Thursday, March 16, 2017

"Write Out" at the Denver Botanic Gardens

I have a group of children's book author friends, living all over the Denver/Boulder metropolitan area, who love to do "write-ins" at each others' houses. Today one of them hosted, instead, a "write-out." Five of us met at the Denver Botanic Gardens for a day of writing together - well, writing, and talking, and walking, and eating.

We arrived as the gardens opened at 9 and set ourselves up in the indoor cafe.
I used my writing time brainstorming ideas for a brand-new book. I have a long way to go before I can pen the first line, but today I got as far as tentatively deciding that the book will be "the best, truest portrait of a friendship ever." I even have an idea of the theme - and the characters - so all I need is a plot: that is to say, every detail of the actual story itself. Still, I was pleased with myself by the time we set out for a walk through the gardens at 11:30.

Spring was much in evidence:

But even if the weather hadn't been balmy, we could have restored flagging spirits in the tropical conservatory.
One of the most magical parts of the day, for me, was that I found my way to the gardens via bus - actually, three different buses. First I took the local Skip bus from my house in Boulder down to the connection point for the Flatirons Flyer express bus to Denver, and from Union Station in Denver I walked just two blocks to get the #10 bus which delivered me just two blocks from my destination. I felt so plucky! So light and unencumbered! I do love navigating the world without a car.

On the way home, I got off the #10 bus at the Civic Center and continued on the free Sixteenth Street Mall Shuttle. There a rapper dude on the bus struck up a conversation with me. He and another rider wanted to know the day's date; when I told them, he said to me, "You look like an author." !!!! Which is exactly what I am! He said that there was something about the way I enunciated my words that gave me away. He proceeded to recite one of his own rap compositions to me. I thought it was terrific. 

Back at Union Station, I bought myself a black raspberry ice cream cone before boarding the bus to return home to Boulder. If your project is joy, as mine is these days, you don't pass on the ice cream. You give yourself the gift of writing with friends, wandering past spring flowers, bus rides galore, AND ice cream. 

It was, after all, that kind of day.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Desperate Times Call for Joyful Measures

I've had a few personal and professional setbacks lately: nothing life-threatening, just a series of small heart-hurting personal and professional disappointments.

My new writing group didn't like the time-travel middle-grade book to which I've devoted a good bit of time over the last four years on multiple extensive revisions from the original version of 2013. When pressed to come up with something nice to say about it - anything at all - the best they could do was to congratulate me for being "brave" enough to share such a "rough" draft with them. Ouch!

My brand new book, The Trouble with Babies (book #3 in the Nora Notebooks series), is getting no attention whatsoever, the sad but not atypical fate of a family's third child. I'll post its cover here because I feel so sorry for it.

My house is feeling very small, its 1500 square feet currently occupied by six humans and two animals. Some of the humans and animals get along with each other less well than others. Lately I'm the one who gets along less well with all of them.

I was moping considerably this past weekend, trying to keep from sinking into that "everything in my life is completely hopeless" downward spiral. But then, inveterate planner that I am - ta-dah! - I made a plan! And I love my plan, as I always love my plans.

This plan is to take drastic steps - immediately - to infuse massive, intensive, mega-levels of joy into my life. I have no other choice right now. Joy is no longer an optional extra; it's a sanity-and-happiness preserving requirement.

So I made a list of all kinds of things I can do - pronto - that would bring me joy: joy with my family, joy in my work, and joy just for me.

Here are a few:

1. Bake cookies with my three-year-old granddaughter - ooh! cookies!
2. Do a craft project with this same little person that will involve serious amounts of glitter.
3. Have a picnic lunch with all of them, even if it's only outside on our postage-stamp-sized lawn.

1. Go to the Denver Botanic Gardens this coming Thursday with five other writer friends for a "Write Out" there (this is the same gang who often have write-ins at each other's houses).
2. Take myself on a writing retreat to my favorite bed-and-breakfast in Idaho Springs: Miners Pick.
3. Put a shot of amaretto - occasionally! - in my beloved writing beverage of Swiss Miss hot chocolate.

1. Go to concerts at the university, international film festivals, theater outings, mountain hikes.
2. Read GREAT novels - Dickens, Trollope, Dumas, Hugo - huge books you can inhabit for weeks on end.
3. Stay alert for rock-bottom airfares and fly somewhere else - anywhere else - just for a day.

