By Michaella Thornton
Last Thursday my work hosted a Great Pumpkin Bakeoff, and while I’m usually not one to brag or indulge in trash talk, I knew I would mop the floor with the competition. Ah, hubris. How easy you are to spot in others but not in myself.
While I faithfully followed the tried-and-true, fan-favorite recipe, carefully proofed the dough during several stages in the process, baked with the best ingredients, and awoke at 5:20 a.m. the morning of the competition to ensure still-warm-from-the-oven cinnamon rolls, the two judges who tasted my cinnamon rolls did not place my baked goods in the top three pumpkin-centric dishes, let alone recognize my cinnamon rolls with an honorable mention.
I was dumbstruck. My cinnamon rolls were exactly as they were supposed to be, if not better – tender spirals of sweet bread studded with Vietnamese cinnamon and light brown sugar and butter with a gorgeous caramelized crunch on the bottom and a generous glaze of cream cheese frosting. Several co-workers told me I was robbed. I shrugged and smiled and savored half of an arguably perfect cinnamon roll as I wondered if my tastebuds were so off, I no longer recognized what tasted good.
The insecure goblin part of my ego also wondered, “Why on earth had I been slighted?”
I have a hunch. The three criteria the judges used, which were not shared with bakers beforehand, were the recipe’s “celebration of pumpkin,” mouthfeel, and creativity. And while it’s nice to know how this competition was judged, a rubric does not make art any less subjective. The judges had their own personal preferences, too – one loved chocolate and pumpkin together, another loved Snickerdoodle cookies, so, of course, the pumpkin-chocolate and pumpkin Snickerdoodle cookies did well.
This whole work bakeoff fiasco reminded me of the importance of audience, especially when seeking to publish one’s writing, and a question my therapist often asks me, “Where do you want to spend your energy?”
Did I want to harbor hard feelings about a competition that was supposed to be fun? Did I trust the judges’ experience or personal history with baking? Did I need to win a low-key work bakeoff to enjoy what I had made?
Perhaps I should have spent the three-plus hours making this delicacy for family and friends, people who would actually enjoy and appreciate the dish. As Brian Andreas, the folk artist and storyteller, once put it, “There are things you do because they feel right & they may make no sense & they may make no money & it may be the real reason we are here: to love each other & to eat each other’s cooking & say it was good.”
This is not a take-down of competitions, amateur workplace baking contests or prestigious literary contests included, but rather a genuine interrogation into why we create something in the first place. It’s lovely to win, amazing to be nominated for a prize or anthology inclusion, but it’s not why I write or bake or create anything. I bake to nourish those I love and to celebrate a new season or special occasion. I write to express myself and to explore the world around me as well as to probe hard questions while feeling less alone, more connected.
Some journals may love what I write, what you write. Some may never give us the time of day. Some readers will remember our words, and, if we’re really lucky, tell us that what we’ve written has moved them, meant something. Other readers may think what we’ve written is dumb or petty or boring or, most likely, not ever remember or read anything we’ve written.
Natalie Goldberg taught us long ago not to write for love or attention. Write for expression and Zen practice and to pen a book project deep inside of you, yes, but don’t write for fickle and fleeting praise and recognition. That path is a road to endless disappointment and suffering.
Read more of Kella’s work here at Reckon:
Fiction – “The Hottest and Longest Lasting Fire”
Michaella Thornton learned how to bake at the hips of her mother and her grandmother Anna Lee. A lifetime ago, she baked professionally before realizing baker’s hours require early mornings. Kella’s prose has been featured in Brevity, Essay Daily, Fractured Lit, Hobart After Dark, Reckon Review, New South, Southeast Review, among others, and her writing has been nominated for a James Beard award and Best of the Net. Many moons ago, Kella received her MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Arizona. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri with her daughter.