Shoshin is the Zen word for “beginner’s mind,” the idea of approaching what you do as a neophyte who’s open to learning, empty of preconceptions that might bias your experience. Cultivating shoshin is a recipe for a life of wonder and delight, of always seeing the world through new eyes. Even if you’re good at something, you can always learn more.
This is one of the most valuable things I can pass along to aspiring copywriters. I’ve been at it for 40 years, but I still try to approach my work with a beginner’s mind. When you approach your work with curiosity and openness, thinking of yourself not as an expert but as blank slate, it’s amazing what connections you can make. It’s amazing how many times I’ve surprised myself with what I’ve written by keeping a beginner’s mind and not flouting my experience.
That said, I’m, like, a year ahead of you in breadmaking.
In these times of need—for comfort, for diversion, for sustenance, for sandwiches—lots of people are discovering the magic of baking bread at home. The feel of the dough as you shape the loaf, the aroma of yeasty bread in the oven, the crackle of the crust cooling on the rack, the sight of this beautiful thing you made yourself from the simplest ingredients—all those sensory experiences before you even slice and taste the stuff: This small creative act can push a lot of feel-good buttons.
Serendipitously, 2019 was the year I decided I was going to teach myself to bake bread. In January, I settled on Ken Forkish’s Flour Water Salt Yeast as my guidebook, invested a couple of hundred bucks in plastic buckets and stuff, and started baking.
I baked nearly every weekend for the entire year. More than once, My Beautiful Wife put up with plans altered to accommodate baking schedules, pauses to movies at dramatic moments so I could run upstairs and fold the dough. As the year wore on, my small freezer was crammed so full of bread there was no room for frozen pizza.
But then, there’s not as much call for frozen pizza when you have frozen pizza dough you’ve risen yourself. Baking bread taught me that I could also bake pita bread and tortillas and crackers and crumpets and cakes and cookies. Why buy Wheat Thins when you can make your own? Buy a man a crumpet, and he’ll eat for a day. Give a man a set of crumpet rings and some leftover sourdough starter, and he’ll have a lifetime of holey platforms for butter and lemon curd.
Yeah, I got a little carried away with the baking last year. But I learned a lot. So here, one year in, is my best advice for newbie bread bakers:
Figure out what kind of bread you want to bake and the time you have to bake it.
Do you want sandwich bread like you buy at the grocery store? Do you want to bake it in a day, or an afternoon? If you want to bake the kinds of artisanal loaves I’ve been baking, I highly recommend Ken Forkish’s Dutch oven, no-knead method. Think about it and do a little research. There are lots of good, easy-for-beginners recipes out there: I particularly like this no-knead recipe from the New York Times’ Mark Bittman and this super-fast, tasty English Muffin Toasting Bread recipe from King Arthur.
Remember, bread is both an art and a science.
And you should take the science seriously before you pursue the art. One of the most helpful tips I got from Ken Forkish is that you have to treat time and temperature—not just oven, but room temperature—as ingredients. So measure carefully. Check your oven’s temperature; I found mine was baking about 35 degrees cooler than it indicated. If you have a scale, weigh your ingredients. Follow instructions. Consider taking notes. Once you know what you’re doing, you can start bebopping.
It’s not terribly difficult to make a nice loaf of bread, but it does take patience. And it doesn’t always work. I threw out a lot of over-proofed dough and underdeveloped loaves along the way. Sometimes I still do.
Don’t start with sourdough.
I spent about six months on basic bread baking before I jumped into sourdough, and I’m glad I did. Sourdough starter is yeast, and yeast is a living thing, a single-celled organism that’s a member of the fungus kingdom. Even if you never get to the point where you want your own refrigerator pet—mine is named Thing 4, and she’ll be one year old this summer—there are enough satisfying bread recipes to keep you baking for the rest of your life. Don’t get me wrong: Sourdough baking is awesome, and I highly recommend it. Just get the basics down first.
Ultimately, the most important thing I’ve learned in the past 15 months is that I am still a bread-baking beginner. So you can take my advice or not. Bread baking, like copywriting and meditation and medicine, is a practice.
And I will tell you this: Every time I feed Thing 4 and watch a little mound of goo grow into a big vat of goo that ultimately becomes bread and crumpets and homemade Wheat Thins, I get a little thrill. I created all of it out of flour and water and salt, with my bare hands. As with copywriting, when you practice shoshin, I’m amazed at how it turns out.
P.S.: If you’re a writer looking for inspiration, Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing is pretty awesome.
The Well Done Marketing team has been staying in and working from home during the effort to flatten the coronavirus curve in Indiana. While we continue to be busy doing all we can for our clients during this crisis, many other projects have been postponed or put on hold for the time being.
We’ve filled some of this surplus time by collecting our own ideas and suggestions for weathering this time of uncertainty, grief, economic hardship, and time away from friends and loved ones. It’s our own small way of showing how we’re #INthistogether.