Desperate times, I've decided, call for joyful measures.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Learning from an Artist

I love being in the presence of phenomenally gifted creative people. I love it most of all when they are gifted in an art form different from my own: gifted filmmakers, composers, actors, painters. Then I can simply bask in awe of them, drawing inspiration from the beauty they create in the world, without having to submit to the inevitable self-denigration that would otherwise follow.

On Sunday afternoon I had the opportunity to hear an "art talk" at the Boulder Public Library by my friend Ina's daughter Zoey Frank, who is, in my view, not only a phenomenally gifted young artist, but an artist of genius. You can give yourself the gift of marveling at her brilliant paintings on her website, which showcases the dazzling evolutions of her style that she shared with us on Sunday.

Zoey began her training in a classical atelier, where she spent, she told us, four years learning "how to paint a single object under a single light source." The entire first year was spent only in drawing, followed by a year of painting only in shades of black and white. It wasn't until the fourth year that color was introduced. Like generations of painters before her, Zoey spent months in the Lourvre copying great masters with astonishing fidelity. This Rembrandt copy looks awfully like an original Rembrandt to me.
She then produced her own works of strikingly original subjects with the same meticulous attention to detail, like this one (my personal favorite) from a series of paintings of white garments hung against a white wall.
If I could paint like this, I'd spend the rest of my life painting nothing but white dresses. What on earth could be lovelier?

Not Zoey. She went on to an MFA program where she learned to paint in a whole new way. A course on "Time in Painting" encouraged her to capture the process of painting itself in her work, leaving remnants of earlier approaches to a subject in the painting itself, as shown in this breathtaking short video, Girl in Striped Shirt.

I tried to take notes as Zoey talked, but it was difficult as I couldn't bear to take my eyes off the images projected on the screen. But here are a few nuggets:

She had to "trick herself" out of her usual hyper-detailed style by choosing subjects impossible to render in the way she had been trained: e.g., still life arrangements that changed every day.

She sometimes sets herself the challenge of "making an interesting painting from something that isn't inherently interesting," like painting an abandoned table in a dimly lit studio basement.

She plays with different angles of approach, now realizing that "straight on and fully frontal" is merely the default angle for a painting: new possibilities emerge if an object is viewed from above, from below.

After spending so many years mastering the technique of exact rendering, it was hard to let herself do something that looks simpler - but isn't.

I came away from Zoey's talk wondering if I can trick myself into deviating from my own usual style, with which I've now had four decades of practice, not four years. Can I write an interesting story about something that isn't inherently interesting? Can I play with different angles of approach to a fictional narrative? Can I let myself do something that looks simpler but isn't?

Here, one more image from Zoey's recent work - oh, the lushness of that melon! Could I ever write a melon that would taste so good?

Monday, February 27, 2017

Ask, and Ye May Receive

As February draws to a close, I've now had two months on my 2017 resolution of submitting a new project - creative, scholarly, long, short - somewhere every single month. ("New" here doesn't mean completely new. I can return to an abandoned project from the past for further revisions. Heck, I can just drag out an abandoned project from the past and send it off, as is. "New" just means that I can't take the same project and submit it twelve different times.)

So far - admittedly, the year is young - I have kept the resolution. I sent off my February project - a massively revised philosophy paper on the topic of artistic integrity - to an aesthetics journal just two days ago. Hooray for me (I cheer for myself)! There are few things in my life that give me greater satisfaction than setting a goal for myself and attaining it (which is why I like having modest, attainable goals).

Here's what I've learned so far, after two months on the submission schedule.

If you submit more stuff, you get more rejections.

And if you submit more stuff, you get more acceptances.

The astonishingly prolific author Jane Yolen, who has published over 300 highly acclaimed books for young readers, posts cheerfully every day on Facebook about the constant negative and positive responses to her work she receives from the many editors to whom she submits. A typical day might net her two picture book rejections, and three acceptances for poems. The numbers in my stats are teensy-weensy compared to hers. But they are so much higher this year than they were last year, before I started the submission-a-month plan.

So far this year I've gotten four rejections: a (devastating) one on a proposed chapter book series to my beloved editor at my most beloved publisher, and three on a picture book biography. (Actually, both of those projects were submitted at the very end of 2016, but submitted in the spirit of my new resolution.) Rejections always sting. They always (for me at least) occasion self-doubt. Maybe I'm not really any good at this writing thing. Maybe I'm over the hill now! A has-been! A once-was! Yesterday's news!

But so far this year I've also gotten two acceptances. First, an offer from the beloved editor at the most beloved publisher for a stand-alone chapter book that would have been the first title in the proposed series. I wouldn't have gotten this acceptance if I hadn't submitted the larger project that received the rejection. So that submission actually yielded an acceptance as well as a rejection, a moment that hurt my heart and a moment that made my heart sing.

