Sharing My Signature Dish: Some Wise Words for the New Year


Over the summer I had the great privilege of working at the Paramus Summer Institute for the Teaching of Writing along with Amy Ludwig VanDerwater, Dan Feigelson, and the Institute’s founder and guiding light Tom Marshall. And among the many things I heard there that got me thinking was the gorgeous keynote Amy gave on “What’s Your Signature Dish?”

By a signature dish, she didn’t literally mean a recipe you’re known for and bring to gatherings, like her husband’s salsa or her grandmother’s pineapple cake. But it should be something you’re famous for—in the way that Naomi Shihab Nye writes in her poem “Famous”: “The river is famous to the fish” and “The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.” Additionally, she said that a signature dish should do the following:

  • Help us make daily decisions
  • Be a gift we give to others
  • Help us focus in choppy waters
  • Give us permission not to be perfect
  • Make us memorable

Amy thought her signature dish was challenging herself to commit to doing a single, crazy thing, like writing a poem every day for a year, which definitely meets her criteria. But I wasn’t really sure what mine could be—until, that is, during my time in Paramus, I found myself sharing quotes with the teachers in my session that held some particular meaning for me, like this Japanese proverb I used to introduce the concept of backwards planning:


And these pithy words from the writer Saul Bellow, which, to make a clear and powerful case for always grounding our writing instruction in wonderful mentor texts:


And so as the New Year approaches, I’d like to bring my signature dish to the table by sharing these words from the wonderful Neil Gaiman, author of Coraline and The Graveyard Book, in the hope that it helps you make daily decisions in the choppy, troubled waters of our times and gives you permission not to be perfect, as it does for me:




19 thoughts on “Sharing My Signature Dish: Some Wise Words for the New Year

  1. I have a magnet on my fridge that reads, “Always make new mistakes.” I am one of those who fears making mistakes, not the everyday I-forgot-where-I-put-my-keys mistakes, but the big ones that affect others’ hearts. I want to practice the pause. Just take a minute to think before reacting.
    And last year I made the mistake of doing an exercise on an exercise ball and ended up crushing my tailbone, an injury that took 6 months to heal. But I’m sure you are not talking about those kinds of mistakes, are you?
    I love the idea of your signature dish. Makes me think. What is mine? Hmm.

    • As I just wrote to Julieanne, I’m not above castigating myself for real or perceived mistakes I think I’ve made, especially in the middle of the night. In fact, I’ve taught myself to visualize a stop sign when I go down that self-castigating path, which helps me pause and remember that whatever I think I’ve done is less ultimately important than what I may have learned from it–and what I do going forward. And we have to thank Amy for that great concept of a signature dish. It’s definitely something worth thinking about.

      • I’ve worried over this comment. I didn’t mean to sound snarky. I am really hard on myself especially when I think I’ve said the totally wrong thing. Thanks for understanding.

  2. I love the idea of a “signature dish.” And I love, love, love the Gaiman quote! I’m printing it out to hang on my refrigerator and over my desk at school.

  3. Love this, Vicki! I am a collector of quotes, too. I’m looking forward to sharing this with my students next week.


    • Do let me know what they make of it! You might also share Neil Gaiman’s poem “The Instructions,” which Laurie Pandorf just reminded me of. And . . . if Fran, Julieanne, Steve, Mary Lee, Tara & I get our proposal accepted, will you please, please, please come to NCTE?

  4. Vicki – Thanks for reminding us about Amy’s inspiring keynote. Like you, she reminds us to live in the present, reflect on our beliefs, and focus on our priorities. That’s the gift from Tom and the Paramus Institutes… Tom honors authenticity – period.

    Thank you also for sharing the wisdom from Neil Gaiman – I love it! Now, here’s one for you… Are you familiar with Gaiman’s poem, “The Instructions” or the gorgeously illustrated book (Charles Vess) seen here from Amazon:

    Here is a verse I think you’d like:
    Remember your name.
    Do not lose hope — what you seek will be found.
    Trust ghosts. Trust those that you have helped
    to help you in their turn.
    Trust dreams.
    Trust your heart, and trust your story.

    Happy New Year!

    • Thanks Laurie and Vicki for the props, but it really comes from the magic of such great people coming together! Vicki, your signature dish is definitely authenticity. Thank you for reminding us of it again and again, in your books, in our talks, in your blog, and in everything you do! Happy New Year!

    • Yes, Laurie, I do know “The Instructions”! I’m a fairy tale lover and stumbled on it years ago in a collection of retold tales by children’s book authors called A Wolf at the Door. In fact, I think that’s how I discovered Neil Gaiman. But so glad to be reminded of it here, on New Year’s Day! “Trust your heart, and trust you story,” are surely words to live by.

  5. Vicki,
    This is one of your signature dishes! I am always stunned with your ability to find words that lift my heart and mind to action. I’ve found my challenge with mistake making us forgiving myself for the mistake. Working on that one! Thank you, as always, for your wise found and personally crafted words.

    • Do know, Julieanne, that I’m quite capable of torturing myself in the middle of the night about a mistake I think I’ve made. But I do think that if we’re committed to learning, mistakes are inevitable–and forgiveness is a gift we need to give ourselves again and again and again.

  6. I love this post because it fills me with gratitude for YOU and Amy and Tom all at once! Wise words for the new year, indeed. This morning, I printed that stunning Neil Gaiman quote and hung it over my computer. It sounds like prayer, I think. Happy New Year, dear Vicki!

    • We are fortunate, aren’t we, to have so many wonderful colleagues who are also dear, dear friends–as well as writers like Neil Gaiman whose words so move my soul.

  7. Pingback: Lisa’s OLW for 2017 | TWO WRITING TEACHERS

  8. Thank you for these beautiful, inspiring words, Vicki! I’ve been thinking about ways to live a bigger life and this was just what I needed to read on the first morning of 2017.

  9. Vicki, your posts always inspire me to be a better teacher and writer. I’m very hard on myself about mistakes, so I appreciate Neil Gamin’s wise words about making them and learning from them. Thank you, and Happy New Year!

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