Our Wyoming son, who’s been experimenting with cheese making, sent a text saying I should read a book titled “Goat Song.” He even looked online to make sure the book was available in our local library system. And it was. So, even though I didn’t have a whole lot of interest in reading about goats, I checked out the book—and thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Brad Kessler is a great writer. I’m hoping to read one of his novels soon.
What interested me most in “Goat Song” was Kessler’s comparison of cheese making to book writing. “Tomme” in French means “volume” or “tome” as in “book,” and can also mean “a wheel or round of cheese.”
Kessler writes: “I like that my cheese is called a tome, because making a cheese is somewhat like making a book. Both take raw material from the world and transfigure it into art. Both are the products of rumination—animal and human. When you make a cheese you do a little work with the milk then wait and come back later and do some more, and wait again. It takes months to make a cheese. A book takes even longer. You can’t make either in one go. Time is the essential element. Time cures the imperfections, one hopes, in both.”
I’ve heard some writers, usually women, compare writing a book to birthing a baby. But that, in my opinion, is an inadequate comparison. When a woman is pregnant, all she has to do is take care of herself, and some don’t even do that, for a mere nine months. Yes, delivery can be challenging (I’ve been there, done that); however, following a few short hours of labor, out pops a beautiful baby.
In contrast, book writers labor for months, sometimes years. Complete, perfect books don’t just pop out of our heads. They’re pulled out word by word, inch by inch, like dragging a cow out of a tar pit. You pull. The cow twists and resists, and the tar sucks the frantic animal back down. Eventually, you dislodge the cow and begin scrubbing her hide.
In the same way, once writers drag words out of their heads and place them on paper, they must clean and polish those words. Then they let the manuscript rest a couple days—or weeks—or months before they edit and revise some more. Similarly, cheese makers scrape off mold—let the cheese rest—wash it with salt water—and then let it rest again. So, yes, creating quality cheeses and good books takes a long time.
I emphasize this point because in our day of easy publication via the Internet, many authors are cranking out books in a matter of days and weeks. Maybe someone more brilliant than I am can create something beautiful without pause for reflection and correction, but I hear there’s a lot of junk floating out there in cyberspace.
In “Goat Song,” Kessler wrote about the author Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk: “They made cheese at the Trappist monastery in rural Kentucky where Thomas Merton lived. Merton himself was not a cheese maker—he wrote books. The monastery’s abbot encouraged his bookmaking, and Merton wrote more than two dozen volumes of poetry, journals, and books of contemplation. While some monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani made volumes with milk, Merton filled his with verse. [But]He didn’t believe his particular craft was better than the other; they were both in the service of God.”
I think that philosophy is the key. No matter our occupation, whether it’s making books or cheese, teaching children to become good citizens or building a business, we must take time to do a good job and work “as unto the Lord.” The phrase “as unto the Lord” is found Colossians 3:23 in the King James Version of the Bible. The New International Version reads: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord.”
One last quote from Kessler: “A book is like a key that fits into the tumbler of the soul. The two parts have to match in order for each to unlock. Then—click—a world opens.”