Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Just Write the Darned Thing!

Sometime last year a professor friend invited me to contribute a chapter to an edited collection he was putting together on a certain Scholarly Topic. I love to accept invitations like this! I still want to remain professionally active, but I'm sick unto death of submitting articles to journals for the brutality of double-blind anonymous peer review. It's so much more fun to write an article for someone who actually WANTS something actually written by ME. 

I didn't have much of an idea for what I might write, but the deadline to send in an abstract was looming, so I did some pondering and came up with an idea for the Thing I Would Write. I sent it off to my professor friend, and he liked the idea for this Thing. He got a contract for the book, as yet unwritten, with a table of contents that included me as a contributor and my Thing as one of the chapters.

But then, when I started seriously reading up on the Thing, I saw that the main thing I had wanted to say about the Thing had already been said, thirty years ago, by a Brilliant Prominent Scholar - and said vastly better than I was going to say it.

Needless to say, this took a considerable amount of wind out of my sails. But it was too late to back out of the Thing. I somehow had to write the Thing anyway. 

Still, I moped and whimpered and kept wishing I hadn't said yes to writing the Thing. 

Finally, I realized that, as I wasn't going to back out, all I could do, limp as my sails were hanging, absent any stiff breeze to sail me along, was, yes, just Write the Darned Thing.

I plugged along on it diligently for an hour a day, day after day. I found some interesting background information to include about the history of the Thing. I came up with half a dozen fairly worthwhile insights of my own into the Thing. I reframed my discussion so that the part derivative from Brilliant Prominent Scholar was no longer the main point of the Thing, but just one of many points I made along the way, with plenty of effusive citations to her.

When I had done the best I could do, with a sigh I pressed SEND.

And you know what? The editors read the Thing right away and thought it was just fine. In fact, they used the word "great." I don't think it's a Great Thing myself. I think it's a Nice Little Thing. The single best part of it is still the points made by the Brilliant Prominent Scholar. But hey, that's why she's a Brilliant Prominent Scholar, and not me.

There's a ditty I learned as a child, from Henry Van Dyke: "Use what talents you possess. The woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best." 

There is room in the world - and in the academic world, too - for lots of voices raised in song. In the end, I'm glad I said yes to singing my own little song and wrote this Nice Little Thing.

Friday, February 2, 2024

A Month Post Elbow Surgery: A Lovely Little Miracle Each Day

It's almost a month now since I had my elbow surgery, on January 4, following my parking-lot fall and fracture two days before Christmas. 

This was NOT how I had wanted to start 2024. 

2022 and 2023 had been two of the happiest years of my life, and both began SPLENDIDLY.

2022 began with my taking myself all alone to Paris for a solo writing retreat and soon after going on for ONE HOUR and meeting the man I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. 

2023 began with having my editor - who had rejected my previous middle-grade novel - reading my submission of The Last Apple Tree, loving it instantly, and offering me a contract a week later. 

2024 began with elbow surgery. 

Certainly, this was an omen that this would be a completely sucky year. I would spend months in painful recovery, unable to engage in any of my usual sweet life activities, and the whole year would be RUINED. Right? 


If you have to break a bone, I heartily recommend breaking your non-dominant elbow. Yes, there was pain at first, and massive inconvenience, but a week after surgery, the doctor took off the bulky, incapacitating splint and sling and ordered me to PT. My sister sent me this bear, from Vermont Teddy Bear, to keep me company through all of it (note that he has a cast on HIS left elbow, too!)

Then the series of miracles began. One by one, day by day, I started to be able to do things I thought I could never do again. 

My first and best victory: getting a dab of jam on the index finger of my left hand and being able to LICK IT OFF!

More victories followed.

Taking off my top ALL BY MYSELF without having to have someone else assist by giving one sleeve a little tug! 

Shampooing my hair with BOTH HANDS! And being able to get my left arm WET!

Sleeping comfortably on either side (HUGE)! And typing with both hands without discomfort (HUGEST OF ALL!). 

At church last Sunday, my first time there since the surgery, when people asked how my recovery was going, I would demonstrate a few of these stunning accomplishments, e.g., reenacting the momentous licking of my index finger. But then to one woman I said, mournfully, "But I fear I have to face the fact that I will never again be able to reach behind my head to gather my hair into a rubber band." I started to dramatize the impossibility of doing this - the left arm just wouldn't GO that far - and suddenly realized that NOW I COULD!

