Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Late Bloomers | Karen Kao

Late bloomers are lazy; they don’t put in the effort needed to develop their God-given talents. Or, they’ve been thwarted by the roadblocks life throws in their path: poverty, pregnancy, sheer bad luck. Some late bloomers don’t get discovered in time. All of them are old.

It doesn’t really matter how old. You can find lists of 20 under 20 in pretty much every walk of life: sports, entertainment, business. If you inch up to 35 under 35, you’ll find game changers and innovators. But folks older than that don’t make it into lists anymore. No one cares about late bloomers.

When I was in my 20s, I showed some promise as a poet. Then I let the flame die. Entered into that most soul-crushing of professions: the law. I threw my talent away and, as a result, don’t deserve a second chance. But here I am, in my 50s, starting a whole new career as a writer.

Career-switching is a thing these days. There are a thousand and one reasons why, say, a journalist chooses to become a high school teacher or a lawyer turns into a fitness enthusiast. A cottage industry has sprung up to help you find the next you. Last week, I took a workshop at one of them: the Bakery Institute.

bread

Technically speaking, the Bakery Institute is a school for professional bakers. Since all true baking comes from France, the options for specialization are French, too: boulangerie, patisserie, viennoiserie, chocolaterie and glacerie. But there are only so many professional bakers out there in need of continuing education. And thus, like any intelligent business these days, the Bakery Institute also offers courses to career-switchers and fanatical amateurs.

I fall into the latter category. I’ve been baking my own sourdough bread for 3 years now. Yeast does unpleasant things with my digestive system. Plus, I really like the way sourdough tastes. My bread baking skills have slowly evolved so that I can now make a decent German style rye, the dark dense type a woodcutter would need to sustain himself on a good day’s work.



But I needed more variety. And I wanted more hands-on instruction like the kind I got last fall from my friend at Laila’s Levain. Because it turns out that I can’t learn baking from a book or even a YouTube film. I need to use my other 3 senses as well. To smell the sweetness of an active sourdough starter, to feel the elasticity of freshly kneaded dough and, yes, to taste that dough step by step as it develops flavor.

trial and error

 
Boule blanc waiting to be scored. Photo credit: Karen Kao

There’s an incredible amount of precision required in baking. The temperature of the water when you start mixing and the temperature of the dough when you’re done. Every ingredient must be individually weighed exactly to the gram. Every step is timed.

And then you let go. Let the natural process of fermentation take over. That process will determine whether and how fast the dough will rise, the flavor it develops, the openness of the crumb. Even the best of bakers cannot control that process. All you can try to do is maintain the consistency of your baking conditions because every variant has an impact. Ambient temperature, start time and, of course, the ingredients.

To maintain consistency, you have to be able to recognize these variations. And in order to do that, you have to record every detail of your process. Once you understand what your own norm is, then you can start tweaking. So it turns out, in order to be a good baker, you have to be a writer, too.

flour, water, salt

 

Bread is nothing more than flour, water and salt. Of course, the better your ingredients, the greater the quality of the bread. Or, to say it another way, no amount of expert kneading can make great bread out of lousy ingredients.

Do I have what it takes to make great bread? There’s certainly nothing in my youth to indicate it. I grew up on Wonder bread for lunch and rice for dinner. I don’t think I ate a decent slice of bread until I was well into adulthood. Either my gene pool did not consist of the right ingredients to make me into a star baker or my circumstances quashed my innate skills.

In any event, I started too late. For, as Malcolm Gladwell observes: 
Genius, in the popular conception, is inextricably tied up with precocity – doing something truly creative, we’re inclined to think, requires the freshness and exuberance and energy of youth.
We can all come up with examples of child prodigies from Mozart to Bobby Fischer to Picasso. The old folks version is harder to produce. Did you know that Alfred Hitchcock made some of his best movies when he was in his 50s?  Paul Cézanne didn’t peak until he was in his 60’s. Gladwell calls him a late bloomer. 
The Cézannes of the world bloom late not as a result of some defect in character, or distraction, or lack of ambition, but because the kind of creativity that proceeds through trial and error necessarily takes a long time to come to fruition.

