Sunday, October 14, 2018

Overwhelmed with Work Projects? Try a Work Smorgasbord!

Lately my to-do list has been long, and my energy for tackling it has been low. All of the tasks on the list need to be done, but few of them have a clearly defined deadline, especially one that shrieks out, "DO ME TODAY!" So it's easy to procrastinate, postpone, and otherwise put off any work on these projects, instead filling my days with the soul-sucking alternative of endless Sudoku (my besetting vice), Facebook scrolling, and (worst of all) self-Googling to see if maybe I won some prize somewhere in the last ten minutes I wouldn't otherwise be aware of.

Although this may be a by-product of depression, it's also a guaranteed cause of depression, and battling it is, for me, a guaranteed cure (or at least alleviator) of depression.

My favorite strategy for defeating this kind of wretched stuckedness is to create a work smorgasbord for myself. It goes like this.

I make a long, full list of all the things I need to get done. Here's what I have on the list for today:

1. Read the proofs for Nixie Ness, Cooking Star.
2. Decide which books I'm going to order for my online course for Hollins University in the spring (this means figuring out the basic structure of the entire course - scary!).
3. Order the books.
4. Write my Learning Committee report for the church council.
5. Read a friend's book manuscript to give her the critique I promised a month ago.
6. Read the ARC (Advanced Reading Copy) of a book for which I've promised to give a cover blurb.
7. Start a new book! I have to start one sooner or later, or I won't have a next one!
8. Send in the application for the Denver Festival of Stories to be held next March.
9. Read five chapters of Homer's Odyssey for a study group I'm in.
10. Write a blog post.

I'm sure there are more things I should be doing, but if I did any of these ten tasks, I'd be better off than I was with NONE of them even faced, let alone finished.

Once the list is made, I pick any one of these - any one will do! - and spend one hour doing it. Or part of one hour doing that task, and the other part of the hour doing another one. Any work whatsoever on any goal whatsoever is good enough - is indeed splendid and amazing and totally to be celebrated.

That's it:  the whole entire work smorgasbord plan. It's as simple as simple can be. But for me, it's magical. I don't worry about picking the most urgent or important task, or the one I'm dreading most. I just pick one, period. Usually I pick the smallest one, or the easiest one - or just the one with the most appeal right this minute. That's not cheating. It's totally allowed. Or so says me, to me.

Then I turn over my hourglass and get to work.
When the hour is done, I feel so pleased with myself, sometimes I even do - gasp - a second hour!

In fact, this afternoon, I accomplished a first reading of the Nixie proofs AND wrote the church council report (only one paragraph, but hey, that's all it needed to be, and now it's done, done, DONE), and in a few minutes this blog post will be done, too. Tomorrow I'll return to the task list and see what I choose for another dedicated hour. Before I know it, I'll have nibbled my way through the whole list.

Yum!







Monday, October 8, 2018

Five Episodes of Happiness a Day

Now that the exhilaration of the SCBWI conference and the Boston excursion are behind me, all that lies ahead is . . . real life. Ordinary everyday life. And ordinary everyday life that is extra-hard for me right now because of family challenges. I'm struggling with what the children in Noel Streatfeild's wonderful novels (Ballet Shoes, Skating Shoes, Dancing Shoes) often call the "Nothing-nice-will-ever-happen-again" feeling.

So it is time for me to return to some of my past tried-and-true tips for day-to-day survival.

One that worked well for me in years gone by is planning for every day to have in it five episodes of happiness. These can be big or small. There is nothing wrong with small! They can be sources of happiness deliberately added to my day, or things that would have transpired anyway, but now observed and appreciated more fully and mindfully.

Usually I have three episodes of happiness already guaranteed:

1. Lying in bed for an extra ten minutes in the morning, feeling the cool breeze from the open window, snuggling more deeply under my warm covers, allowing my body to awaken, expressing gratitude for its functionality, and anticipating the cup of hot chocolate I'm going to have once I depart from bed.

2. A walk with dog and friend in any weather, with constant expressions of appreciation for how beautiful the mountains are in sun, mist, clouds, rain, snow.

3. Reading a good book before bedtime. It might be a title selected for a book group, or something I need for an academic project, or a new book by an author friend. If I'm especially sad and stressed, it might be a book I've read a dozen times before, where every line is dear and familiar to me. Last night it was The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare.

