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Letter from My 48th Year (Feb 25)

Here is my artist manifesto. Well, really, it’s manifesto-ish. Manifesto adjacent. It’s not meant to be rigid. I don’t intend to ride or die on this manifesto. What I’m interested in is what I believe as an artist at this particular moment—February 25, 2018 at 4:15pm—and how that informs my plans for the next five minutes, the next five days, the next five months. I don’t expect it to be exactly the same over the next five years, for, as Sonia Sanchez has said:

“I think that the reason why art stays alive is that the artist grows. I mean the body doesn’t stay the same; the brain doesn’t stay the same. Your art can’t stay the same.”

This manifesto-ish thing is by no means comprehensive. I fully expect to read it over tomorrow, or later tonight and see some holes, gaping or otherwise. Still, it’s a way to see where my head’s at, to gather my thoughts, after a week of iron sharpening iron conversations—including two individual chats today with women artists I respect and adore as well as a three-hour symposium listening to really smart, passionate people speak smartly and passionately.

I don’t think there is anything original in this manifesto-ish thing. I am not the only one who’s had these thoughts or ideas, and, in fact, many of these thoughts/ideas are paraphrases of what other people have said to me during various creative collisions. I don’t believe we either think or create in a vacuum, but more on that below.

So here are some things I think as related to the artist’s life and practice, which you can take as a manifesto or a roadmap or a meditation or a behind-the-scenes of my brain pan or not take in any way at all.

Iron sharpens iron. (See here and here for further thoughts on that.)

I have to define my quest, my hero’s journey for myself. I may be Frodo or I may be Sam. I may switch roles as the quest requires. My quest may not look like anyone else’s, nor may it even seem like a quest. All of that is okay. It’s about feeling a sense of momentum, moving forward (or inching forward), even if we cannot make out what it is we’re moving toward either consistently or conclusively.

It’s okay to not be able to see past the bend in the road. But I should also not be fearful to imagine what’s past the bend in the road. So what if I’m wrong?

I must dream big. Then dream bigger than that. Then take a step forward. Baby steps are fine. As are leaps.

I do not have to wait for my greatness. I have to walk into the greatness I hold within myself right now. And, yes, we all hold greatness within us in some form or fashion,  in some magnitude right at this very moment.

I must consistently and constantly be willing to ask and answer the questions: How am I stopping myself? How do I not stop myself?

There is no such thing as originality. I am always standing on the shoulders of someone else’s thought, someone else’s creativity, someone else’s work. What I mean when I say something is my original work is “I am being as faithful as I possibly can within this work of art to my own experience, my own vision.”

If I can’t write from a place of authority, I must write from a place of discovery. I also need to privilege work created from a place of creativity over that created from a place of authority. To quote Azar Nafisi paraphrasing Milan Kundera, “Artists are not here to preach the truth, they are here to discover it.”

I must engage fully in my life at all times. What that means from day to day may change. And what that means for someone else is probably not what it means for me.

I must allow myself to take up space in my life and in the lives of others. I must allow myself to inhabit my voice fully. There are people who need my voice in the same way there are those whose voices I need.

Open Letter to Patti Smith, Day 15 (on truth-telling)


Oh, Patti, I am running out of truth to tell.

Of course, if I tell the absolute truth, I am running out of truth I am willing to tell.

Or I’m running out of truth I can tell without my inner editor screaming, “Stop being such a fucking whiner!” (My inner editor has a potty mouth. Sorry.)

Or I’m tired of insisting to my inner editor who is screaming directly into my ear, “But you can’t tell that!” that yes, I can. And being the sly little minx she is, she’ll swiftly change tactics to, “But are you sure that’s what really happened?” And I’ll say something smart like, “It’s not THE truth, it’s my truth.” And then she’ll get all potty-mouthed and furious again and start yelling, “But what kind of person says shit like that about their family?” at which point I make a Negroni and/or turn on another episode of Are You Being Served? just to shut her up.

I have perfected my spiel over the last decade since leaving graduate school about why I don’t go to poetry readings very often or why I don’t read that many collections of poetry. I have become the worst thing an artist can be—a liar.

I say my brain is just too full after writing all day at work to sit still and really listen to someone read poems. I say that what I want to do when I get home is relax and poetry isn’t relaxing, it stirs things up and makes me want to write.

And when I write I tell my secrets. To myself. And I don’t want to know them. I don’t want to know that I keep writing poems to an imaginary lover cause I’m trying to make up for never feeling loved by my father. I don’t want to know just how angry I am at God because even though I get that he’s the best parent ever, I still can’t figure out how to let him be the best parent ever. I don’t want to know that I’m terrified I’m as much of a narcissist as my parents. I don’t want to know how much loneliness I carry around with me, loneliness I picked up decades ago and have just never quite managed to put down.

