Monday, October 4, 2021

Not THE One, But Still a Very Nice One

I spent the entire month of September in a frenzy of fretting and fuming over reviews for my forthcoming book, The Lost Language, which officially enters the world on October 19. I had allowed myself to indulge in the dangerous pastime of Getting My Hopes Up. Now I was facing the dismal reality of Getting My Hopes Dashed. 

Would this - the book of my heart, the book that I and others think is my best book by far - be THE ONE? My BREAK-OUT BOOK? The book that would, after 61 previous titles, put me ON THE MAP and make me a HOUSEHOLD NAME? Would the book be showered with starred reviews and receive huge heaps of end-of-year accolades? Would it grant me literary IMMORTALITY? 

Or would it be - gasp! - A DUD????!!!!!

Well, with the pub date now two weeks away, I can say, alas and alack, I do not think this book will be THE ONE. I've received four of the major trade reviews so far. All four were good, though two had some quibbles about the book. Two were starred reviews (hooray!), including one of the reviews that had a quibble! Two more are yet to come - IF they come. Many books get no reviews at all. 

With each non-star, and each quibble, my spirits sank. As I read of friends' books raking in the stars and getting reviews in The New York Times and on NPR, my spirits sank still further. As Anne Lamott so brilliantly observes in Bird by Bird, jealousy is the besetting sin of writers: "some wonderful, dazzling successes are going to happen for some of most awful, angry, undeserving writers you know - people who are, in other words, not you." 

But with the most recent glowing-but-non-starred review, I felt for the first time a strange relief. At this point, there is really no way the book can be THE ONE. After all, one of my most lavishly praised writer friends made a point of telling me that HER publisher thinks merely getting THREE starred reviews is a terrible disappointment. Plus, it's late in the year now for buzz for a book to grow; indeed, end-of-year accolades are already being announced for 2021, with my book not yet even published.

So: my book is, by all appearances, not going to be THE ONE. 

Is it, then, a DUD?

That answer did tempt me. In my heart I issued a petulant wail: "Yes, a DUD! Like the 61 DUDS before it! Because that's who I am, a DUD AUTHOR! Who has written NOTHING BUT DUDS for forty solid DUD-filled years!"

But, really, that is a very silly thing to say. 

I have published 62 books. 

I loved writing each and every one.

Every single book received at least one excellent review, often three or four or five or six or seven. Just about all of them were chosen as Junior Library Guild Selections; I seldom visit a public library anywhere that doesn't have quite a few of my books in its collection. I've had books translated into French, Italian, Spanish, Hebrew, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and Arabic. Best of all, teachers, librarians, and parents have shared them, and kids have read them, and some of these kids have loved them. For one of my non-starred, non-bestselling books published twenty-plus years ago, I still get occasional letters from women now in their twenties who tell me how much the book meant to them when they were twelve. 

The Lost Language, a Junior Library Guild Selection with two starred reviews already and audio rights sold, and four launch events coming up, and lots of love sent its way by friends who read advanced copies, is not a dud! It is my best book, the book I'm proudest of, and one that is having, by any standard, a very nice success. 

Frankly, even if this book were THE ONE, all that would happen is that I'd start agonizing about whether the next book would be AN EVEN BIGGER ONE, or whether I'd be just a one-hit wonder, destined to rest on past laurels and live on past glories. 

I always wished that the fisherman's wife in the fairy tale had contented herself with upgrading from the wretched hovel to the charming cottage, rather than obsessively hankering after ever-larger palaces and ever-greater power. It's not a bad idea to learn how to be contented with getting, not EVERYTHING, but ENOUGH. 

Maybe it's time for me to start learning this now.

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Defeating the Demons of Doubt

A new friend sent me this email yesterday: "I know self-doubt comes to all writers, even successful ones like yourself. When those doubts come, what do you tell yourself?"

My first thought was: Hmmm. What DO I tell myself? Because right now I'm experiencing a level of self-doubt more intense than anything I've had in my previous forty years as a published children's book writer. I'm totally consumed with self-doubt! I'm paralyzed with self-doubt! I haven't written anything since a major rejection in January, weeping, wailing, and wallowing in self-doubt!

It is time for some stern self-talk.

