Saturday, November 28, 2015

Writer's Block, Part Two

A week or so ago, I took myself to Union Station in Denver and spent a blissful morning curled up on a cozy couch in front of a friendly elf, sipping a vanilla steamer and getting unblocked on a new project. I wrote the first page of chapter one! I wrote the second page of chapter one! I wrote the whole darned chapter! The book was begun, and begun is everything in writing!

Well, not quite everything.

The next day I read over what I had written, eager to preserve my newfound momentum.

I didn't like what I had written.

I didn't like it at all.

My main character was whiny and victimized; she opened the chapter with a sigh, sighed twice more on the first page, and ended the chapter with a sigh huge enough to eclipse the previous three. Her mother was an overbearing cliche; it was unpleasant for a reader to have to be in her company. My poor character has no choice, it's her mom; but readers DO have a choice. So why wouldn't they make a choice to close this book and open one that is funny and fun? Did I have anything at all in this first chapter that was funny and fun? Nope. Nothing. Nada. Zip.

I didn't write for the next few days, because why throw good pages after bad? Why keep going on a project that is doomed from the get-go?

But then I re-read Elizabeth Gilbert's beautiful new book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. She recommends the following strategy to take regarding writing, or any other creative activity: "My ultimate choice . . . is always to approach my work from a place of stubborn gladness." She said that she's held on to her "stubborn gladness" when her work is going badly, and when it's going well. She said she's learned to trust that inspiration "is sitting there right beside me, and it is trying. . . . Inspiration is always trying to work with me. So I sit there and I work, too. That's the deal. I trust it; it trusts me."

So yesterday, I got into bed with a mug of hot chocolate made more festive with two outsized dollops of leftover Cool Whip on top (I had to do something with it now that the pumpkin pie was all eaten). I sat there for hours scribbling notes about how to fix my fatally flawed chapter one - or, rather, how to put it aside, richer from all I learned in writing it, and write a completely different chapter one that will have fewer sighs, a more three-dimensional mom, and at least something in it that is funny and fun. I haven't written that chapter yet - it's number one on my to-do list for tomorrow-  but Elizabeth Gilbert reassures me that inspiration will be sitting beside me when I do.

I'm going to trust inspiration and be grateful that it trusts me. If this new chapter is still unusable, I'll write another one, and I have a hunch that one will be pretty darned good, or at least pretty darned okay. If I need more Cool Whip, I'll buy more. And I'll keep on writing.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

One Way to Cure Writer's Block

When I do author visits at elementary schools and it's time for Q & A, some of the more sophisticated kids like to ask me, "What do you do when you get writer's block?" My stock answer has always been: "I don't GET writer's block, because I write for a short, fixed amount of time every day, first thing when I get up. It's not an intimidating task to write one puny little page. And writing it first thing in the morning means that I don't even have time to arouse my resistance. My page is written before I'm even fully awake!"

But then this year, I got writer's block. Previously I had secretly doubted that any such thing existed. Now I actually had it. I hadn't written a page since my heroic revisions on two books last August, if you don't count the equally heroic work I did earlier this month revising my scholarly paper on Eleanor Estes's 1943 children's book Rufus M. And I don't count work that isn't creative work. So for the past three months, the queen of the hour-a-day writing system has written precisely nothing.

I think the biggest part of my block has to do with, not jealousy exactly, but awareness that a number of my writer friends have been getting extraordinary critical attention for their recent books: four starred reviews for one, an unheard-of five starred reviews for another. I want four starred reviews! I want five! I want six! And in order to get six starred reviews, I knew I had to write a different kind of book from the sweet little chapter books I've been writing. If you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always gotten. I needed to write a big book, a deep book, an important book. But I had no ideas for anything big, deep, or important. So instead I was writing nothing at all.

This had to change. Because if I don't write, I won't be a writer. And I love being a writer.

I started curing my writer's block by re-reading the scene in Maud Hart Lovelace's Heaven to Betsy, where Betsy has lost the freshman essay contest because she spent her winter in a doomed crush on Tony plus lots of parties with the Crowd where great quantities of fudge were made and consumed, rather than on essay preparation:

She looked back over the crowded winter. She did not regret it. But she should not have let its fun, its troubles, its excitement squeeze her writing out. 'If I treat my writing like that,' she told herself, 'it may go away entirely.' The thought appalled her. What would life be like without writing? Writing filled her life with beauty and mystery, gave it it purpose. . . and promise...

Then I made a plan, an excellent plan, if I do say so myself.

Yesterday I took myself on the bus to Denver, planning to spend the morning writing on a cozy couch at the legendary Tattered Cover bookstore, just steps away from Union Station. But when I got to Union Station, its cozy couches beckoned so powerfully that I ended up staying right there, on this couch in front of this holiday elf, which I decided must be a writing elf.

I bought myself a vanilla steamer and an unusually excellent muffin at a station coffee shop.

And then I wrote for two hours. I plunged right in, scribbling down the first page of a new book, which grew into the first chapter of a new book, not, I must say, a big, deep, important book, but one of my usual sweet little chapter books, in other words, the kind of book I love best to write.

