Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Launch Party!

When I first became a published children's book author several decades ago, there was no such thing as a "launch party" for a book, or at least I had never heard of one. Books entered the world on a certain official "pub date," but I never knew or cared what the date actually was. A carton of my personal author copies would arrive at the house, and that's how I knew the book had come to exist as a tangible, physical object.

Now all my author friends host launch parties for their new books, at a local bookstore or library, and we all go to each other's parties. It's a wonderful opportunity both  to support fellow authors and to get together to socialize. It's rare in life that we get the chance to celebrate our achievements, or rather, that we take the chance and make the time and effort to do so. But why not celebrate whenever we have something worth celebrating? I just read this line from the inimitable Oprah Winfrey: "The more you celebrate your life, the more there is in life to celebrate."

Last night the Boulder Bookstore, our community's treasured independent bookstore, hosted the celebration for my most recent book, Write This Down.
It was a magical evening for me in every way. The small presentation space was crammed full to overflowing; my assistant for the evening (provided by the store) counted some 64 people in attendance.

Who were these people who joined me in this joyous christening of my newest book child?

My fellow authors: members of my "old" writing group, members of my "new" writing group, and authors I've met at various "write-ins" at each other's houses and, of course, at each other's launch parties.

My beloved church family: St. Paul's United Methodist Church turned out in force!

My nephew Terry, who must have brought ten other family members, neighbors, co-workers, and friends.

Former philosophy department colleagues and graduate students.

Neighbors and friends both old and new.

Even some strangers! The store managed to get me some terrific publicity in both the Boulder Daily Camera and the Denver Post.

I think my talk went well. Heck, why should I be so modest? My talk was one of my minor triumphs. The heroine of my book, Autumn, is an aspiring seventh-grade writer who scribbles love poems for her secret crush, Cameron. Fifty years ago (!) I was an aspiring seventh-grade writer who scribbled love poems for multiple crushes. I saved them all and was able to share some of the most extravagant ones last night. My best advice to young writers: save everything you write! you will be glad you did!

I even had book-themed snacks. Autumn adores Nutella, so my daughter-in-law, Ashley, found me a recipe for Nutella brownies on Pinterest, and I must say they were extremely delicious. (I have a huge quantity left over if you want to stop by my house today for brownies and more seventh-grade love poems.)

Thank you, Boulder Bookstore, for hosting me so well and so warmly. Thank you, beloved friends, for showing up en masse to fete the arrival into the world of this newest book. Thank you to all those who would have come if they could and who sent congratulatory emails and texts.

Yesterday all I felt like doing was preparing for this celebration. Today all I feel like doing is thanking anyone and everyone who was a part of it.

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Perils of Having Too Much Time

When October began, it stretched before me as a landscape of unrivaled bliss. Or to quote John Keats:

SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness!
  Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
  With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run. . .

It was to be a month in which I had no looming deadlines, no accumulated store of Loathsome Tasks to dispatch, no trips to prepare for or recover from. It would be a month in which I would have three days a week, 8:30-2:30, when my adored two-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter would be off at her adorable preschool to play with her sweet new friends. Time to write a proposal for a new chapter book series for my publisher! Time to revise and expand my scholarly paper on Ginger Pye and Pinky Pye by Eleanor Estes. Time to research an idea I have for a picture book biography! Time for everything!

Alas, a week into the month, I must confess that my vines have been been loaded and blessed with a most paltry amount of fruit. Here's why.

I wake up each morning at 5, as I am wont to do. But instead of hopping out of bed to make myself a mug of Swiss Miss hot chocolate and settle down to write, I think, "Oh, but I have all day! I'll have SIX WHOLE HOURS to get work done." And so I snuggle back down under the covers and doze a little bit longer. Or I do wake up but instead of writing I do some email or read one of the huge stack of books I have from the library for my judging of the Children's Literature Association's Phoenix Award. After all, those tasks have to be done, too, right? And I'll still have SIX WHOLE HOURS to get real work done later.