The other two episodes of happiness require some additional effort on my part: doing some work I especially enjoy (writing!), lunch with a friend, decluttering a drawer (ooh!), a phone call to someone I haven't talked to for a while. For today, I have three special things planned: lunch with my beloved church friend Skippy at her elegant retirement-community dining room; baking apple crisp (yum!); and a meeting of my New Voices book group tonight, where we read books from other cultures and countries (tonight: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by India's Arundhati Roy).

So that makes six episodes of happiness for today, though really just five, because I have to admit I forgot to do the extra bed-snuggling this morning, though I COULD leap back into bed and do it right now. But five is a good number.

A day that contains five episodes of happiness is a good day, even if it's a sad day.

It's certainly a better day than it would have been otherwise.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Brief Boston Bliss

My older son, Christopher, is our family's expert on extravagant celebration.

When he was about to turn 21, he decided that the perfect place to have his first legal drink would be the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, seated next to Cole Porter's piano. I thought this was an excellent plan. So I cancelled class for that day (my students pronounced this the best-reason-ever to cancel a class), and off we flew to New York to accomplish this mission.

This month Christopher turned 30. He decided that the perfect way to commemorate this momentous milestone would be to see his beloved Boston Red Sox play their most hated foe, the New York Yankees, at historic Fenway Park. I thought this was an excellent plan, too. So off we flew to Boston this week, met there by my younger son, Gregory, who now lives in Chicago, to explore this storied city together.

It was all ridiculously decadent and expensive. And it was all worth every penny.

I spent my college years in Boston, so it's a city I love dearly. We walked 25,000 steps (10 miles) the first day, from the famed Citgo sign by Fenway Park all the way to the Bunker Hill Monument, focusing on the Freedom Trail that includes Paul Revere's house, Old South Church ("One if by land, two if by sea"), Old Ironsides, and more. Of course, as a children's book author I had to make a pilgrimage to see the Public Gardens' duck statues in honor of Robert McCloskey's Make Way for Ducklings.
The second day was rainy: the perfect day to visit the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. There I paid homage to Renoir's "Le Bal a Bougival"; a poster of it hung in my Wellesley dorm room through my four years there.
We toured the Winnie-the-Pooh exhibit, where we could walk right into Ernest Shepherd's sketches for his brilliant illustrations.

I sat on the stair from the poem "Halfway Down":

Halfway down the stairs
Is a stair
Where I sit.
There isn't any 
Other stair
Quite like
It.
Finally, we spent all day Saturday touring Fenway park, meeting one of the players (Blake Swihart), and watching the Red Sox lose to the Yankees (WAHHHHH!). But nothing could spoil the pleasure of the three of us being able to share that day together.
The picture makes me smile in part because I am so NOT a sports fan. This was the first time in my life I ever wore spirit wear for any team (the T-shirt borrowed from Christopher for the occasion); I had never heard of a single player on the Red Sox team and knew no lore about the team whatsoever (except for the Curse of the Bambino, of course). But it didn't matter. I was there with my boys, and we were having fun.

That's all I want any more: just to have little bits of joy, and appreciate them as fully and fiercely as I can while I have them. And that's what I did this week, for three sweet days in Boston.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

A Bone Marrow Transplant of JOY

Last weekend was the 42nd annual conference of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators), held at the lovely Denver Marriott West hotel in nearby Golden.

It was one of the happiest weekends of my life. It was also the most healing. At first I thought it was like getting a massive blood transfusion after the hemorrhage of my recent life. But then I decided it was more like getting a bone marrow transplant of pure unadulterated joy: joy implanted into the very core of who I am.

Our co-regional advisers, Kim Tomsic and Jerilyn Patterson, gave me the great gift of inviting me to present not only a break-out session ("Structure and Sparkle: Writing the Transitional Chapter Book") but also the closing keynote address ("How to Have a Wonderful Creative Career in an Hour a Day"). It was bliss to turn from my troubles to talk about what I love best in the world: how to write my favorite kind of book for young readers, and how to live the richest, fullest, happiest creative life.

I've given lots of talks in the course of my long career, including lots of inspirational talks, or at least talks I hoped would inspire their audience. But this closing keynote was the one most ripped from my own heart, and so I think it touched the hearts of those present in a different way from anything I've ever done before, or could do again. It was one of those unrepeatable life moments that I will treasure always.