I don’t actually want to know my truth and the poems, the beloved poems, the betraying poems, the longed-for poems, they never lie to me. And they won’t let me get away with telling lies so it’s better to leave them undisturbed. It’s better to keep them far away from the poems of others which might sing them alive.

It’s better to make that space to write only a few times a year, a door carefully opened for a measured time and then closed again at the end of 30 days. It’s better not to put myself in danger by keeping that door levered open, by refusing to let it close even if having to move between the poetry space and the everything else space is painful and bewildering and the image I return to when I think of it is a pregnant woman continuing to do daily things like wash the dishes and send e-mails and write blog posts while her child dangles partially birthed between her legs.

Remember I told you than an actor I met had levered something open in me. I thought it was just being able to talk with another artist as I used to in my grad school days. And while those conversations themselves bore and continue to bear fruit, I’m realizing now that what actually broke me was something he said when I was officially interviewing him, before we started to talk as friends. He talked about truth-telling being his ultimate goal as an actor, and about those moments of emotional truth also being what he was afraid of. (You can read the interview here as he says it much more eloquently than I’ve just summarized.)

I needed to be reminded that what I was made to do–tell the truth–was a damned scary thing. I needed to be reminded that what makes me an artist is that I do it anyway. I needed to be reminded that just as this actor sharing his story with me gave me the permission I needed to fling myself into poetry the way I once used to, that someone was waiting for me to write the truth that would give them the permission to do what they needed to do.

And I have to be fearless not just about facing what comes out from the end of my pen, but about putting myself in danger—by reading more poetry, by going to more readings, by having more conversations with other truth-tellers about how hard it is to tell the truth of ourselves—of telling the truth.

Musing on the Muse

Christian Kane was briefly a muse. This is from a poetry reading in Charleston in October 2011.

Today I finished May Sarton’s 1975-1976 journal, A House By the Sea. In it she writes that for her , the muse has always been female. Though I write so often about what I generalize as “women’s concerns,” my muses have for the most part been decidedly male. By muse, in this context, I don’t mean the general inspirational element, but rather a real person who has directly inspired a poem. In Chicago, I wrote a lot about Ross Bon who led a jump blues outfit, the Mighty Blue Kings. While I was studying for my MFA, my muse was a blues-playing professor in the Lit department. Currently, it’s Michael Fassbender, though his museship seems somewhat different from his predecessors in that I’m not responding directly to him but using his words from an interview, which have already gone through the filter of someone else’s editor. Though I suppose one could argue that it’s because I was so powerfully affected by him as an actor that I decided to seek out his interviews as source text in the first place.

While I generally have a crush on my muse, not all of my crushes become muses. I’ve never once felt inspired to write anything because of George Clooney. And while my earnest sixteen-year-old self (hand) wrote a moving, shocking, gripping, hearbreaking , tearjerking, postively awful screenplay that was supposed to star Matt Dillon, even this earliest love of my life hasn’t inspired any poems.

I couldn’t even begin to tell you what makes someone a muse for me. They capture my imagination for some reason but to articulate that reason is beyond me. It’s not mere attractiveness, though, in my eyes, at least the ones I’ve named above are quite handsome. But it’s something to do with their talent and, even moreso, their ability in their performances or with their very presence to literally drive me out of my head for a moment. To get me past the editors, the censors, the dot-connectors that all crowd my head to the secret place where the poems wait.

My mother—and my father to a lesser degree—are central figures in my work but I don’t know that I’d consider them muses. They’re far too bound up in who I am. It’s as if when I write about them, as I try to unravel the self I’ve become, it’s an excavation. While the poems that are muse-born are a journey. In both cases the endpoint is unknown but it seems to me a different type of discovery. One’s a sloughing off to find the song that’s already there, perhaps, while the other is a new song entirely. No, that sounds entirely too pat. I think maybe one is a spiraling inward while the other is a spiraling outward. And this is, of course, speaking as if the processes really are that divergent, when it is more true to say that the places where the lines are blurry are much more numerous than the places in which they are distinct.

I should add that I have had women muses. Billie Holiday is a motif through many of my early poems, and even relatively new ones like “The Makers of Memorials.” And Eva Cassidy. I don’t know if Colette and May Sarton can be considered muses or if they are merely influences, and perhaps there isn’t really a difference.

But that’s enough about me and my muses….what have you to say about yours?

Where We Are vs. Where We Thought We Would Be

Text and images by Meaghan Mountford


Hello Paulette’s world,

Thank you for letting me visit today! Paulette is a dear friend, so I’m honored to share space with her here. I’m selfishly relishing the opportunity of Paulette’s convalescence to delve deeper than my sugar bowl. Usually I’m over at my own blog decorating cookies and drawing on marshmallows.

