow-grease when it comes to kneading. The similarities with the writing process begin when I think of the flow experience I have with each.

Bread sponge - Guenette photo

Between morning tasks of checking out social media, making coffee, starting the wood-burning stove and whatever else needs to be done, I’ll toss two cups of water, two tablespoons of sugar (or other types of sweetness – honey for example) and one tablespoon of yeast into a large bowl.

Sometime later, I’ll add oil, salt and some flour and whip that up for a couple of minutes with my hand-held mix-master. Most of the time, I toss a tea-towel over that sponge and go about other tasks. When I get back to it, I add more flour and knead for ten minutes.

Kneading process - Guenette photo

We tried to get a decent photo of kneading but apparently I was moving too fast. Kneading can be a good work out and gives lots of time for thoughts to wander. I let the dough rise, punch it down, form it into whatever shape takes my fancy and let it rise again. Then it’s into the oven to bake. Easy-peasy as my granddaughters say.

Bread in the pans - Guenette photo

Like bread making, the writing process requires patience and elbow grease. Imagination and fledgling ideas are the writer’s yeast. We sprinkle those ideas out on a warm and receptive surface and let them bubble. Later, we outline and storyboard, do research and take notes – we’re about adding our writing flour. We whip everything together. We wait and we think. Then comes more structure and planning as we work the whole mess into a smooth story – so similar to that neat ball of dough we get after kneading and kneading until we’re sure we can’t push that dough around the floured board for even one more turn. At some point we need to leave the story alone. Let it rise. We punch it down and rework it a few times, forming it as we go. We bake it up with editing and formatting and then we send it out into the world. Hopefully our efforts are met with the joy that accompanies that first bite into a fresh-baked loaf.

Bread - first slice - Guenette photo

If you’re a writer, I suggest you bake some bread. Even if the process doesn’t match what you go through when writing, the results will be mouth-watering enough to make you forget any thorny, little writing problems you might be experiencing. And when the other people in your life take that first bite of hot-out-of-the-oven bread slathered with jam, they will forgive all the times you neglect them to be off in your own writing world.

Here’s the basic, white bread recipe from Johnson’s book – enjoy Smile

Bread Recipe - Guenette photo

(I used a half a cup of mixed, ground sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and slivered almonds in the loaves I baked today. Use any combination of flours you like – add an extra tsp. of yeast if you go heavy on the whole wheat.)

Sisters Forever – Inhabiting Overlapping Worlds

  Emma & Brit at the pool - Guenette photo

Whenever I spend time with my granddaughters I come up with the best ideas for blog posts. The mere observation of their collective antics is grist for the mill.

Let me share a vignette with you.

Scene – kitchen table.

Emma is creating a list of kids she will invite to her upcoming sixth birthday party. Three-year-old Brit, is sitting across from Emma, leaning as far over the list as her little body will allow. I am on the other side of Emma providing spelling assistance.

Grandma to Emma (mentally counting down the list that will soon be at capacity) What about Brit?

Emma (looks up at me and then over to Brit, frowns and looks down as she carefully counts the number of guests on the list so far. She looks back at Brit, head tilted to the side with a thoughtful expression on her face.)

Brit (face goes from a big grin and a nod when I mentioned her name to a dark frown as Emma studies her. She pounds her little fists on the table) Emma, come on. I your sister.

(I wish I had this snippet on tape. You’ll have to imagine the absolute derision a three-year-old can work into the words – come on – and the total outrage at the very suggestion that she would be denied her rightful place that came through in  – I your sister.)

Emma (narrows her eyes for a moment, then shrugs and adds Brit’s name to the list.)

This vignette captures an essential aspect of my granddaughters’ lives. For Brit – I your sister – is an absolute given. No negotiation. She has lived with that reality from the moment of her birth. For Emma, the situation is more complicated. Though she really doesn’t remember the times before Brit, she did have almost three years when Brit wasn’t part of her life. Though the two girls occupy overlapping worlds, it seems Brit’s overlaps into Emma’s more.