But what am I supposed to say, given that my past platitudes don't seem to be working for me any longer? The chief platitude is that, when it comes to writing, and to life in general, it's the journey that matters. It's not reaching the dreamed-of destination of publication, but the joy in the writing itself: the process, not the product. It was so easy for me to say this when I was getting published with relative ease. Now that (to speak with frightening frankness) I'm not sure if I'll ever be published again, my glib assurances that publication isn't what matters, oh no, it's WRITING that matters, ring a bit hollow. 

For to be a WRITER, in almost every case, is to yearn for a READER, for that deep and beautiful form of human connection. To be an ACTOR is to yearn for an AUDIENCE. Few actors would be satisfied with delivering even the most heart-wrenching rendition of Hamlet's famous "To be or not to be" soliloquy merely to themselves in the bathroom mirror. Artists, musicians, chefs... all crave to share their creations with others,  and to have those creations appreciated by others. We just do.

So we start to doubt that this is ever going to happen. What if we NEVER get published? Or get published and our beloved book is a DUD? Or get published ONCE and never again? What if, what if, WHAT IF?

Huh, Claudia? What do you have to say NOW to your no longer smugly confident self?

Deep breath. Deep breath. Deep breath.


1. It is impossible to know whether we will ever be published, or (if published) well reviewed and showered with accolades. As physicist Neils Bohr famously quipped, "Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future." We simply can't know this. It isn't ours to know. Stories abound of hugely successful books that were rejected many times before receiving an offer, or largely ignored after publication only to achieve posthumous glory. WE SIMPLY CAN'T KNOW.

2. But we CAN know with absolute certainty that NO unwritten book can EVER be published or indeed ever shared with any reader anywhere.

3. Publication comes in many forms. So actually, my first point, as written, is untrue. Today in the age of the internet, self-publication is increasingly respected and rewarding. Indeed, I'm self-publishing this blog post and expect to get a couple hundred readers as a result - a couple hundred other human beings who will read and ponder these words and perhaps draw benefit from them and maybe cherish them forever! Smaller publishers based outside of New York often lavish love  - and significant promotion - on their authors. I have one friend who has joyously published all her DOZENS of books with small publishers she finds through a modest amount of online research. I am pondering writing more poetry and trying to publish some of it, where publication will mean having the poems appear in a tiny publication read by hardly anybody and paying nothing whatsoever, but this will still please me enormously. There are so many different ways of being published. 

4. Finally, well, finally, the platitude I rejected above is, in the end, as true as anything else I've said here. If writing brings you joy, just DO IT. I miss writing. I miss it intensely. I miss lying on the couch with my mug of Swiss Miss hot chocolate beside me, scribbling lines on a blank page of narrow-ruled paper with my Pilot fine-tipped pen. I miss that little glow of satisfaction when I complete a page, or one single poem to share with a few friends. The fact is that I happen to love being a writer, which I realize more keenly now that I'm not letting myself be one. 

It might have been otherwise. I might have realized that I didn't miss writing, that the agony and ecstasy of it was too hard on my heart, and I would have a much happier life without the rollercoaster of emotions that comes with being a creator - and in particular, a creator who longs to share her creations with the wider world. If you are doubting whether you want to continue writing, or painting, or making music, those are doubts worth weighing. No one has to be a writer or an artist of any kind. We can walk away at any time (and then walk back at any time).  One friend did so happily, decades ago, saying she was tired of being "daunted, taunted, and haunted" by unpublished manuscripts. She hasn't had a moment of regret. 

So: doubt can be an enemy, but it can also be a friend. 

Which one it is can be up to us.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Two-Thirds of the Way to One Hundred

Seven years ago, on August 21, 2014, my 60th birthday, I wrote a blog post trumpeting the curtain's rise on what I was calling Act III of my life. The timing was partly reflective of my recent retirement from almost a quarter of a century of teaching in the University of Colorado Philosophy Department as a tenured professor. It was also partly reflective of the milestone birthday, though my husband always maintained that our cultural fixation on birthdays ending in zero was purely a fetish owed to Base Ten math. 