Hooray for the licking of jam at will! Hooray for comfort in typing and sleeping! Hooray for being able to GET YOUR ARM INTO THE SLEEVE OF A COAT! And DRIVE A CAR! And FLOSS YOUR TEETH!

Hooray for learning how many fears are unfounded. 

2024 is turning out to be a wonderful year, after all.  

Saturday, January 20, 2024

How Should You Spend the First, Best Hour of Your Day? (Part II)

In the previous post I confessed that I have been spending the first, best hour of my day NOT on writing (my passion, my profession, my identity, my bliss) but on New York Times word puzzles. 

My work-in-progress was stalled. I thought it was simply because I was stuck, unsure where the story should go next. In fact, I told myself, maybe sinking for hours into the La Brea Tar Pits of the puzzles might be, oh, I don't know, a sort-of meditative practice that might actually help me get unstuck

But of course, the truth I was avoiding was that I was stuck because I was allowing myself to do New York Times puzzles instead of putting in a faithful hour a day sitting, pen in hand, trying to unstick myself. 

It was my sweetheart, ruthless though loving truth teller that he is, who pointed this out to me. 

I had to admit he might be on to something.

So for two solid weeks back in December, I made a commitment to myself to return to devoting that first, best hour each day to writing. 

I prepared everything the night before, carrying my writing materials and hourglass up to my writing nook and even filling the electric kettle with enough hot water for a pot of heavily sugared tea, with teapot, mug, and teabag in readiness on the kitchen table.

I allowed myself to get up even earlier than usual, at 4:00 (the earlier I get up, the happier I am all day, though impossibly smug). While the water heated - maybe for ten minutes - I did steal a peek at the puzzle. Cold turkey was a bit too daunting. But then, teapot filled, I tiptoed upstairs, settled myself on the loveseat, and wrote - WROTE! - till 5:30 or so.

The pages came pouring out of me. I wrote the entire last third of a 45,000-word draft in those two weeks, and the scenes I wrote were GOOD. Dare I say, with an author's besotted love for her own creation, they were WONDERFUL. All day long, I hugged myself with happiness for what I had written and could hardly wait till the next morning to see what would happen next as the story hurtled toward its climax and denouement with the fabulous force of momentum making it happen. 

Oh, and I still finished the puzzle every day, doing it in bits and pieces, as a palette cleanser between other activities, which turned out to be a much better way to approach puzzles, at least for me. 

Oh, dear ones, try using the best hour of YOUR day for what you love best. It might work as much magic for you as it has for me. 

Monday, January 15, 2024

How Should You Spend the First, Best Hour of Your Day? (Part I)

For most of my career as a children's book author, I published a book for young readers just about every year while working full-time as a tenured professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado and raising a family. My only secret was this: I devoted the first, best hour of the day to my writing. 

That is the whole entire secret right there. Wired to be an early-morning person, I woke up every morning at 5 a.m. (without an alarm), made myself a steaming mug of Swiss Miss hot chocolate, and curled up on the couch with my beloved clipboard, pad of narrow-ruled white paper, and Pilot Razor Point pen, to write for exactly one hour, timed with my most-beloved-of-all hourglass. 

Then, almost a decade ago, I took early retirement from CU. Now I had all day to write! Now I could write whenever I wanted to, all day long!

I did keep on writing books for young readers. But - funny thing - I wrote not MORE but LESS than I had before. With all day to do it, I also had all day NOT to do it. NOT doing it started to become my default setting. 

What did I do instead with my first, best hour of the day? Well, some of it was spent helping to take care of live-in grandchildren, a worthy activity I don't regret. But in recent years - oh, this is terrible to say!! - I have been giving the first, best hour of the day to New York Times puzzles. First Wordle, which after all, does take just two minutes followed by the fun of texting my score to a select few recipients. The new Connections puzzle, though sometimes infuriating, can be dispatched in five or ten minutes. 

But the Spelling Bee... oh, the Spelling Bee... 

