Thursday, May 21, 2015

Trepidations Untrepped

I'm back from two days of school visits near Williamsbug, Virginia, arranged by my dear librarian friend Noreen Bernstein, who retired last year as head of children's services at the Williamsburg Public Library. She and I met in a library school class at the University of Maryland in the 1980s. The professor took attendance on the first day, and when he got to my name, Noreen turned to me and said, "I have your books in my library!" We've been friends ever since. Her husband, Alan, who was also in library school with us, gives me wonderful book and film recommendations, such as Dear Committee Members and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. When I visit them, I always stay in the same room, with its cheery red trim, where various Danish exchange students have stayed over the years.

The visit had certain trepidations for me this time, all unfounded, as trepidations usually are. I decided that it was time for me to be like every other author in the universe and have a slide show for my presentation. Gregory helped me make a PowerPoint over spring break, with photos scanned by my sister and her husband: pictures of me as a child, pictures of the boys when they were little, covers of the books, and other standard fare. I was so nervous about dealing with technology after a whole lifetime of fearing and shunning it that I was almost hoping the schools wouldn't be able to find a way to hook up my computer to their projector. But they did, and the presentations were fine, and now I know that what children love best in an author presentation is pictures of the author's dog and cat.

Well, they are pretty cute.

On the way home, I had to change planes in LaGuardia, which I remembered as one of the least pleasant of all airports. I flew on a tiny plane from Richmond to New York, and when I got off the plane I had to walk down those little metal steps to the tarmac, clutching my suitcase with one hand and trying to keep my skirt from blowing up in the propellor-generated breeze with the other. I felt crabby. But then when I got inside, I learned: LaGuardia is nice now. It's hip! It's cool! It's trendy! I sat in a little eaterie called Crust where you order a glass of wine and a little personal pizza on an Ipad from your table. I felt as glamorous as Betsy in Betsy's Wedding when (in 1917) she goes out for lunch with Tib at "a cute new place. You telephone your order from the table." The plane took off an hour late, but I was done with being crabby, peering joyously out the window as we circled over Manhattan, with wonderful views of the crowded skyscrapers and the great green square of Central Park.

I was so happy that I wrote in the little notebook where I keep all my thoughts, "I AM ALIVE! I AM GLAD TO BE ALIVE! I AM ALIVE IN THE WORLD AND HAVING FUN!" Despite everything - and there is always an "everything" to be the subject of a "despite" - it's good to be alive.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Unleaving Philosophy

The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote these famous lines: "Margaret, are you grieving/ over Goldengrove unleaving?" As the poem is titled "Spring and Fall," it's clear, or as clear as anything ever is in a poem, that Hopkins is referring to trees shedding their golden and crimson foliage in the autumn. But I've always thought of "unleaving" as undoing a leaving, reversing a departure, coming back again to what you thought you had left forever.

In my life, it's the academic field of philosophy that I've left, and unleft, and left, and unleft, and left, and am now once again on the brink of unleaving.

I tried to leave philosophy partway through my first year of graduate study at Princeton. I was overwhelmed, out of my depth, surrounded by the smartest people I had ever met in my life, people who had come to the Ph.D. program at Princeton with M.A. degrees from Berkeley and B. Phil degrees from Oxford already in hand. I returned all my books to the bookstore. I waited in line to tell the graduate adviser that I was withdrawing from the program. But the line outside her office that day was long - maybe many of us were having first-year terrors - so I wandered back to my room in the Grad College. And then I re-bought all my books from the bookstore and didn't leave philosophy after all.

Two years later, when I had just completed my "generals," comprehensive oral exams in the subject matter of my proposed dissertation - which in my case had to do with philosophy of time (!) and why the future is different from the past (!) - I happened to see in the Sunday New York Times an ad for an entry-level editorial secretary position at Four Winds Press/Scholastic. I applied for it, was offered the position, and withdrew from philosophy, this time more successfully. Or more successfully, for a while. Eighteen months later a chance encounter with an old philosophy professor from my undergraduate days led to my being offered, and accepting, a position editing philosophical publications at the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland.