But when later comes, when those six beautifully empty hours finally begin, I find I've somehow lost all desire to work. It feels to me that today is already as good as over, and oh well, it didn't work out as planned. But not to worry! The month is still young, and so much time awaits!

And then this same scenario repeats itself. And repeats itself again.

This shouldn't surprise me. I've had decades now to learn this basic truth about how I work. If I don't give my first, best hour of the day to the work I think is most important - in my case, writing - I'm not going to get the writing done at all. Period. I've been getting more work done on my time-pinched days than on my time-luxuriant days, because on those rushed days, I've followed my tested routine: get up early, drink hot chocolate, write for an hour, walk for an hour. Then I hug myself with joy for the rest of the day - and end up accomplishing all kinds of other little things as well, with all that momentum to carry me forward.

Why do I have to keep reminding myself of this over and over again? I know that early hours work for me, and nothing else does. I know, in fact, that ONE glorious early hour is all I need to have a happy, productive life. 

So tomorrow I will leap from bed - or straggle from bed - or crawl from bed - at 5 a.m. I will write from 5:05-6:05 while sipping hot chocolate. I will do it! I will! I will! If I do, the rest of my life will be wonderful. If there is anything I know for certain, this is it. 

Monday, October 3, 2016

Happiness as an Environmental Design Challenge

My sister and I both adore the self-help books of the wise, witty, and wonderful Barbara Sher. We've practically memorized whole stretches of her first book, Wishcraft, published in 1979. What makes Barbara Sher such a brilliant life coach is that she doesn't encourage readers to try to change themselves: "All I'm going to tell you right now is that you won't have to change yourself because, one, it can't be done, and two, you're fine the way you are." Instead, she offers practical advice for how to create an environment in which somebody like you can thrive on her own terms.

That is to say, our task is one of environmental design: what do I need to be the best version of myself? Once we answer this question, the rest is all just logistics.

Lately I've been doing a lot of detective work to sleuth out the parameters of an environment in which I survive and flourish. I already knew that I require, on a daily basis, what I call my "four pillars of happiness": writing, reading, walking, and friends. The beauty of these four pillars is that engaging with them is something almost entirely within my control: I can choose to spend my time this way, or not. They cost me nothing, at least in terms of money; they do take time, but it's time spent doing what I love best. So whenever I sense my life drifting off course, I remind myself of these four elements that for me are the foundation of everything.

I also need at least one hour a day to work undisturbed. Lately that's been hard to find, so my environmental design challenge has been to find that time. I wrote about this in a post back in June. Since then I've located a near-perfect solution, as my adorable but distracting resident two-and-a-half year-old now attends the world's sweetest little preschool on MWF 8:30-2:30. It doesn't give me an hour a day, exactly, but it certainly gives me an abundance of just-me time every week.

Now I'm coming to realize that I also need a few days a month when I'm elsewhere altogether. Not too many: I was desperately homesick for the first five months of this year when I was a thousand miles away from home, teaching in Indiana. But three days away from home a month is bliss. Or two, or four, or five. Six starts to feel a bit too long - but only a bit.

So now I have my new environmental design challenge: to find a way to absent myself from home for a short stay each month. The challenge comes with these conditions: The trip can't cost very much. Ideally it would cost nothing. Ideally I would not PAY to do it, but GET PAID  to do it. Added bonus: I'd get paid to do it in a way that would advance my writing/scholarly career AND be fun AND involve seeing old friends AND take me to some place beautiful. My trip last month to South Carolina met all of those criteria.

I do have a trip lined up for November, to give some talks at Carleton College in Minnesota. In December I have a family gathering to which I'll travel in a nephew's car and stay at a niece's house, so a low-cost getaway. I have two work-related trips in February, one to D.C. and one to Missouri, and another one to Missouri in March. One I have to pay to go to (tax-deductible); for the other two I get paid - hooray! Now I need to put on my thinking cap - or rather, my environmental engineer's hard hat - and figure out delectable outings for October, January, April, May, and for every month for the rest of my life after that.

