Saturday, June 16, 2018

Inspired (and Humbled): Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers (WIFYR)

I'm back from a grueling and glorious week in Utah, teaching a course called "Getting Ready to Write the First Novel" at the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers workshop (WIFYR), now in its 19th year. I've taught at WIFYR several times before  (I've lost count of how many), and it's always the same: exhausting and exhilarating, where no one leaves without laughing, crying, and growing in our craft as writers.

My class met every day from 8:30-12:30, for the five days of the workshop: a total of 20 hours in the classroom, more than half the hours of a typical semester-long university class. My eight students had submitted 20,000 words (around 80 pages) of their novel-in-progress to me and the rest of the students in advance. Some chose to submit opening chapters and then skipped ahead to climax and resolution; others just chopped off the first 20K-word chunk and gave us a synopsis for the rest. In the weeks before the workshop we sat at home hundreds of miles apart, frantically reading, reading, reading, So when we finally met in person, we already knew each other well, just from dissecting our stories so intently.

I structured the class in this way.

On Monday, we introduced ourselves more formally, each writer sharing the origin of how his or her story came to be. Then we gave rapid-fire fifteen-minute overall responses to each manuscript, devoting half the time to listing the things we loved best and half to raising questions or concerns for further discussion throughout the rest of the week. Even though I knew from experience that reactions would change as we talked together - critique is best when it's interactive - there is value in getting a first reaction to one's work. After all, that is what future readers are going to be giving. Few spend an entire week in close analysis of a literary work before weighing in with an opinion.

On Tuesday, we focused on characterization. For each protagonist (and some books had two equally important main characters), we asked: what does this person WANT at the start of the story? It's often hard, even for the author, to figure this out, but without a clear desire/goal, a character tends to be passive rather than active, and the story fails to pose a central dramatic question that keeps readers turning pages. Then we asked (a question borrowed from the brilliant Kathi Appelt): what is each person's "controlling belief"? - i.e., their guiding principle that will be tested through the course of the story, climaxing in a "crisis of faith." What is their character arc? How does each one change and grow from the first page to the last?

On Wednesday and Thursday, we focused on plot structure and gave close a close reading to each manuscript's opening chapter. Was there an "inciting incident" that sets the story in motion? Did the chapter have a strong opening paragraph and a final line where the central dramatic question of the book clicks into place for the reader?

On Friday, our final day, we read some revised (and much improved) beginnings by those who offered them for additional critique. Then we turned to theme and imagery: what were the philosophical issues explored by each book? If there were more than one, which one was most important? Could any imagery be created to make this thematic material more vivid for the reader?

And then we said our teary farewells.

In case all of this wasn't enough, every afternoon there were four more talks and/or workshops to attend, by agents, editors, faculty authors, and other authors coming in to share their expertise. My workshop was "How to Write Morally Charged Stories without Teaching or Preaching." I have to confess that the biggest treat for me was the session by Charlie Holmberg, "Kissing Like You Mean It (Smooching 101)." I doubt I'll ever write a kissing scene, but if I do, now I'll know how to make it a great one! Over lunch and dinner, WIFYR faculty shared hours of intense conversations while sipping root beer floats and gobbling Fat Boy ice cream sandwiches (and meal-type food, too).

I learned so much from my fellow faculty members who gave these talks and conversed so passionately with me. But I learned even more from my students. Some have attended WIFYR over half a dozen times. Some have been rewriting their books for years, while raising families and working at challenging day jobs. Could I work as hard as they do? Could I care as much as they do? Could I give as much of my heart to my books as they do to theirs?

All I know is: I'm going to try to write the best books I can to be worthy of having been their teacher.

I'm going to model their dedication and commitment.

And I'm going to have myself another root beer float, too.


Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The Funnest Summer Ever?