It's possible to get lost in it for hours. Once upon a time I was satisfied if I got past the lower levels of Solid, Nice, Great, and Amazing, all the way to Genius. But then I learned there was the level of Queen Bee, where you found absolutely every word recognized by the puzzle. I became so obsessed with the NYT Spelling Bee that sometimes in the night I'd wake up and realize it was now past 1:00 a.m. here in Colorado (the puzzle for each day is released at 3 a.m. ET), and I'd actually leap out of bed to start doing it. 

Would you say I had a PROBLEM? 

To answer my original question: what you should be doing in your first, best hour of the day (whenever that falls for YOU in clock time) is what matters most to YOU (whatever that is in your own personal priorities). It should almost certainly NOT be hunting for one last eight-letter word starting with CO and one last six-letter word starting with PL. 

In the next post I will share my somewhat successful journey toward reclaiming that first, best hour of the day for the purposes of my true, best self. 

Thursday, January 11, 2024

Starting the New Year - 11 Days Late

Things are looking up for me and my broken elbow! Surgery with the very young but very capable orthopedic doctor a week ago today! I am now the proud owner of six screws and one metal plate to hold my once-shattered elbow together from now until the grave. Then a few frustrating but healing days with the left arm cradled - i.e., imprisoned - in a huge, heavy, bulky, awkward, almost utterly incapacitating splint and sling. Then.... yesterday! ... the post-op visit where the loathed splint was removed and the arm was set free! Hooray! I can cuddle beside my sweetheart without this forbidding barrier of the enormous, lifeless arm lying in bed between us. I can type with both hands! 

What else in life is needed for happiness? I now know that the answer to that is: nothing.

But. . . I am so far behind on EVERYTHING! The year went right ahead and got started WITHOUT ME and now I'm panting - with my still-depleted store of energy - to catch up.  Already, on January 11, I'm ready to give up on 2024 and admit defeat. Maybe 2025 will be better? 

But this would be just a tad premature, don't you think? I have to find a way to give myself permission to start the new year 11 days late - or maybe, start it on Monday, the 15th, halfway through January, which feels a little less random. Or even... just ease into it? Just start doing a few of my pleasant little piddly tasks (like writing this blog post) and see what happens?

I've already developed, over the past decades, a few ways to trick myself into summoning the motivational energy that comes from new beginnings even when these beginnings don't fall on the most auspicious times of day or month or year. I fell in love with my trusty, trademark hourglass in part because the new beginning began whenever I turned it over, whether right on the dot of 5 a.m. or at 5:03 or even - heaven forbid - at 7:30. I inaugurated the practice of starting a new life on the first day of each month just so I could have that "5-4-3-2-1 Happy New Year!" energy twelve times a year. 

The saying popular in the years of my youth - "Today is the first day of the rest of your life" - was designed just to allow us to have a new beginning WHENEVER we need one. Today can always be the first day of SOMETHING.

So: today is the first day of a life with a partially healed fractured elbow and partially restored level of functionality. I'm giving 2024 another chance.

Starting today.

Monday, January 1, 2024

Starting All Over Again in the New Year - with One Big, Unexpected Hindrance

 Happy new year!

 As you may or may not have noticed, and as I myself barely noticed, I haven't posted on this blog since May. I was too busy with my sweet new romance, and feeling discouraged about the current children's book marketplace, and trying to decide whether I would ever write another book again, and then finally falling in love with a new book idea and spending the rest of the year happily scribbling away in my upstairs writing nook on my hour a day of writing bliss.

 But now it's the new year, and I was filled with plans for starting all over again with every once-beloved activity under the sun. Blogging again! Teaching an online course for the graduate programs in children's literature at Hollins University! Working with my mentees through the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators! And revising my beautiful book to share with my writing group and then with my agent and editor. I could hardly wait for the new year to begin!

 Alas, two days before Christmas, I was off to the grocery store with my two little granddaughters, and one of them was leaping and bounding with wild, uninhibited joy for the coming holidays, when she leaped and bounded so exuberantly that I tripped over her and fell hard onto the parking lot of King Soopers. “Are you okay?” a concerned stranger asked me. “No!” I wailed. Because I wasn't. He helped me up, both my grown sons were summoned, I was off to urgent care, and it turned out to be a broken elbow, with surgery now scheduled for this coming Thursday.

