Sunday, November 15, 2009

Manual Labor and the Creative Process

I pondered upon this, my maiden posting for this blog, as I was rolling out a pie crust the other day. Though I used to make about 300 pies a week when I had a small wholesale bakery, nowadays I may make ten a year. I haven’t lost my touch though, and muscle memory carried me through the process and allowed my thoughts to wander.

Counting the Cost, my most recently published book, was actually my first novel , written during the very early morning hours as I rolled and fluted crusts and did the other endless, repetitive jobs of the bakery. Later in the day, when I could finally sit at a keyboard, the narrative flowed onto the paper as smoothly as the whipped cream I piped onto the sour cream lemon pies before I sent them off to my customers. (Want the sour cream lemon pie recipe? Click here.)

That was a completely different experience from my other books, which were blocked, outlined, and written at the computer. It’s like the difference between an artesian well and a well where the water has to be pumped to the surface. The water is good in both wells, but artesian water is a gift. The other has to be earned.

To put it another way: Counting the cost came to me unbidden as I worked in dough and as I cleaned up my colossal mess. My other books have been summoned, cajoled, wheedled as I sat on my ample rear in my ergonomic office chair.

From this experience, I’ve come to the conclusion that manual labor-- repetitive, mindless things like scrubbing or sanding or shoveling or weeding—is good for the creative process, though why, I don’t know. Maybe it’s the repetitive rhythm that hypnotizes us and allows our subconscious to take over. Or maybe it’s the endorphins released by the physical activity. Or maybe it’s the sense of accomplishment when we see the concrete proof of our activity--the weeds piled in a wheelbarrow or the pies lined up on a counter—that helps us believe we can accomplish whatever we set out to do.

I’ve had people ask me how I deal with writer’s block. I’ve never had writer’s block, but if I ever do run up against it, I’ll just get my rolling pin and pastry cloth out and start making pies for the neighborhood. That will get the story rolling again, I’m sure.


  1. Love your post! I'm thinking now about creativity and labor and stillness. I have been an artist and a laborer much of my life. The one is indeed good for the other. Too much hard labor though and you are out of the ring. Not enough and you are weak. The right amount and zing, body mind spirit align.