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.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Magical Hour

Here is a magical way to spend an hour. It is how I spent the luncheon hour yesterday, in a celebration of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau's opera Le Devin du Village (The Village Soothsayer).

11:30 Greet students, staff, faculty, and friends arriving at the Thompson Recital Hall in the Green Center for the Performing Arts

11:35 Welcome the attendees. Share a few delectable tidbits from Rousseau's autobiographical Confessions to show his early, extremely unpromising aspirations as a musician, for example, how he renamed himself Vaussore de Villeneuve and hired himself out as music teacher and composer although he could barely read a line of music. (Yes, this is true.)

11:40 Hear a fascinating presentation from music librarian Misti Shaw about the the 18th century war between partisans of French opera (grand spectacle of historical and Biblical dramas) versus Italian opera (everyday people singing of their everyday lives with simple, affecting melodies). Rousseau was so much on the side of Italian opera that members of the French opera burned him in effigy.

11:50 Hear another fascinating presentation from music historian Prof. Matthew Balensuela on the influence of Rousseau's opera on the young Mozart, who modeled one of his first operatic attempts on a parody of Le Devin du Village and whose natural musical gifts resonated with Rousseau's concept of natural man.

11:55 Behold the voice students of Prof. Caroline Smith taking the stage! Julie Strauser opens with the first aria sung by shepherdess Colette, "J'ai perdu tout bonheur" ("I have lost all my happiness!"), the piece that so delighted the king of France that he was heard the next day, as he was being shaved, singing it with" the vilest voice in the kingdom." Tenor Blake Beckemeyer joins her in a duet between the unhappy lovers, shepherd and shepherdess. Commanding baritone Yazid Pierce Gray performs the role of the soothsayer, able to make all right between the estranged beloveds.

12:15 Performance completed! Sustained applause from the enraptured audience.

12:20-12:30 Collect compliments on the unsurpassed delightfulness of it all. And compliment myself for having been the one to make it be.

I love being at this little college where an event like this is possible and actually took place yesterday exactly as I just described it. Thank you, colleagues and singers, for joining me in making this happen.

Monday, April 6, 2015

The House I Almost Bought

I came very close to making a terrible financial blunder last week.

I wanted to make it with all my heart.

I came very close to buying a house in Greencastle, Indiana.

This is the house:

This is the description of the house:

Affordable and well-cared-for Craftsman two-story home only a block from campus. Home features 3 bedrooms, 2 full bathrooms, office/bonus room, large living room, formal dining room & full basement w/built-in garage. Lovely craftsman details seen in the wood trim, doors, windows, staircase and hardwood floors throughout the home. Many newer updates include wiring, roof, & A/C. Appliances included. Spacious backyard for outdoor play & gardening. A great value for the condition & campus location. 

And this is the price of the house: $99,000!!!!!!

I yearn for this house with every fiber of my being. It's the perfect size for me: around 1500 square feet. It's well maintained (currently owned by a colleague). It's adorable. If I lived here I would be happy every minute of every day.

I even called a realtor. I had a sweet, wonderful renter lined up for next year, who agreed to let me keep one tiny room for my own.

But then I remembered: I already have a house, a lovely little condo in Boulder, Colorado. I already have a mortgage on that house. I have a beloved family who live in that house. I have many dear friends nearby that house, and two writing groups, and a church that is another home to me. Plus, after I leave DePauw in June, I have NO JOB and no income except what I can earn with my pen, which is not enough to own and operate TWO houses, one of which would need to be fully furnished, as well.

So I'm not going to buy the house. I had buyer's remorse even before becoming a buyer. But now I have non-buyer's remorse, which is just as keen. 

If only there were two of me, one to live in Boulder and one to live in Greencastle. But there's only one of me. One me, with two hearts.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Why I Hated the Movie Whiplash

I have been cramming my spring break week about as full as can be. I've had three breakfasts with friends (including one three hours long!), three friend-lunches, two friend-dinners, untold walks with our little dog, Tank, plus hours galore cuddling my sweet grandbaby. I've also seen four movies: The Imitation Game, The Red Balloon, Into the Woods, and Whiplash. Well, the first half of Whiplash. I hated it so much I had to turn it off after an hour or so. I was stunned to find that many friends of mine loved it. Here is why I didn't.

The film depicts the relationship between an ambitious young jazz drummer at a prestigious music conservatory and one of his teachers, who hurls endless bigoted, homophobic, cruel abuse at his students (as well as slapping them repeatedly in the face) to get them to achieve musical greatness.

