Thursday, January 11, 2018

Creative Joy Progress Report

I have now had four hours of creative joy in this new year, the two hours I spent writing at BookBar -  the indie bookstore/cafe on Tennyson Street in Denver (see my previous post) - and two more this week.

One of the hours was just spent here at home doing a careful review of my chapter-book-in-progress in preparation for a conversation with my editor. To make the hour extra-special I put Cool Whip on my Swiss Miss hot chocolate, and it was a most satisfying hour indeed.

But the most creative hour of creative joy was yesterday, when I went with Kate, my partner in the creative joy project, to the Denver Art Museum for the final week of "Her Paris: Women Artists in the Age of Impressionism." Our mission: to look at beautiful paintings and write poems about them, or about anything at all, really. Kate brought along her sketchbook, too, for creating a visual record of our visit.

Here are the three poems I wrote from the "Her Paris" exhibit, paired with the paintings that inspired them, as well as the one I wrote in the small exhibit featuring statues and paintings of the Hindi elephant god Ganesha. The beauty of this kind of creative hour is that the poems don't have to be good. They just have to be written - and in order for me to fulfill my own personal objective, written with joy. I have to have FUN writing them. And I did.
Anna Archer
Young Woman Arranging Flowers
About 1885

We do not know the year
or the month, or the day,
but we know the moment.
You stand erect, even stiff,
in your dress of jade velvet,
golden hair tightly coiled,
absorbed in positioning
yellow and white flowers
in their careless profusion,
lavish, almost lewd, their petals splayed,
drooping beneath the extravagant
weight of their blooming,
alive in this instant,
this instant,
this one.

Louise Abbema, Lunch in the Greenhouse, 1877

Little girl with the sunlit curls,
it is not your pink bow,
as big as you are,
that catches our eye,
but the sagging socks,
gray worsted bunched at the ankles,
as you stand, just barely on tiptoe,
gesturing with outstretched hand,
too busy to tug at knee socks,
the bright sun tangled in your bright hair,
too busy to care.

The Last Days of Childhood
Cecelia Beaux, 1883-85

But how did you know?
We can only say afterward
That this was the last,
And not even then.
Which farewell was the final one?
Which moment the marker
That tells us the when?
I lost a piece of my childhood
Just yesterday.
Then I found it,
And then I lost it again.

Broken Tusk – Poem for Ganesha

My tusk is broken, too.
All of me is, really,
Mainly the parts you cannot see.
Am I an Overcomer of Obstacles like you?
It depends on what is meant by overcoming.
But I guess it’s clear that brokenness
Isn’t a deal breaker here.
Even an elephant with a broken tusk
Can grant prayers.
Even a woman with a broken spirit
Can continue praying.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

New Year's Goal: Creative Joy

Happy new year, everyone!

I've made my main goal for 2018, and I think I'm going to have a lot of fun with it. For that is the goal right there: fun! Or to be more specific, creative joy.

As goals have to be measurable and quantifiable, so I can know whether or not I've achieved them, and also because it's just so much, yes, FUN to have tangible evidence of progress, I've formulated the creative-joy goal in this way: every month I am committed to finding ten hours (give or take) of creative joy, with a year's end total of 120 hours - with one extra hour thrown in, so that I can have a rhyming slogan (borrowing from a South Pacific tune): "121 hours of fun."

I'm still trying to determine exactly how much fun I have to provide for myself in any given hour of creative endeavor for it to count toward my goal, but my tentative thought is that I have to make at least some special effort - it won't be enough just to do my ordinary scribbling while lying on my ordinary couch, or ordinary tapping away at my ordinary computer. Some things that would count: writing with friends, writing at cozy cafes, or art museums, or on park benches, or mountain retreats - and DEFINITELY writing in Paris!

Writing at home can count, too, if I enhance the experience in some way: if I drink tea from a teapot (I have so many pretty ones I never use), or burn a scented candle, or eat a Pepperidge Farm apple turnover, or put a shot of Amaretto in my Swiss Miss hot chocolate - or even, maybe, just a big enough dollop of Cool Whip on top.

I had my first two hours of creative joy yesterday, when my writer friend Kate Simpson and I went together to the BookBar on Tennyson Street in Denver, a charming indie book store with a cafe with an appealing menu of munchables. Kate and I claimed a comfy couch and ordered our treats, all with literary names (I had the Melville Melt). And then we sat there and wrote, and chatted about writing, and shared dreams about writing.
So: two hours of creative fun completed, with eight more to go this month. I might go make myself a pot of tea right now and light my vanilla-scented candle (if only I had a Pepperidge Farm apple turnover to pop into the oven, too. . . .) And then I'll look at my editor's revision notes on my forthcoming chapter book and figure out how to respond to them.

