Transforming Grass Into Milk

On Friday, I was supposed to be working on today’s issue of The Quiet Post, but instead I baked two loaves of bread. It had almost nothing to do with where I wanted to end up today, what I eventually wanted to talk about, but it was also the only way to get there.

One of my favorite books on the creative process is Orbiting the Giant Hairball, by Gordon MacKenzie, and my favorite part of that book is his insight on visible and invisible work. To illustrate, he uses a story about cows. It would be silly, he says, to scold cows for standing around in a field all day when they should be making milk.

I’ll let him take it from here.

If we drew a line to represent a creative occurrence…


…the only portion that would reflect measurable productivity would be a short segment at the end of the line:


This line segment is the equivalent of the cow’s time in the barn, hooked up to the milking machine. This is when productivity is tangible, measurable. But the earlier, larger part of the event, when the milk was actually being created, remains invisible.


The invisible portion is equivalent to the time the cow spends out in the pasture, seemingly idle, but, in fact, performing the alchemy of transforming grass into milk.

A large part of the work put into a book or a song or an illustration would not register as work to someone peeking in through the window. A lot of writing is doing other things, or doing nothing at all. “If you want to write, try this,” Brenda Ueland says. “Resign yourself tranquilly to doing something slow and worthless for at least an hour.” Of course, it’s not actually worthless. Ideas take a long time to bounce off each other, to find others to stick to, and to eventually surface as a workable course of action.

I’m always of two minds when it comes to creative work. On the one hand, I don’t think it’s any different from any other kind of work. You put yourself in the chair and you do it. To borrow a possibly apocryphal phrase from William Faulkner: “I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired every day at nine o’clock.” You just need to show up.

But every profession has its quirks, carpentry is different from accounting, and creative work has its own host of brambles to navigate through. Chief among them the fact that the material needed to produce something is not always readily available. And to make it available requires a great deal of time, silence, forgetting, remembering, and boredom. Of chewing grass. Of letting your unconscious mind simmer.

Of baking bread.

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott recommends coming up with a metaphor for your unconscious mind—a little kid or a Dr. Seuss character sitting in a cellar, cutting out paper dolls of ideas and handing them up through a trapdoor, one by one. “You can’t will yourself into being receptive to what the little boy has to offer, and you can’t buy a key that will let you into the cellar. You have to relax, wool-gather, and get rid of the critics, and sit there in some sort of self-hypnosis, and then you have to practice.”

This is why I have no patience when people get upset about authors like Patrick Rothfuss or George R.R. Martin taking so long to finish their books. It’s not that it’s bad form, though it is. It’s not, as Neil Gaiman eloquently put it, that Martin “is not your bitch,” though he isn’t. It’s that when viewed as a critique of these authors’ writing processes, it doesn’t actually make any sense, because it undercuts a legitimate, valuable, often-used tool in the writer’s toolbox: time. Time spent doing other things so the kid in the cellar can cut out paper dolls. It’s grumbling at cows for standing in a field when they should be making milk. Some fantastic authors only need to stand in the field for a short amount of time, but some equally fantastic authors need to stand there for a lot longer. You can’t buy a key to get into the cellar.

Creative work is work, but sometimes showing up means doing other things. The working hours spent staring out the window or petting the dog or cleaning the house are just as important as those spent writing a couple thousand words. “For what we write today slipped into our souls some other day,” Ueland says, “when we were alone and doing nothing.” If you don’t first allow yourself to spend that time waiting, you’ll never be around when the cellar door opens and a paper doll is hesitantly offered up.

The most joyful part of my week was when I folded back the cloth and found that, over the past hour and a half of silence and rest, of tiny invisible organisms doing their tiny invisible work, the dough had risen.

• • •

A few final things:

I haven’t read a ton of Ursula K. Le Guin’s work, though I did enjoy A Wizard of Earthsea, and I’ve been working my way, slowly, through Steering the Craft. Nevertheless, this New Yorker piece about her from a couple years ago felt like hanging out with a very good friend, and I’m sad she’s no longer with us.

This video of a snowboarder gliding through a forest while classical music plays is extremely pleasant.

And lastly, I think many of us can probably relate to this tweet.