 What is to become of all my cherished plans? How can I type with one arm in a sling? Thank goodness it is my left elbow and not my right, but it is much harder than I realized to accomplish the tasks of daily life with only one good arm. Adjustments will need to be made. In fact, I am composing this right now, as an experiment, using the dictation feature on my laptop. Somehow this will all work out, right? So many of my friends have had similar surgeries, and they have survived. I suspect I will, too.

 At least I am writing this blog post today, just as I promised myself I would do. So I'm counting this as an auspicious start to the challenging first month of this new year.

 Wishing all of you health and happiness, and avoidance of unpleasant encounters with gravity, in 2024!


Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Help! I've Forgotten How to Write a Book!

Buoyed by my recent success (after a stretch of discouragement) in writing my most recent book, The Last Apple Tree, and selling it to my favorite publisher, I thought, hey, this was fun! I think I'll write another book!  

So I gathered up my trusty clipboard, pad of paper, and Pilot P-500 pen, and prepared to start thinking about what my next book should be.

There was only one problem.

I had forgotten how to write a book. 

Now, given that The Last Apple Tree will be my 63rd book, in a career spanning 40 years, plus my good-sized stack of unpublished and unpublishable books, you might think this is the kind of thing one would remember. Alas, you would be wrong. I believe it was Eudora Welty who said, "Each book teaches me how to write IT." But not how to write the next one.

Still, in case it might jog my memory, I dragged out the notes I had made when I was groping toward The Last Apple Tree.

They are, to put it mildly, a mess. I started out jotting down something I had heard on NPR about the origin of song some 270 million years ago. Ooh! And then I wrote random things like, "firsts and lasts" and "noise and silence" and "noise pollution" and "FINDING YOUR OWN MUSIC." Plus unhelpful questions like: "How can this be made kidlike?" and "What can children do?" 

Page 2 of the notes was not much better:

By this point, I recalled that my plan HAD been to write something about heirloom apple trees. So I wrote lines like "orchards involve planning for the future" and "man plants a tree that will outlive him." This was barely a start, so I wrote, "but who are my characters? what is their story?" Yes, these would indeed be useful things for an author to know! More random notes: "2 dif. families" - "quiet book - but: something big? some big loss?" 

On page 3, I start listing possible candidates for the "big sad thing": death, Alzheimer's, family shame, poverty, prison, bad thing in family history . . . 

The pages of notes continued to accumulate, with more questions I struggled to answer: "HOW WOULD THIS TIE IN TO APPLES?" "What ELSE is going to happen?" "What do each of them WANT?" and some encouraging comments to myself such as "I am starting to love this book!" By page 11 of the notes, I was urging myself to start actually writing the thing: "JUST START WRITING - PLEASE DO THIS!" followed by the crucial question: "but: where does the book BEGIN?" 

I did start writing, and I see on p. 14 of the notes that the writing is going badly. "MY WRITING TASK FOR TODAY  - figure out why I have so little interest in this book and how to fix it!!!" with a list of  "THINGS I STILL (think) I LIKE" and another list of "PROBLEMS WITH THE STORY - MANY!! Then, later on the same page in huge capitals: "HELP!!!" Then many pages headed "SALVAGING THIS BOOK" and" SALVAGING THIS BOOK, CONT'D" with the agonized question "SHOULD I THROW OUT EVERYTHING SO FAR?" And many sad-face emojis. 

I went on to produce a total of 51 pages in the same tiny, scribbly writing, over a period of months, as I continued going back and forth between actual writing and reflecting on what I had written and what I might write next. And then: I had a full draft! And my writing group, the Writing Roosters, read it and gave me heaps and heaps of comments, and I made heaps and heaps of changes! And then my agent loved it, and my editor offered a contract on it, and I've now done three more rounds of revision/edits for her.

So did re-reading these old notes help me remember how to write a book? Sort of. The main thing they helped me remember was that WRITING IS HARD! WRITING TAKES TIME! EXPECT FALSE STARTS! EXPECT A ROLLERCOASTER OF SELF-PRAISE AND SELF-DOUBT WITH OCCASIONAL DARK NIGHTS OF THE AUTHOR'S SOUL! 

That was helpful, after all. 

I might as well jump on that rollercoaster today.