Luckily, inspired by Barbara Sher, I love environmental design challenges. Bring 'em on! What better use of what's left of my brain power than to create a life in which I can be the happiest me that I can be?

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

New Book Child Born Today

My new middle grade novel, Write This Down, enters the world today. All my book children are dear to my heart, but this book might be especially dear because it's about a seventh-grade girl who is an aspiring writer, and I was once that same seventh-grade girl, give or take. I loved to write the way that Autumn does, and I sought publication in every venue I could find, though back then the only serials I was familiar with were The Reader's Digest and Ideals Magazine: both sent me plenty of rejections.

In writing the book I also drew on my philosopher/ethicist self by giving Autumn the moral dilemma most authors face at some time or another in our careers: how much should we write about our own lives, where this also means writing about the lives of our loved ones? If we don't draw on material from our own experience, our stories can feel artificial and contrived. But if we do, they can feel like - and be? - a betrayal. "To publish or not to publish?" is the hard choice Autumn faces at the end of the novel.

I'm lucky enough that the wonderful publicist at my publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux has organized a blog tour for Write This Down, which begins this week. So I'll be sharing all kinds of thoughts about the creation of the book - including snippets of my own childhood writing - on the sites of six generous bloggers who will take turns hosting me all week long. I'll post links when I have them!

Monday, September 19, 2016

Being My Whole Self - And on a Beach, Too

Definitely one of the best things about my former job as a professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder was interacting with graduate students. I had the privilege of teaching and mentoring them. In return, they enriched my life in so many ways, from teaching my younger son to ride a bike to inviting me to visit them once they were "grown up" and settled in jobs of their own. I ended up teaching at DePauw because of two former grad students, Jen and Rich. Right this minute I'm in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina because of two former grad students, Renee and Dennis.

Today I'll be giving a talk on immigration ethics to philosophy students and ethics center fellow at noon. At 1:00 I'll be giving a guest lecture in an adolescent literature class. Later in the afternoon, after lunch with students and faculty, I'll be a guest speaker in a creative writing class, talking about my career as a children's book author. Tomorrow I'll spend the whole day as a visiting author at Renee and Dennis's fifth-grade daughter's elementary school.

I love when I get to be my whole self: philosopher, children's book scholar, children's book author.

And I love it best when I can be my whole self somewhere beautiful.

Yesterday Renee, Dennis, Amelia, and I had lunch at a restaurant overlooking the ocean.
As we ate - and gazed - I pumped Amelia for information her school robotics club - book research!

Then we were off to Brookgreen Gardens, almost 100,000 acres of beckoning paths, live oak trees draped in Spanish moss, lush greenery, riotously colored flowers, and serene fountains.

I'm so grateful to Renee for organizing this wonderful trip for me. I can't wait to talk to the students at Carolina Coastal University today and at Carolina Forest Elementary tomorrow. I have seashells to take home to Kataleya and Madilyne. And even though I've washed away the sand between my toes, I'll remember the soft feel of it beneath my feet for a long, long time.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Coming Back- Not as a Ghost

I'm back at DePauw University for two delicious days, attending the Young Philosophers Symposium hosted by the Prindle Institute for Ethics. I'm done now with my frequent gigs as a visiting professor here (six semesters over the course of the last five years), or at least I think I am, but I'm not done with loving DePauw, or the little town of Greencastle, or the farmland of western Indiana. It's so wonderful to be back.

But I didn't want to come back as a ghost. In Maud Hart Lovelace's wonderful novel Emily of Deep Valley, orphaned Emily has graduated from high school but isn't able to go away to college because of obligations to her aging, widowed grandfather. Lonely, as her friends depart to new adventures, she finds herself haunting the halls of Deep Valley High School. When she sees a flash of pity in a favorite teacher's eyes, she finally realizes: "She wasn't still a high school girl. And she couldn't keep on pretending to be one forever. She didn't belong here. She was a ghost."

