Saturday, March 10, 2018

Creative Joy: Travel Journaling

As part of my new year's goal for 2018 of providing myself with ten hours a month of creative joy, I signed up with my creative-joy-buddy Kate for a class at the Art Students League of Denver on "Travel Journaling," taught by Judith Cassel-Mamet. Kate had taken a class with Judith before and told me how wonderful it was. So off I went to Denver yesterday for a massive dose of creative joy.

I woke up joyous even at the thought of taking the bus to Denver - oh, I do love traveling by bus! During the morning rush hour buses run from Boulder to Denver every five or ten minutes. I didn't even have to check a schedule; I just presented myself at the Park-and-Ride and hopped on the first Denver-bound bus that came along. Then I gave myself the treat of a nice long-ish walk from the Civic Center to the old school that houses the Art Students League.
After being happy for every minute of my trip into the city, I was then happy from the minute I walked past classrooms of painters in front of their easels and found our studio, where Judith welcomed us and got us ready for the morning's artistic explorations. I loved her whole approach to travel journaling. For Judith, travel is just "mindful movement," so that "even a mundane activity can be an adventure," if approached with anticipation and openness: "What is this hour is going to bring?" Indeed, she opened the class by asking us all to share some memorable moment from our trip to the class today. Mine was seeing a middle-school student skipping along - literally skipping - violin in hand.

Once we began trying out Judith's journaling techniques, the class was pure play. We made evocative, illustrated maps of our trip into the city. We took half an hour to wander around the Art Students League grounds noting striking images to sketch. It was fine to sketch badly; the point was just to "capture the narrative"and "anchor the experience." I'm a terrible artist. Who cares? Here's my piece from the morning. I'm not in love with it the way I was in love with the poems I wrote last month. But I was just as much in love with the process of creating it.
During the class we worked with little sketching kits Judith had assembled for us, which contained a drawing pencil, Micron extra-fine pen, watercolor set, kneaded rubber eraser, and best of all, a Koi Water Brush (which could squeeze out water a drop at a time). She offered the kits for sale afterward and of course I bought one.
Just looking at it makes me feel more creative.

Now that I have a travel journal kit, I should schedule a magical trip for myself somewhere to use it. Judith is correct, of course, that there is plenty of magic in the everyday if we approach our ordinary surroundings as if we were visitors from a faraway land. But while I'm in a travel-journaling mood, I might as well sign up to go to an actual faraway land. Right? After all, if creative joy is my only new year's goal this year, why not provide myself with all the creative joy that I can?

Friday, March 9, 2018

What You Need Is What You Have to Find a Way to Get

I've just finished an exhilarating and exhausting ten-day visit from my two little granddaughters, Kataleya (who just turned four) and Madilyne (who will be two in May). When they come to us, I'm their primary caregiver while my son (their daddy) is at work, and he leaves for work well before dawn and often works a twelve-hour day. So I am charged with filling that time with all kinds of adventures: outings to the park and library, play dates with friends, baking, play dough, and most of all, voicing stuffed animals and other imaginary friends (the current favorite, for some reason, is Big Foot).

I love it more than anything in the world. And yet . . . . and yet . . . I do need SOME time just for me, especially as my editor returned my most recent draft of my chapter-book-in-progress to me for yet more revisions, which I hadn't expected. After the mandatory period of sulking and pouting over the call for more re-visioning of the story, of course I saw that that her suggestions are brilliant and the book will be a thousand times better once revised. But how could I find time to do it while also impersonating Big Foot during every waking hour for ten days?

I've now learned that I absolutely have to have two hours to myself each day - one to write, and one to walk. That 's all. Just two hours. But they have to be two dedicated hours, two guaranteed hours, hours where I know I won't be interrupted by any little voices summoning me (Kat now wakes up most days at 5:30 a.m. and refuses to nap; by the time she goes to bed at 8 p.m., I'm ready to go to bed myself at 8:05.)

Okay. I need these hours. So how am I going to get them? Because what you need is what you have to find a way to get. And you don't get what you need just by whining about how badly you need it.

I'm still working on this, but here are some ideas to put in place for their next visit.

1) Kat goes to school for four hours on three mornings during the week. During those hours I can find drop-in child care for Madi, or employ a babysitter. Madi sleeps reliably for three hours in the afternoon. During those hours I can find some other organized activity outside the home for busy, active Kat or hire someone to come play with her. This can be done! Or I can team up with other friends who are in the same situation and would like to exchange babysitting time.