Several years into that position, I left philosophy again, deciding I wanted to try my luck as a full-time children's book writer. I quit my job with the plan of moving to the town of Opportunity, Washington, chosen only on the basis of its name. The Institute advertised for my replacement. But then the replacement turned out to be . . . me, unable to make good on my severance plan, after all. So back again in philosophy, I ended up finishing my Princeton dissertation, that is to say, starting an entirely new dissertation, this time on the much more (for me) manageable topic of a philosophical analysis of the concept of coercion. I finished the Ph.D. a few years later and ended up teaching philosophy for two decades at the University of Colorado.

There I almost left philosophy on the eve of my tenure decision. I just couldn't bear the process of being subjected to that kind of intense, scathing scrutiny by my colleagues. But I forced myself to continue. I was back in philosophy for good.

Until I took early retirement last May. I was so done with philosophy this time that I gave away 90 percent of my books, confident I would never need them again. I was going to be a full-time children's book writer at last! But a few months into "retirement," I came to DePauw for a visit, and fell in love with academia again, which also meant falling in love with philosophy again. I wangled myself another visiting position which had me teaching Rousseau this spring, greatly enjoying the Young Philosophers series organized by Prindle director Andy Cullison, and giving a philosophy talk this past week at the Poynter Center at Indiana University. The talk went so well, in my humble opinion, that I came home all aglow: "I do like philosophy, I do, I do!"

And now I'm negotiating an opportunity to teach at DePauw on a semi-regular basis, perhaps a semester each year, dividing my time between teaching philosophy, children's literature, and possible courses in the Honors Scholar program. I've unleft philosophy yet again.

Claudia, are you grieving over philosophy unleaving? No, I'm not. I may leave it again, and come back to it again, and then leave it, and then return, but that's all right. Life has its seasons, of leaving and unleaving. Right this minute that's fine with me.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Creative Tribe

I've had two huge "I heart DePauw" moments this week. Both of them involved events at which a creative tribe gathered to celebrate an achievement of one of their own - well, three, if you count my own launch party for Izzy Barr, Running Star, which I should.

On Wednesday night I attended a reading by writer Rick Bass, who is spending the semester at DePauw as their Mary Rogers Field Distinguished University Professor of Creative Writing. Lovely Peeler Auditorium was standing room only, or rather, sitting-on-the-floor room only, with students perched everywhere to hear him read two pieces: a personal essay connected with his environmental activism work, which was both a moving and funny account of his getting arrested during White House protests against the building of the Keystone XL pipeline, and a mesmerizing literary short story about, yes, about a fish. In his comments before and after the reading, he showed such appreciation for DePauw's committed faculty and engaged students, and such love of his craft. When asked by one colleague during the Q & A, "Man, how do you DO that?" he said, "Just be specific. That's all I can say. Be specific, and the reader will follow you anywhere."

Yesterday afternoon I went to a screening of the indie film Reparation, a psychological thriller just released this year and produced with heavy DePauw/Greencastle involvement. I recognized colleagues in the cast, including a colleague's young daughter in a wonderful supporting actress role. Filming was done in Putnam County, including shots of my beloved Dairy Castle, and the downtown courthouse square and farmers' market. On the soundtrack for the film I could hear music written and performed by Gus Moon - who played for my Izzy Barr launch party! I thought the film was terrific - intense, absorbing, beautifully acted and filmed from start to finish. The small theater - our only movie theater in town - was packed.

Afterward the audience drifted across the street to the Fluttering Duck and sat outside on the patio listening to music by Gus Moon, Ron Dye (father of the young actress), and others, on a perfect May evening. There we were: writers, musicians, actors, and plenty of people who wouldn't describe themselves as any of those things, but who had helped in various ways in the making of the film, from appearing as extras to driving cast and crew to filming locations, or (as in my case) who had just come to cheer on the rest.

What is better than when your creative tribe comes together  to celebrate the making of something beautiful (and extra points if it happens in a small rural county in western Indiana)? And I know the answer to that: nothing.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Happy Birthday, Izzy Barr

This week saw the publication of my newest children's book baby, Izzy Barr, Running Star, the third book in the Franklin School Friends series. For most of my career, the pub dates of my books came and went with no fuss or fanfare on my part, or on the part of anyone in the universe. But now launch parties for a book release have become a thing, so I hosted one for my sweet Izzy last night.

