Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Healthy Hump Day

Today is my last day at the Prindle Institute for Ethics, my last day at DePauw University, my last day in sweet Greencastle, Indiana. . . for now.

It has been a very happy day. Every day in Indiana is a very happy day for me.

I puttered at my desk in my office at the beautiful Prindle Institute.

There is no place I've ever found to work that is so peaceful, so serene, so perfect for immersion in a creative or scholarly task. Well, maybe this one, the adjacent Bartlett Reflection Center:
I come to the Reflection Center when I want to write, or think about writing, or get inspired to write. But I would never do other work in the Reflection Center. It would be a sacrilege to grade papers there. I do only work that seems to me in some way holy.

But the Prindle is perfect for all other work, from reading for class, to writing an essay, to paying bills.

This summer, Linda Clute, our assistant director, has declared Wednesday of each week to be a "Healthy Hump Day," with the lunch hour dedicated to some activity to bolster physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual health, preceding or following a healthy communal lunch.Today is our fifth Wednesday of the summer. I had to miss the intervening three Wednesdays, off in Boulder with my family and at ChLA in Richmond, but these were the activities so far:

1. Yoga and smoothies (I went to that one: yay and yum!)
2. Walk on a trail in the nature park
3. Guided meditation
4. Discussion of essays from Small Wonder by Barbara Kingsolver
5. TODAY: potluck salad bar and drawing mandelas

Until today I didn't know what mandelas were, exactly. They're defined and presented in various ways. We thought of them as geometric patterns that reflect the relation of the self to the universe, or, in other words, an excuse to get out art supplies and spend a  happy half hour coloring. Colored pencils! Crayons! The smell of Crayola in the air!

Here are mandela creations from the five of us:

Which one do you think was mine? Hint: the busy, happy-looking one in front center, souvenir of this busy, happy day.

Oh, Prindle, how I will miss you! Oh, Indiana, farewell for now . . . .

Monday, June 22, 2015

"The High Stakes and Dark Sides of Children's Literature"

I'm back from four blissful days at the annual Children's Literature Association (ChLA) conference. ChLA is an 800-member organization of children's literature scholars, chiefly English professors who specialize in children's lit, or at least who teach it and write about it every chance they get. This year the conference was hosted by Longwood University and held in Richmond, VA. The theme was the site-appropriate rallying cry of Patrick Henry: "Give me liberty or give me death!", with the subtitle, "The High Stakes and Dark Sides of Children's Literature."

Last year I was president of the organization, which was thrilling but also stressful. This year I was past president, and now I'm not any kind of president at all, as the new ChLA administrative year begins at the conference. (Well, I'm still a past president, and always will be, but that is no longer my official title and slot on the board of directors). So I spent much of the conference reveling in how I was NOT running an all-day board meeting, or presiding over the general membership meeting, or delivering a presidential address, or serving as mistress of ceremonies for the awards banquet. I was just there as a happy, eager scholar in a world of other happy, eager scholars. 

My paper, fortunately, was in the second session of the first day (I love to go first and be done right away). This year my paper was called "The Dark Side of Goodness: The Woodbegoods, Betsy-Tacy and Tib, and Ivy and Bean: Bound to Be Bad." The three texts I look at, published over the span of a full century, all feature children who are trying very hard to be unusually good - and who as a result of their very efforts end up being unusually bad. My project was to try to figure out what it is about "aspirational goodness" that tends to backfire: what misunderstandings about the moral life do these three texts wryly expose?

My paper was paired on a panel with two others. Sometimes the conference organizers manage to achieve brilliance in their panel matchmaking; sometimes they end up with a few sessions that are a mixed-up mishmash. Ours was one of the brilliant ones. My paper resonated particularly well with the one immediately preceding it, by Prof. Sarah Winters of Nipissing University in Canada, who spoke on "The Dark Side of the Light: The Conflict between Love and Goodness in The Dark Is Rising and Harry Potter." I now have a new friend for life.

I came away from the conference wild to redesign the children's literature course I'm going to teach at DePauw next spring, wild to revise and publish my two most recent papers on Eleanor Estes (one on Pinky Pye and one on Rufus M.) following the archival research I'm going to do at the University of Connecticut this fall, wild to think of something stunning to offer at next year's conference (to be held in Columbia, hosted by Ohio State) where I've been invited to join in a panel on "the family story" in the 21st century, and wild to read the long list of books I discovered at the conference.