That post now seems. . . quaint to me. The woman who wrote it was so sure that Act III of her life was going to bring with it wondrous adventures, now that the main tasks of those middle-years of her life were accomplished. Little did she know that she would return to significant child-rearing responsibilities for her two little granddaughters following her son's bitter divorce, or that she would face the anguish of a family member's entanglement in the cruelty of the American criminal justice system, or that she would bury her husband after his heartbreaking decline from advanced Parkinson's. 

Well, I can't say that Act III was boring! Though even as I write this, it occurs to me that I do find the genre of survival stories to be downright dull, with their predictable parade of disaster after disaster that the hero must confront single-handedly: fire, flood, tornado, volcano, mudslide, etc., etc., etc., blah, blah, blah. I did bore myself with the same litany of miseries over and over again. 

Yesterday was another milestone birthday, at least in my reckoning. I'm now 67, or two-thirds of the way to 100. I can't figure out if THIS is where Act III is REALLY beginning, with all the intense drama of the past seven years just the finale of Act II. Or were the last seven years a very compressed Act III, with the curtain now rising on Act IV? Or I am entering some kind of Epilogue, which will include all the subsequent, quietly happy events of the main character's life, deemed less worthy of staging for their absence of conflict and drama? 

Or maybe... and I like this idea... maybe after seven years of a survival story, my least favorite genre (well, second only to horror), it's time to switch metaphors, and indeed to switch genres altogether. My favorite genre of film is what I call "Middle-Aged Women Following Their Dreams and Finding Themselves, Preferably in a Foreign Country." My favorite film ever, which I practically know by heart, is Nora Ephron's Julie and Julia. Julia Child finding her true calling in Paris! I also adore Enchanted April. Downtrodden English ladies escaping from their dreary lives to a villa in Italy!

I recently mentioned to a friend how I envy people who walk away from their lives and start a whole new life somewhere else. "That's my favorite genre of book!" she exclaimed. She obligingly sent me a list of titles, and so far I've read Without Reservations by Alice Steinbach, A Year by the Sea by Joan Anderson, The Year of Pleasures by Elizabeth Berg, and My (Part-Time) Paris Life by Lisa Anselmo. 

Maybe, at two-thirds of the way to one hundred, I'm going to stop thinking of my life as a three-act play, with all that emoting in front of the footlights. I'm also going to allow myself to hope that my life stops being a survival story. Maybe I'll think of it as an example of my now-favorite genre of fiction (only real life this time!): the story of a woman heading off to Paris... or Croatia... or Latvia... or somewhere she hasn't even thought of yet, having poignant and delicious experiences of a form she can't yet fully anticipate... 

Maybe I'll think of it as the story of a woman delighting in expecting the unexpected.... 

Monday, August 2, 2021

A Final Farewell

My two sons and I set off on a pilgrimage last weekend to my late husband's most sacred spot on this earth: Arapaho Ridge in the Troublesome area of the Routt National Forest, here in Colorado. 

This is where we had family backpacking trips when the boys were growing up. This is the land he fought to protect from motorized recreation that would erode habitat, terrorize wildlife, and desecrate silence. This is the place we chose as the resting place for his ashes.

It was NOT easy to get there. As we drove up I-70 on Friday evening to make our way to the hotel in Kremling where we were to spend the night, heavy rain west of the twin tunnels closed the east-bound lanes of the highway; fortunately, we were heading west. But the driving conditions were definitely treacherous. Then, at an early breakfast the next morning, my truckdriver son, Christopher, checked road conditions and found that our intended route to the forest was closed from mudslides caused by the overnight storm. We would have to make a much longer approach to our destination: thank goodness we learned this before we made an already long drive in what would have turned out to be the wrong direction.

Once we reached the turn-off to access National Forest land, we had at least a half hour of rattling along on a dirt road, and then a daunting climb on the VERY narrow, VERY steep, and VERY rutted road up to Arapaho Ridge. I don't think we could have made it in my little Honda Fit, or for that matter, in any vehicle whatsoever with me at the wheel. But Christopher ably managed the trek in his Ford F-150 truck.

And then we were there.

It was so still and peaceful and beautiful, the weather in the upper 50s, the sunshine bright, memories blurring our eyes with tears.

The sign prohibiting motorbikes, one of his environmentalist legacies, was still where he had placed it well over a decade ago!

