Friday, January 18, 2019

Wisdom from Computer Coding

My current children's book-in-progress is requiring me to learn about a topic on which I hitherto knew nothing: coding.

I've written two books so far in my new chapter-book series, After-School Superstars. Each book takes place in a different month-long after-school "camp." Nixie Ness, Cooking Star is coming out in June of this year; I'm now working through the copy-edited manuscript for Vera Vance, Comics Star, which will be published in early 2020.

For the third book, I've been asked to feature a camp on coding. "Sure!" I said, even though I wasn't quite sure what coding was. I asked my younger son if he ever does any coding (he's a software engineer for a company in Chicago). "Mom! I do coding all day every day!" "Oh," I said. "I thought you did computer programming." "Mom! That's what coding is!"

So now I'm learning about coding. I attended two terrific "Hour of Code" workshops at Stott Elementary in Arvada, and I'm starting to attend some sessions of the Computer Club at Boulder Country Day School. I hauled home a big stack of books from the library, of which the two most helpful have been Coding for Kids: Create Your Own Videogames with Scratch and Helping Kids with Coding for Dummies (where I am surely the biggest dummy who will ever read it).

Here's what I've learned so far: Coding is fun! Kids adore it! At Stott Elementary the kids actually begged to be able to miss recess to keep on coding their "dance party."

The program you create either works, or it doesn't. If it works, it's a thrill. When his program finally worked, one boy kept shouting, "I'm a coding genius! I'm a complete genius!"

When it doesn't work, guess what? You can look at your program and figure out why it didn't work and fix it! As Megan (the brilliant teacher who ran the coding workshop at Stott), told her students, "Debugging is a huge part of coding. If something doesn't work, TRY SOMETHING ELSE." Ooh!!! That insight could be the heart of my book right there. Here's another great life lesson from Coding for Kids: "There is never just one possible solution to a problem!" Ooh!!! That insight could be my mantra as I wrestle with creating my plot.

I haven't actually tried coding myself yet... but I will soon. (Yikes!!!) What deep and important life truths will I discover in the process?

Monday, January 7, 2019

Starting the New Year a Few Days Late

I love the start of a new year so much. In addition to my major goal each year (for 2019 it's to embrace the new by undertaking six completely new work projects), I always have a bunch of piddly goals as well. Drink more water. Eat more veggies. Faithfully walk 10,000 steps a day. Radically declutter my house. Get serious about frugality. Make a budget and stick to it this time.

Alas, for the first few days of this new year I accomplished none of these. None! My little granddaughters were visiting until January 5, and it was bitter cold, so I had no proper walks. I spent freely on outings to the Bounce Place, Gym Jam, swimming at the North Boulder Rec Center, meals at Tandoori Grill and Tsing Tao. Plus, since I was already on a spending spree, I bought a new nightgown online as well. I didn't have even an hour to myself to get any real work done, as four-year-old Kataleya gets up as freakishly early as I do.

After just five days, 2019 was already ruined. Forget 2019! It wasn't working out for me at all. All I could do was slog grimly through the remaining 360 days and then pin all my hopes on 2020.

Fortunately, in the nick of time, I decided instead to salvage the situation and restart the new year on January 6, Epiphany Sunday.

So yesterday I drank five glasses of water. I went grocery shopping and returned with heaps of veggies. For dinner I made a huge pot of vegetarian chili stuffed full of carrots, brussels sprouts, and green beans, as well as three kinds of other beans, served over brown rice. I tallied up the money in my purse - $250 - and decided to limit myself to just that amount of cash for all discretionary spending for the month. I rounded up twenty-five items (yes, I counted them) to donate to Goodwill. And I spent a good solid hour on my first work project of the year. Hooray for the new me of 2019!

Now, I know all too well from past experience that today I might eat fewer veggies (though there is a LOT of that chili left over), and make some online purchase I'll regret. Plus, when February comes, the little girls will return for another ten-day visit. The new year's enthusiastic program of self-improvement can't be sustained.

But still... 

