This is a jar of sourdough starter. It has a complex, yeasty aroma that lets you know something is going on in there—not particularly appetizing in itself, but interesting and not unpleasant. In baking it gives a depth of flavor you can’t get any other way.
The starter is wonderful to use when I want to make bread, but keeping it available requires some tending. It’s a living thing, and the only way to have it on hand is to feed it regularly. Food in this case is flour and water. I stir it in and let the brew ferment for a while. The action starts in the depths, heaving lumpy air pockets toward the surface until a fine layer of bubbles breaks through. Once things settle down it’s ready to store and use.
As long as I pay attention to the starter once a week or so it remains alive and healthy, responsive when fed. It adds both flavor and leavening to the dough I make. But if I let it go too long between feedings it weakens and turns lifeless—not much good for bread or anything else.
Sometimes it feels like a lot of work to keep a starter going, but if I want to have the option of making sourdough it’s a lot easier to feed than to start from scratch. Beginning again requires more ingredients, time, and tending. It also involves letting the batter absorb airborne yeast, which I didn’t know existed until I learned to cultivate this magic ingredient. Fascinating that this fermenting concoction can take part of what it needs right out of the air.
When conditions are right, creativity works the same way.
We all know the effort of starting from scratch when life requires creative work of any kind. To keep my writing life going, I’ve had to make new starter countless times. But this summer my hope is to regularly feed an ongoing project and have some loaves coming out of the oven in a few weeks.
Working at it most every day is one of the ways I intend to do that. Staying with a project keeps it alive. But the other kind of replenishment that keeps the work going I feel less sure about.
Julia Cameron insists that creativity is nourished by Artist Dates—outings that break from the routine, pursued simply for delight. It keeps the work alive by keeping the artist alive.
The theory is great, but here at the beginning I can’t help but suspect the Artist Date approach could be yet another way to avoid getting the work done. At the same time, I want to keep the yeast alive. What I really want to do is earn that creative food.
I know from experience that following through on Artist Dates is harder than it sounds. Granting myself that kind of permission, not to mention coming up with good ideas for outings, can be a stretch. But perhaps I’ll give it a try. After all, it takes both flour and water to feed sourdough starter.
How do you feed your creative starter? And if it’s been too long, how do you go about mixing a new batch?