My talk, in outline, was pretty simple: 11 tips for a happier creative life. I'll list them here, and they look quite skimpy in their bare-bones formulation, but each one was embroidered with honest confessions, funny anecdotes, and brilliant insights from many other published writers.

Here they are:
1. Little things add up to big things. I shared my hour-a-day writing system and displayed my three hand-crafted wooden hourglasses: one hourglass, one half-hourglass, and one eight-minute hourglass-shaped timer. I quoted Anthony Trollope, as I so often do: "Nothing surely is so potent as a law that may not be disobeyed. It has the force of the water drop that hollows the stone. A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules."

2. Follow through. Keep the promises you make to yourself. I quoted this ditty I learned as a child:
"Bite off more than you can chew, and chew it. Plan for more than you can do, and do it. Hitch your wagon to a star, keep your seat . . . and there you are!" I owe everything I've ever achieved in my life to this one, to my ability to keep on cheerfully trudging.

3. Set DELICIOUS goals for yourself: not just goals that are SMART (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant, and Time-Bound), but goals that will give you a tingle of happiness just thinking about them. I gave as examples my goal for 2017 of submitting something somewhere every single month, and my 2018 goal of having ten hours of creative joy each month. I warned against cutting corners on these goals that matter so much: how could I have let myself be tempted this past summer to cut corners on JOY?

4. Instead, lower your standards for things that don't matter. Here, I confessed how little I care about personal appearance (e.g., I never use a hair dryer: my hair, worn in the same style I've had since high school, can just dry on my head) and housekeeping, plus offered a bunch of practical tips for streamlining tasks at the day job.

5. Even when it comes to things that do matter, our own creative work, don't make it harder than it has to be. I railed against America's culture of overwork, with its constant complaints of busyness that are really just disguised bragging, offering some pointed examples from personal experience. Don't compete for the hard work prize!

6. Don't compete for the misery prize, either. Because here, when you win, you lose. I contrasted two writers with memorable advice for aspiring authors: Annie Dillard (The Writing Life) and Brenda Ueland (If You Want to Write). Annie says writers should be like Seminole alligator wrestlers, grappling with our prey half-naked, risking life and limb, citing the case of one drowned, half-eaten wrestler: "It took the Indians a week to find the man's remains." !!!!!  In contrast, Brenda says, "you should feel when writing  . . . like a child stringing beads in kindergarten - happy, absorbed, and quietly putting one bead on after another." I choose to take Brenda Ueland for my writing role model, not Annie Dillard.

7. Speaking of competing, use envy as inspiration. My mantra: don't envy, emulate. I don't envy others' achievements (well, of course I do, but I try not to); these may have been purchased at a price I'm not willing to pay. Instead, I keep a list of people whose whole lives are worthy of my envy: lives lived every day with creative joy. If we compete to have the happiest, healthiest, sanest, most joy-filled life, and we win (or even just benefit from the striving), that's a prize worth having.

8. Document and celebrate achievements. I showed my beloved little notebook, where I keep a list of each month's "Nice Things and Accomplishments."

9. Be careful what stories you tell yourself. Some examples of favorite stories I tell myself, about myself, are "I'm never sick" and "My planes are always on time" (both true - except when they aren't). I shared other pages from the beloved little notebook where I face my problems head on, scribbling thoughts to myself on the page, usually discovering that things really are going to be all right, or at least reasonably okay. I'm a master of avoiding wallowing through stern - but loving - self-talk.

10. Give yourself permission to be happy - and to admit that you are. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, "There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy. By being happy we sow anonymous benefits upon the world." He is also the one who wrote, "The world is so full of a number of things/ I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings." AND: being happy does NOT mean having a life that is easy or pain-free. I quoted the beautiful ending of The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson, when Trotter tells Gilly, "Life ain't supposed to be nothing, 'cept maybe tough," and Gilly says, "If life is so bad, how come you're so happy?" Trotter replies, "Did I say bad? I said it was tough." Yes, yes, yes, yes, YES!