So: if you have writer's block:

1. Give yourself Betsy's pep talk. Don't regret any of the things that have kept you from writing, but remind yourself that if you squeeze writing out of your life, you'll have a life without writing in it. Maybe that's okay for you. But if it isn't, you need to write.

2. Take yourself on some lovely writing adventure. Go someplace special, either with a writer friend or by yourself. For me, the place has to have couches and creamy hot beverages.

3. Then, well, write. You don't have to write a book that will get five starred reviews, or four, or any at all, or that will ever get published, or read by anyone else in the world. All you have to do is curl up, sip on your creamy hot beverage, take nibbles of a tasty muffin, and write something that you want to write. Remember, you like to write. You really do.

That's all. And if you can do it in front of the Christmas tree in Union Station, Denver, all the better.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015


Last weekend I was lucky enough to be one of nine authors invited to take part in the first ever EpicFest, a "literary festival for kids of all ages" held at ImaginOn, an astonishing structure in downtown Charlotte, NC, which contains an enormous children's branch of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library plus two beautifully appointed performance spaces for the Children's Theatre of Charlotte.
Each author did two school visits on Friday. I had a lovely time at River Oaks Academy and Chantilly Montessori. On Saturday, the day of EpicFest itself, each author gave a talk, sold and signed a lot of books, and had the chance to hear some talks from our fellow presenters. If we had wanted to, we could also have built Lego creations, made all kinds of  crafts, and dipped apples in white chocolate and then covered them with sprinkles. My biggest regret of the festival: not finding time to dip that apple!

Here is the "book house" I saw at one branch of the library during my lunch break on Friday:

Here I am with new friend Sheila Turnage, whose debut novel, Three Times Lucky, was named a Newbery Honor Book. (Also pictured: Pete the Cat.)
And here is the "book mobile" made by my old friend Mark West, professor of children's literature at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. It hangs on the front porch of his home, books swinging gently in the Carolina breeze.

I came away from the festival thinking: I love being part of this world, the world of people who write books, read books, teach about books, love books. I want to be part of it in every way, forever.

Guess I'd better start writing my next book soon...

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Simon Ellis, Spelling Bee Champ

Today is the pub day of my newest book child, Simon Ellis, Spelling Bee Champ, the fourth title in the Franklin School Friends chapter book series.
Simon appears as Kelsey's reading contest rival in Kelsey Green, Reading Queen; he's Annika's Sudoku contest rival in Annika Riz, Math Whiz; and he is a competitive racer in Izzy Barr, Running Star. When it was Simon's turn to star in his own book, I asked myself: "What problem could a kid have who is good at everything?" And the answer was immediately clear: "That he's good at everything."

Simon is a very bright kid who has a wide range of intellectual and creative interests. He genuinely loves to read, and adores math, and savors playing the violin. And he shines as a speller because of his love affair with words, the longer and harder the better. But his best friend, Jackson, is getting tired of losing at everything to Simon - and when Simon tries letting Jackson win, Jackson gets even madder. Other kids start calling Simon "Super Simon" and then "Super Duper Pooper Simon." What is poor Simon to do? Hide his talents from his classmates? Pretend not to care about all the things that are dear to his heart?

His story ended up being very dear to my own heart. I wrote it during the blissful summer of 2014 when I taught at Hollins, sharing it with the students in my graduate chapter-book writing class. My son Gregory helped me come up the "longest-word-in-the-world" that Simon exults in spelling, and Gregory also served as the only ghost-writer I've ever employed, providing some language for the video gaming action in two scenes; the book is dedicated to him. And Simon is just so sweet, so eager to learn and perplexed that others don't share his affinity for the life of the mind.

So I send him out into the world with an extra-protective hug today.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

"I Want Your Life!"

Yesterday I taught a writing workshop for young authors, hosted by the Education Nonprofit Corporation and held at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden. Mine was the two-and-a-half hour class for eighteen bright, motivated third, fourth, fifth, and sixth graders. They were a delight.

One of the sweetest moments in this sweet day came when one of the other presenters there stopped me to say that she still remembered a motivational talk I gave for a Society of Children's Book Writers conference well over a decade ago. In that talk I shared how I juggle being a professor of philosophy with being a prolific author of children's books,  with my beloved hourglass as a prop to demonstrate my "hour a day" writing system.

As this person heard my talk, she told herself, "I want this woman's life!" And then she proceeded to go out and get it. She went back to graduate school, earned an advanced degree, teaches classes at CU-Denver, and has published her poetry.

I was touched and thrilled. For I so identify with her desire to change her life on the model of another life she found herself coveting. I do this myself all the time. I even "collect" lives in my little notebook, so I'll have touchstones at the ready for the kind of life I want to live. My motto has long been "Don't envy, emulate."

