Monday, November 11, 2019

Writing Advice: How to Make Slogging Less Sloggy

I'm back from a glorious few days in Tucson at my friend Lisa's wedding, which I also turned into a mini-writing retreat for myself.

I was bound and determined to trudge and slog my way into finding the magic at the heart of my new work-in-progress.

And I did!

Here is what I learned about making trudging less trudgy, drudgery less drudgy, and slogging less sloggy.

Well, the first thing I already knew, but knowing doesn't always lead to doing

1) Toil is less toilsome if you do it somewhere beautiful and inspiring - indeed, in lots of different beautiful and inspiring places. In Tucson I sought, and found, new writing spots every day: a most pleasant mission.

I wrote in the Crave Coffee Bar, where Lisa's writing group meets.

I wrote in the downtown main branch of the Pima County Public Library.
The next two places were extra-special, super-duper spots for writing.

I wrote at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum.

And I wrote at the Tucson Botanical Gardens:

This made me so happy, so happy!

The other thing I learned about de-sloggifying a writing slog was something I should have known but didn't, or at least didn't fully appreciate.

2) Sometimes you feel like you're slogging forward, but what you're really doing is slogging in place, just spinning your wheels and going nowhere. This tends to be because what you need is NOT to keep on writing in the desperate hope of making eventual progress, but to sit yourself down and figure out where your story needs to be going. You need a PLAN. If you already have a plan (which I did in this case), you need a BETTER PLAN.

I spent a lot of my writing time in Tucson making a better plan for the rest of the book - a plan I actually feel excited about, a plan that makes me look forward to my next writing stints with anticipation rather than trepidation.

In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard has this to say:

When you are stuck in a book; when you are well into writing it, and know what comes next, and yet cannot go on; when every morning for a week or a month you enter its room and turn your back on it; then the trouble is either of two things. Either the structure has forked, so the narrative, or the logic, has developed a hairline fracture that will shortly split it up the middle - or you are approaching a fatal mistake. What you had planned will not do.

Now, Annie Dillard, who prides herself on making the writing life sound as painful as possible, says that "you cannot do nothing" (true) and that "of course it will mean starting again" (false). What it means is just FIXING what you have: NOT throwing it away and starting all over again (as I see too many of my writing students all too willing to do), but simply figuring out the problem with the story (this story, not a completely new story) and SOLVING it.

In Tucson I figured out a lot of things that need to be handled differently in Boogie Bass, Sign Language Star: hooray! I figured them out while writing in some truly beautiful places and also had the privilege of seeing a dear friend marry the love of her life.

I would call this a trip worth taking.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

In Praise of Slogging and Trudging

I'm now partway through writing the fourth book in my After-School Superstars series for Holiday House. This is the series set in an after-school program where every month is a different themed camp. So far I've written Nixie Ness, Cooking Star (cooking camp), Vera Vance, Comics Star (comic book camp), and Lucy Lopez, Coding Star (computer coding camp). Camp number four will star Boogie Bass, in sign language camp.

I was thrilled when the editorial team at Holiday House encouraged me to do a sign-language book. Ooh! And Boogie is probably my favorite character in the previous books: as his name suggests, so funny and dear. Yet so far I'm still in the slogging and trudging stage of the writing process. This is the stage where I don't quite know where the book is going (this despite having a decent outline, of sorts), the stage where the story still hasn't yet come fully alive for me, the stage where I simply write one sentence, and then another sentence, and then another. And then another.

I would feel worried about this book if I didn't know this has been my process for all my books. I always start out this way, with my hand moving across the page for an hour a day, in the hopes that sooner or later the magic will happen. Until that point, there is a certain amount of sheer drudgery, which brings to mind a comment made to me by a former Philosophy Department chair: he asked me to serve on some particularly dreary committee, and I replied, "It just sounds like so much drudgery." And he said, "But you're so good at drudgery!"

And I am.

But I'm starting to get itchy: what if this time the magic DOESN'T come? Oh, but it has to! It just has to!

One problem for me right now is that although I've done a fair amount of the requisite slogging and trudging, I can't say I've done it every day. Mine has been intermittent slogging and sporadic trudging. Faithful drudgery, I'm sad to say, yields much better results than drudgery every-once-in-a-while. I need to put my nose to that good ol' grindstone and keep it there!