Second, I just heard that I got the travel grant I applied for to visit the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota to do archival research on Eleanor Estes and Maud Hart Lovelace. Until two years ago, I had never applied for a grant. It had never even crossed my mind to do so. But then a friend encouraged me to apply for a travel grant to do Eleanor Estes research at the University of Connecticut - and I got it! And the trip was amazing! And I produced a paper from that research of which I'm very proud. So I applied for the Kerlan grant - and got it, too. Later this year I'll be off for a blissful week in Minneapolis.

Sometimes when you submit you get rejected. Sometimes when you apply you get accepted. But one thing I now know for sure: if you don't submit or apply, you can't possibly get anything. And my year still has ten more months of submissions to go.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

February in D.C.

I love trips that have everything in them: professional and creative growth and enrichment, connections and re-connections with friends new and old, chances to walk in beautiful places, and hot chocolate to drink. I'm just back from a trip to Washington, D.C., that offered all of these.

My official reason for the trip was the huge and amazing AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) conference, which filled up the Washington Convention Center and nearby Marriott Hotel with some 12,000 (!) writers and poets for three days of panel discussions, keynote talks by world-famous writers, and a massive exhibit hall of displays by MFA programs, small literary journals, writing retreats and residences, and more. (Maybe I should sign up for the retreat in Reykjavik, Iceland?)

I had been asked to be on a panel of children's authors who are also university professors, titled "Children's Authors in the Academy." I have a policy of saying yes to all invitations - it's been a pretty good life strategy, all in all - but I did have a pang of worry when our panel was actually accepted for presentation. These days, when I no longer have a university salary or university-provided travel funds, I would have to pay for the whole trip myself: conference registration fee, airfare, lodging, meals, all of it. I prefer trips where I get paid to trips where I have to pay. What if I paid all that money and traveled all that distance, and only three or four people attended our panel?(Once I was on a panel with only ONE non-panel-member present as audience.)

But I had said I'd do it, so I did. And it was a totally wonderful trip.

Some two dozen people did show up to hear me and my two co-presenters, Virginia Zimmerman of Bucknell University and Anne Nesbet of the University of California at Berkeley. Afterward several of the younger women in the audience came up to tell us how glad they were to consider this kind of template for their future careers.

I sat in the enormous, gratifyingly crowded ballroom to hear (among others) Karen Joy Fowler, Ann Patchett, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Ta-Nehisi Coates read and converse.

Because I posted my presence at the conference on Facebook, I met up with two new new friends: poet and children's book author Jacqueline Jules and philosopher Teresa Blankmeyer Burke, who teaches at Gallaudet and is now working on an MFA in poetry (I always feel such a bond with philosophers who write something other than philosophy).

I walked past the Capitol Building on a wintry morning.
I channeled Mr. Smith and made a pilgrimage to the statue of Mr. Lincoln, who knew a thing or two about living in a country deeply divided:

I wandered through the National Gallery, thankful that so many beautiful things exist in the world.
I met up with a librarian friend who now works as book buyer in the children's room of the fabulous bookstore Politics and Prose. In their cafe I treated myself to hot chocolate with strawberry whipped cream (with bits of real strawberries in it), as well as avocado and cucumber toast. (The cup was overflowing with whipped cream but I drank some before I remembered to take a picture of it in all its glory - but aren't those curled slices of cucumber glorious?)
I stayed with two dear friends (splitting my time between them): Robin and Lori, who both worked with me in the early 1980s at the University of Maryland's Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy. A third dear friend of those days, Rachel, drove up from Roanoke to join us. As Robin, Rachel, and I walked together through Brookside Gardens, near Silver Spring, early daffodils were starting to bloom, and the park's greenhouse offered azaleas at their peak of beauty. In my Maryland years I lived in the small town of Takoma Park, Maryland, which calls itself the City of Azaleas (others call it the People's Republic of Takoma).
On our final night together, we organized a reunion of the philosophers from the Institute, hosted by Lori at her beautiful house. Some of us hadn't seen each other for over thirty years. How young we were then! How much older we are now! And how grateful I am that we could all be together once again. The older I get, the more I crave a sense of continuity with my younger self, and the more it means to me to reach out across the years to her - especially on a trip rich with writing inspiration, Renoir, Monet, and Van Gogh, daffodils and azaleas, and hot chocolate with strawberry whipped cream.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

A Submission a Month

My writing goal for 2017 is to submit something somewhere every single month. The "something" can be a children's book proposal, a completed children's book, a scholarly children's literature article, a philosophy article, a personal essay, a short how-to piece on craft, a grant application, a poem - any of these will count.