11. Finally, give generously and receive gratefully. I've never not responded to someone who sought my advice on how to write a children's book, and I've met so many wonderful people as a result. Only once did I blow someone off, ten years ago, when I gave another, similar SCBWI talk and someone contacted me afterward to ask if I would be her mentor. My life was in flaming ruins at that time as well, so I just couldn't take on another thing. But she persevered, emailing me a second time, and this time it was easier just to meet with her than to think of a reason to say no. So I did, and - of course! - she became one of my life's dearest friends, who is now serving as my "raft buddy" (her words) as we both try to stay afloat on our current stormy seas. Giving IS receiving. They are one and the same. And SCBWI itself is a model of how much we all gain from fostering a thriving writing community together.

That was my talk. I gave it from my heart, and the ballroom full of attendees gave me a standing ovation in return. I can die happy now, except that I'd rather go on living, even if life ain't nothing but tough.

As I reminded myself last weekend, a tough life can still be a joyful one.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Survival Secrets

It's been a week since I made the decision to face the saddest, scariest season of my life by trying to be a role model. . . to myself. I made a commitment to showing myself how to endure the unendurable with grace, courage, kindness, and even some good humor, too. I liked this plan!

But now I have to report that so far I've been only a minimally adequate role model, if that. There's too much pain. There's too much fear. It's hard to eat, to sleep, to remember the things in life that used to make me happy. Oh, role model, where are you?

Somebody is going to have to step up her game, and preferably sooner rather than later.

Where I've most failed is in accepting help offered by loving friends. I don't know why I can't seem to do this. I've accepted love, and emotional support, and prayers - oodles of prayers - but I can't seem to make myself accept concrete offers of specific, tangible assistance. Three different beloved friends have offered to bring meals, and meals are actually what I need most, as I hate to cook, am a terrible cook, and find even the thought of cooking right now beyond what I can fathom. Yet instead of saying, "Oh, would you? could you? that would mean so much to me!" I said, "Oh, we're fine." I think I just felt it was too pathetic to admit that I can't even fix a meal right now. But the truth is that I can't.

I've also failed at avoiding apocalyptic thinking. When friends try to offer reassurance that someday, in some way, all will be well, I find myself compelled to rebut their comfort by showing them all the ways in which NOTHING WILL EVER BE ALL RIGHT EVER AGAIN.

This is not helpful.

So far, here's what's helped most.

Several friends sent me "thinking of you" cards in the mail, which I cherish. One friend's husband is coming today to install grab bars in both bathrooms to help make my little house more handicap-accessible (I didn't have any problem admitting I could never install a grab bar myself in a million years). A church friend sent home with me on Sunday the gorgeous roses in full bloom she had provided for the altar.
Some friend who didn't identify herself left a bright yellow chrysanthemum outside my front door.
Every time I inhale the scent of the roses, and see the cheery blossoms on the mums, I feel surrounded by love- and maybe even some hope, too.

Yet what helped me most this past week might be something I did for myself. I took off the full day Friday from pain and grief and did nothing all day - nothing at all - but luxuriate in re-reading Jane Eyre, a book I last read in college. I read five hundred pages in a single day, read till my eyeballs burned, then crawled into bed exhausted only to get up a few hours later and return to the couch to finish it. It's so good! So romantic, and lurid, and melodramatic, and brilliantly observed. I didn't read it for illuminating truths about the human condition, but simply to escape into the world of Jane and Mr. Rochester, to be utterly lost in an all-consuming story.

Yay for friends - and for flowers - and for books. On Friday, for that one day, I was an excellent role model for myself. I have to give myself - and Charlotte Bronte - credit where credit is due.








Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Becoming a Role Model. . . to Myself

I am in the midst of what might be the saddest season of my life so far, dealing with crises of staggering proportions for two family members, with new daily terrors facing me as the one who is charged with Figuring Everything Out: choosing lawyers, choosing rehab facilities, finding the extravagant sums of money needed to pay for it all.

I've been tempted to wallow - indeed, I've felt downright entitled to wallow. Ecclesiastes tells us, "To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven." Right now my time to weep and time to mourn seems also an excellent time for wallowing.

Except that while I do need to weep and I do need to mourn, wallowing really doesn't seem to be the world's most satisfying activity. So instead I decided to give myself a project (oh, how I love projects). What if I try to face these challenges with as much grace, dignity, kindness, and good humor as possible? What if I set myself the task of becoming a role model - not to others, I don't have the hubris to attempt that - but to . . . myself?