Luckily, tomorrow I'm heading off to Tucson for a dear friend's wedding. The actual ceremony will take place on Saturday, but I decided to go a couple of days earlier to make this a little writing retreat and general escape-from-real-life. I will be slogging amidst the saguaro cacti! I will trudging in a charming cafe near the university! I will raise my eyes from the drudgery of the page and feast upon a desert landscape!

I feel the magic on its way to me right now, if I just slog and trudge a little bit longer...

Friday, November 1, 2019

When Even Your Best Survival Strategies Are No Longer Working

Confession time: my blog has been boring lately, even to me. I've been reduced to writing about my defunct furnace and snow-day activities because I can't bear to write any more posts about the really sad, scary, and unbearably stressful things in my life. Plus, writing about them would be boring, too. I have discovered what few people talk about: the sheer tedium of massive life problems that DO NOT GO AWAY AND ARE NOT GOING TO GO AWAY ANY TIME SOON. How many times can I say: My life is hard! My life is hard! My life is hard! Even I get sick of the sound of myself wailing this over and over again.

So today's topic: what DO you do when even your best survival strategies for getting through Hard Stuff aren't working any more? When you are totally and utterly and irredeemably stuck in the La Brea Tar Pits of your life, how the heck do you get (at least partially) unstuck?

I'm quite interested to see how I'm going to answer this one!


1. First of all, make sure that you really ARE employing your usual survival strategies, rather than just thinking that you're doing this. My "four pillars of happiness" have always been: writing, reading, walking, and spending time with friends. Those are my fail-proof paths to happiness. But they aren't working any more. WAHHH! Oh, but wait.... during this past week of snowstorms and freezing temps, I actually didn't take any walks. None at all. Hmmm. And, despite putting FINISH CHAPTER FOUR of my new book in all caps on each day's to-do list, somehow that final page still isn't written. Hmmm. A friend dropped off a tantalizing new book for me to read, and somehow I haven't opened it yet. Hmmm. And I am blessed with having friends galore who would be most happy to while away a few hours with me, and yet I haven't summoned them. Hmmm.. . .

So: before you give up on your usual strategies, make sure you're giving them a fair chance.

This may be the single most important thing I'm telling myself today.

2. But what if you aren't using your usual strategies because you simply can't make yourself do it? The worst thing about depression is how it stops us from doing the very things that would make us less depressed. So what do we do then? Huh? Huh?

Well, when you do have a flicker of energy (I'm having a flicker of energy right now), take steps to make certain activities more likely. Call a friend and make a date for a walk (two of my survival strategies in one!) - or in my case, call a friend and make a writing date (ditto).

It also helps if I remove all competing temptations: the I-pad for Sudoku, the phone for social media. If I take away literally everything else, I find myself thinking, oh, well, I guess I might as well write the final page of that chapter after all.

3. You could also try not just maintaining your usual strategies but intensifying them. Instead of taking a walk, go on a hike with some elevation gain, or try running (though frankly I can't see myself doing either of these). Instead of assigning yourself one page a day to write, assign yourself two. Cram your days filled with projects and play dates.

4. Consider some dazzling new strategies. In my case, it would be flying to Paris for a long weekend to be all by myself in a cozy hotel near a cozy cafe where I would sip hot chocolate and nibble on croissants and write poetry. I COULD DO THIS. I'd have to cancel a bunch of stuff, but at this point my mental health might be a legitimate reason for a few days of "sick leave." It would cost a bunch of money, but one of the good things about my current woes is that money is hemorrhaging out of my life at such a hideous rate (attorney bills, nursing home bills) that all of it is going to be gone soon anyway. I can truly go to Paris for a week on less that what I pay for a single day of our lawyer's time. Even depressed as I am, I do feel a little tingle of tingly-ness at the thought of doing this.

So these are my thoughts today. Now my challenge: take this advice I am giving myself. Writing this blog post was a first step in the right direction.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Snow Day Blues and Bliss

It snowed last week here in Boulder: a full six inches a full week before Halloween.