Summer has always been my least favorite season. When I was younger, summer ranked last among seasons because I loved school and so pined mightily from June till September, even going so far as to hang a calendar on my closet door where I could cross off the days until the school bell rang once more. Nowadays it's mainly summer's weather that I dislike. I want weather that invites me to curl up by a fireplace, beneath a blanket, a mug of hot chocolate by my side, and write. Give me a blizzard any day over blazing sun and temperatures in the 90s.

But the other day, I heard from the mother of granddaughter Kataleya's best friend, Danielle, that Danielle had said, with great joy, "This is going to be the funnest summer ever!" Admittedly, at age four, she doesn't have a wealth of past summers to serve as points of comparison. But still.. . it made me think. . . maybe I should give summer another chance. Could I make this the funnest summer ever for me, too?

So I sat down and made a list of possible summer joys. I came up with 40. Some are possible joys from the five days I'm going to spend in Utah teaching a class for the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers workshop (WIFYR), the five days I'm going to spend in San Antonio at the Children's Literature Association conference, and the six days I'm going to spend in Roanoke reconnecting with colleagues and former students in the graduate program in children's literature at Hollins University. Many are essentially guaranteed to happen, as I've already purchased the relevant tickets. But I still wanted to put them on the list; ditto for a couple that have already happened. After all, the most important part of having a fun summer is noticing how fun it is. The point of this list is not only to make sure I do a bunch of fun stuff, but to note as I do it, hey, this is FUN!

As I love counting things, my charge to myself is cross off at least 30 of these items:

CLAUDIA'S LIST FOR SUMMER 2018:

In Utah:
1. Spend some one-on-one time with the incomparably fabulous organizer of WIFYR, Carol Lynch Williams.
2. Make a new friend on the faculty there.
3. Learn something new from one of the faculty talks.
4. Walk on a cool Utah evening in the shadow of the surrounding mountains.

In San Antonio:
5. Have a margarita on the River Walk.
6. Hear at least three wonderful papers.
7. Savor every minute of my last-ever meeting for my concluding three-year term on the Phoenix Award Committee.

In Roanoke:
8. Have breakfast in the Hollins cafeteria - yum, yum, yum!
9. Have a grilled cheese sandwich at Pops in the Grandin neighborhood - yum, yum, yum!
10. Work at my favorite table in the beautiful Hollins library.
11. Read at the Hollins library while wrapped up on one of the blankets thoughtfully provided.
12. Take an early morning walk past horses grazing in a meadow.
13. See fireflies (which we don't have her in Colorado, but which turn every tree into a fairyland in Roanoke).

At home in Colorado:
14. Attend the Colorado Music Festival (and I already have tickets!).
15. Attend the Colorado Shakespeare Festival (I already have tickets for Richard III!).
16. Hike on a new-to-me trail.
17. Attend a free concert in a park.
18. Visit a new-to-me branch of the public library.
19. Take my granddaughters to the zoo (DONE! but it still counts!).
20. Take my granddaughters to the free showcase by the Boulder Ballet (DONE!).
21. Hear my son Christopher and pew-mate Rebecca share special music at a worship service (I forced them to choose a date when I wouldn't be in Utah, Texas, or Virginia).
22. Have either breakfast at the Saturday morning farmer's market or dinner at the Wednesday evening one.
23. Ride the little "train" on Pearl Street with my granddaughters.
24. Hike to Chautauqua and then have breakfast on the veranda of the dining hall there.
25. Have a gin-and-tonic with lime.
26. Dine outdoors in a rooftop restaurant with a view of the mountains.
27. Have a drink on the patio of the posh St. Julien Hotel.
28. Go to a talk or reception for the Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress at CU.
29. Ride the Carousel of Happiness in Nederland.
30. Attend a Rockies game down at Coors Field in Denver.
31. Go to any event at the Second Star to the Right children's bookstore.
32. Go to Tiny Town in Morrison (oh, how I love Tiny Town!).
33. Go to Grand Lake (oh, how I love Grand Lake!).
34. Go to Rocky Mountain National Park.
35. Go to Golden Gate Canyon State Park.
36. Go to Eldorado Canyon State Park.
37. Have a picnic with my granddaughters with picnic basket and red-checked tablecloth.
38. Star gaze.
39. Go on a naturalist-led nature walk.
40. Have an overnight trip to some mountain town (and savor the vastly cooler air at 8000-feet of elevation).

