Writing had become my career goal, and everything else had bent in service to it.
I could never tolerate this with writing
Once I’m alone in the kitchen, the ingredients tell me everything I need to know. This bread won’t rise well because the leaven wasn’t ripe enough. There’s too much white sugar in this batter and it’ll ruin the brownie texture. I know how I like them because I’ve made them badly five times already, but on the sixth try they were good.
A lot of baking is maintaining a good working relationship with your inner critic, which in baking speaks through collapsed cake and soggy cookies. I trust the repetition—the next batch is another opportunity to correct one mistake and make two new ones. This tray of brownies is not a stepping-stone in my career.
One day, I totally burned the cookies. But then I remembered: I have more ingredients. I have more time. There are more batches to attempt. Unlike cooking dinner, baking was always a frivolous activity for me, with no stakes greater than a bonus dessert. The more pans I stuck in the oven, the more grounded I felt.
An essential rule of baking: Shut future eaters out of the kitchen. They will have opinions. They will have preferences. They won’t understand why the dough needs to be crumbly or the butter cold. To hold on to my quiet, living baking practice, I have to get those people off my counters and out of my mind. Only when the batch is finished and I’ve offered it to the eaters as a gift—only then can I gratefully accept reactions. That’s part of my issue with writing: When writing still represented my identity and career, there was no mental barrier between work and presentation. I needed to rebuild those barriers.
So when a timid desire to write returned, I vowed to protect that fledgling desire the way I protected baking. I pitched nothing, I tweeted and texted nothing, I imagined no future audience. Focusing on results and performance is a work behavior, and I needed to run in the opposite direction. I put my laptop on the kitchen counter and wrote notes to myself in between recipe steps. If I were selling pastries the way I’ve sold writing—if there were customer eaters expecting consistent tastes—it would matter if I made the cake differently one day. Many times, usually when I finally get the challah braid right after multiple jumbled loaves, I ask myself, Could this be my job instead? and then banish that thought immediately. I already ruined one hobby—I’m protecting this one at all costs.
But the stakes of baking did rise, unexpectedly. A blood test confirmed that my fatigue, shooting pains, and red scalp were the result of an autoimmune disease. I did an elimination diet and quickly realized that I could no longer eat dessert staples, like white flour, butter, and whipping cream without burning holes in my gut.
Suddenly, I had to rethink all food to heal my battered intestines. I found an ancient wheat flour, einkorn, that I could eat and learned how to make my own bread. I made a sourdough starter and named it The Yeastie Boys. The judgment I used to reserve for people for buying meat alternatives—why imitate a burger when you can have something distinct and amazing instead?—evaporated, now that I understood what it was like to have so many of the foods you’d grown up with become unavailable. It was disorienting.
I spent a couple of months figuring out how to rework my favorites. Most of them didn’t taste quite as good. But this is where another writing lesson came to the surface: Food, like a draft, is contextual. Putting my sourdough einkorn loaf next to a fluffy dinner roll would make no sense; they have different goals and circumstances. So why would I think to look at something I wrote in a particular time and place and wonder if it captures my essential worthiness as a writer?
Now, when a draft is bad, I let it be bad. Like I would with a bad batch, I ask myself why it’s bad. Is it bad because the idea itself isn’t that good? Or is it bad because it wasn’t executed well? And if so, what was wrong with the execution? If the idea holds up, then I try again, when I feel like it—I cannot stress enough how important waiting to want to write has been for my recovery.
Some people say writer’s block doesn’t exist and that the solution is to just write. But that’s not exactly it for me—yes, I can move my hands around and words will come out, but if I’m not in the right mindset, the words are unusable. On the other hand, you can’t just wait for the perfect words to come out either. You’ll never write anything that way. There’s an ideal middle space.
Baking is a little more conducive to finding the middle space, because you don’t do all of it using the same few hand movements; pitching, writing, editing, and sharing are basically the same motions. Baking has a million different steps, and kneading looks nothing like pouring or frosting. When I feel like baking, and I have the time and space to do so, I do it. And I find the middle space more often than not. Recently, I’ve been able to bake for family events too. But the key is giving myself lots of time—way more than I need—and I always have a store-bought backup. I know how working on deadline can ruin the joy of the process.
That realization made the next one easier: I had to quit everything that feels like writing for a while, because if I have to choose between a writing career and actually liking writing, I choose liking writing. To heal, I had to be okay with giving it up. Future project ideas? Tabled. Jobs? Quit. Pitches? Nope. No daily writing requirements. Not even those writer self-help journals. I was fully ready to give up ever getting another thing published if I could just like writing again. Nothing was worth losing that.
After a few more months and more than thirty recipes, the will to write returned. I got ideas and felt joy instead of dread. I wrote those stories, at first only for myself. Then, once I’d finished drafts, I pitched some of them. This is the opposite of common advice for freelance journalists—that you should sell a piece before you fully write it—but it was essential for me. What had saved baking for me was the utter lack of obligation, and I needed to reintroduce that feeling in writing.
I haven’t made any commitments or real rules for myself yet—that feels like school, where writing first began to die. Instead, I get quiet and try to feel what I feel. And when that feeling is a desire to write, I follow it, quietly and gently. And the more I follow it, the more often it seems to return.