The party took place on the mezzanine of Eli's Books on the courthouse square in Greencastle, which doubles as the DePauw University Bookstore and the only bookstore in town. I hired a delightful local musician, Gus Moon, to play guitar and sing mellow tunes for us. (Does anything make a party more fun than live music?). I ordered a cake with the book cover on it, agonizing over what size to get. Too big would be tempting the universe to jeer and would result in huge, depressing quantities of leftovers. Too small might leave some cake-eaters disappointed and advertise my low expectations for the event. I went with too small. 
An activity for kids would be nice. The book's brilliant illustrator, Rob Shepperson, was willing to draw a picture of a running shoe for me, so that kids could decorate their own version of Izzy's new way-cool shoes. 

I sent out invites over Facebook and DePauw email, trying to strike the right balance between too much and too little. I think I hit on just right: one announcement and one day-of reminder. I invited my children's literature students and the fifth graders I work with in the Greencastle Intermediate School.

On the day of the event a number of people emailed me that they couldn't come. Good thing I ordered the smaller cake! I waited in the store, looking pitiful, the world's stickiest cake icing already somehow in my hair. Maybe nobody would come at all.

But then they did. Lots of people. Lots of people I loved: colleagues and their children, my students, my fifth graders, even the Gobin UMC pastor and his family. We ran out of cake, but just barely. We ran out of books, but that was all right, too. We didn't run out of music to lift our spirits, or crayons to color with, or fellowship and fun.

Here are two of the running shoes the kids designed:
 I think Izzy would like them. I liked them, too.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

More Thoughts on Act III

I'm now quite a few months into what I'm calling Act III of my life, that final act where all the plot questions posed in the first two acts are answered, the themes illuminated, the ending delivered to the audience in some deeply satisfying way.

So far, Act III hasn't looked all that different, I must say, from Act II. I'm back teaching at DePauw in Indiana, an opportunity I initially rejected because I thought it would look like too much like an awkward, repetitive scene recycled from earlier in the play. I'm still wrestling with a lot of Act II's same professional, financial, and familial challenges. While it isn't surprising that there would be considerable continuity from one act to another, I was hoping for more dramatic progress in the production. I was hoping for a hint that some of these challenges would eventually be resolved, preferably before the final curtain.

Now I'm thinking that what Act III needs is some big Oh-My-God moment, where the audience gives an audible gasp: "We totally did NOT see that coming!" But if it's going to be a good play, the audience (and of course I realize that I'm the only real audience here) can't think they've somehow wandered back into the wrong theater after the last intermission, that they've stumbled into a completely different play. The OMG moments have to be surprising, but recognizably part of the same story. They have to catch the audience unawares, but then occasion the reflection that, in the end, the story turned out the way it had to, despite some plot twists.

I just spent the weekend with my friend Robin, who visited me from Maryland, where she works as a music specialist/librarian in the Music Division at the Library of Congress. She's heading toward Act III herself, so much of our conversation turned on how we're going to live out the final third of our lives. Both of us are taken with this idea of provoking an audible gasp. We want to live now in a way to surprise ourselves and others.

We decided, though, that we can't just announce to the universe that we're ready for a surprise, though that is a start. I do think the universe pays attention to such declarations of intent. But we also need to provide the optimal conditions in which surprise can take place. Robin thinks this means finding some way to step out of our comfort zones: say, by signing up to do something completely new and different, preferably a little bit scary. At the very least it involves saying yes if a new, different, and scary option presents itself.

What kinds of new, different, and scary things might I decide to do?

A few ideas from my list:
Live alone in a foreign country that isn't Canada or western Europe or a haven for expatriates
Take voice lessons (singing is the talent I don't have that I most wish I did)
Write a completely different kind of book: creative nonfiction, a memoir, a collection of poems (okay, that's not SO different from what I've already done, but it's what gives me the biggest tingle of anticipation)
Run a marathon (step one: run around the block)
Climb one of Colorado's fifty fourteeners, and then maybe climb all of them
Change the hairdo I've had since high school (ooh! that might be too scary even to contemplate!)

 What kinds of new, different, and scary things might you decide to do?

Saturday, April 18, 2015

10,000 Hours

I'm back in Colorado for a long weekend. The big excitement here: Kataleya is walking! She's taking those first hesitant, awkward, heart-wrenchingly beautiful baby steps.