Give me children's literature, or give me death! Well, give me a few sweet days at this particular children's literature conference, and I will have little to complain about in my life for a long, long time.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

"Me Party"

One thing I love about having so many children's book author and children's literature scholar friends is that communications from them are infused with whimsy and delight. Case in point: this coming week is the annual conference of the scholarly Children's Literature Association, held this year in Richmond, Virginia. Emails have been flying back and forth to arrange various get-togethers, including our "midnight feast" where a few of us gather in somebody's hotel room to huddle on the beds, eat candy, and read aloud bits from favorite children's books. One person is bringing her mother, husband, and daughter to the dinner before the midnight feast: "So we'll be a party of four." That prompted another to report that she was just bringing herself, and so would be a "party of one." And then she gave us a link to the song about being a "party of one" - Me Party - from the Muppets movie.

I had never seen this clip before, where the always adorable Amy Adams joins Miss Piggy in singing about the pleasures of having a grand old time all by oneself.

Last night I had a lovely Me Party. Gregory was playing with a little combo at the posh St. Julien Hotel here in Boulder. All of my possible dates canceled on me for various reasons. So I headed out alone, using my beloved Ecopass to ride for free on my beloved Skip bus, and arriving at the hotel's beautiful patio just as the band was beginning to play. I ordered a glass of their house Merlot. I entertained myself with some people watching and then started to read a fabulous proposal for a new handbook on research in children's literature that I'm reviewing for a press. Gregory had an exquisite solo on tenor sax. The wine was delicious. Yay for a Me Party!

Then my friends Gretchen and Doug, who had thought they couldn't come, arrived after all, and my Me Party became a Three Party. They are both avid and excellent swing dancers, so they couldn't resist getting up to twirl each other around for "Fly Me to the Moon" and other jazz standards. I didn't feel left out. I had already been having the time of my life at my Me Party. So I could go back to being Happy Me as they danced. And then be Happy Three when they rejoined me at the table.

The sun set, reddening the Flatirons with its glow. Hotel guests came out on their balconies to take pictures of it with their cellphones, and hear the music, and savor the Colorado evening. Now my Me Party was a big party, with guests galore.

And so the evening continued. How lucky I am to know how fun a Me Party can be, or a Three Party, or any party at all. Thank you, Amy Adams. Thank you, Miss Piggy. 

Saturday, June 6, 2015

How to Revise a Book

I'm in the throes of major revisions on my novel-in-progress for Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, tentatively titled Write This Down. As always happens with me, I've gone from thinking of the revision prospects for this book as hopeless to having the first round of major revisions done - and easily done. So I'm trying to distill my own guidelines for myself in making the revision journey in the hope that these may be helpful for some of you.

These guidelines work only in the situation when you already have feedback from a trusted editor, trusted writing group, or other trusted first reader. For me, feedback from others is absolutely essential. How do I know if what I've written is funny if I don't know if a reader laughs? How do I know if what I've written is touching if I don't know if a reader gets tears in her eyes? The chief issue I'm wrestling with in this book is that my editor thought my protagonist - whom I adored - was "unlikeable." How can I know how others respond to my main character unless I ask them? So this leads to the first step in the list I'm making for myself now.

1. Get feedback from a trusted editor/writing group/reader.

2. Wait to revise until you truly accept that feedback. This may mean letting some time pass. (Luckily, when you are dealing with editorial feedback, you're all but guaranteed that lots of time will have passed). For me, this usually means having additional conversations with my editor/readers to make sure I really get what isn't working for them about the manuscript as it stands. (They themselves may not even have distilled this fully until probed by your thoughtful questions.) Even though I trust my editor completely, I can't revise on blind trust alone. I have to get it myself: get exactly why the book isn't working now.

2. Save the old manuscript in a different file and create a new file for the revised one. This is also key for me. The new file is where I'm merely trying out revision ideas. The old file remains safely preserved should I change my mind and like it better, after all. This has never ever happened for me in my entire career. But knowing that first draft remains untouched allows me more freedom to experiment.

3. Just start. Yes, right now you have no idea how to proceed, but just start anywhere. I have two approaches to this. Sometimes I start with low-hanging fruit: I pick the one problem with the manuscript that I know I can fix easily. This tends to be inefficient, because it may mean fixing small cosmetic things that may not even survive the final revision; it's been likened to "wallpapering a wall that's just going to be knocked down." But I thrive on seeing progress, on gathering any forward momentum. In my current manuscript, my editor (and one writing group friend) disliked the name of Autumn's brother's band. I changed that in five minutes, or less. Yay!