 
Paul Cezanne, Still Life with Apples and a Pot of Primroses. Image source: https://metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/435882

at the kitchen table


I once read an anecdote about a writer, mother and wife, who for years wrote in the margins of a busy family life. She worked in the kitchen on scraps of paper that she would stuff into her apron pocket or a kitchen drawer. When the children finally left home, she strung all those pieces together and wove them into a wonderful work of fiction. That book was eventually published when the writer had reached a ridiculously ripe age.

That anecdote seemed perfect for this blog post. So I used every combination of the words writer-wife-mother-late to find my mystery writer and her work. In my memory, my writer was aggrieved. Her home was a prison; her life a waiting game. And so I filtered out of my query anyone who had had a career outside of the home or any form of higher education.

I never did find my mystery writer though I ran across plenty of other authors who manage to be wives and mothers and be happy with that combination. Women who published in their 40s and beyond. Plus Bloom, a literary site 
devoted to highlighting, profiling, reviewing and interviewing authors whose first major work was published when they were age 40 or older.
The problem, I now realize, is that I was looking for a writer who fit my idea of a late bloomer. Someone who had wasted most of her life and knew it.

fermentation

 

But writing is a natural process. Even for those of us gifted by the gods with a plot line or a character who springs to mind, fully formed, there remains the long hard slog of getting these thoughts into words. For the rest of us, the blank page beckons.

It took me 5 years to write my first novel. It’s starting to look like I’ll need a similar amount of time to finish my second one, too. Each draft I produce is a page 1 rewrite. And today’s rewrite may become tomorrow’s trash. Yet slowly but surely, the contours of my characters are becoming distinct. Their thoughts and wants and fears ever more tangible.

This is obviously not the most efficient way to write. Picasso would scoff. He did not want his various “manners” to be seen as evolutionary steps. He denied ever having embarked on a trial or an experiment. And then there is Cézanne. 
When Cézanne painted his dealer, Ambrose Vollard, he made Vollard arrive at eight in the morning and sit on a rickety platform until eleven-thirty, without a break, on a hundred and fifty occasions—before abandoning the portrait. He would paint a scene, then repaint it, then paint it again. He was notorious for slashing his canvases to pieces in fits of frustration.
I can’t rush my writing any more than I can speed up the rise of my dough. But I try to understand my process in the hope of improving the quality of my end product. My process is slow and incremental. It may not look like progress at all. But inside, the words are bubbling to the surface, capturing mood and tone and flavor.

When it’s done, I’ll let you know.

The final product. Bread and photo credit: Karen Kao
Note: Late Bloomers was first published by Karen Kao on her blog Shanghai Noir.

7 comments:

misha said...

As a writer who is publishing in later life, this very much resonates with me. I've written since I was a child, it's only now that I've got my books out there and I'm enjoying being able to take my time and write what I like, in whatever genre I choose. Loved your book too.

Umberto Tosi said...

As one late bloomer to another, thank you. No matter when one begins something in life, the goodness is baked-in (as it were), but it still takes vigorous kneading - which is always better than needing from the sidelines.

AliB said...

What a lovely post, Karen - and comforting to know I'm not the only one who takes 5 years over everything. first book published at 59, next at 64! Ali

misha said...

This is all very life affirming. Thanks Karen for posting.

Enid Richemont said...

Oh what a delightful post! Bread-making is so magical, but sadly I don't do it any more as my family is all grown up. Thank you for the baking images, though - brought back the smell and the texture. Also the link to Bloomers, of which I'd never heard.

Dipika Mukherjee said...

Lovely post Karen!

@Ruby_Barnes said...

I too was a late bloomer. It took me until past forty to rise to the occasion. I've never made much dough from writing but, fortunately, I don't really knead it. If I had to earn a crust from my books then maybe I'd stick to my writer's chair, accept the pain in the buns and produce a fresh batch more often. As it is, I'll settle for the crumbs.