I'm grateful that I didn't have to come back to DePauw as a ghost. Andy Cullison, the extraordinarily energetic and effervescent director of the Prindle Institute, invited me to serve as one of three outside blind reviewers for the Young Philosophers Symposium. We were charged with reading the forty or so submissions - full-length papers in a wide range of subfields of philosophy - and ranking each one on a 10-point scale. The four Young Philosopher competition winners - "young" meaning "early career scholars within six years of receiving the Ph.D." - were then invited to campus to present their work in a series of eight talks, each one giving both an introductory-level talk and a research-focused talk, over the course of a very full two days.

And - this is the best part - the three outside reviewers were invited, too. So here I am, not as a ghost but as a guest, staying right on campus in the lovely Inn at DePauw and attending stimulating talks with titles like: "The Power No One Should Even Have," "How Much Should You Believe in Your Friends?", "Achievement - What Is It and Why Does It Matter?" and "Who Owes What to War Refugees?" I've also had time for long, leisurely chats with many dear friends, a meeting of the Honor Scholar thesis committee of a beloved former student (I get to serve on her committee despite no longer being a current member of the DePauw faculty), early morning walks on the quiet streets of Greencastle, and hugs from multiple chance encounters with former colleagues.

I still belong! I have a contribution to make, a role to play, and all the intellectual and personal fun that comes from continuing to be a small but real part in a small but real way of this community I love.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Time Management: The Power of Five

I like to switch up my time management strategies occasionally. As one self-motivation tool starts to lose its efficacy, I try out a different one, hoping that its sheer novelty will do the trick of getting me back in a productive gear. If, after a month or two, or a week or two, or a day or two, it loses its ability to prod me into action, well, at least I had that month, or week, or day of getting something done.

My current favorite is one I read about somewhere recently, but alas, can't remember where (and couldn't find it through Googling). I'm calling it "The Power of Five." It's remarkably simple. Just put five things on your to-do list for the day. Then do them.

The beauty of the five-item list is that it's vastly less daunting than the usual hundred-item list that leads only to paralysis and despair. It's a fun early morning challenge to decide which five items make the list for each day. Obviously you'll want to start with the single most urgent and/or important task, the one that, if you managed to accomplish it, would in itself give you a glow of satisfaction for the rest of the day. But what should the other four be?

I like my list to have a mix of at-my-desk jobs and errand-type of jobs. Errands, of course, are terribly seductive, as you can get lovely little check marks with relatively little effort; errands can be accomplished somewhat mechanically. So beware of too many easy items on the list. But an errand or two can be a nice way to round out a day of desk sitting. Best of all, for me, is to have one little teensy thing that takes hardly any time at all and yet has been lurking in the corners of my mind for months or years and driving me quietly crazy.

So a couple of my recent lists:

1. Work for an hour groping toward the idea for my next book.
2. Work for an hour getting a rough draft done of a recommendation letter for a former grad student.
3. Write one promised guest blog post.
4. Go buy a surge protector at Home Depot that I've been meaning to get for ages.
5. Have a fun outing with my toddler grandchild.

1. Finally finish my overdue work on a certain task for the Phoenix Award Committee (this would have been in itself TOTALLY enough for one day, but why not strive for five?).
2. Organize my thoughts for an article I've been assigned to write on "birthdays in children's literature."
3. Go to the bank and get the money I need in order to make change for books I may sell (or fail to sell) at a children's literature festival in Denver this weekend.
4. Read at least one and preferably two of the birthday-themed books I had gotten from the library the previous day as one of that day's five tasks.
5. Mend the small tear in a blue top that has been waiting for my attention since last summer: as in summer of 2015.

The five-item list also has the power of getting me to make one extra push at the end of the day if an item on the list remains undone, staring at me reproachfully. After all, I only had to do five things today. Am I really going to wimp out after four? No!

Scrambling around to find one small, doable, but enormously satisfying item to serve as number five has led me, in the week now that I've been using this system, to have a surge protector I should have had five years ago and a newly mended top!

Yay for the Power of Five!