It stumps me when people ask what I do. How do I concisely sum up my day without trivializing what I do, or without making it more important than it is? I say I’m “sort of a food writer.” Maintaining a blog, let alone building it, takes a heckuvalot more than just throwing cupcakes in the oven and painting on marshmallows. Then again, I’m not curing anything. I make money blogging, which lets me say it’s a real job. But it’s not much, so it’s not really a real job. But I wrote two cookbooks, so that’s something, right? Oh yeah, I’m home with a newborn and a five-year old. That sucks most of my day right there.

Why over-explain? Because no matter how good a place I may occupy, I’m not exactly where I envisioned with my work. It’s more than simply not being there yet (though given the unrealistic perfection I demand of myself, I never will be, but that’s a discussion for Paulette’s next surgery). It’s about where I’ve ended up at age 40 and the need to convey to others (and by “others,” I mean “myself,” of course) that it’s big enough.


I reached this current moment as most reach their current moments: Through a course of events that happen so organically, you don’t even notice. One day, I took a job decorating cookies in a shop that had just opened, even though I had never picked up a bag of icing. I expected to stay a few weeks. I stayed for almost ten years. During my time at the store, I earned two masters degrees, still on the hunt for my career. When I left the store in 2007 to have my daughter, I started the blog, landed a gig for another blog writing about food, and I was then this “expert” in edible crafts. I’ve had the writer’s itch for years, and so I merged this compulsion with my food “expertise” (note I still need to put that word in quotes) to write the cookbooks. This should be enough, I suppose. I love creating fun food. Fun food has been good to me, if not to my bank account. Then why do I feel I’m not quite where I should be? If Oprah sanctions me and I roll around in a Bentley caressing diamonds, maybe I’d feel it then?

I wanted to do other things, too. I wanted to write memoir. I suffer from auto-immune disease, and I had five major surgeries before my twenties were over. I’ve had organs removed, reconstructed, my insides pulled through the outside of my body. I’m marked by over two feet of scars. How am I not exploiting that?!? No, seriously, how?!? Wouldn’t you? I wanted to write children’s books. To live in England. To get my phD in Children’s Literature. When I was young, I wanted to be a veterinarian. Then an architect. Somewhere in my old bedroom at my mom’s house, my 7th grade self stuffed hundreds, maybe thousands, of floor plan drawings in a green Trapper Keeper. Now, I create cute cookies and get excited when I come up with an idea for decorating marshmallows that hasn’t been done. Yet I can’t help but miss those things I wanted and didn’t go after, just a little.

We end up places seemingly unexpectedly, but we are guided there by our own choices. Sure, these choices may be informed by experiences beyond our control, such as my illness. But don’t we trust our earlier selves to have made the right decisions no matter what the circumstances? To have gotten us where we are not by being devious to our future selves, but by being as wise as we could be at that time? Perhaps I need to rephrase that as we should trust our earlier selves.


There will always be at least some disconnect between where we are versus where we thought we’d be. With each choice and passing year, our options dwindle. This isn’t meant to be a depressing notion, it’s just a fact of time and physics. There is simply no way we can do everything. We have to make choices. When we are five, we might still be an Olympic gymnast if we wanted. There’s time to train. But at age 40, it’s not likely I’ll be a gymnast, especially since I’ve never even been able to do a cartwheel. And I can forget American Idol, I’m way too old.

And on top of missing what I chose not to do, I rue, a bit, those things outside my control. Sure, I wish I was given a better singing voice, gymnastic ability. I wish I wrote better. Every day I grieve at least once over living in a body compromised by illness. Given all this moaning over what we don’t have and didn’t do, how can we possibly age gracefully? Because to be happy, we have no choice. Regret is a tricky thing. We can’t change what already is. It’s no stunning revelation that fixating on what was lost risks tearing down what wasn’t. So I may linger on thoughts of that other life I might have led in the English countryside writing picture books, all my organs intact. I may still strive for what I haven’t yet achieved. And I should probably celebrate more often what I have gotten. My family. My friends. Those cookbooks I mentioned.

I think my goal for the next forty years is to bid farewell to what didn’t happen, enjoy what has happened, and be excited for what is yet to happen. And I’m leaving a message to my 80-year old self right now: Trust me. Appreciate me. I’m making the best decisions I know how for us.

Be well, Paulette!


Can I quote you on that?

“All art is a type of confession.” — James Baldwin-

I’ve had this quote scrawled on the mirror near my front door for a couple of years now. Think it’s time for me to find a new quote (though this one stays forever in my heart).There’s not a lot of surface space so I’m looking for something short and sweet.

What do you suggest?

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