That's the list. I can probably find more things to add. But it's already a pretty swell catalog of possible summer treats. Anyone who experiences at least 30 of these can say - and SHOULD say - should shout it from the rooftops: "This is the funnest summer ever!"

Friday, June 1, 2018

The Pleasures of a Two-Hour Vacation

Yesterday was my day to collect my two granddaughters, Kat and Madi, for their monthly ten-day visit. Alas, for complicated logistical reasons, this time the pickup had to take place, not in our usual meeting place in Kremling (a four-and-a-half hour round trip for me), but in Steamboat Springs (a seven-hour round trip for me). Have I mentioned that driving is not my favorite thing?

I was dreading the long day behind the wheel when an inspiration came to me. What if I turned this from a dreaded chore into a VACATION? What if I left Boulder early so that I'd have two hours to myself in beautiful Steamboat for a just-for-me holiday?

Ooh!

The drive there, although long, is stunningly beautiful. The part past Kremling heads over Rabbit Ears Pass and then opens up into the green valley of the Yampa River.

The first stop on my vacation: a small, charming botanical garden right on the river.


I wandered on beckoning pathways past spring flowers (now past their prime here in Boulder, where spring comes earlier).


Tucked into one shady garden, the shy columbine, Colorado's state flower.


The next vacation sight to see - and what a sight to see it was: Fish Creek Falls, just a little over three miles from downtown Steamboat. It was only a half mile walk from the trailhead to reach the overlook for the falls.


I thought that was probably enough for such a short vacation. But then I couldn't resist the non-taxing hike down to the falls themselves, where I learned that, yes, it's sometimes - maybe almost always? - worth it to make some extra effort to see something truly spectacular.


Last stop: finding Steamboat's indie bookstore, where years ago I had attended a Harry Potter launch party when I was there to give a talk at a writing workshop.


Would I have time to write in its alluring cafe? Could I log a sweet hour of creative joy working on my chapter-book-in-progress (which I had with me in my ever-ready totebag).


Well, no. I would have had time had I not chosen to hike down to the falls, and I couldn't regret that choice. I did sit for a few minutes at one of these tables, however, and scribble a few thoughts about the day in my trusty little notebook (pictured there on the table). 

After all, 120 minutes is an extremely short vacation.

But it also turned out to be 120 minutes crammed full of delight.


Monday, May 21, 2018

Creative Joy at Big Sur in the Rockies

I had the great pleasure this past weekend to serve as a faculty member for the Big Sur in the Rockies Children's Writing Workshop hosted by the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. The workshops were created (originally in Big Sur, California, and also held in Cape Cod, Massachusetts) to give aspiring children's book authors a chance to have their work critiqued both by professional authors and by agents and editors, in an intensive but intimate setting - and a setting of striking natural beauty as well.

Andrea Brown claims that "miracles" happen at Big Sur, as attendees revise their work from the first critique session to the second session on the day following. From my experience this past weekend I would say: she is right.

The Big Sur in the Rockies workshop is held at Chautauqua in Boulder, with its stunning views of the Flatirons.
Faculty were each given their own tiny rustic cabin for the weekend, so I had the treat of having what felt like a vacation while only having to drive three miles to get there.
Each cabin contained a small living room, bedroom, kitchen, and bath, as well as an inviting screen porch. The two different critique groups each faculty member facilitated (with two meetings for each group) were held in our cramped but extremely cozy living rooms.

Here's the charming bedroom of mine.
Of course, as soon as I saw it, all I wanted was to climb into bed and WRITE. And I did have plenty of time to do that over the course of the weekend, despite ten hours spent in the four critique sessions, shared meals, and other events that brought us together as a writing community.

