Friday, July 13, 2018

Creative Joy Progress Report

As some of you know, my chief goal for 2018 is to have 10 hours of creative joy each month. I have strict standards for what counts as creative joy: it can't just be joy experienced doing something creative - too easy! It has to be joy experienced doing something creative with something EXTRA added: writing somewhere special, writing while eating something special, writing in the company of someone special, even just writing with a lit candle by my side, or a dollop of Cool Whip in my morning Swiss Miss hot chocolate.

So far this year I've totaled: 14 hours of creative joy in January, 14 in February, 15 in March, a whopping 22 in April, 14 in May . . . but only 9 1/4 in June. My average is definitely greater than ten hours a month, but according to my self-imposed rules, I'm not allowed to stockpile creative joy hours in lush months as a safeguard against leaner ones. The goal is to make EVERY month a creatively joyous one.

Those missing three-quarters of an hour of creative joy in June stand as a reproach to me. My hero, Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope, faithfully logged his pages written every day, entering "day by day, the number of pages I have written, so that if at any time I have slipped into idleness for a day or two, the record of that idleness has been there, staring me in the face, and demanding of me increased labour so that the deficiency might be supplied." He confesses that "a week passed with an insufficient number of pages has been a blister to my eye, and a month so disgraced would have been a sorrow to my heart."

So now my little creative joy log stands as "a blister to my eye" and "a sorrow to my heart."



Nor have I logged a single hour of creative joy thus far in July, consumed instead with taking two little girls to Tiny Town, to Sunflower Farm, to the Carousel of Happiness, and to a planetarium show at the Museum of Nature and Science - plus many happy hours at the pool where they bobbed about in their Puddle Jumpers like two buoyant little boats on a sunny sea. (I did, however, get to check off many of these items toward the goal of experiencing thirty different "summer pleasures" -  oh, how I love lists!)

Next week will be nonstop creative joy, as I'm traveling to Roanoke to reconnect with colleagues, former students, and dear friends at the Graduate Program in Children's Literature at Hollins University. I'll write in their beautiful library. I'll write curled up in one of the soft blankets thoughtfully provided by the library against air conditioning chills. I'll write in a rocking chair on a veranda. I'll write, and write, and write, and every minute of it will be joyous - and duly logged as such.

But I still wish I had made myself get just 45 more minutes of creative joy in June.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Finding Happiness Closer to Home

I'm back from the Children's Literature Association conference in San Antonio, where I had the usual exhilarating time listening to dozens of scholarly papers over the course of the conference's three days. For just a few:
  • Picture book portrayals of Mrs. Noah in Noah's Ark picture books
  • Patron statistics and written reports on librarian-patron interactions from the children's division of the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library 1907-1910
  • Nineteenth-century child-created cookbooks
  • Food and female community in early 20th century girls' college novels
  • Pioneering children's librarian Anne Carroll Moore's close relationship with (wrongly) convicted murderer Leo Frank
  • Visual representations of the state in picture books about children of incarcerated parents
  • Swimming as an element of progressive girlhood in early 20th century Girl Scout novels
  • Textual changes across numerous editions of Louise May Alcott's Little Women.
And so many more!

My own paper on child poet Hilda Conkling was well received. I caught up with beloved once-a-year conference friends, drank margaritas on the River Walk, scribbled down so many book recommendations, reconnected on such a deep level with a world I love, and even joined in a "Families Belong Together" rally in front of the nearby cathedral. I also walked alone every early morning past the Alamo and found a wonderful bakery/cafe, La Panaderia, where I sipped hot chocolate and nibbled on pineapple empenadas while writing poetry.

But. . . it's so hard on my family when I travel now, given health issues and other ways in which I'm needed and will be needed even more in years to come. As I noted in my previous post, conference travel is extremely expensive, too. Partway through the conference I thought: oh, I love this world too much ever to let it go! But by the end, I started to think: these twenty-five years of attending the conference have been blissful, but my life at home is pretty blissful, too. Anywhere that I can drink hot chocolate and write poetry is a blissful place to be.