2) I can leave the house when my son is home so that I won't have to harden my heart against Kat's entreaties to make Big Foot come and play. If I'm here in my (tiny) house, there is no real refuge. If I go elsewhere for an hour, that hour is mine, mine, mine.

3) For walking, I can line up friends who love to walk as much as I do and don't mind taking turns with me pushing a stroller or holding a dog leash. I can walk early. I can walk late.

This brings me to another point. I need what I need, but I have to make sure I'm not just making every slight preference into a non-negotiable demand on the universe. Yes, I need an hour a day to write and an hour a day to walk, but I may have to be flexible about when those hours come to me (within reason: I can't do any real work in the evening, and that is that!). But it's unreasonable to insist on having my hour be precisely between 5 and 6 a.m., or in my house while I lounge about in my nightgown. I have to be willing to experiment, improvise, and work with second-best - which may turn out to yield its own unexpected rewards and pleasures.

With careful planning, I can have the joy of  playing with little girls for ten days AND write my book AND meet my daily fitness requirements. After all, this is what I need. So it's up to me to make sure I get it.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Dangers of Writing Poetry

I have three more days left in my poem-a-day project for February. I am loving the prompts by the wry and witty Molly Fisk, loving the other poets in this online poetry group, and loving my poems and every minute spent writing them.

But here's the rub: I love them so much that once I've written my poem for the day and posted it to the group website, I'm so delighted with my poem that I have to go read it over a few dozen times, occasionally tinkering with it a bit, pruning a word here, adjusting a line break there, but mostly just admiring it on the page. And then I'm so pleased with myself that I find I have absolutely zero desire to accomplish anything else. After all, I WROTE A POEM TODAY! What more could the universe expect from me? Which would be fine except that I do have a class I'm teaching, students I'm advising, writers I'm mentoring, an article I'm supposed to be revising. But - but - but - I WROTE A POEM TODAY! Isn't that enough?

In fact, I even wrote a poem about how amazing it is to write a poem, about how each new poem that comes into being is one new small wondrous thing that now exists in the universe:

What There Is

Here's what's in the universe,
at least the part of it that we can see:
70 billion trillion stars.
And right here, 
in front of me,
these scribbled lines
that didn't exist 
ten minutes ago.
Because of me 
the universe
has something in it 
that wasn't there 
70 billion trillion stars - 
and this poem.

So it's good that the short month of February is coming to an end, and that I'll have to find new ways of generating creative joy for myself in March. But for now, I'll just say: hooray for poetry! And for the chance to write it! Here's one more poem because I can't resist. Prose is in my future. But today, and tomorrow, and two days after that: poetry. . . 

Talent Scouts

It's not that I even want to be a movie
star. I just want to be discovered,

to be in the self-checkout lane at King Soopers,
perplexed by how to find the produce code

for my ginger root, or putting my credit card
the wrong way into the gas pump at Conoco,

or picking up poop in one of the bags I carry
in a canister attached to the end of the dog's leash,

and then, in that moment, someone is there,
saying, "You! That way you wrinkle your

forehead! That slump of your shoulders!
The twist of your lips! The soulfulness radiating

from your haunted eyes! We've searched the
whole world over, but it was you all along

we were seeking. It was you, 
it was you, it was you."

Friday, February 16, 2018

To Be a Player, You Have to Keep on Playing

Last week there were not one but two huge book-related events here in Denver. CCIRA (the Colorado Council of the International Reading Association) had its enormous annual conference down at the Denver Tech Center's Marriott Hotel, and ALA (the American Library Association) had its gigantic mid-winter conference this year at the Denver Convention Center, especially exciting as the ALA conferences move around from city to city.

I attended events at both.

On Friday:
- "speed-dating" with teachers/librarians at CCIRA (a chance for authors and teachers to talk one-on-one in rotating five-minute conversations);
- a cocktail reception at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts hosted by my new publisher, Holiday House, for the librarians attending ALA.

On Saturday:
- another cocktail party jointly hosted by YALSA (the Young Adults Library Services Association of ALA) and SCBWI (the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) held at a bar/restaurant with the adorable name of The Greedy Hamster.

On Sunday: lunch with my brilliant editor, Margaret Ferguson, followed by a blissful couple of hours roaming past the overwhelming amount of publisher booths in the convention exhibit hall.

It was exhilarating and exhausting  (also terrifying because it snowed both Friday and Saturday, and I am the wimpiest of wimpy babies when it comes to driving in snow, after totaling my car on a slushy stretch of road a year ago). But mainly I loved every minute of it. I loved sharing my books with teachers at CCIRA and schmoozing with hilariously funny librarians at the elegant Holiday House reception. I loved connecting with another group of terrific librarians at the Greedy Hamster event. It was magical to have so much time to talk intimately with my editor. And as I wandered up and down the convention center exhibits, all I could think about was how much I love the world of books for young readers, and all the people - authors, illustrators, editors, teachers, librarians - in it.