I loved the four women writers who were in each of my workshops. They loved me, too, and loved one another, even as we posed tough questions about the manuscripts and sent everybody scurrying away to revise. And for those who submitted revisions, yes, miracles DID occur, with the rest of us sighing with pleasure at hearing the new and vastly improved version.

Each morning (Saturday and Sunday), I did have a good hour to write in my bed - hooray! On Saturday afternoon, while the workshop attendees were off frantically revising, I had free time to write some more. But the best writing I did all weekend - the hour of creative joy I'll long cherish in memory - was writing side by side, on the afternoon I arrived,with my next-door neighbor, fellow faculty member Melanie Crowder, who is as brilliant a writer as you'll find anywhere on this earth.

It was raining hard - a torrential downpour, complete with hail. We sat on her screened porch, safe and dry, as Melanie prepared for a writing retreat she's leading soon in Oregon, and I wrote part of Chapter 9 of my current work-in-progress ( the book where the kids are all writing their own comic books).

This was my favorite hour of creative joy since I starting keeping track of creatively joyous hours back in January. I now know that there is nothing more creative and joyous than to write with Melanie Crowder, on the screened porch of a small Chautauqua cabin, in the rain.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Should I Cut Corners on Creative Joy?

As readers of this blog may know, my main resolution for 2018 has been to have more creative joy in my life: to be precise, at least 10 hours a month of creative joy, where I have strict rules for exactly what counts toward the total. It can't be just an hour of ordinary joy in doing my ordinary creative work: I have to make some special effort to add joy to the process. This means I can't just write on my couch with my usual hot chocolate; I have to write in a cafe with a friend, or at the Denver Botanic Gardens, or with a special food treat (preferably Pepperidge Farm apple turnovers), or even just with Cool Whip in my hot chocolate or a scented candle burning on my desk. (The  only exception: writing poetry gives me SO much creative joy that no additional infusion of joy is necessary).

Oh, and final rule: I have to have 10 hours every single month. I can't stockpile extra hours in an earlier month to make up for fewer hours in a later one.

Thus far this year, I've met each month's creative joy quota with room to spare:

January: 14 hours
February: 14 hours
March: 15 hours
April: 22 hours - TA-DAH!

But now it's halfway through May, and as of two days ago I had zero hours of creative joy recorded in my little logbook: zero! I had plenty of joy when my granddaughters were here for their ten-day visit, but it wasn't creative joy. And I've done plenty of creative work this month, working on my chapter-book-in-progress (the one set in an after-school comic-book camp), and I experienced plenty of joy in doing it, but I didn't make any extra effort to enhance the joy, so these hours don't count toward my fixed monthly goal.

I found myself tempted to relax the goal a bit. After all, why NOT allow stockpiling of joy in lush months to allow me to take a little break from joy in skimpier months? Why ISN'T plain old Swiss Miss hot chocolate joyous enough? Who makes and enforces these dumb rules, anyway? (Of course I know the answer to that one.)

But then I got a grip on myself: AM I TOTALLY CRAZY??!! WHY ON EARTH WOULD I WANT TO GIVE MYSELF PERMISSION TO SKIMP ON JOY?

So I lit a candle for my hour of writing yesterday. I bought myself Cool Whip; a good dollop of it during my writing time gave me another hour of creative joy for the logbook today. I have a writing date with a friend tomorrow. At the end of this week I'll have a weekend absolutely bursting with creative joy as I'll be staying in a charming cottage at Chautauqua as a faculty member for the Big Sur in the Rockies Children's Book Writing Workshop, which has a good amount of free writing time built into the schedule. I have my heart set once again on meeting or exceeding my creative joy target for May.

No, I should NOT cut corners on creative joy, and neither should you. Nobody should try to rationalize the reducing of joy in their lives. It's fine to cut corners on tedium, drudgery, dreary toil. But when it comes to joy, I'm going to throw my whole heart into every minute of it.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Bookstore to the Rescue!