With joy.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Keeping a Promise I Made to Myself

It is now the last day of 2017.

On the first day of 2017 I made a commitment to myself: to submit something somewhere every single month. I worked out some rules. It had to be something new - I couldn't just submit the same manuscript twelve times to twelve different places. But it didn't have to be something completely new: it could be a significantly revised and resubmitted version of a previous manuscript. The project specified nothing about having any of these submissions accepted. I was giving myself a grade on effort, not results. But I wouldn't count something as a submission unless I thought it had at least a chance of being accepted. I couldn't just scrawl a four-line ditty and send it off to The New Yorker.

Here is my report on the first eleven months of the year.

JANUARY: sent a grant proposal to the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota Libraries for travel funds to spend a week in Minneapolis doing research on Maud Hart Lovelace, author of my beloved Betsy-Tacy books  - VERDICT: I got it! And spent a most happy and productive week there in May.

FEBRUARY: revised an old and never-submitted philosophy paper, "Artistic Integrity," my last-hurrah as a now-retired philosophy professor, and sent it off, without much hope, to the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism - VERDICT - accepted (!!!!) conditional on major edits.

MARCH: revised and resubmitted my paper on Pinky Pye and Ginger Pye of Eleanor Estes to the Children's Literature Association Quarterly - VERDICT: accepted and now in press.

APRIL: spent the month writing poetry and sent one poem, for children, to Highlights Magazine - VERDICT: after a wait of many months, rejected.

MAY: revised a children's literature paper I had delivered at the Children's Literature Association conference a few years ago and sent it to Children's Literature - VERDICT:  revise-and-resubmit, which I plan to do.

JUNE: short article ("The Most Underrated Line in Your Book") to the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators Bulletin - VERDICT: accepted and published, to some nice responses.

JULY: did the "major edits" on the "Artistic Integrity" paper and sent it back to the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism - VERDICT: accepted and now in press.

AUGUST: sent a story pitch to an educational publisher that had approached me as a possible contributor - VERDICT: rejected.

SEPTEMBER: sent my 15,000-word chapter book (already under contract) to my editor Margaret Ferguson at Holiday House - VERDICT: she pronounced it "darling" but of course has lots of revisions for me to undertake in the new year.

OCTOBER: sent in my proposal for a paper (on child poet Hilda Conkling) to be delivered on a panel at next year's Children's Literature Association conference in San Antonio in June - VERDICT: still waiting to hear, but this one is practically guaranteed to be accepted, as the other panelists are all academic super-stars.

NOVEMBER: sent another story pitch to the educational publisher, and then, with their encouragement, sent the full story - VERDICT: rejected - WAH! - but with a generous "kill fee" of $1000.

Then came December.

I was tired of submitting things. I was discouraged by the last rejection. My heart was heavy with family woes and stressed by Christmas preparations. I had hoped to have the energy to revise-and-resubmit the children's literature paper (May submission) sent back by Children's Literature, but couldn't face the additional research needed. Maybe it was enough to have done this submission project for eleven months? After all, as a result of it, I had already gotten my grant to go to Minnesota, published my article for SCBWI, and had both a major philosophy paper and major children's literature paper accepted in good journals - plus wrote an entire children's chapter book. Wasn't that enough?

No, it wasn't. I had made a promise to myself in the bright new morning of a fresh new year. Now I had to keep that promise.

So yesterday, with just 48 hours to spare, I unearthed some of the poems for grownups I had written back in April. I liked them! I researched places I might send them, by looking at places that had published work by poet friends who also wrote "accessible" poems drawing on their own life experiences. I picked one journal, looked at its submission requirements (maximum of three poems sent in one MS Word file), chose my three best poems, and sent them off. I have little hope for this one - but I also had little hope for my last-hurrah philosophy paper.

It feels SO GOOD to keep a promise to myself. I sometimes think that I owe any success I've had in my long career to one thing only: the ability to follow through. In the waning hours of 2017, I followed through on this January commitment, dear readers, and I'm so grateful to myself that I did.

Now I have to decide: what commitment to myself will I make in 2018?

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Solstice Celebration: Sewing on a Button

Today is the Winter Solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year. Tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that, little by little, minute by minute, light will return to our part of the world.

I've been in my own season of darkness for the past two months, for reasons I'm not ready to share in this public forum. But I made my own small Solstice celebration.

I sewed on a button lost from one of my sweaters.