I turned it off in part because I have only another forty or fifty years to live and I don't want to spend precious minutes of what time I have left in the company of anyone, real or fictitious, who treats another human being the way the J. K. Simmons character treats his students in the film.

But I also turned it off because it is deeply false to suggest that artistic greatness is achieved in this way, that students who live in constant, abject terror of a teacher's physical, mental, and emotional abuse grow into their best creative selves.

Any writer knows that the way to write the best stories is NOT to write with a constant critical voice harping in your head, but to silence that voice and listen instead to the voices of your characters, voices you can't hear if you are already imagining the savage response you'll get from editors or reviewers.

Any actor knows that the way to produce an immortal performance is NOT to act with half of your brain focused on the tyranny of the director, but to become your character as fully as possible, to be that person, not the person of an actor who is cowering in fear of a director's disapproval.

Any musician aims at becoming one with the music, inhabiting the work so completely that you leave behind any thought of what anybody else thinks, past, present, or future.

The student musicians in Whiplash look stiff and terrified as they play. They follow every single commandment of their conductor with slavish obedience. They radiate no joy in the music. They never make the music their own. It is, always and forever, his. But, folks, this is jazz we're talking about. Jazz! An art form where improvisation is absolutely central. An art form that values collaboration between musicians who will jam together for hours in the sheer delight of making music with their friends. An art form that values play.

I'm the mother of a jazz musician who is right now playing at the Monterey Jazz Festival in California. I have attended so many jazz performances in my life. And I am here to report that it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing. A swing that has some joy in it.

The jazz community has repudiated the film, to my great relief, according to articles in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Downbeat Magazine, claiming that it misrepresents jazz music, jazz pedagogy, and jazz history (including the famous incident when a fellow musician threw a cymbal at emerging jazz great Charlie Parker).

I'm here to claim that it also misrepresents everything I know about how great art is made. I'll stick with the poet John Masefield, who wrote, "Great art does not proceed from great criticism, but from great encouragement." I'll add, and from great joy.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Book Scavenger Treasure Hunt

I'm home on spring break for ten whole days of glorious Colorado sunshine, grandbaby-cuddling, dog-walking, cat-brushing, and catching up with as many dear friends as possible, including get-togethers with both of my writing groups: breakfast with my old group of twenty-plus years, dinner with the new group I joined this past fall.

The new writing group is consumed these days with celebration for the June 2 publication date of the debut novel Book Scavenger by one of our members, Jennifer Chambliss Bertman.
The book is amazing. Here's the review of it I posed on Goodreads after reading the ARC (Advanced Reader Copy): How I adored this book! It’s a page-turning thriller, a valentine to the storied city of San Francisco, an exploration of the nature of friendship and family, a feast for puzzle aficionados and code breakers, and a celebration of the community of book lovers everywhere. The reader’s only regret is going to be that the Book Scavenger game Bertmann has created doesn’t exist in real life, so that we could join Emily and James in playing it. Bertmann’s debut novel establishes her as a major new voice in middle grade fiction. Prediction: Book Scavenger will become a beloved classic in the mode of The Westing Game and The Egypt Game. It’s off the charts wonderful.

The book is based around the idea of a fictitious game where players hide copies of books all over the country and the world for other book-lovers to find, via cryptic clues posted on the Book Scavengers website. And the game now does exist on real life, thanks to Jen's website, with copies of the ARC hidden in all fifty states. And our writing group is playing the game ourselves, hiding copies of Jenn's book all over Boulder for each other to find.

Yesterday I got the clue from Laura to send me off to find mine. The clue said:  

It is hidden! Start at Viele Lake. Take a walk to the southern part of the lake, until you get to the fitness sign about the heel flex. Turn your back to that sign. Then try to decode my cipher.

The cipher read: uxmpxxg uxgvaxl, ngwxk kfvd 

So this morning before church I walked down to Viele Lake:

I followed the fitness trail around the lake until I reached the sign:
I turned around as directed and looked behind trees and rocks, hoping I could find it without having to wrestle with decoding the message, as I'm completely terrible at cyphers and codes. No luck. But fortunately, my church has a VERY brainy congregation. Upon arriving I handed the cypher to two of the most brilliant members; both solved it during the sermon. I won't give the solution here in case you want to try to decode it yourselves.

I headed back to the lake after worship. This time I found the correct spot.
The picture is pretty dark and terrible, because I'm a challenged photographer, but let the poor quality just add to the mystery.

I found the rock beneath which the book was supposed to be hidden:
And there it was!
Now it's my turn to hide it for Vanessa. I hope she's better at code-breaking than I am, or that she has similarly brainy friends.

Verdict on spring break so far: tons of fun.