Emma & Brit eat popcorn - Guenette photo

This overlapping of worlds is, for me, a fascinating process to observe. I never had a sister and though my world definitely overlapped in spots with the worlds of my three brothers, I lived in my own space as the only girl. Responsibilities and privileges differed widely in those days. I didn’t see this phenomenon with my own children either – a boy and a girl, four years apart, my son and daughter occupied quite different worlds.

Not so for Brit and Emma. Brit can walk into Emma’s room and have a great time playing with toys designated for her sister and the opposite is also true. It might be nostalgia on Emma’s part but she can still have fun. Emma can open one of Brit’s drawers and squeeze into a favourite shirt or skirt that has been passed down. Brit would go crazy with sheer delight to be riffling through Emma’s dresser and wearing her clothes.

Emma & Brit go to school - Guenette photo

Brit goes to the same preschool Emma went to, she takes gymnastics at the same gym, she has the same swim instructors at the same pool. In every way, Emma has broken the ground for her.

Brit at the Gym - Guenette photo

Emma works her way through her home reading and then Brit gets the book and copies exactly what Emma did. She runs her little finger from words to word and repeats the story. She is a sponge for every move her sister makes. Her advantage is huge and though she must share everything with this older sister, she takes it as a given because she’s never known anything else.

Emma & Brit make tacos - Guenette photo

I look forward to so many more chances to observe and track how this sisterly dynamic works itself out over the years. Right now my money’s on Brit for sheer bull doggedness when it comes to expanding the boundaries of her reach into Emma’s world. The child was born to be a protester. Perhaps it has to do with a low center of gravity but when she doesn’t want to move, it takes a fair amount of finesse or sheer, overpowering strength to get her moving. And she has a tendency to chant. Take my word for it – Pumpkin Patch, here we coming – heard over and over in the car ride to said pumpkin patch is something that had us at first laughing hysterically before we all got a weird shiver up our collective spines when she didn’t stop.

Emma & Brit pumpkin patch - Guenette photo

On the other hand, consider this. I was standing in the kitchen with Emma when Brit walked by. Emma reached out and pulled Brit’s hair. I stared at Emma and said, “Why did you do that?”

As I comforted Brit who was holding her head and getting ready to cry, Emma looked at me with a frown and a shrug. “I don’t know. My head said don’t but my hand said do it.”

I made some kind of comment along the line of, “Well, smarten up and start listening to your head instead of your hand.” But it makes me think – what brews inside Emma’s little body when it comes to giving up part of her world to the miniature, professional, protestor who just happens to be her sister?

Emma & Brit ride bikes - Guenette photo

I predict some interesting times ahead for one and all. Do you have overlapping world examples with your siblings or have your observed this phenomenon in your own children or grandchildren? I’d love to hear your stories.

Words to Melt an Author’s Heart

Chelsea

My twenty-two-year-old niece, Chelsea, recently visited us at the lake and she left with copies of Disappearing in Plain Sight and The Light Never Lies tucked under her arm.

We then began a wonderful exchange (via text messaging on Facebook) as she worked her way through both novels and shared her impressions. I love nothing more than getting down to the nitty-gritty of discussing the characters with a reader and finding out how the story makes that reader feel. As the texting continued, I had to have Chelsea adopt the shorthand that my editor and I use. DPS = Disappearing in Plain Sight. LNL = The Light Never Lies and LM = Lisa-Marie.

It’s a real treat for me to share (with permission from my beautiful niece) our texting conversation from last night.

Chelsea: Well I have finished LNL and I LOVED it!! My favourite . . . so far. I found myself getting teary eyed at the good-byes and hoping that Justin would change his mind and go back to LM and so happy that Beulah and Bethany are getting married!! Seriously I need that third book soon!! LOL.