I also realized that if I'm going to stay in this world - and BELONG in this world - I have to keep on contributing to this world. If I want to be a player in this magical playground, I have to show up to play.

Lately I've been finding myself losing interest not in writing, never in writing, but in publishing what I write. After keeping my commitment to myself for 2017 to submit something somewhere every single month, I'm sort of "over" submitting things. This year I'm loving above all writing poems just for me, or for a few friends, just for the joy of it. It matters less and less to me to see a book in a bookstore with my name on the cover.

But my time at CCIRA and ALA reminded me that if I want to be truly a part of this world I love so much, I have to keep on being willing not only to write, but to share what I've written with editors, teachers, librarians, and most of all, children.

I love this world. I love being a part of it. It's true that most of all I just want to have creative joy in my life, but I also love being part of a creative tribe. So I'm going to do what I can to keep my place in mine.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

"New Voices" Book Group

Back in January, when the fervor of ambition for the new year was upon me, I saw on Facebook a link to a list of "11 incredible books by writers from s---hole countries" - that is, countries denigrated by our president as producing immigrants that shouldn't be welcomed here. The writers on the list were all women writers, and all but two writers I had never heard of. Politics aside, wouldn't it be a lovely project to read these books through the course of 2018? And what if I formed a little book group to read them with me?

That day I ordered up as many titles as were available through the Boulder Bookstore, our premiere indie bookseller. Then I put out an invitation on Facebook asking who wanted to join me for this reading adventure. After a day or two, I had a dozen participants here in Boulder/Denver/Longmont, as well as several from around the country who wanted to join in, too. This was really going to happen!

I was a bit nervous before our first meeting, as the only connection among the participants was that they were my Facebook friends, and friends from so many different parts of my life: former philosophy students from CU, fellow children's book authors, a mom whose kids knew mine in their elementary school days, a "pew mate" from church and her Brazilian friend. It all felt a bit - random, I guess. But it turned out to be wonderful. When most of the people in a book group don't know each other, when they share only a commitment to challenge themselves as readers, they come ready to spend 90 minutes actually talking about the book, enriched by their diverse experiences, and eager to fill their lives with more diversity still.

At our first meeting, last night, our chosen title was Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, born in Ghana, but raised and educated in the U.S. Her book is an ambitious interwoven narrative that traces the stories of the descendants of two sisters over half a dozen generations, one side of the family engaged in the slave industry in Ghana, the other enslaved, and then free but burdened by oppression, in America. We talked about whether we found the structure of the book satisfying or constraining, whether we found the stories unbearably depressing or celebratory of resilience in tragedy, and what the book was trying to tell readers about the way that knowledge of our own stories, even the darkest ones, can set us free.

It was exhilarating.

In March we'll be reading Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue of Cameroon. For April we'll switch it up by turning to a slim volume of poetry, Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth by Warsan Shire, a Kenyan-born Somali poet now based in London. Then we'll decide what to read next, perhaps something by Haitian author Edwidge Danticat, some of whose books I read in a reading group at DePauw University during my time there.

My world will be bigger at the end of 2018 than it is now. Hooray for the chance to hear new voices, and to listen to them together with new friends.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

A Poem-a-Day

My chief creative-joy-achieving strategy for February has been joining an online group of poets organized by brilliant, inspirational poet Molly Fisk, who is a specialist in creative joy if anyone is.

The group works like this. You sign up and pay a modest fee to cover administrative costs. Every day Molly posts a prompt (you can find the February prompts on her website, on the February 2018 tab at the bottom on the home page). Then you write a poem on that prompt - or on some other topic of your own choosing - or no poem at all. Then you post your poem on the private group website - or not. You can comment on others' poems if you feel like it - or not. The only rule is not to offer unsolicited critique - just to express appreciation. If you feel like it!

The combination of structure and freedom here - the daily prompts, but the lack of coercion to produce accordingly - has been magical for me. Also, many of my fellow poets in the group are amazing - experienced, well-published poets of astonishing gifts who, like me, just thrive under Molly's gentle guidance.

When I'm writing a poem for Molly, I don't need to add Cool Whip to my Swiss Miss hot chocolate, or sit in a cozy cafe, or do a single solitary thing to make the experience more special, as writing poetry is already as special as anything could be. So: first I get a half hour of joy writing my poem. Then for the rest of the day I get many flashes of joy as I go back and read my poem over and over again, with a mother's proud fondness in her cherished offspring.

