Risky Business: The Writing Process

The students in my writing class are about to take their final exam.

This is a foundational class, meant to provide students with the basic tools they will need to successfully complete written assignments for the remainder of their academic careers. They are predictably anxious.

The questions I expect to hear before the exam begins will likely follow a familiar pattern. My students will want me to tell them what to write. I’ll give them a topic, but they’ll press me for specifics. One may even ask me: how should I begin?

How to begin?

After working with students as both an instructor and as a writing coach, I’ve arrived at the conclusion that the most difficult part of the writing for most students is simply getting started. This shouldn’t be surprising. It aligns with my own experience, and I’ve been writing in various capacities for years. It’s also a sentiment echoed by some of the most successful writers in the world: the uncertainty, the intimidation, the risk of beginning.

So why so much fear about putting pen to paper? Or about those first few taps on the keyboard?

Fear of Failure

Based on my own experience, I think there are two answers to the question of why it can be difficult and stressful to begin writing anything. The first is quite simply a fear of failure. What if my opening line leads nowhere? Or even worse, what if it sets a trajectory for my essay that, if followed, will produce something boring, clumsy, or downright horrible?

On a personal note, this fear of failure is compounded by a fear of not investing my time wisely. I’ve been guilty of putting off an assignment because I was not confident that it would yield a perfect, effective, engaging piece of writing. Or perhaps I did not have a clear endgame in sight and so was afraid that I would just write myself in circles until the end of time.

Fear of Being Vulnerable

The second reason I think so many writers have trouble beginning the writing process is that it requires us to be vulnerable. I think this is especially true for the students in my class, who are still getting their sea legs, as it were, when it comes to showing their own personalities and staking out their claims in the world. In addition, they may not have had the time to learn how to avoid common pitfalls or had enough positive feedback to boost their confidence. No one likes to take an uncalculated risk, and that’s exactly what writing demands.

The fear of vulnerability affects me as well. This is especially true when it comes to writing fiction. I’m currently working on a novel and the fear that it will be awful is sometimes a serious obstacle to progress. It’s more than just fear that my book won’t be grand, it’s that it will be a reflection of me and my creative circuit. That’s terrifying.

But it’s good to have these problems. It means I’m still identifying with the same issues as my students.

Fear and vulnerability. Yes, writing is indeed a risky business. Let me keep that in mind as we begin this final exam.

Remaking the Metro Market

I love thinking about marketing and branding.

I’m especially fond of watching retailers reinvent themselves (or at least their stores) in order to stay ahead of consumer trends and remain competitive. So I have watched with great interest as my local grocery store, the Metro Market, underwent an extensive renovation in the winter of 2017-2018.

For those who may not be familiar with Metro Market, here’s some background:

Metro Market is one of a handful of store brands used by the Wisconsin and Illinois-based Roundy’s Supermarket chain. Roundy’s is also known from its many Pick’ n Save locations as well as its Chicago flagship store, Mariano’s Fresh Market. Roundy’s was bought by the Kroger company in 2015 but the Roundy’s branding has remained mostly intact.

 

Metro Markets are located in middle class, urban neighborhoods in Milwaukee and Madison, and thus their primary competitors have been Whole Foods Market, Fresh Thyme Farmer’s Market, and to some extent Sendik’s Food Market. In the case of my local store, the three closest competitors are Whole Foods (2 miles), Fresh Thyme (0.8 miles), and Glorioso’s Italian Market (0.6 miles). 

In order to remain competitive with these other local stores, the Metro Market branding strategy has incorporated two primary objectives:

  1. Distinguish the Metro Market from the Pic’ N Save stores. Pic’ N Save stores are  usually located in suburbs or less affluent neighborhoods, and their aesthetic can be best described as a 90’s-era, average supermarket theme conveyed by a sterile atmosphere and an emphasis on cost-savings. Overall, the Pic N’ Save locations are bland and boring. You know the type: white floors, white ceilings, and row after row of shelves packed with a few different brands.
  2. Tap into the urban middle class appetite for a “market experience.” This means an emphasis on locally-sourced and organically grown foods, a warm (perhaps even earthy) atmosphere, and a store that feels less like a monolithic supermarket with only one vendor and more like a communal retail space shared by a variety of merchants and their unique brands.

So how did they do?

