Sunday, July 18, 2010

Time and Patience

It was while reading Brad Kessler’s Goat Song, a remarkable account of his life on a Vermont farm raising goats and making cheese, that I was reminded how much of a writer’s work relies on time and patience.

Time and patience to find the right word, then the next, and more time and patience to string the words together, one sentence at a time, into paragraphs that add up to pages, until after weeks or months or years all the words and sentences and paragraphs form, finally, a story.

The secret ingredient to learning and mastering any craft, whether it’s wine-making, beekeeping, knitting, weaving, cooking, baking, cheese-making, or writing, is patience, which is the ability to accept the time it takes to create a story, or a pair of mittens, or a cinnamon bun, and to accept, as well, the various obstacles that time may place in the way.

Most of all, I suspect, patience is the virtue of coming to understand one’s craft as a process linked to the greater rhythms of life, rhythms that you can sense in the words that Kessler shares with his readers as he describes how he learned to make cheese.

His thoughts on cheese-making and a life raising goats–meditations, really, as lyrical and profound as the most wondrous poetry–helped me begin to see how patience and time are essential ingredients for writing, too.

Here are a few excerpts from his work that might prompt you to think in new ways about your own writing and the time and patience needed to practice your craft:
English has no sufficient translation for the word tomme. The word in French means “volume” or “tome” as in a “book,” yet can also signify “a wheel of cheese.” Tommes are ancient mountain cheeses made historically from goat milk on small farms where the milk supply was limited. I like that my cheese is called a tome, because making a cheese is somewhat like making a book. Both take raw material from the world and transfigure it into art. Both are the products of rumination–animal and human. When you make a cheese you do a little work with the milk then wait and come back later and do some more, and wait again. It takes months to make a cheese. A book takes even longer. You can’t make either in one go. Time is the essential element. Time cures the imperfections, one hopes, in both.
It’s a helpful parallel that Kessler draws between making cheese and making a book, the way both the cheese-maker and the writer take “raw material from the world and transfigure it into art.”

In each case, the author and the cheese-maker must think about the process, engage in the activity of milking goats or milking one’s imagination, and then return a little later to do some more work... and then wait again for something to develop.

I loved learning that it takes months for a cheese to form, just as I loved hearing that it takes Kessler even longer to write a book, that you have to devote yourself to a process because it isn’t something that can be done “in one go.”

Time is the essential element.

With the help of time, Kessler reminds us, we can make our work better, eliminate imperfections (one hopes), create the best stories that we can create.

Here he describes the uncertainty of the cheese-making process, despite assembling all the necessary ingredients:
The conditions in the cellar seemed almost perfect for aging a tomme, 59 degrees and 90 percent humidity most days. The walls were stone, the floor earth. We had no idea if the right microorganisms would thrive there or the tommes turn out okay. There was nothing to do but make the cheese and see.
Again, Kessler has identified a crucial aspect of the writing process (by identifying the same crucial aspect of cheese-making). No writer can know if the work will turn out okay. Kessler reminds us the only way forward is to step into the unknown: “There was nothing to do but make the cheese and see.”

Word by word, that’s what writers do. We set down words and see if they turn out okay.

Only with the passage of time can we make our work better, whether it’s cheese or books:
The art of aging cheese is called affinage, which means in French “refining” or “making finer.” To become refined a cheese needs the correct environment. It needs patience and vigilance. The cheesemaker needs yet another thing: faith. The faith part was new to me. There are no recipes for that. Fortunately there are for making cheese.

Cheese is the slowest of all slow foods. It you want to get there fast, eat American. Each recipe is a journey, a meander toward perfection.
Indeed, each book, as Kessler suggests, is a journey, a meander toward perfection.

The next time you’re worried your book is taking too long or you don’t feel you can afford to take the time to make revisions, remember the words that Kessler uses to describe the time it takes to age a cheese:
The tomme I’m making today will age inside a cellar for several months; its character will keep changing from day to day, and week to week. At four months the tomme will have a wonderfully complex and savory taste, its body cream-colored and firm with small eyelets no larger than sesame seeds. Unlike my body, my tomme will grow firmer, not flabbier, with age. Time removes the excess moisture in a cheese and pares it down. But you never know how a tomme or a book will turn out. This is where the faith comes in.
The more time we give ourselves, the more our work has the possibility of changing into something wonderfully complex, just like Kessler’s cheese.

Time helps us begin to see where to remove the excess words, where to pare down the story, where to eliminate excess flab.

You never know how a tomme or a book will turn out. This is where the faith comes in.

You need not only time and patience but faith, too.

And in the end, if you approach your work accepting the time that’s needed to let the book grow inside you, you’ll find that you’ll have written the kind of book that emerges from the very core of your heart, each word clicking into place.

It's the kind of book that readers yearn for because it's like tasting a perfectly aged cheese. Such a book, writes Kessler, “is like a key that fits into the tumbler of the soul. The two parts have to match in order for each to unlock. Then–click–a world opens.”

Click. A world opens.

But only if you learn to be patient and accept that writing your story takes time to find the right words and place them in the right order so the meanings and sounds of the words click in your inner ear, letting you know when you’ve gotten the words just right.

For more on Goat Song, visit:
http://books.simonandschuster.com/Goat-Song/Brad-Kessler/9781416560999

For more information about Kessler and his work, visit:
http://www.boston.com/lifestyle/food/articles/2009/07/29/brad_kessler_takes_novel_approach_to_living_off_land/
http://www.daytonliterarypeaceprize.org/2007-fiction_winner.htm
http://www.culinate.com/articles/the_culinate_interview/brad_kessler

For more on patience, take a look at:
http://www.wikihow.com/Be-Patient
http://ezinearticles.com/?10-Ways-to-Learn-Patience-Now!&id=509437
http://www.tinatessina.com/practicing_patience.html

2 comments:

Lauren Alissa Hunter said...

First, sounds like a very engaging book… his unique content and voice are evident from your excerpts.
This post was a good reminder and encouragement—I often see writing and other art forms as a sort of kaleidoscope process: just tiny bits of things that may or may not be significant or aesthetically pleasing on their own, but with a little compiling, twisting, turning and some light at the end—voila—a sight or sound or word worthy of contemplation and praise.
Then again, working on a specific bit of writing sometimes seems as tiring or tedious (as well as rewarding, of course!) as working at a committed relationship… it requires constant attention and diligence, and yet also the option of walking out the room for a little while just to get away from it all. Too often I want to have writing one-night-stands and just work on something for a little while then forget about it when the initial impulse passes.
But alas, I shall remember the wisdom of he who makes cheese, and I shall carry on.
Cheers

Andrea Mack said...

Interesting post, Bruce. I often feel frustrated with and surprized by how long the writing process takes. I can begin working on one small section and realize suddenly that two hours have passed, with seemingly little accomplished. Writing is definitely a slow process, but worth it.