Me: Wow – you are one of my fastest readers. I’m so glad you enjoyed DPS & LNL. I think both books are totally suited to your age group. But, then again, older women love them, too, though they tend to identify more with Izzy than LM. Did you start to get a better impression of Izzy after LNL? I remember you said you didn’t like her too much after DPS.

Chelsea: I had a hard time with Izzy in the first book but after the second one I caught myself wishing I could be like her. She’s so wise and gentle and really cares about people. I wasn’t very happy with Liam for a bit there – LOL. I love how you write – the way you tell one side of the story then go to someone else’s view. I felt like I was watching a TV show because of how you were able to switch things up like that.

Me: You’ve really gotten to the core of what matters to me about my writing – showing both sides of things – trying to get people to understand that life isn’t black or white – right or wrong. Circumstances matter.

Chelsea: It’s funny . . . because I’ve been to the lake I feel a connection to the story. It’s like I know what you mean and how the people feel . . . I actually felt like I was part of the story. I got so into it. It got me thinking of how I want my life to be and how I want it to end up. I can’t wait for the third one! What’s the title do you have an idea yet? I think it’s so awesome that you are writing books. I tell everyone that my Grama June and my Auntie Fran are writers! It makes me happy.

Me: That is one of the great benefits I have as a writer – living here. I was able to use this place as a basic template for all the places in the book and then just embellish my heart out. I didn’t have to start from scratch or create a world to put my people in. Micah Camp started in my mind as a dream that there could be something more for kids who didn’t have all the advantages – something that could help them get a jump start on adult life. I feel like crying because you enjoyed the books so much. It means a lot to me. All I really want to do with my writing is make people feel things and think. The third book is called Chasing Down the Night. I am well into the first draft, which means lots of work to go. The whole story is in my head, though. I feel pretty stuffed with all these people and their issues some days.

Chelsea: Awesome. I can hardly wait.

Me: I know I’ve won over a reader for sure with you. Thanks also for spreading the word about the books. Feel free to lend them out to others. If you don’t get them back, I can always get you another set. Love you. Bye for now.

Chelsea: Sounds good. Yep, I will spread the word! Love you too. Bye

A fan like this makes all the agony of bringing a full-length novel (or two or three or four) to life well-worth the effort. And when she is also a beautiful, talented and funny niece who I’ve been close to since the day she was born – well, I better end this post before I dissolve into a pool of tears.

The pensive writer - Bruce Witzel photo

Picking up the Threads

Emma & Brit - Guenette photo

In his book, On Writing, Stephen King tells us that he produces a first draft over the course of one calendar season. We’ve all seen the length of some of his novels and that’s after he’s shaven off about ten percent. To accomplish this type feat, I expect Mr. King is able to stay focused. He probably doesn’t choose summer as his draft writing season while living by a lake, having family and friends visit, tending a garden and attending out of town weddings and fun-filled barbecue weekends.

Leaving the Lake - Guenette photo

Summer visitors have hauled their suitcases up the road. Our extended time of warm weather and bright blue skies seems to be coming to an end as Labour Day approaches. The calendar is blissfully blank. It’s time to pick up the threads of that first draft and get back to work.

My friends, I’m here to tell you, this task is easier said than done. Mr. King is right. Better not to take too many extended breaks while draft writing. I opened up my files yesterday afternoon and they resembled the contents of a knitting basket full of brightly coloured balls of wool after a dozen kittens had done their worst.

Brit - Guenette photo

 

 

So, like any writer worth her salt, I digress from the task at hand. I must write a blog, create a Facebook album of the granddaughters’ visit, update some of my social media sites, make some exciting announcements, clean up the cabin and . . . well, you get the idea.

 

 

I actually do have an exciting announcement. After three months of back and forth negotiation, I have managed to have both my books accepted for sale through a major BC and Alberta grocery chain – Save-On Foods. Trade paperback copies of Disappearing in Plain Sight and The Light Never Lies are now on the shelves of the Campbell River Save-On and will hopefully be showing up in more Island and lower mainland locations soon. Many, many thanks to Sylvia at the Campbell River store for working with me to make this happen.