Sometimes I think I owe everything I've ever achieved in my life to these fits of fervor for starting something new. This is why I start a new life not only every January 1 (or January 6, in this case), but the first day of every month (or the tenth day now, once the little girls depart). Thank goodness for at least a few days each month of healthy eating, faithful walking, frantic decluttering, bans on spending, and diligent toil on the work projects at hand.

How I love January, and Mondays, and early mornings . . . all beginnings. As the proverb goes, "Well begun is half done." Or as Mark Twain said, "The secret to getting ahead is getting started."

I'm started on 2019 now - a few days late - but I'm started!

Watch out, world! (For the next few days at least), here I come!

Thursday, January 3, 2019

My NEW Goal for the NEW Year

For the last two years I eschewed the usual dreary list of resolutions in favor of focusing on one single bigger goal. My only requirement was that the goal had to be delicious: something that would give me a little shiver of joy every time I thought about it. For 2017, my goal was to submit something somewhere every single month; for 2018 my goal was to have ten hours of creative joy each month. I loved every minute spent achieving both of them.

I floundered a bit as I thought about what my goal for 2019 should be. (Actually, I floundered a bit until I found the goals for 2017 and 2018 as well). Here's what I've chosen, reminding myself that any goal can be revisited, and certainly fine-tuned, as the year progresses.

This is the year I turn 65 - how can this be? I, who still feel ten years old inside? Becoming an official senior citizen does mark a person as officially, in the eyes of the world, old. Or at least, old-ish. So my goal for the year is to embrace THE NEW.

One of my friends, author Tara Dairman, does this in a way that is particularly delightful. She makes a list, written on little pieces of paper, of a whole bunch of things she hasn't done before, things that push her out of her comfort zone and even scare her. She puts the jumbled scraps of paper into a jar and plucks one out each month. Her "new things" have included: 1) get a radically different haircut; 2) go on a social media fast; 3) try being vegan for a month; 4) cook one new recipe each week for a month; and 5) volunteer for a cause she believes in.

There's a whole book called I Dare Me, by Lu Ann Cahn, where the author shares how she shook up her stagnant life by doing a whopping 365 new things, one every single day for the course of an entire year.

I have found, however, that I do best with annual goals that are more narrowly work-focused, as I adore GETTING STUFF DONE. So for 2019, I am going to undertake six different, totally new-to-me work projects:

1. Teaching my first-ever online course (for the Graduate Programs in Children's Literature at Hollins University);
2) Writing my first book on a topic on which I initially knew absolutely nothing (a chapter book set in a club where kids are learning how to do coding);
3) Making my first serious effort to promote my books (as my After-School Superstars chapter book series launches in June);
4) Writing my first verse novel;
5) Making my first real attempt to publish the poems I've been writing for a decade now;
6) Writing and submitting my first shorter-than-500-word picture book (I published several picture books, many years ago, but they were twice as long in terms of text than the new word limit that has become all-but-mandatory these days).

This list lacks the appealing focus on the MONTH as a unit, which I've come to believe is crucial for life goals. I've become wary of any goal that requires me to do something every single day: miss one day, and it's all ruined! To focus on the year as a whole invites procrastination until a frenzied December arrives - another recipe for ruination. So I'm imposing a (weak) monthly structure onto this list.

The first two items on the list are guaranteed to happen simply because they have to. Students are already enrolled in the online course, which will run February-May, and the coding book is already under contract. Here my goal will not result in my achieving something I wouldn't have otherwise accomplished; instead it transforms my attitude toward what I'm already committed to doing. Instead of thinking "An online course? Yikes!!!!" or "Coding?????!!! Are you KIDDING ME, UNIVERSE?" I'm going to be thinking: "Ooh! An online course! What an adventure!" and "Coding!! Way to revitalize that aging brain!"

The second two items on the list are the most important to me. I just HAVE to do better at promoting my books if I'm going to continue to get them published in today's more competitive market, and I'm yearning toward this verse novel with every fiber of my being. Yet these goals are in danger of getting pushed aside by the urgency of the first two. So here I'm committing to logging ten hours a month from January through June on each one.