But pre-Halloween snow is not unusual in Colorado, and it gave me another reason to be grateful that my furnace was repaired before the first flakes fell. Besides, it was 70 degrees the next day, and every speck of snow melted. All the beauty of snow, with none of the inconvenience.

But then it snowed again yesterday, and it's supposed to snow again today, and tomorrow, and the day after that. This snow is less pretty, and there are heaps of it, and right now it's 18 degrees out there.

This is not what my father liked to call "October's bright blue weather."

Yesterday I was supposed to give a talk at an SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) gathering in Colorado Springs, 90 miles south of here. I had been looking forward to this for months, but I bailed on it that morning, too wimpy to risk driving that far in dubious road conditions. I totaled a car two years ago on a sunny but slushy road, and it has disinclined me to repeat that experience.

But it broke my heart to cancel this commitment, and then the snow wasn't even coming down THAT hard during the day. Could I have made the drive if I weren't such a pitiful, pathetic wimp at snow driving?

In the evening I had a ticket for a church outing to the Boulder Dinner Theater to see Mamma Mia; I had spent the previous week happily humming "Waterloo" and "Dancing Queen." Shamed by my earlier timidity, I decided to try to undertake the merely five-mile local drive. But after losing control of my car (traveling a mere ten miles an hour) and careening into the curb, I turned back. The Dancing Queen would have to dance without me. 


But now for the bliss of snow days.

Back home again, I put on my warm nightgown, robe, and fuzzy slippers, heated up a can of Progresso tomato-basil soup, and fixed myself an English muffin with melted Swiss cheese on top (just like Heidi). I curled up to re-read the funny, clever, touching novel Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher, a novel written entirely in recommendation letters penned by a curmudgeonly creative writing professor. It was a lovely evening.

Now I've decided that I'm going nowhere for the next three days unless my stalwart son Christopher, who is a professional driver with a sturdy four-wheel-drive vehicle, is willing to serve as my chauffeur. I'm going to make this a three-day writing retreat, planning to make stunning progress on the first draft of Boogie Bass, Sign Language Star, as well as an overdue book review and other pleasant writing tasks. I'm well stocked with soup, English muffins, Swiss cheese, and MANY MANY jars of jam. 

Snow days are a gift from the gods, so I'm not going to squander mine on my vices of Sudoku and mindless scrolling through social media sites. I'm going to savor every sip of hot chocolate and every page of scribbled book progress.

Let it snow!

Monday, October 21, 2019

The Good of An Extremely Irritating Inconvenience

My furnace stopped working on Friday morning.

The good news: The repair guy did come that morning - hooray, hooray - and diagnosed the problem as a failed  motor - a mere $800 repair instead of the cost of a full furnace replacement.

The bad news: The motor has to be ordered from Somewhere Else. It may arrive this week. Or next. It all depends on Someone Else. And then when it does come, the dispatcher will have to put me on the Schedule. Other people may be ahead of me on the Schedule. But it should all be done in seven-to-ten business days - or is it that the new motor should arrive in seven-to-ten business days? To be honest, I was too crabby to process all these details. But just to be clear, ten business days means a possible full TWO WEEKS WITHOUT HEAT.

Right now it's 53 degrees in my house.

And it's supposed to snow on Wednesday, with a high of 38. And snow again on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday.


In the scheme of things, this is merely an inconvenience.

An extremely irritating inconvenience.

But  here is the good of an extremely irritating inconvenience.

When my heat comes back on again, I will be so happy! However grave my real problems are - and they are grave indeed - I'd much rather have my real problems PLUS nice warm cozy heat in my house than have my real problems with NO heat and predicted snow.

Wouldn't it be lovely to be typing this whiny complaint with fingers that weren't stiff from cold? Oh, it would, it would! And this problem, unlike my real problems, can actually be solved - and will actually be solved, even if it takes seven-to-ten (freezing) business days to solve it.

In the meantime, I can huddle under heaps of blankets with a faithful (and warm!) little dog curled up beside me. Last night I re-read The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder, glad that I'm not experiencing endless blizzards on the bleak Dakota Territory prairie for seven months with temps of 40 below zero and having to heat my house by burning sticks of twisted hay.

It could be so much worse.