Save-on foods logo

Lest I be misleading here, I still have to approach each store and ask if they might like to put a few copies on their shelves. I am the vendor of my books. But since I am already in the system, (all tagged and scannable) this task is more easily accomplished.

Emma - Guenette photo

Well, this blog is written, the Facebook album is up, my exciting news is out there and the cabin is clean, well . . . clean enough. Time to get to work on that basket of snarled yarn. As we say in the Twitter-sphere, #amhopeful that I will soon be #amwriting.

Family - Guenette photo

Brit’s Butterflies are Free

Brit & butterfly 2

Last week, my granddaughter Britney got to set ‘her’ butterfly free.

Brit attends a local Strong Start program two mornings a week. I hope you have something like Strong Start for your little ones wherever you live. In BC, Strong Start is funded through the province, open to all kids aged zero to five, taught by qualified early childhood educators and operates out of classrooms in local elementary schools. The overall learning experience is shared; parents and caregivers attend with their children and are encouraged to get involved in enjoying all the activities. The parent/caregiver/child component of the program has multiple benefits. Strong Start is a place for adults to meet one another in a supportive environment where valuable parenting lessons are learned right along with the playing.

Brit & butterfly 7

 

Brit red hand - GuenetteI went with Brit one day near Thanksgiving and helped her make a pumpkin pie craft – a small paper plate smeared with brown paint and sprinkled with cinnamon – easy but effective. We also did red-paint, hand prints that looked surprisingly like turkeys. Later at snack time Teacher Kathy had a deliciously real pumpkin pie for everyone to share. Sometimes we think snack is Brit’s favourite part of Strong Start. But what’s not to love – fruit, cheese, muffins, and other healthy offerings.

 

Turkey hand craft - Guenette

Tea-pot mother's day craft - GuenetteOn Mother’s Day, Brit presented her mom and both her grandmas with this wonderful little tea-pot gift. Who doesn’t love preschool craft gifts – seriously – it’s enough to bring tears to the eyes of the most

anti-clutter, what-the-heck-am-I supposed-to-do-with-this-thing type of person.

Back to the butterflies, she said, wiping away the  tears. There’s this place in the Lower Mainland of BC called Flutterbuy’s. They sell butterfly release kits to local schools. Check out their website. It’s worth it just for the flitting butterfly extravaganza. I suspect most schools in the area use their services. The kits are advertised as follows: The transformation of caterpillar to butterfly is one of the true wonders of nature. Watch the children’s enthusiasm as they experience the wonder of metamorphosis first hand. The caterpillars grow so rapidly that the children will see the difference from one day to the next, and may even witness the moment a caterpillar becomes a chrysalis. From caterpillar to butterfly takes about 3 weeks.

Brit & butterfly 6

And there you have it! The butterflies went free last week and, in terms of sheer wonder, I think these pictures prove it was everything the company promised.

Brit & butterfly 3

Do You Want to Build a Snowman?

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Frozen movie coverMy granddaughters are crazy about the latest Disney movie, Frozen. On my recent visit, I got to watch the show, along with them, several times. Children do enjoy repetition. Frozen is, without a doubt, a Disney masterpiece with appealing characters, a heart wrenching storyline, breathtaking visuals, and award winning music. I defy you not to tear up when an act of self-sacrificing love saves the day – and not your typical Disney love moment when Prince Charming’s kiss awakens Sleeping Beauty. This is an act of love and sacrifice of one sister for another.

The story is loosely based on the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, The Snow Queen.  If you are familiar at all with the original, you will take the word loosely to mean hardly recognizable. But therein lies the genius of Disney – take an idea and spin it widely in a commercial vein that will find traction far and wide. There is the question of marketing to consider – dolls, books, figurines, costumes, games, DVD’s, and CD’s. The wise consumer knows the movie is just one long commercial for the merchandise. And yet, there is entertainment value and lessons to be learnt.