By June, the online course will be done, the coding book will be written and submitted, and the series will be launched (though there will be plenty of follow-up promotion afterward). Here is where I will turn to the final two new projects: publishing my poems and writing a picture book, logging ten hours a month on each of these, as well as on the verse novel - or maybe five hours a month? I can tweak the plan as needed. Tweaking is all to the good.

So that's the plan! It's a bit unwieldy compared to the crisply focused plans for 2017 and 2018, but I do feel excited about it, and that's all that really matters. I will prove to myself that even four decades into my career, I can still do something NEW! In fact, SIX new things! And find joy in doing them.

As poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes, "And now we welcome the new year, full of things that have never been."

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Final Report on My Creative Joy Goal for 2018

This year my major life goal was to have at least ten hours a month of creative joy. I laid down strict guidelines for what was to count as creative joy: it couldn't just be any old creative or productive activity which gave me happiness in doing it; there had to be an infusion of some extra jolt of rapture. So I couldn't just write for a joyous hour in my little upstairs study in my house. I had to write in a cafe, or with friends, or in nature - or, if at home, I had to light a candle, or at the very least add a dollop of Cool Whip to my usual Swiss Miss hot chocolate, or eat (ooh!) a Pepperidge Farm apple turnover. And I had to log ten hours every single month; I couldn't stockpile extra hours one month against a shortfall in another.

This morning I tallied up the results I documented in my faithful little logbook.
I logged a total of 146.75 hours of creative joy this year, for an average of 12 hours a month. One month - April - gave me a record 22 hours of creative joy. Only one month (June, where I had a lot of travel and family responsibilities) fell short, with 9.25 - but still, so close. So I pretty much met the goal I set for myself.

I have to confess, however, that the goal didn't turn out to be as - well - joyous as I thought it would be. Last year's goal of submitting something somewhere every single month actually brought me more joy than this joy-focused goal did. Even though I feel somewhat embarrassed to admit it, I discovered that product matters more to me than process. I ADORE getting stuff done! That is where I find my greatest satisfaction. Often this past year, I just wanted to skip the extra frills and DO MY WORK. And after a while, the frills themselves became rote: I got used to lighting my candle and adding my Cool Whip to my cocoa - those things didn't feel EXTRA any more, just business-as-usual. That said, I learned that the mere lighting of a candle does indeed add joy to any occasion.

And yet . . . when I reviewed my log just now, there were so many hours of creative joy that I remember so fondly. Writing poetry at the Denver Art Museum's show "Her Paris: Women Artists in the Age of Impressionism." Write-ins at Jeannie Mobley's house in Longmont. Taking an amazing class on travel journaling with my creative-joy buddy Kate Simpson. Writing the first page of Vera Vance, Comics Star in Union Station in Denver. Writing on the front porch of Melanie Crowder's cottage, on a rainy afternoon, as we both served as faculty members for the Big Sur in the Rockies writing workshop. Writing at "my table" in the Hollins University library in Roanoke. Writing the first poems for a possible novel-in-verse on the River Walk in San Antonio. Spending a morning at a wonderful coding-for-kids workshop at Stott Elementary School as research for my next book.

So: creative joy is a good thing - yes, indeed it is!I'm grateful I had 146.75 hours of it this year, vastly more than I would have had if I hadn't made a commitment to prioritize joy in my life. I'm burning a candle here at my desk at I'm writing this post in the pre-dawn darkness of this next-to-the-last day of the year.

I already made my goal for 2019 and will share it in my next post. For now: I hope all of you found joy - creative or otherwise - in  2018.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

What Jigsaw Puzzles Taught Me about Writing - and Life

My younger son often gives me a jigsaw puzzle for Christmas. As soon as I open the box, I lose interest in everything else in my entire life. Nothing else matters- NOTHING - as much as sitting hunched over the card table putting those thousand little pieces together.

This year he invited me to open that gift early. So on the day before Christmas Eve, that's just about all the two of us did. I stayed up late to work on the puzzle. I got up early to work on the puzzle. In the hours in between I worked on the puzzle.