We walked into a grove of evergreen trees, searching for the right spot, and we agreed on this one, beneath the sheltering branches of a welcoming tree.

Christopher, Gregory, and I held hands as we said a prayer of gratitude for our life with him, and for our continuing life with each other, and we cried, and it was all exactly as I think he would have wanted it to be. 

My boys, who sometimes balk at family photos, let me take this one, which made me realize how much they are no longer boys, but full-grown men. Looking at it, I'm overwhelmed by how much I love them, and how much Rich loved them, and how much they loved him.

I don't know where I want my ashes to be placed at the end of my days. There is no place I love the way he loved this one. I've never cared much about where what's left of me ends up; I just want to live on in the hearts of those who love me. But taking Rich's remains to his beloved mountains felt so right and so perfect.

My favorite picture from the morning is this one, of Christopher walking into the distance on the trail his father so loved, after we said our heartfelt final farewell. 

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Publishing a Book Forty Years Ago vs. Publishing a Book Now


As I was doing my massive book giveaway this summer, I realized that I had published my very first book, Luisa's American Dream, in 1981. Now, forty years later, I am publishing my 61st book, Boogie Bass, Sign Language Star, coming out from Holiday House on August 3. 

Forty years ago, books were just. . . published. There it was, my book, out in the world. I don't remember even knowing what the "pub date" was, or indeed even knowing that there was such a thing as a "pub date," though I suppose there had to be a particular date on which the book came to exist as a physical object available for purchase. But that date certainly wasn't on my radar as its author.

There was no such thing as a pre-publication "cover reveal" on Facebook and Twitter, because there was no such thing as the internet. Indeed, there weren't even any personal computers, not to mention laptops and cellphones. I typed that first book on an IBM Selectrix typewriter. There was no such thing - or at least I didn't know of any such thing - as a "book launch." And if there had been, I certainly wouldn't be telling people about it on my blog, because there were no such things as blogs. 

The commonality across the decades is that, both then and now, it's a wondrous - and anxious - thing to publish a book, to pour one's heart into its pages, work through all the stages of publication with the publisher's editorial team, and then to send it off to make its brave way into the wide, wide world. I feel the same joy - and trepidation - now as I did four decades ago. 

Boogie Bass, Sign Language Star is the fourth and final title in a four-book chapter book series set in an after-school program, where every month (and every book) takes place in a different month-long after-school camp: cooking camp, comic book camp, coding camp, and now, sign language camp. 

The research for the books was as fun as the writing itself. I did know something about cooking when I wrote Nixie Ness, Cooking Star, but comic books and coding were completely new territory for me. (I might note that "coding" as an activity for kids didn't exist forty years ago, either!) 

Sign language was most challenging of all: American Sign Language is extraordinarily beautiful as a form of human communication, but not easy to describe in words, especially in words for third-grade-level readers. But Boogie fell in love with it, and I did too. 

Dear readers, you are all invited to my (virtual) book launch for Boogie Bass, Sign Language Star, on Tuesday, August 3, 6:00 p.m. Mountain Time, hosted by one of Denver's treasured indie bookstores, BookBar (where you can browse a wide assortment of books AND have a glass of wine and delicious munchies). Indeed, I wrote part of Boogie's story, pre-pandemic, sitting on one of their comfy couches. 

Here's the link to the event if you want to come. All are welcome! 

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Swedish Death Cleaning? Or Swedish LIFE Cleaning?

I've been proceeding with great cheerfulness on my current project of "Swedish death cleaning" -  clearing out one's mountains of accumulated stuff NOW to spare your grieving children/heirs the arduous task of dealing with it later.

I not only donated hundreds of author copies of my own books, I also cleared out heaps of other books from my bookcases, using the rule of thumb that if I was never going to open this book again in this lifetime, I might as well let someone else enjoy it. 

I had a stylish friend come over and review the contents of my closet, helping me sort clothes into piles to be donated, to be altered for better fit, or to be actually worn once again (to give my same three or four favorite items a much-deserved rest). 

I tackled boxes in the attic of stuff that was once my mother's and once my husband's. 

I even found a home for a box of fabric left over from my quilting days (some thirty-five years ago), by offering it on a neighborhood email list. 

