Breakfast with Leslie
We’ve talked about cake for Breakfast before, but this week you’re really going to want a big slice — seeing as it’s being served by Leslie F. Miller: mother, writer, artist, blogger, and cake lover, among other creative pursuits. Have seconds. You won’t regret it.
CC: Please give us an intro to who you are, what you do, and your family headcount.
LM: You’re supposed to be able to sum up every project in a sentence, so I used to tell people that I like breaking things and putting them back together in a random, yet tasteful, order. It covers artist, designer, and reconstructionist — with words and mosaic shards.
I do less with mosaics these days, but I’m still a writer, a graphic designer, and a photographer. I do all those things for pay when they pay and for fun when they don’t.
My husband and I moved in together in the early eighties, got married in 1994, and have been together for a total of 26 years. Our only daughter, Serena Joy Utah Miller, will become a ‘tween (eleven) in January. We have two dogs, Cleopatra (12) and Chance (5). We used to have snakes and, because of the snakes, mice. I’m glad they are gone.
CC: Tell us about your book, your photography, and other creative endeavors.
LM: I have always wanted to write a book. It shouldn’t have taken me so long, and I will probably go on regretting that it did. But the truth is that it wasn’t as easy as it looked. I never had trouble writing short, but writing long was a different beast. I committed by enrolling in an MFA program (Goucher College), where I knew I would have mentors to help me work on a book.
I chose to write about cake because I love it. Passion is what drives the best writing. I don’t care about Abraham Lincoln. I couldn’t devote three years to him without beginning to sound like Eyeore. But cake I could do. A short essay I’d written got enthusiastic applause at an open reading during my MFA residency, so I thought: What could be better than a whole book like this? We’ll see if I’m right. [Leslie’s book, Let Me Eat Cake: A Celebration of Flour, Sugar, Butter, Eggs, Vanilla, Baking Powder, and a Pinch of Salt, will be published in April 2009 by Simon & Schuster.]
As for the photography, I take pictures for similar reasons-to express passion and enthusiasm for a subject. Sometimes the pictures illustrate words or thoughts. Other times they inspire the words. And then there are the times that photography becomes science. I like to get in really close to things, especially bugs. I like the make the tiny big and the big tiny. I like to see the hairs on a fly.
CC: What prompted you to start a blog? What keeps you going?
LM: My first blog post was June 11, 2004 at A Doggy’s Life. I used a blog called Essay This! to post assignments for the college writing courses I taught. Then I started a project blog when I made a mosaic crab for Baltimore City. Then I started a food blog as a homework assignment during my MFA. Then I started a cake blog for my cake stuff. Most of that is hidden now, and I concentrate on my current blog. It’s a little prettier, and the writing is stronger and more purposeful. I sort of had to do it for my editor — so that I’d have my own PR out there. And I didn’t want to be so random.
Writing, like playing music or soccer or acting in a play, requires practice. Journals are terrific places for writers to practice. But I actually dig the idea of practicing in front of an audience. My writings are dress rehearsals. I go through the brainstorming, rough draft, revision, and publication processes quickly, but I don’t skip a phase (unless the writing sucks, and then I just toss it and lament my wasted time). Journals usually stop at the spew! But editing and revising require practice, too.
I doubt I would do it now if no one commented. I did early on, but now — writers need affirmation. It’s not enough to know they read. I need them to say something. Otherwise I’m talking to myself. I recently gave a reading in a small space. Eighteen people came, and that was nice. But I would rather ham it up in front of 100. I’m much more self-conscious in front of two than I am in front of a big crowd.
CC: What goals do you have for your creative pursuits? What do you most hope to accomplish?
LM: I’ve written the book, so now, I guess, my next goal is to sit on Stephen Colbert’s lap and feed him cake. I’d also like to go on the Diane Rehm show. And though I am serious about those things, I guess I would also really like to finish the proposal for my next book and have it accepted. And I want to be a rock star, too. And get younger.
CC: How has motherhood changed you creatively? How would you define your “life’s work”?
LM: Well, I’m selfish. My life’s work is always going to be the work part. Because even though my daughter can be tough, she’s not really work. My job with her is to make sure she can talk to me about anything, to keep her from developing my bad eating habits, and to remind her to make her bed and finish her homework. Everything else is what she does, and it mostly just makes me proud. Every day.
CC: Where do you do your creative work?
LM: I work in my kitchen and sometimes, when it’s nice outside, on my deck. But the kitchen is the place. It has water, cake, coffee, beer, lunch, a phone, a TV, a stereo. We once joked that if I put a sofa in here, I would never have to leave.
I recently herniated my disk, so I have to alternate between sitting and standing. I can do that at the kitchen table, then the countertop.