Here it is, in all its splendor: Mont St. Michel, which our family visited on a trip to France fourteen years ago.

Now, much as I love jigsaw puzzles, it's hard for someone as addicted to "progress" as I am not to view them as, well, a total waste of time: to spend so many hours assembling something that will be disassembled the very next day! So I made a list of what I've learned about writing - and life - from jigsaw puzzles:

1. Even the most daunting puzzle can, and will, be completed by doggedly putting into place piece after piece after piece: one piece at a time.

2. Every single piece is important. Oh, the heartbreak when one puzzle piece turns out be missing and there is that great gaping hole in the picture! Details matter.

3. More often than not, the missing piece does turn up, albeit in some dark and dusty corner of the floor. Be willing to look in unexpected places.

4. Sometimes pieces that look SO MUCH as if they fit together. . . don't. You may not discover this until quite late in the process. Be prepared to revisit even your most confident assumptions.

5. It's truly helpful to get the border done first (my puzzle-whiz sister disagrees on this one!). Once you have a grasp of the overall size and shape, the overall concept of a project, the other pieces do start to fall into place.

6. If you're stuck on one section of a puzzle, take a break from it and turn to a different section. Or just move your chair to look at the problematic section from a different angle, or in different light.

7. Your eyes become trained to detect the slightest variations in shade and hue. It's exciting how much you can see once you set your eyes to seeing.

8. Puzzles are completed faster - and are more fun to do - when you do them with someone else. Yay for collaboration! (I owe more than I can say to my critique partners and editors).

9. Yes, jigsaw puzzles are an ephemeral accomplishment. But I've written many books that were never published, and most of my published books are now out of print. Life itself is ephemeral. That doesn't mean we shouldn't seize all the joy we can from life while we're here . . . including the joy of working on a Christmas-gift jigsaw puzzle.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Taming To-Do List Terrors

The holiday season is always a time filled with hustle-and-bustle, but this year I'm feeling additionally daunted by the many tasks that loom before me in the year-to-come. The year will begin with the monthly ten-day visit of my little granddaughters, which means I won't even begin serious work until January is a third over. And there is so much to do in January - so much to do!! I have three mentees through the mentoring program sponsored by the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators who are launching their six-month mentorship with me - and my first-ever online course to prepare for the spring semester (for which to date I've done nothing) - and contracts (with deadlines) on two new chapter books - and a verse novel I'm groping toward which is dear to my heart - and even a reading group I'm in on James Joyce's Ulysses (and if you think the reading for that is a breeze, you are greatly mistaken!)

So of course I went to my little notebook where I figure out all my life problems, and here is what Wise Claudia wrote to Terrified Claudia.

CAN I DO IT ALL? Terrified Claudia wrote.

Wise Claudia replied: OF COURSE!

And then, together, Wise Claudia and Terrified Claudia made a Panic Defusion Plan.

1) I reminded myself that it's amazing and wonderful that I still have my own overwhelming to-do list despite two heartbreaking family tragedies I'm embroiled in. All of these items on my to-do list are MY items, things I'm doing for ME. Which means: I still exist!!! How fortunate I am to have so many projects I'm looking forward to - so much work I truly love to do.

2) I have ALWAYS panicked about getting things done and I have always gotten them done (maybe not ALL of them, and maybe not EXACTLY on time, but close enough). As the saying goes: "The best predictor of the future is the past."

3) My phone now has some feature on it that gives me a weekly report of how many hours a day I average in staring at its little screen. The number is sickening. I hate to even admit it here, but I might as well. For one week, the number was - oh, can I bear to confess this? - THREE HOURS A DAY. Chastened, I did all I could the following week not to reach for the phone, and then learned I had reduced my phone-staring by 30 percent - to a still-staggering two hours a day. It will be a blessing to be FORCED to stop doing this!

4) It will also be a blessing to be forced to be productive even when my granddaughters are here. I will now HAVE to hire nannies sometimes - ooh!!! And I will HAVE to use my downtime to get stuff done rather than, yes, staring at the phone in an exhausted daze. I will have to figure out a way to have work-life balance - and that is a GOOD thing, right?