On the flight home late Thursday night, as we feared being diverted to land in Pueblo rather than Denver because of snow ("springtime in the Rockies"), I read an article in the Southwest Airlines in-flight magazine (I adore airline magazines) by writer Michael Kruse about a guy named Dan McLaughlin, who decided at age thirty to quit his job to work full-time on his golf game - although he had never played any golf. Calling it "The Dan Plan," his goal is to test the adage popularized by Malcolm Gladwell that it takes 10,000 hours of dedicated practice to achieve excellence in any field.

In the article, Dan is seen toiling at his golf swing in rain, in wind, in winter cold. His girlfriend breaks up with him. His funds run low. He still has 3963 hours left to go. He's a vastly better golfer than he was when he started (as a non-golfer!). He's not even close to great. But his goal is less golfing greatness than it is to test the 10,000-hour theory and offer himself and others a greater sense of life's possibilities.

Writer Kruse is a bit skeptical, asking "In Dan's effort to expand life's possibilities. . . has he reached a point where he's limiting his own possibilities?" And: "is it possible that the mess of modern life [which Dan has given up in his single-minded pursuit to log those 10,000 hours] is actually the fuel rather than the inhibitor of excellence?"

Good questions. I would say that the problem with Dan's pursuit (and I do admire the sheer quirkiness of it) is rather that it isn't fueled by any particular love of golf itself. He didn't quit his job to follow his lifelong dream of being a golfer, but to test a theory and write a blog and possible book about testing it. 10,000 hours of practice may be necessary to achieve a goal of greatness, but in my view it isn't sufficient. Love is necessary, too.

I couldn't resist doing the math about my own life as a writer. I've been writing professionally for around thirty-five years. To make the math easy (I always need to make the math easy!), call it thirty-three. 10,000 hours divided by 33 is 300, or pretty close to the number of days in a year, taking off weekends, vacations, etc. Which means that . . . ta-dah! . . . I've accumulated 10,000 hours of writing by writing, yes, an hour a day.

I don't know how much excellence I've achieved. I'm hardly the writing equivalent of a Tiger Woods. But I've published a lot of books, and some kids have written to tell me they loved them, and I've had a full and rich life along the way. And now: 10,000 hours. All from an hour a day.

Monday, April 13, 2015

All Those "All"s

I've been having a busy, happy time going back and forth with my brilliant editor for revisions and edits on the fifth book in my Franklin School Friends chapter book series. The first four books - Kelsey Green, Reading Queen; Annika Riz, Math Whiz; Izzy Barr, Running Star; and Simon Ellis, Spelling Bee Champ - are to be joined by a book starring struggling student Cody Harmon, with a pet show story line (Cody has two dogs, two cats, three chickens, one rooster, and one pig). 

Margaret's final email to me late last week had only a few lingering teensy things for me to address. Oh, and this: "There is an overabundance of the word all throughout the manuscript so can you please cut or change some of them?"

I called up my 65-page, 15,000-word manuscript and began searching for all. Of course, Microsoft Word also flagged every use of actually and the name of one of Cody's two cats, Furball, as well as various and sundry other ways in which all was embedded in other words. But as I went page by page reviewing each stand-alone all, my cheeks began to flush, and then to flame. Oh, the shame of it all! Wait, no, cut that last word! Oh, the shame of it! 

Cody's dilemma in the book is how he can take all of his pets to the pet show given that he can't afford the entrance fee for each one (the show is a Humane Society fundraiser). He loves his golden retriever, Rex, best of all. His badly behaved terrier, Angus, is the worst of all. What if doesn't come up with any money (he already spent his birthday money on pet treats), so he can't take any pets at all? But all of a sudden, his friend Izzy has an idea. And it involves a way in which all of his pets can come to the pet show, after all.


I kept a tally of all of my surplus alls, and when I was done de-all-ifying the manuscript, guess how many I had taken out?

Fifty-five!!! Plus, for good measure, two of my twelve actuallys.

Shame gave way to pride at such a stupendous job of all-extraction on my part. At first I was the most ashamed author of all. But now, with my manuscript well and truly purged, I'm the happiest author of all.