It’s a mixed bag. On the one hand, the rejuvenated Metro Market definitely feels warmer and more upscale, and the aesthetics of the place are greatly improved. On the other hand, the branding changes don’t go beyond the surface to offer shoppers much that is new. Of course, offering shoppers something “new” was never the point: it was about making it feel new. Here’s what was accomplished:

First, shoppers will notice the most dramatic changes in the produce, deli, meat, and bakery departments. Each is now branded separately (at least nominally so) in order to give the emulate an experience such as that of shopping at the Milwaukee Public Market.

The floors have been resurfaced in dark wood, the outdated lighting fixtures have been replaced by trendier models, and each section of the counter boasts its own superficial signage. The bakery counter is now “Badger Baking,” the liquor aisle is called “Cork & Cask,” and the deli counter is being billed as the “Van Buren Deli” and “Todds BBQ” (sic).  The missing apostrophe in Todd’s BBQ really stuck out to me, but that’s my issue as an English teacher. 

In addition to the store’s facelift and the use of multiple “brands” to break up the monotony of the shopping experience, there are some new additions. There’s a juice bar (“Squeezed”), a Starbucks location, and a beer and wine vending area so you can have a drink in the store. There’s also a gourmet popcorn counter, a gelato case, and an expanded Asian-themed counter.

These changes are welcome and in some cases they are substantial improvements. But overall, the renovation and rebranding are largely about aesthetics and not about the way Metro Market is doing business. Once shoppers wind their way past all the new signs and the wine bar, they will see a familiar sight:

 

20180417_095701
This part of the store has received updated signage but has otherwise remain unchanged.

 

So that’s my short review. Metro Market is still my closest grocery store, and I’ll continue to shop there as long as that’s the case. I’m pleased that the store received a much-needed facelift, but I’ll continue to long for the day when my location (and budget!) will allow me to shop more frequently at grocers that truly offer a closer connection to the food I eat.

Skillet Rolls

Cast iron adds an extra level of scrumptiousness to any recipe, but these rolls are a TKO in my book. They take a little time to prepare (they are a yeast bread) but the recipe is simple and straightforward. Prepare these for company and I promise you will be asked for the recipe!

Here’s what you need for about 12 rolls:

  • 2-1/2 – 2-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 envelopes Fleischmann’s Rapid Rise yeast
  • 3 TBSP sugar
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 c water
  • 2 TBSP Mazola corn oil
  • 4 TBSP butter, divided

Directions

  1. Mix 1 cup of the flour, undissolved yeast, sugar, and salt in a large mixing bowl
  2. Heat water, oil, and 2 TBSP of the butter until very warm (120 – 130 F)
  3. Add to the flour mixture
  4. Beat two minutes at a medium speed with an electric mixer, scraping sides occasionally
  5. Add 1/2 cup of flour
  6. Beat 2 minutes at high speed
  7. Stir in enough remaining flour to create a soft dough
  8.  Knead on a lightly floured surface for about 5 minutes or so, until the dough is smooth and elastic
  9. Cover and let rise until doubled in size

OK, the hard part is over! If you’re new to proofing dough, there’s nothing to it. It works best when the dough is left in a warm area. I usually just leave my dough in the pan and set it near the stove while the oven is heating. DO NOT SET IN THE OVEN OR ON THE STOVE. But near it. Gentle heat. Nothing to it. You should end up with something that looks like

1

Now, the first thing you’re going to want to do is to grease your cast-iron skillet. For this batch, I used generic shortening from the store. I actually prefer to use lard most of the time, but in either case you really want a fat that is thick and solid at room temperature. SLATHER that stuff on. Not too much, but be generous. It will also help condition (season) your pan.

So now you have a greased skillet and some proofed dough. Let’s finish this!

Divide the dough into 12 equal pieces and shape into balls. You can adjust the size and number if you like.

Place each of the 12 rolls into the greased skillet (a 10″ or 12″ skillet will work great).

Cover the skillet and let rise for a second time, about 30 – 45 minutes or until doubled in size.

3

Preheat the oven to 375 F. Melt some butter and brush over the rolls.

Bake for 18 – 20 minutes or until slightly browned. Serve warm.

I recommend serving with warm herbed butter of your choice.

5

Recipe adapted from “Cast Iron Cooking” magazine, published in 2016. 

 

 

 

 

 

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