Usually, though, it just means starting in the first chapter and going on from there. Here I had to add two new chapters before the previous first chapter, as it was important to establish Autumn as a writer and show in real time, not offstage as I had it before, the crucial incident with her brother that sets the story in motion. (Yes, I actually had this mentioned only in passing the first time around. Terrible! Horrible! But I couldn't see this until I got outside feedback.)

So: just START.

4. Each revision session, read over the revisions you've made so far before going on. This also allows me to pat myself on the back for what I've already accomplished: "Look how much better it is already!" It also allows me to tinker and wordsmith as I go, which I like at this stage, as I want to feel that each chapter is building a sound foundation for the new structure and shape of the book. But others may disagree on this point and urge you just to keep going, which is good advice, too. Chiefly, though, rereading the first revised portion in this way every day plunges me directly into the altered world of this new draft.

5. When you have enough confidence in how the revisions are going, read through the rest of the entire manuscript on the screen and make notes for yourself about what else needs to be done. I make my notes right on the manuscript all in caps so they are easy to see. ADD NEW SCENE BETWEEN AUTUMN AND HER FATHER HERE. Or: MAKE DAD LESS MEAN. Or: TONE DOWN AUTUMN'S SNARKINESS RE HUNTER. Or: ADD REFERENCE TO KYLEE'S KNITTING. Oh, the bliss of knowing that I have a plan, a real honest-to-goodness plan!

6. Keep going.

7. Keep going.

8. Don't change things that don't need changing! This is the single biggest way that I see writer friends go wrong. In their zeal to overhaul a manuscript, they change stuff that WAS working, stuff the reader liked BEST. Don't do this! In order to avoid doing this, make sure you know ahead of time what readers did like about the book. If it's nothing at all, maybe you should set this aside and write a different book. But if there are a lot of strengths in the story already, don't mess with them. You are NOT writing a new book; you are revising THIS one. I try to revise surgically and fix only what needs to be fixed. This is the single biggest reason why I am faster than most of my writer friends at revising.

9. When you are all the way through with this round of revisions, and you've done all you can do at this point, send the book back to your editor/writing group/reader for their reactions. Hope that they are not assessing this as the "after" to the previous "before," but in its own right. It really doesn't matter if the book is better than it was. What matters is if it's good enough, measured against literary standards that have nothing to do with comparing how it is now to how it was then. But don't agonize any more. Send it off!!! Let others do your agonizing for you. That I am willing to do this is the second biggest reason why I am faster than most of my writer friends at revising.

10. When you get their comments back, repeat this process again (and again, and again) as needed.

See? Revision isn't hard. It really isn't!

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Last Sweet Greencastle Days

I fly home tonight to Boulder for two weeks, followed by five blissful days at the Children's Literature Association Conference held this year in Richmond, Virginia, then back to Greencastle to deal with a few things, and then the long drive home to return to my Boulder world for the summer.

Boulder's summer pleasures are unsurpassed: hiking on the trails up the Rocky Mountains just blocks from my door, the Colorado Music Festival at Chautauqua, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, writing days with my friend Jeannie, walks with our little dog, evenings at the park with Kataleya.

But Greencastle pleasures are sweet, too. Maybe all pleasures are sweetest when we are about to abandon them, at least temporarily.

Last night was a typical Greencastle evening:

Dinner with my friend Keith at Chief's, where the waitress knows that I always order a glass of Merlot and often my entire supper consists of one of their melt-in-your-mouth sweet potatoes, complete with butter and brown sugar. Sometimes they run out, but last night she greeted me with: "I just checked. We still have four!"  My meal of Merlot, sweet potato, veg o' day (yellow squash and zucchini), and extremely delicious bread pudding for dessert totaled $11.

Then, wandering a block over to a new gallery space on the courthouse square for a pioneering First Friday exhibit of art by Putnam County artists including my children's book author-illustrator friend Troy Cummings. The gathering was thronged with DePauw friends. The scrumptious lemon scones were provided by a colleague who is planning to open Kate's Bakery and Cafe on the square soon, a much-needed replacement for my dearly departed Blue Door Cafe.

Walking toward home later, on a perfect late May evening, I spied my friends Jen and Jeane outside at a little table on the patio of the Fluttering Duck, sipping their Chardonnay. I stopped to say hello. Would I care to join them? Well, indeed, I would. We sat there till dark, and past dark, talking, talking, talking, about everything from childrearing challenges (mainly concerning differing views on the Tooth Fairy) to how to live a life that balances appropriate outrage at the world's injustices with deep contentment at its wonders and marvels.

So that was my evening, one like all my others here, and one unlike any other, as it was the last-for-now. This is the life I love and the life I'll be leaving behind now, for another life I love, too, with a sad-and-happy heart.

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.