And in seven-to-ten business days it will be so much better.

And I can worry about my real problems in comfort once again.

A mere hour after I posted this, the repair place called and said the part was indeed on its way, and that if it arrived on time, I could get on the schedule for TODAY! And it did, and I did, and I have heat again! I think they tell you the seven-to-ten business day thing just to be on the safe side. And to help you exercise your gratitude muscles when your heat is restored after a mere four regular days.

So here are a few further lessons I've gleaned from my four days in a cold house:

1) Sometimes things do turn out to be less terrible than you think. Not always! But sometimes.

2) It pays to be pleasantly persistent. I did keep on calling the repair place, verging on being annoying but managing to express appreciation for every glimmer of hope offered to me. Usually I have only two modes in life: complete doormat docility or raging inferno. Calm assertiveness served me better this time.

3) It's really not the repair place's fault if a part has to be ordered from somewhere else. It's really not the job of the universe to keep everything I will ever need in stock for my convenience.

4) Small blessings are lovely! That comforting sound of the furnace fan coming on, and the waves of warmth radiating from the vents! Hooray for small blessings!

Monday, September 30, 2019

In Praise of Scheduled Wallowing

I seldom listen to music while driving; I just obsessively think my own thoughts. My son never drives without listening to music. So it happened that, driving with him a week ago, I heard on one of his Sirius stations a song from the first Mamma Mia movie: Colin Firth singing, "I can still recall . . . our last summer . .  I still see it all. . . "

Suddenly I was in tears.

The song pierced its way into my heart - this recalling of "our last summer" - where it's clear that this isn't "last" in the sense of "most recent," but in the sense of "last ever" - the poignant loss of something never to be reclaimed.

For the next few days I couldn't stop listening to the song over and over again, crying each time, recalling certain "last summers" in my own life: the last summer my husband still lived at home with me before moving to a skilled nursing facility, the last summer he was actually able to travel with me, to see the total solar eclipse on my birthday, in Red Cloud, Nebraska, childhood home of Willa Cather. . .  And might this past summer turn out to be my last summer with my two little granddaughters, pending the outcome of a looming and terrifying court case? Friends' tragic losses haunted me, too.

I cried. And I cried. And I cried.

It felt so good.

I've been so busy being cheerful despite my heartaches that it's been a long time since I've cried. (One also cries less, in my experience, while on anti-depressants, from which I'm now taking a break.) Apparently I had a huge pent-up need to cry, and kindly Colin Firth helped me do it.

Back in my twenties, when I lived in Takoma Park, Maryland, I was seeing a brilliant therapist named Judy Alexander. I started seeing Judy after one particular boyfriend dumped me. I had been dumped by boyfriends many times before - so many, in fact, that I developed a terrific policy for dealing with a dumping: the day a boyfriend dumped me was the day I went to the travel agent and bought myself a plane ticket to Europe. I went three times on this policy: to England, to Greece, and to Paris/Prague. But this most recent dumping kept on twisting a knife into my heart even after my return from Greece.

Judy told me I should set aside fifteen minutes each day to be sad about the breakup: look at pictures of the two of us together, play sad songs that reminded me of him, just let all the sadness out.

"Why should I be sad?" I demanded. "He's not sad!"

She gently replied with a question of her own: "Why should you let him determine your feelings?"

That was some of the best advice I ever received. I started looking forward all day long to those fifteen minutes when I could luxuriate in grief - downright wallow in it. Oh, the relief - even the joy - that can be found in wallowing!

I may be done with Colin Firth's song for a while now; I'm crying less each time I play it. But I'm not yet done with grieving for all I've lost, and all I may be in the process of losing. I'm going to continue to follow Judy Alexander's wise counsel and set aside small, fixed amounts of time for wallowing in heartbreak. My poor heart, it turns out, longs for periodic sessions of weeping and wailing.

Dear heart, I'm going to give those to you. I'll find more sad songs for you. Suggestions for a wallowing soundtrack, anyone?

Sometimes we all just need to wallow.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Learning from My Own Characters; or Ringing the Bell Choir Blues

There are some things I am (relatively) good at: writing, teaching, giving talks, getting a lot of work done in a little amount of time.