It fell off several weeks ago, and every day since I've been meaning to do this, but not getting around to it, instead sitting alone in my sad state, endlessly playing Sudoku on my I-pad (the addiction I invariably return to when times are hard) and endlessly scrolling through Facebook on my I-phone (addiction number two).

But today, in honor of the Solstice, I put away the I-pad and I-phone. I was lucky enough to find a spool of lavender thread in my sewing box, just the right shade to match the stitching on the other buttons. I luxuriated in gratitude that my sweater, a yard-sale find, had a spare button tucked into an inner seam: how fortunate! First I reinforced all the other buttons. Then I sewed on the missing one.

Buoyed by this success, I called a repairman to come fix the garage door that would no longer open; he came and replaced the motor, and now the garage door works again. I made cinnamon rolls from my mother's recipe for us to have on Christmas morning, a family tradition made more poignant by the fact that Christmas was also my mother's birthday. I read an engrossing book for my judging of the Children's Literature Phoenix Award.

Christmas is coming in four more days. My little granddaughters will be with us from the 23rd until New Year's. My younger son, Gregory, will be home from Chicago. We'll attend two worship services on Christmas Eve: at the morning service, my older son, Christopher, will play the beloved carols on the piano; at the evening service, our church singing group, The AnthemAires, will sing the hauntingly beautiful "Fall on Your Knees" by Pepper Choplin.

Anne Lamott quotes a friend of hers who says, "It gets darker and darker, and then Jesus is born."

Today was dark, snowy, and bitter cold. And then I sewed on a button.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Seasonal Joy/Seasonal Stress

Why is it invariably true that the more we give of ourselves to the world, the more the world gives back to us? 

Each Christmas I'm reminded of this, as I take on various holiday tasks for my church and my family, stressed by each one and silently vowing, "Never again!" Then each task turns out to be so rewarding that I remember, "Oh. That's why I do this." And so I sign up to do these things again the following year, and the exact same scenario (anxiety, despair, relief, gratitude) plays itself out in the exact same way.

The task that stresses me most is organizing Christmas caroling for our small congregation, where we try to visit all of our members who are no longer able to come to us for Sunday worship but value being remembered at this special time of year. It's a daunting jigsaw puzzle of geographical logistics, with various retirement communities and care centers spread out over several nearby towns, and temporal logistics, with the need to accommodate residents' mealtimes, nap times, and other constraints imposed by each facility. Worst: I never know who from our congregation is going to be able to show up to sing with me. It's a busy time of year for everyone, with competing commitments for all. What if I promise to come a-caroling, and I'm the the sole caroler, stumbling through each tune by my pitiful lonesome with my thin, quavery soprano? 

At church this year, one friend, impatient with my all-too-familiar morning-of-caroling desperation, snapped at me, "Claudia, you worry about this every single year! And it always turns out just fine!" Okay, but what if THIS is the year that it doesn't? 

But this year was perhaps the loveliest yet. The first person we visited had lost her beloved husband three Christmases ago and was so touched to have us come to her. Our second stop was to our church's honorary Jewish member, next-door-neighbor to the parsonage, who has befriended so many of our pastors over the years, and who happens to love Christmas music (and knows more of the words to the songs than we do). We sang to her outside on her deck, in the balmy December sunshine, as passers-by turned to smile at us. 

Our third stop was an actual "performance" at the nearby Meridian retirement community, where my son Christopher played the piano for a full half hour of a rousing sing-along of every beloved carol. Here we were joined by a few adorable members of a local Girl Scout troop. Our final stop might have been the sweetest of all. The resident we were visiting had made a flyer inviting others to come join us, so Christopher played for a good-sized group here as well. One attendee replied to every single song with a heartfelt sigh of appreciation: "Oh, that was beautiful!" "Oh, that one was REALLY good!" "Oh, that one was the BEST!"

I have to find some way to have faith that each year the Christmas obligations WILL work out, some way to skip the needless stress and just go directly to the joy that always follows. But maybe the stress has its own role to play. This year it was because I was so stressed that I made special efforts to recruit singers and took pains to schedule a very-welcome five-minute grace period between each visit so I wouldn't have the terror of running late. Maybe holiday stress can be a salutary kind of stage fright that is energizing rather than depleting.

Or maybe I just need to trust the Holy Spirit a little more. My favorite verse of all Christmas carols is the third stanza of "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear": 

O ye, beneath life's crushing load, whose forms are bending low
Who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow
Look now for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing
O rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing.