My two little granddaughters are here now for their monthly ten-day visit. Today their father and I took them to Tiny Town in Morrison, where I used to take him and his brother when they were small. It's an old-fashioned, somewhat shabby and shopworn, dear sweet little place; the Tiny Town train (which we rode twice this morning) has been carrying children and their families since 1915. Here are the girls in their 4th of July finery:


Today at Tiny Town with them I was just as happy as I was last week, immersed in the world of children's literature scholarship. (Not happier, I have to say - but equally happy.) In an ideal world, I guess I'd have both: travel to fascinating academic gatherings all around the country (and the planet!) AND intense family time at home. But few people live ideal lives in an ideal world. It's enough to have a happy life, in whatever form it needs to take.

On this Independence Day, I'm remembering that, in the end, independence isn't everything. Pursuing happiness isn't as important as appreciating happiness when you already have it.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Is It Time to Hang Up My Spurs?

I'm off on Tuesday to San Antonio for the annual conference of the Children's Literature Association (ChLA), the 800-plus-member organization of children's literature scholars and professors. My paper this year is on child poet Hilda Conkling, part of two back-to-back panels on child artists. I spent the last week toiling mightily on it, even though it's less than 3000 words (barely nine pages). I gave it my best, but I know it isn't my best paper. I hope the attendees for our session will find it informative and engaging; few people seem to have heard of Hilda Conkling, although I found her widely anthologized poems everywhere I turned throughout my childhood years. But I know already that it's not going to be something I can develop into a publishable paper, as two other terrific papers have been published already on Hilda Conkling, saying everything I'm saying, only better.

I'm finding myself wondering, now that I'm supposedly retired as a university professor, whether I should keep on doing this: writing these little papers, to read to a few dozen people at an academic conference, papers that may or may not have any potential ever to be published, and if published may attract half a dozen readers at most.

I sat down and reviewed my past history with ChLA, an organization I love:

I attended my first ChLA conference, in San Diego, in 1990. I became a regular attendee starting in 1994, in Springfield, Missouri. Since then I have missed only three conferences, and I've presented papers at all but two of the conferences I did attend, and for one of those I was giving the presidential address instead, as I was ChLA's president 2012-13. Of the 20 papers I presented, I've published 17 of them - actually, every single one up until 2015. That year's paper is currently waiting for me to revise-and-resubmit it to the journal Children's Literature, which I've pledged to myself to do. The paper from 2016 may not have the potential to be developed into a publishable piece; ditto for 2017. As I said, I already know that this year's paper has no publication prospects.

Now, I do expect 2015's paper to be published. I'm good at revising-and-resubmitting; I do it all the time, and it always has a good a result for me. I may yet find a way of expanding and deepening 2016's paper, and even the one from last year. So maybe it's premature to conclude that my days as a regularly published member of this profession are behind me.

And yet . . .

It's so much work to write these papers! It's VASTLY more work to take a 9-page conference paper and turn it into a rigorously argued, literature-grounded 25-30 page article. And it's GRUELING work to revise an article after receiving two sets of sometimes scathing comments from the "blind" reviewers. It also costs $1000 to attend an academic conference: at least $200 for the conference registration fee, an average of $300 for the plane fare, upwards of $100/night at the conference hotel (this, if I'm lucky enough to have a roommate), meals (and drinks!), and more.

And yet. . . .

Every time I go to ChLA, I walk in the door and see so many dear friends, from decades of conferences past, and I have the same thought every single time: "THIS is my world. THESE are my people." When I look at my c.v. (not that anyone on earth really cares about my c.v. any more except for me), I'm proud to see that long line of articles, from all those years. When I first left my tenured position in the philosophy department at the University of Colorado, I took this as my mantra: "Do not go gentle into that good pasture."

And yet . . . is the pasture beckoning? Or rather, is the work of remaining an active "workhorse" too demanding?

Here's what I'm telling myself: I don't have to make any "forever" decision about any of this. Few decisions are "forever" decisions, anyway. I'll go to ChLA, present my own modest little paper, hear many dazzling papers from scholars I revere and adore, have long wonderful conversations with friends, and at least one margarita on the River Walk.

After all, there are worse ways to spend five days in June.


Saturday, June 16, 2018

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

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

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

I structured the class in this way.

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

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

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

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

And then we said our teary farewells.

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

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

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

I'm going to model their dedication and commitment.

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


Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The Funnest Summer Ever?

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

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

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

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

CLAUDIA'S LIST FOR SUMMER 2018:

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 1, 2018

The Pleasures of a Two-Hour Vacation

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

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

Ooh!

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

After all, 120 minutes is an extremely short vacation.

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


Monday, May 21, 2018

Creative Joy at Big Sur in the Rockies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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