Here is my favorite of the poems I've written so far. Thanks for letting me share it here!


Me to four-year-old granddaughter:  “It’s so cold this morning. Don’t you want to wear your slippers?”
Her to me: “NO!”
Me in high squeaky voice while wiggling the slippers at her entreatingly: “Don’t you want to wear us?”
Her to them: “YES!”

It’s always come so naturally to me, the desire
to animate the inanimate. When my boys were little,
I would make their jackets beg to be zipped up,

their lunchboxes plead not to be forgotten.
Finally, when he was twelve or so, my son rebelled
against their tyranny: “No more making voices

for inanimate objects!” Adolescence was hard enough
without having the Eggo waffle imploring to be eaten,
the carrot weeping at being left upon the plate.

As if every object – all of them – were Puff
waiting for Little Jackie Paper, or Pooh saying goodbye
to Christopher Robin at the Enchanted Place.

My granddaughter left yesterday, back to her mommy.
We see her so seldom now, my son and I, since the divorce.
And now it’s not only me who misses her

but the slippers abandoned in the closet,
the sippy cup lonesome in the cupboard,
the small spoon all by itself in the drawer.

Monday, January 22, 2018

America's Test Kitchen: Author Version

Some of my author friends love doing research for their books so much that they keep on deferring the actual writing so they can linger in the library a bit longer. Not me. I love the actual writing so much that I tend to write the book first and then do the research for it afterward.

This is not always a good idea.

It's not always a bad idea, either, as after all, the story is the most important thing, and if it's right, those pesky little real-world details can be tweaked afterward. But sometimes, the after-the-fact research can prove a bit, shall we say, daunting.

My current work-in-progress is a third-grade-level chapter book set in an after-school program, where each book will feature a different camp: cooking camp, robotics camp, graphic novel camp, etc. Book one takes place in the cooking camp, and at least I know how to cook, right? I mean, I have made meals for my family for decades, and a few of them have turned out all okay. Still, I am not what you would call much of a cook. And this book, as you might expect, involves a great deal of cooking. The kids learn how to prepare healthy lunches; they make their own pet treats; there's a whole week devoted to pumpkin delicacies, and another for bake sale goodies; the camp culminates in a Trip around the World international feast.

In her editorial letter to me containing her suggestions for revision, my editor asked, as her final query, with perhaps just a tad of suspicion: "Have you made the food you are describing?"

Um, that would be a NO.

So last week I got busy. I searched for recipes all over the internet and found a bunch for the Morning Glory Muffins the kids make for their healthy lunch week. I combined, altered, tweaked, and experimented, and they turned out SCRUMPTIOUS!
But the make-your-own dog biscuits were a disaster. The dough would NOT stick together. It refused to be rolled out to a half-inch thickness. It was so tough and leathery you could NOT cut it with bone-shaped cookie cutters, even if I had had a bone-shaped cookie cutter, which I didn't. The first batch looked grotesque. (Yes, Tanky-the-dog did eat one happily, but this is the same dog who had to be stopped from eating out of the cat's litter box, so this sets the bar pretty low.)
I tried again, adding a couple of tablespoons of vegetable oil and using smaller cookie cutters, and this time the results were more aesthetically pleasing:
Next up: the cat cookies with tuna fish mixed into them (ick! but, yes, the dog ate one of these, too), and home-made granola (pretty yummy). Still lying ahead, the greatest challenge of all. Nixie's team is the one that makes the saag paneer for the Trip around the World feast. Luckily, I put out a plaintive plea on Facebook for a simplified recipe, and a brilliant children's book author friend, Varsha Bajaj, sent me one, which I'm planning to try, bravely, this afternoon. Wish me luck!

Here, today, I offer you the Morning Glory Muffin recipe. Enjoy!

Morning Glory Muffins

2 cups whole wheat flour
2 tsp baking soda
2 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp ground ginger
¼ tsp salt
2 cups grated carrot
2 cup grated apple
½ cup coconut flakes
¼ cup sunflower seeds
3 large eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
¼ cup orange juice
1/3 cup honey
½ cup vegetable oil
½ cup seedless raisins

Preheat oven to 375.
Combine dry ingredients in large mixing bowl (flour, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, salt).
Stir in carrots, apples, coconut, walnuts and seeds.
Beat together eggs, vanilla, orange juicy, honey, and oil.
Fold in the raisins.
Spoon into muffin pan (the recipe makes 18 muffins).

Bake for around 18 minutes (a bit less for darker pans).