When I look at the people I most want to be, one commonality is that they all fill their lives with creative joy. In fact, the person I envy most is a fellow writer who has published very little, as she works full-time as a teacher, has a young child, and is pursuing extremely ambitious and complex writing projects. What I envy her for is that she teaches with out-of-the-box originality, mothers with dazzling creative energy, and prioritizes her writing even if she doesn't prioritize seeking publication. I look at her and think, "I want that person's life!" And then I make lists of things I can do to try to come closer to my ideal.

So I'm grateful I got to be a life role model for someone else, as so many other creative souls have been life role models for me.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Walking the Dog, Walking with God

My church here in Boulder, St. Paul's United Methodist Church, has this as its mission statement: To openly share creative opportunities to grow in Christ's love through worship, fellowship, service, and learning. The word "creative" is important to us. Our church is filled with people who love using their creativity to get closer to God and to one another. One of the most creative is my pew mate, Rebecca Glancy. (Church members are NOT creative about where we sit: we all sit in the same spots every single week, and my chosen spot is with Rebecca and her family.)

Rebecca writes and directs original Christmas programs for our youth each year. She preaches inspirational guest sermons for our congregation and at twice-a-month services held at the nearby Meridian retirement community. She and I both wrote many puppet scripts for several years for a children's program called "Where the Wild Things Worship." And she also writes delightful devotions which she shares on her blog.

Her current meditation series is called "Walking the Dog, Walking with God," daily reflections on what she's learned about faith, and about herself, from walking her family dog, Lexi. Here's one of my favorites (I always love when people find seemingly contradictory passages of Scripture and probe them to find a deeper underlying truth):

Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road.” –Luke 10:4
I follow Jesus’s advice when I walk Lexi: we don’t greet anyone on the road. (I don’t take a purse or bag, either, but I do wear sandals in the summertime.) Lexi’s greeting is so enthusiastic as to be perilous. She jumps and writhes around and is likely to knock someone down or tangle him in her leash. Also, she can’t control her bladder when she’s excited. Very few people want to be greeted like that; most neighbors just want to pat a calm, friendly dog on the head as they pass by. So Lexi and I stand aside or cross the street when we see people coming. Jesus tells a story about a priest and a Levite who cross over to the other side of the road (Luke 10:30-35). They are criticized for being unneighborly. Perhaps my neighbors think I’m unneighborly, too. Is Jesus saying contradictory things in Luke 10? I don’t think so. When we walk with God, we’re supposed to focus on him. We’re not supposed to get distracted. Stopping to chat along the road was a distraction for Jesus’s disciples (for Lexi, too). However, we’re not supposed to be so focused on our religious practice (like the priest and the Levite, who feared becoming ceremonially unclean) that we fail to love our neighbors. Walking with God means knowing when to cross over and when to stop.
Dear God, Show me when to cross the road and when to stop when I’m walking with you. Amen
Today Rebecca invited me to contribute a guest meditation, as she knows I'm a fellow faithful walker of our family's little dog Tank. So here it is. And if you ever want a pew to sit in on a Sunday morning in Boulder, St. Paul's is at the corner of Grinnell and Gillaspie, and some creative people will be eager to welcome you.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Fun + Fun = More Fun

I've been trying to make it a priority to maximize creative joy in my life, and actually, just to maximize FUN in any form. I learned this from a student at Hollins University when I taught there summer before last. You can either meet with a student to talk about her chapter-book-in-progress (fun in its own right) in your bare little office, OR over ice cream at the sweet place up the road, sitting outside on a bench under a tree on a perfect summer afternoon. Which should you pick?

My life strategy now is to pick the option that involves ice cream.

So when I received a grant to do research on the manuscripts of Eleanor Estes at the University of Connecticut (fun in its own right), I asked myself: how can I make this fun thing even more fun?

Answer: time the trip so that I could head down from Storrs to NYC afterward on the very weekend that a friend's play was being produced there. My friend Sandy Asher, whom I see every year at the children's literature festival sponsored by the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, had her one-act, one-actor play, Walking to America, selected for performance in this year's Solo Festival. Her goal was to sell out the theater so she could obtain a second night: she ended up with SIX. And I was there for one of them.

I took myself to the city from Hartford via Peter Pan bus. I stayed two nights with another writer friend, whom I first met at the poetry writing retreat I attended for many years, in her adorable, tiny book-and-teapot-filled apartment on York Avenue and 64th Street. We attended Sandy's fabulous play together, as well as wandering all around Central Park where I paid a visit to Hans Christian Andersen.

For extra fun, I reconnected with a former CU student whose brilliant creative writing thesis I advised over a decade ago; we spent hours at two different vegan cafes talking, talking, talking. I had lunch with my editor, Margaret Ferguson at FSG, and iced chocolate with my agent, Steve Fraser (meeting him under the clock at Grand Central Station, something I've always wanted to do). I spent one night with my dear grade-school friend Kim at her cozy home in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. And I took myself to the 150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland exhibit at the Morgan Library on Madison Avenue.

I even watched the lunar eclipse on an esplanade overlooking the East River. I really can't take credit for what the moon chooses to do, or not to do, but I watched it with eyes ready to feast on any fun that comes their way. Because fun plus fun equals more fun.