5) MANY MANY people have VASTLY longer to-do-lists than mine, and they get it all done. One of my writer friends teaches, not one course in a semester, but FIVE - and still writes books - and hosts write-ins at her house - and weaves gorgeous blankets on her loom - and is in a book group, too - and takes long weekly bike rides. If she can do all of that, I can do my piddly stuff.

6) Finally, I'm actually happier when I'm busy. I ADORE getting stuff done. When my boys were little, I'd ask them, "What does Mommy like? and they would give the correct answer: "Progress!"

As life coach Martha Beck wrote in a great blog post, "being alive means having things to do."
We might as well stop fretting about them and simply start getting them done.

So now I'm off to read the novel-length manuscript from mentee number three....

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Betsy-Tacy Ornament Exchange

I love the season of Advent, the weeks leading up to Christmas. I love organizing our church's Mitten Tree for the homeless and our caroling to shut-ins; I love listening to Handel's Messiah on my car's CD player, and baking my mother's Christmas cookies, and lighting candles in the sanctuary on the holy night of Christmas Eve. And I ADORE being part of an ornament exchange organized for ardent fans of the Betsy-Tacy books of Maud Hart Lovelace, which happen to be my favorite books of all books ever written.

In Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown, my favorite title in this favorite series, Betsy, Tacy, and Tib invite their friend Winona to join them in their annual Christmas shopping, where they each bring only a single dime to make a single purchase - of a Christmas ornament. "Nothing," Tacy explains, "is so much like Christmas as a Christmas-tree ornament." 

In the Betsy-Tacy ornament exchange, we are each assigned our ornament recipient; then we try to find an ornament that connects in some way with the books and send it to the recipient, but as one of the series characters to another. 

Here are the ornaments I've received in recent years. 
This one was sent from Betsy to Joe, the boy whom she meets at the start of Heaven to Betsy (as he is eating an apple!) and marries in Betsy's Wedding

This next one took my breath away because I could hardly believe such a perfect Betsy-Tacy ornament could exist in the world. In Heaven to Betsy, Betsy's friends Cab, Herbert, and Tony make fried egg sandwiches for her family for "Sunday night lunch." Tony asks, "Do you like your eggs flopped or unflopped? Speak quick." So I was stunned when I opened the package to find this ornament sent by Cab, Herbert, and Tony to Betsy!

Betsy wants to be a writer, and she scribbles her stories on the promotional pads her father brings home to her from his shoe store, with covers that say, "Ray's Shoe Store. Wear Queen Quality Shoes." A beautiful pencil ornament came to Betsy last year with this neatly typed letter from the owner of Queen Quality Shoes, which wins my prize for most creative Betsy-Tacy ornament-letter ever:

Queen Quality Shoes
1371 North South Street West
St. Paul, Minnesota

Dec. 20, 1905

Mr. Bob Ray
Ray’s Shoe Store
157 Front Street
Deep Valley, Minnesota

Dear Mr. Ray:

Allow me to introduce myself. I am Alden Gildersleeve, owner of Queen Quality Shoes. The Queen Quality salesman for the Deep Valley region, Harvey Fangschlyster, tells me your young daughter Betsy intends to be a writer and, to that end, makes use of our promotional notepads.

As a man who enjoys the written word, this pleases me and I would like to encourage her literary endeavors. Harvey also told me your amusing story about the holiday shopping Betsy and her friends do each year. I thought I would add to the fun by sending her a pencil to go with those notepads.

My best regards to her and, of course, to you, one of my best customers. 

With warm wishes for a Merry Christmas and a happy and prosperous new year, I remain,

Yours truly

Alden Gildersleeve


I thought no ornament could equal the perfection of these three, but this year a small package arrived yesterday, sent from Tacy to Betsy in remembrance of their many performances of Rossini's Cat Duet. Here is Lois Lenski's illustration of their debut Cat Duet: 
Here is the fabulously wonderful ornament I received:
It is true that nothing is so much like Christmas as a Christmas-tree ornament - especially an ornament sent from one book lover to another.