ElsaIn the Disney version, Elsa (the oldest daughter of the King and Queen of Arendelle) has been born with a gift – she can create snow with the twirl of a hand, freeze the ground with the stamp of her foot.

Her younger sister, Anna, is delighted at Elsa’s ability and the two little Anna and Elsasisters run wild through the castle building snowmen and playing in wintery landscapes created by Elsa. Until one day when Anna is accidently struck in the head by a potent blast of Elsa’s freezing power and needs to be rushed to the wise troll king to be healed. He makes a foreshadowing statement – fortunately it was the young girl’s head. Heads are easily changed. If it had been her heart, that would be a different story. A frozen heart is most always fatal. The troll king erases all memory of Elsa’s magic from Anna’s mind. He warns Elsa that her gift will only grow stronger and, while it can possess great beauty, it also contains great danger.

As is often the case in Disney movies, parents are not especially helpful. Elsa’s parents choose to isolate the poor girl, keeping her from her sister and the world. She is taught to hide and control her secret – conceal it, don’t feel it. Elsa’s emotions turn to ice as she learns to suppress her power. Eventually, in another true Disney twist, the parents are suddenly knocked off. Elsa finds herself in charge of the kingdom. Coronation Day brings Hans and AnnaElsa and Anna back together with icy fireworks as Anna announces she will marry Prince Hans after knowing him only one day. Isolation has had a negative effect on Anna as well – too ready to fall in love with the first person who shows her any attention at all. Elsa refuses her blessing on the marriage and ends up revealing her freezing power as she tries to fend off Anna’s objections. Elsa escapes to the mountains to create an ice palace where she can finally be herself – let the storm rage on, the cold never bothered her anyway. She rules over a frozen wasteland. Unbeknownst to Elsa, her freezing spree spread beyond her mountain palace – she has frozen all of Arendelle, as well. Anna goes after her sister, confident that she can convince Elsa to reverse her actions. A wild adventure ensues where good guys become bad guys, a comedic/philosopher snowman named Olaf comes to life and both Anna and Elsa must confront the women they have grown to be.

Olaf

My enjoyment of the movie comes from watching how granddaughters, Emma and Brit react to the story. They have quickly learned the actions and lyrics for the most popular songs and with their Elsa and Anna dolls in hand, act out and sing their way through the movie. At five-and-half-years-old, Emma is able to unwind the more emotional aspects of the story. She tells me, “Grandma, this part makes me want to cry.” Yes indeed.

Two-and-a-half-year-old, Brit will run up to Emma with her Anna doll outstretched and ask, “Wanna build a snowman?” She sits on the floor and shakes her little head, singing, “Use to be best buddies, now we’re not. Wish you tell me why.” Emma holds up her Elsa doll and says, “Go away, Anna.” Brit slumps and turns, saying in a mournful voice, “Okay, bye.” If you haven’t seen the movie, pop over and watch the first minute of this You-Tube video. You’ll understand exactly what I’m describing.

Emma knows all Elsa’s words and actions for the wildly popular hit tune, Let it Go. As I watch her performance, I am struck by wonder at the facial expressions and body movements. Emma, a savvy, computer-literate, little girl, pulls up You-Tubes of each song from the movie as well as a host of videos of other kids performing the numbers – some of these are quite elaborate with soundtracks, voice overs and costumes. There is more than enough material available at the click of a mouse to fuel her desire to imitate.