Yesterday I was scheduled to give a keynote talk at an awards program celebrating the young readers and writers of Jefferson County, hosted by the Educational Nonprofit Corporation, in downtown Golden. Because Golden is so delightful, I arranged to have lunch there first with a children's literature graduate student who lives in Denver; we'd eat on the porch of a restaurant overlooking Clear Creek. Then I'd put finishing touches on my talk at the Golden Public Library, and perhaps write on my work-in-progress a little bit (creative joy!). The keynote address would be at four.

Great was my consternation, however, when I reached the library, stuffed full of yummy lunch and ready to ponder my inspirational remarks, and opened my totebag only to find that I had grabbed the wrong book to read from. I had planned to share a couple of the love poems I wrote in seventh grade (1966), one of which made its way into my middle-grade novel Write This Down, which was published exactly 50 years later (2016). I wanted to encourage these young writers to save their writing - and to see the joy that writers feel in taking their own heartbreak (that boy who spurned my love!) and turning it into art that could be shared with others, even half a century later.

But the book in my totebag wasn't Write This Down. It was Zero Tolerance. Both have red spines. It was easy for a careless person to get confused.

Now what was I supposed to do? Wait! I was in a public library. Maybe they had a copy of my book I could check out? I didn't see one on the shelf, though, and when I checked the catalog, they had Write This Down only as an e-book.

Well, an e-book might work; I already had Write This Down with me, as an e-book, on my phone (I have all the files for all my recent books in my Dropbox). I could read the crucial passage from the book aloud from my phone.

But oh, that is lame, lame, lame! I didn't want to read my book aloud from my phone. I wanted to read it aloud from the book.

Should I drive back to Boulder to retrieve the book from home? That felt like such a defeat.

Wait. . . I pulled out my phone and called Second Star to the Right, my favorite children's bookstore. It wasn't that far away. Might they have a copy on hand of Write This Down by Claudia Mills? Yes, they said. Would I like paperback or hardcover?

Hooray! I leaped into my car, put the address for the store into my phone, and 20 minutes later I had a copy of the book clutched close to my heart.

The talk went well: the love poems were a huge hit, first read aloud from the little notebook where I inscribed them back in 1966, then read aloud from a real, actual copy of the published book fifty years later.

I'm so glad I had my phone with me for calling the bookstore and navigating there.

But I'm even more glad I have a favorite bookstore that could sell me a copy of an actual, wonderful, beautiful, old-fashioned BOOK.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Pleasure of Contrasting Days

Yesterday my two little granddaughters finished their monthly ten-day visit to us - a period of exhilarating, exhausting non-stop activity with a four-year-old and a two-year-old, with me as their primary caregiver. Today begins the monthly twenty-day span of time without them, when I can immerse myself fully in my own work with uncluttered space and unhurried time.

I love both, and I love that right now I have a life that contains both. One of things I loved best about my quarter-century of teaching in the philosophy department at the University of Colorado was having a work life that alternated between time on campus and time at home. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I'd be on campus all day teaching my classes, mentoring graduate students, attending meetings (yes, even that could be pleasant once I learned how to keep my mouth shut and stay out of the fray of academic politics). On Tuesday and Thursday I tried very hard to arrange my schedule so that I could work at home - writing, preparing for class, grading (yes, even grading could be fun with enough tasty treats to energize me).

Now I'm loving the alternating rhythms of ten-days-with-little-girls followed by twenty-days-just-for-me. I value each one more because I know it's finite, although of course everything in this life, for all of us, is fast fleeting. The current arrangement with the girls won't last forever. Once Kataleya begins kindergarten in the fall of 2019, everything will change. I have no idea whatsoever what the shape of my days will be then. So I might as well savor what I have right now even more intensely.

In fact, savoring whatever one has, in the moment when one has it, is a pretty good plan for living a pretty good life.

Here, a few glimpses of springtime in Colorado with little girls in tow.

Touching a "cloud" at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR)

The view from behind NCAR

At Clear Creek in Golden

Mistress of all she surveys