I want to amaze myself by having a good, rich, full happy life anyway. I want to be able to look at myself and say, "Wow! I can't believe Claudia can be so wise and kind and funny and productive given all she is going through!" I'm lost in the dark wood. I want to be the one to show myself the path out of the forest.

So of course I made some lists.

1. Breathe. This has already proven so helpful!
2. Keep on walking 10,000 steps a day - ditto!
3. Be kind to everyone involved.
4. Give yourself as much help as you can: medication, therapy, love and support from friends. If anyone offers any assistance whatsoever, say, "Yes, thank you!"
5. Avoid apocalyptic thinking. Do NOT assume your life is over. Do not assume your family can never recover from this. Remember that you know NOTHING of what is going to happen, because, to quote a famous physicist, "Prediction is difficult, especially about the future." Repeat these words hourly: "You know nothing. Anything can happen. You know nothing. Anything can happen." ALL I know is that it's going be hard, but I'm good at doing hard things. I've had plenty of experience.
6. Get some actual work done this month, too. Philosopher/theologian Miguel de Unamuno has told us, "Work is the only practical consolation for having been born." I'm going to try to do a stunning, rabble-rousing job as a closing keynote speaker at this month's Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators conference - where my subject is (ironically? appropriately?): living a creative life of joy.
7. Listen as needed to this recording of the gospel song "I Still Have Joy."
8. Pray. Pray some more.

That's the plan. There have already been a few wobbles along the way. But it's a good plan. I hope Claudia can help Claudia out of this mess. I'm rooting for her, and for me, and for all of us.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Do. Or Do Not. There Is No Dither.

I have repurposed Yoda's famous words for myself because I truly think I waste more time with dithering than with anything else. I am the queen of dithering: of hesitating, wavering, faltering, vacillating. Never do I dither because I truly don't know what to do. I dither because I know exactly what I'm going to do but can't quite own up to the fact that I've already made my decision.

Here's the most recent case in point. I finished up July ("The Week of Fixing Everything") with completing a full draft of a third-grade-level chapter book for my publisher, Holiday House. I then sent it to three writer friends for their comments, so I could get it in the best possible shape before sending it off to my editor in New York. I received their comments within a week, so all I had to do was sit down and make the needed revisions.

But I didn't.

Instead I dithered.

Two of the friends basically loved the book and offered only a few, narrowly focused suggestions. There was too much backstory in Chapter One (note: the opening chapter "info dump" is the most classic of all beginner's errors, here made by me in what will be my 59th published book!). One scene felt obviously dropped into the book as a setup for a subsequent more crucial scene: could I find a way to layer in the setup more naturally? Alterations in the logistics of one story line would make for a simpler narrative, with more dramatic tension to boot. It would be a piece of cake to fix all of these.

The third friend, however, basically didn't love the book. She wanted higher stakes from the start and a much bigger payoff at the finish, with maybe an entirely different problem for the main character, Vera, to be wrestling with throughout. Now, I knew I wasn't going to change my book so radically. I just wasn't going to do it. I LOVE writing books with low stakes (but which feel so important to the children facing them); I LOVE writing books that end with one small step taken forward, one tiny moment of growth. This, I would say, is the very hallmark of what I consider a "Claudia Mills book." So I could have just ignored this set of comments and moved on.

Instead I dithered.

COULD I raise the stakes? SHOULD the story have a bigger, bolder resolution? Should I tear it up and write a different book altogether? Remember: I already knew I was going to answer each of these questions with a no. But I felt guilty about ignoring comments from a writer (and dear friend) I do respect, who had given considerable time and energy to critiquing my book.

Finally two days ago, with the end-of-the-month looming, a month quite devoid of things to add to my monthly list of "Accomplishments and Nice Things," I declared an end to the dithering and did exactly what I knew I would do all along. I trotted off to the computer, revised the book (in three hours!) from the first two sets of comments, and (not without a pang) largely ignored the third (though making a few small but significant changes because of it). I emailed the book to my editor yesterday morning and added "revised and sent off the Vera book" to August's "Accomplishments and Nice Things" list.

Maybe some dithering is a necessary part of the writing process - and of the living process, too. But here two days of dithering would have been adequate. Two weeks of dithering bordered on ridiculous.

Oh, Yoda, I should have listened to you sooner: "Do. Or Do Not."  There is no dither!