Why should adults watch Disney movies with kids? We get to tease out what lies below the surface – under the ice, so to speak. In the final moments of the movie, it’s easy to miss the fact that Anna turned away from what she thinks will save her (true love’s first kiss from Sven) to save her sister from the sword of good guy turned bad, Hans. The act of love is Anna’s and that is what unfreezes her heart. It wasn’t anything anyone else could do for her. And through Anna’s actions, Elsa learns the secret of her icy gift. As the troll king said, fear was her enemy. Gifts of great power are controlled only through love, never fear.

frozen Anna

I am left thinking, what a mixed bag children’s entertainment is these days. There are valuable messages in Frozen that a wise adult can pull out and emphasize. Who wouldn’t want to play on the theme of the love of one sister for another when dealing with two sisters? And love healing all – wonderful stuff. I wasn’t above making a big deal over the fact that Anna didn’t need true love’s first kiss to get the job done.

So, are Disney movies turning a feminist page? I love this You-Tube Emma showed me of Elsa leading the other Disney Princesses in the song, I Don’t Need a Man. But, lest we toot a congratulatory horn too loud here, all the Disney Princesses are still an animated version of female beauty impossible to achieve, and though Elsa may have escaped the need for a guy, Anna is obviously headed for romance with Sven. But you do get the idea she will be calling the shots. After all, she is a Princess and he is the ice block supplier to the kingdom. Quite the disparity in social position.

If you have a young daughter or son, granddaughter or grandson, niece or nephew, sit down and watch Frozen with them. You won’t regret the time spent ferreting out the teachable moments and you’ll probably find yourself breathless, tears in your eyes, waiting for a miracle – just like the child beside you.

DSC_0348     Anna and Elsa

(All  animated pictures courtesy of Disney promotional material on Google images)

Writing with my Mom

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One of my current projects is a book of short stories. I have a dozen of my own offerings, from micro-short flash fiction to slightly longer pieces, plus four stories I have recently co-authored with my mom. If you knew my mom, you’ll raise an eyebrow at how this project is possible. You see, she died in 1997.

My mom wrote a lot. I’m still in the process of recovering so much of her work. But, to my knowledge, only one of her short stories was every published – Ten Days Out appeared in the Story Teller Magazine in the fall of 1996. Most of her work was in a constant stage of rewriting, revising and preparing for resubmission to one magazine or another.

The four stories I have been working on for inclusion with my work appeared in an anthology that she and her writing group, The Coastal Tail Spinners, put together for family and friends.

So – why the need to co-author these works? Why indeed …

I had thought to simply transcribe and include these works under her name. The moment I started to type, I realized it wasn’t possible. I began to make changes and what I was doing was much more than editing. An internal dialogue with my mom ran steadily through my head. It goes something like this:

slides0011 (2)I don’t think she’d say it like that, Mom. What about this instead? No – well then, I’ll rewrite it like this. Do you like that better? I’m reading between the lines here, but shouldn’t we tease this part of the story out? Good grief, this section is far too long – let’s shorten it up. I know what you’re trying for with the vernacular dialogue but it’s sure to irritate the reader – you see that, right? The story just can’t end here. I’m going to take it in this direction. What do you think of that?

And on and on it goes. The process is emotionally draining. By the end of a few hours working with my mom, I feel the need of a long walk, a hot bath, and a big glass of wine. And she isn’t even here to argue!

And that’s the hardest part. I would give anything to have my mom beside me in this process. We’d be pulling our hair out by the end of the day but it would be invigorating and enraging and oh so wonderful. This one way conversation makes me feel the loss of her in ways I’ve not plumbed the depths of in the sixteen years since her death.

The writing process has brought me into a new relationship with my mom – a relationship I have to build without her, through words left on scattered pages. It’s lonely and some days it makes me cry but I wouldn’t miss this opportunity – not for anything.

I will put the book out in both our names and claim co-authorship for my mom’s stories – though her name will appear first. No matter the work I’ve done, the one who came up with the ideas and the characters deserves first billing.

What would you think of taking on a project like this? Share your thoughts; I’d be interested in participating in such a dialogue.

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Flowers are blooming somewhere – right? I’m longing for spring In love