The glad and golden hours come each Christmas. And each Christmas, despite all those painful steps along the weary road, I hear the angels sing.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

How to Get Readers to Invest in Your Characters

Our thriving local community of children's book writers has frequent "Boulder Connect" gatherings under the auspices of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. They are a chance for us to hear craft-focused talks by our members, share our writing goals and dreams, and socialize with people who share our passion for writing for children.

This past Saturday I was the speaker at one of these get-togethers. My topic: "Getting Readers to Invest in Your Characters." As always, I signed up to do this before I had a clear vision in mind of what I would actually say about the topic. It was a chance for me to explore this question, thoughtfully and mindfully, for myself. How DO writers get readers to invest in our characters? Especially given that our characters have to be flawed in some way, so there is room for them to grow and change in the course of the story? How can we make our characters initially flawed in a way that isn't a turn-off for readers, so that we root for them on their journey rather than being impatient with them for having to be on that journey in the first place?

Luckily for me, I could pose this question to the attendees and learn as much from them as they would learn from me. We started by talking about what draws us to people in real life. When we meet someone new, what makes us think we want to pursue a friendship with this person? (And note that few of us want to pursue friendships with people who are perfect, so a wide range of flaws are not deal-breakers here).

Here are some of the answers we shared.
We want to be be friends with people:
1. who are funny, interesting, and kind - preferably all three
2. who have some point of connection with us, large or small
3. who share themselves honestly with us, unmasking even "the ugly parts"
4. who may be at different stages of life experiences from us, so that we can learn from them.

We don't want to be friends with people:
1. who are jerks to others
2. who are arrogant or selfish
3. who are pessimists with negative energy (oh, but what about Eeyore? we decided that negative energy is okay if it comes in small doses, redeemed with humor)
4. whose deepest moral and political values are opposed to ours
5. who drive nice cars and brag about them!

Those seemed like pretty good lists to me.

We then looked at opening pages of a whole bunch of books I had brought with me to study how their authors created characters who immediately appeared as funny, interesting, and kind - and established some point of connection with us - and revealed themselves to us with refreshing candor - and gave us the hope that going along on their journey would illuminate some truths about the human experience that might be valuable to us as well.

My favorite was Jeannie Mobley's brand-new middle-grade novel, Bobby Lee Claremont and the Criminal Element, where we fall in love with Bobby Lee even as he announces his plan to move to Chicago to get a good start on his planned life of crime. How does she do this? By giving Bobby Lee a fresh, funny voice - and a startling goal we hadn't expected - and showing his vulnerability as an orphan who has just buried his mother - and even letting us share his impatience at being behind someone in line who is taking forever to count out change to buy her railway ticket, as the clock is ticking down for the departure of Bobby Lee's train.

Thanks to the brilliant and beautiful Kim Tomsic for hosting us, and to everyone who joined in the discussion, and to Jeannie Mobley for writing such a terrific book, from which we could learn so much.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Biography Tea - Ten Years Later

Ten years ago I published a chapter book called Being Teddy Roosevelt.
In the book, Riley summons the can-do spirit of Teddy Roosevelt to pursue his own dreams when he is assigned the 26th president of the United States as his subject for his classroom's "biography tea." As Riley writes his report on Teddy and impersonates him at a fancy tea party (along with classmates taking on the roles of Helen Keller, Queen Elizabeth I, and Mahatma Gandhi), he figures out how to get a saxophone and convince his mother to allow him to sign up for instrumental music.

The biography tea in the book was modeled on the wonderful program created by my older son's award-winning teacher at Mesa Elementary in Boulder: Devira Chartrand. And, yes, he chose to dress up that year as Teddy Roosevelt. I dedicated the book to her, with my deepest gratitude.

Now, ten years later, I am writing this from Fredericksburg, Virginia, where I am here to attend the tenth-anniversary biography tea at Tree of Life Christian Preparatory School. Their award-winning teacher, Rebecca Durichek, was inspired by my book to create an even more extensive biography tea with every child from kindergarten to eighth grade participating each year.

When I walked into the school, I was greeted by a display representing my early morning writing ritual:
A poster of my book flanked a bulletin board of all the famous people, past and present, who would be "attending" this year's tea - with my own photo there at the very bottom.
Tonight is the gala event of the tea itself. The students, in their costumes, will parade in on a red carpet laid down for the occasion, in the order of the historical timeline, with me in the slot for 1954. I hope I can hold back the tears. Oh, Mrs. Chartrand, what a gift you gave me as a parent and as an author, and now this gift is making magic in Fredericksburg, Virginia, a decade later. And Mrs. Durichek, what an amazing event you have made of what was begun ten years ago so far away.