There are other things I am (absolutely) terrible at: math, sports, cooking - and playing musical instruments in front of other people.

A long time ago I played in the church bell choir because ringers are always needed, and I consider myself to be a Helpful Person. I loved the practices - what's not to love about making music with your friends? But I dreaded the performances with a sick desperate terror and barely managed to get through them with paralyzing stage fright.

Here's the thing about bell choir. You are the ONLY one playing your bell, so if you don't play that note (and that note is in the melody line) - or if you play that note at the wrong time - or if you play the sharp of that note instead of the natural, or the natural of that note instead of the sharp - THE WHOLE PIECE IS RUINED, AND IT IS TOTALLY YOUR FAULT, AND YOU ARE THE ONE WHO HAS DISAPPOINTED ALL THE OTHER, MORE CAPABLE BELL RINGERS, AND YOU SHOULD WEAR A PAPER BAG OVER YOUR HEAD FOR THE REST OF YOUR DAYS!

Or at least that's how it seemed to me.

Finally, after a couple of agonizing years, I decided I could be a Helpful Person in other, less stressful ways and quit the bell choir. Luckily, my older son is by all accounts the star of the bell choir, responsible for playing as many as thirteen bells. So I felt our family as a whole was doing its bell-choir share.

But occasionally I'm called back to be a substitute when another ringer is off on vacation or otherwise unavailable.

"Can you find someone else?" I plead.

A search is made.

"I'm so sorry, but there is nobody else who can do it."

I gulp.

Then I say, "Okay."

Thus it happened that this past Sunday I played a D-flat and C-flat bell in "El Shaddai." And guess what? I messed up during the performance, missing several crucial melody notes (foiled by a page turn). I couldn't even make myself return to my pew afterward. Instead I fled sobbing to the parking lot. Yes, I was actually in tears over those missed notes.

Here's what makes my bell-playing trauma even more ridiculous. Fifteen years ago I published a book, Perfectly Chelsea, about a little girl in her church life. In the chapter titled "Make a Joyful Noise," Chelsea is playing in the bell choir, messes up during the performance, and totally falls apart.

Here's the illustration by Jacqueline Rogers where Chelsea looks EXACTLY like I did this past Sunday.
And here's how Chelsea reacts afterward:

"I played horribly!" Chelsea cried. "Every single note was wrong!"

"Oh, Chelsea." Mrs. Phillips led her to a pew and made her sit down. "Do you think God hears your mistakes?"

Well, if He wasn't completely deaf, He did. 

"Do you think God is saying, 'Chelsea Garing was supposed to play a C sharp in measure eighteen, and she played a C natural?"

Chelsea had no idea what God was thinking. Probably He was sitting up in heaven with His hands clapped over His ears.

"God is saying, 'Here's a girl who is trying her best to make beautiful music as a gift to me and to the whole congregation.' God doesn't hear the notes you play out loud; God hears the notes you play in your heart."

Chelsea hoped Mrs. Phillips was right.

Mrs. Phillips went on. "The Bible says, 'Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands.' Sometimes the noise sounds like music, and sometimes it just sounds like - noise. The important thing is the joy."

Okay: the important thing is the joy. That's what Mrs. Phillips says, and I'm the one who created Mrs. Phillips and wrote those words for her to say. So I should know!

Apparently people in church liked the performance; a lot of them said they did. Maybe God liked it, too. Our new pastor, who is dragging us into the 21st century, put up a video of it on You Tube (you can't see me in it, fortunately; I'm in the second row; my son is the one at the end of the front row). I listened to it on my phone earlier today and could barely locate where my mistake was. Then I listened to it again just now on my computer, with fewer distractions, and yes, I heard my mistakes, and heard some other people's mistakes, too.

I also heard music played lovingly for the glory of God.

After Sunday's tears I vowed I'd never play in the bell choir again: never, never, never! But if I hadn't played, given that no other sub was available, 100 percent of my notes would have gone missing. Realistically, I probably just missed half a dozen, max. So I managed to offer up at least 90 percent of my notes as a gift from my heart.

If my characters (with my wise assistance) can learn important life lessons at aged ten, why is it so hard for me to learn them at age sixty-five?