When I told my younger son about this new obsession, he didn't seem as relieved as I expected. In his usual quiet, matter-of-fact way, he said, "Mom, everybody has to clean out a house at some point in their lives, and you just do it." Certainly, however much I do now, there will be plenty for him to do later, so I'm grateful that he is already predisposed to face this task with good grace.

But his comment made me realize how much I'm doing this project not for him, but for ME.

I'm now entering the third third of my life. The curtain is about to go up on Act III. For the first time in decades, I have no caregiving responsibilities for anyone but myself. )Cue Diana Ross singing, "It's My Turn.") And I've been making some hard but good decisions about my professional future that are going to lead me in a radically new direction, as yet to be determined. 

Will I move to Paris? Or Latvia? Or somewhere totally unexpected? Will I stay here but fill my days in some entirely new way? The future is a blank slate for me, blanker than it's ever been before. 

It will be easier to write the next chapter of my story, whatever it may be, if I make not only emotional but physical space for it. (Give yourself the treat of watching my friend Elizabeth Dulemba's fabulous TED talk, "Is Your Stuff Stopping You?")

I am making room for something wonderful to happen.

So now I'm off to brave the box that has my high school papers in it... 

Monday, July 5, 2021

What Should An Author Do with Hundreds of Old Author Copies?: My Gigantic, Ginormous, Gargantuan Book Giveaway

I published my first book exactly forty years ago, in 1981. 

I'm publishing #61 (Boogie Bass, Sign Language Star) and #62 (The Lost Language) this year.

For each book published I get a contracted number of complimentary author copies, often in both hardcover and paperback (and sometimes in foreign language editions - ooh!). When a book goes out of print (as most of mine eventually do), I may get another batch of free copies as a consolation prize. Over the years, I've given away a lot of these books to friends, provided baskets full of them for silent auctions, and sold them at author appearances. 

But, after publishing 62 books over the course of four decades, I still have a LOT of copies left. 

I counted them up: the total came to 462 books, housed in a repurposed linen closet, and in cartons in my attic, and cartons under my desk. 

I've been thinking quite a bit these days about "Swedish death cleaning," the practice of getting rid of excess stuff so that your grieving children/heirs won't have to do this after you're dead and gone. I don't expect to be dead and gone for another twenty years, or more, but I figured I might as well Swedish-death-clean these books while I'm still spry and agile. 

So I dragged them all out, organized them in piles all over the floor, and pondered their fate.

On Facebook I solicited ideas for what to do with this many children's books, all by the same author. Dozens of people responded. I was hoping for - and received - wonderful suggestions of organizations that have programs already in place to distribute books to children in need of them (see below). I preferred this simpler approach to trying to do-it-myself, contacting schools (in the middle of the summer) or hospitals (toward the end of a pandemic), or wandering around town stuffing my 462 books into Little Free Libraries.  

What I hadn't expected was how many people said, "Send them to me!" "Send them to my classroom!" "Send them to my school!" "We'd love some!" "We want them all!" 

At first I thought I would apologize for not being able to make individual donations. All that packaging, all that labeling, all that lugging of padded mailers and boxes to the post office! I would just pick one or two of the wonderful big organizations and ship them everything.

But . . . I wanted to send a book or two at least to this high school friend's granddaughter, and this college friend's nephew, and this librarian I met at a conference, and this former student, and this neighbor from long ago, and this committed teacher....

So: I now have 22 smaller packages (padded mailers containing a couple of books and cardboard boxes with half a dozen, or eight, or ten books) in my car to take to the post office, plus four large and very heavy cartons. Don't you feel sorry for whoever is behind me in line?! And my floor is STILL covered with books!

I love sending these book children out into the world to everybody who is kind enough to welcome them. 

Let there be books for everyone! 

In case you have your own big heaps of books to share, here are some of the organizations mentioned in response to my social media post:

The Lisa Libraries (this was the one mentioned most)

Reach Out and Read (this is the link to the Colorado chapter; I believe it's a nationwide program)

Appalachian Literacy Initiative 

Books to Kids (donation program from local indie bookstore Second Star to the Right)

BookGive (donation program from local indie bookstore BookBar)

Bess the Book Bus

Let there be books for everyone!