CC: Do you have a schedule for your writing and other creative activities? How do you do it “all”?
LM: If I am a good girl, I write a page a day when working on a project, and I spend between nine and 2:30 writing. I do my best writing in the morning and my best research after lunch. The writing is of primary importance, though.
Of course, if a murder of crows gathers in the tree by my front window or seventeen monarch butterflies swarm the butterfly bush out back or a pair of flies mates on a chair on the porch, I break with camera.
I guess I do give the appearance that I do it all. I think it’s because I do everything fast. I eat fast, sleep fast, cook fast, drink fast, write fast. Yes, I have sex fast, too. (Not that you asked.)
I also schedule the leisure. At 4:00, it’s beer and guitar time. I practice guitar and drink a beer just about every day at 4:00.
CC: What do you struggle with most?
LM: So much of what I do requires sitting. I have to sit less. Probably the hardest part is that my work only happens when no one is home. I can do no writing without complete solitude! I can write with the television or stereo on, but I cannot have anyone in the house.
When you are writing SERIOUSLY, interruptions can destroy your work. A few years ago on Thanksgiving day, I wrote an essay. It was for fun, but I spent five hours writing, doing nothing else, with my family home and my mother-in-law visiting. I felt like I was being rude, but I knew it was something that had to get written. The next day, I spent another seven hours on it. My husband thought it was the biggest waste of time.
But that essay took honorable mention in an annual contest, was published in an online literary journal, and won a $1,000 grant. Not bad for 12 hours.
CC: Where do you find inspiration?
LM: Oh, the birds. The flowers. Sunrises and sets. Something my daughter says or my husband does. A kindness. Gosh, just waking up is an inspiration. If you told me to write about a banana, I could find something wonderful to tell you about it. Like the fact that my husband eats one every single day, along with an apple, and rarely gets sick. Or that laying banana slices on top of banana bread batter, then covering it all with cinnamon sugar before baking it, will make the most incredible — and gorgeous — banana bread you’ve ever eaten.
(Just don’t ask me to write a book about Lincoln.)
CC: What are your top 5 favorite blogs?
LM: I have trouble reading those insanely popular blogs because I feel so far behind in their lives. And sometimes I just don’t get the attraction. I guess I also like more of a rapport between reader and writer — someone who appreciates my comment and might actually respond to it. I can’t help but respond to people who comment. I want to thank them all personally.
- As a writer and a person, Jennifer König is the tops. I wish she’d update her blog more frequently, but she writes on Flickr, as do most of the people I read regularly.
- My favorite must-read blog is by Your Neighborhood Librarian, who lives two blocks away, so she’s literally my neighborhood librarian. I adore Paula’s sense of humor, her insane mommy-ness, her technological savvy, and her pink hair.
- You gotta love Cake Wrecks because, well, you just gotta.
- My friend Barbara Benham is a superb writer, even if her Travel Sweeps is a weird idea for a blog. She tells you of all the travel contests you can enter (she’s always trying to Win Trips, the blog’s subtitle), and she does it with these fringe-ly related essays that are like little poems in their language economy and elegance.
- Michael Kimball writes life stories on post cards. Mine will be one of them — maybe today. But they are so clever and sweet. I read him all the time.
- (My cheap thrill (don’t tell anyone) is Fugly. Those ladies are hilarious writers. So sarcastic. They make me laugh.)
CC: What is your greatest indulgence?
LM: I sure love a facial. I am trying to get them more than twice a year. But, honestly, some people see my whole life as an indulgence. I am self-employed, and my husband is a social studies teacher at a Catholic middle school, so we have no money. Still I work from home on miscellaneous freelance projects, and I have everything I could want or need. It is a good life, a cake life at times. I blog, write articles, take pictures, go for walks, and cook all day. Sometimes I have lunch with a friend.
CC: What are you reading right now?
LM: I just finished Dear Everybody, by Michael Kimball, and now I’m back to researching for a new book, so I am reading This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, by Daniel J. Levitin, and Guitar: An American Life, by Tim Brookes.
CC: What advice would you offer to other mothers struggling to find the time and means to be more creative?
LM: After the birth of my daughter, so much of my life had changed. I had stopped writing and singing. I had not written any poetry. And I also stopped sleeping. I saw therapists and psychiatrists to help get me back on track, but I struggled for about five years with medications that only worked sometimes. Then I met a therapist who told me I needed to write poetry or join a punk rock band. I learned the importance of meditation when I felt at my most harried. And I learned that being selfish with the time I needed to write was the best thing I could do for my family.
Now, maybe I err on the other side. Maybe I do too much me stuff.
CC: It’s been sweet, Leslie. Thank you. Keep us posted on your book release.