Right now (of course, it's only the start of February!), I am totally enamored of this plan. A month is just the right unit of time to accomplish a medium-sized task of this sort, or to make progress on a big-sized task (while also completing a small-sized task to serve as the month's submission). This plan will make me start every month with enthusiasm as a new project awaits. It will make me finish every month with an adrenaline surge as I sprint toward my self-imposed deadline.

In January, my submission was a grant application to the Kerlan Collection of children's literature at the University of Minnesota (where my own manuscripts are archived). The grant, if I receive it, would provide travel funds for me to visit the Kerlan Collection in Minneapolis and do research on the manuscripts and correspondence of two mid-20th-century children's authors on whom I've already published several articles: Eleanor Estes and Maud Hart Lovelace. Maybe I'll get the grant. Maybe I won't. But my goal for the year makes no reference to success. The goal is simply to submit.

That task took only an hour or two, so I spent the rest of the month blissfully revising a middle-grade novel I drafted during my second year as a visiting professor in Indiana: 2012-13. It's a time travel story where the magic mechanism is a cookie jar: you bake a period cookie and insert it into the jar, and it transports you into that period of the past. To return home again, you simply eat the cookie (unless your dog eats it first - spoiler alert for the big climax scene!). My writing group read the book several years ago; some of them loved it but one person hated it. On reflection, her hatred struck me as warranted. So I set the book aside. Then this past December - after a brainstorming breakfast with my brilliant mystery writer friend Leslie O'Kane - I had a plot breakthrough for fixing the hatred-triggering plot problems.

I finished an extensive, intensive round of cookie jar revisions on - yes - January 31. The book is not yet ready to submit, as first I want my new writing group, the Writing Roosters, to read it, which they probably can't do until March or April. But once they do, and I revise it yet again, it can be a submission for June or July.

This month, alas, I have a tougher revision to face. It's on a philosophy article I've been delivering to various audiences for literally years. I decided I was too ashamed to keep on dragging it out to present, so I gave myself the choice: either revise it and submit it to at least one journal, or give up on it and throw it away. I chose the first option. So on February 28 I expect to submit this paper - on artistic integrity - to an appropriate journal that I've chosen. Then, after a few months of waiting for the review process to play itself out, I'll see what they say.

In March I'll revise and re-submit my paper on Ginger Pye and Pinky Pye by Eleanor Estes, from comments I received from the two blind reviewers for the Children's Literature Association Quarterly, where I submitted it in November. Unlike the cookie jar book and the philosophy article, which are long shots, I'm fairly confident this revision will bring success.

Then in April - well, I haven't figured out April yet. Maybe it will be a month focused on a shorter, less labor-consuming project: a poem? or another grant proposal to go somewhere else and do something else fun?

But whatever it is, however puny the project, it's bound to be more than I would have done if I hadn't made myself this Submission-a-Month Plan.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Backstage at the Tattered Cover

Yesterday I braved icy roads (treacherous enough that Highway 36 between Boulder and Denver was closed for three solid hours from multiple wrecks) for a lovely morning at the glorious Tattered Cover store on Colfax Avenue in Denver. The new co-owner, Kristen Gilligan, is excited about working with local authors to create an even more thriving writing community, and so she emailed me with an invitation to join her for coffee at this remarkable branch of this legendary store.

The Tattered Cover first opened in 1971; its several branches together now stock half a million books. I especially love the branch in LoDo, the area of Denver right next to Union Station. I've made special trips on the bus to Denver just to sit there and write. The Colfax store often hosts the Denver Children's Book Authors salon, and it's currently the largest and most beautiful. The store is situated in an old and very grand former theater with soaring windows in the front.
It even retained some of the theater seating. Here a knitting group sits cozy in those red-plush theater chairs.
Kristen took me on a tour of the store, showing all the various theatrical elements that remain, from red velvet curtains hanging on one wall to a puppet theater in the well-stocked children's area. She also led me through the bowels of the store where the busy staff have their offices, so I could glimpse the inner workings of a store of this scale.There is magic in seeing how and where and magic happens.

So hooray for local independent bookstores like the Tattered Cover, as well as Denver's treasure of children's bookstore (Second Star to the Right), our own Boulder Bookstore here on Pearl Street, and the wondrously eclectic Fallen Leaf Books owned by my sister and her husband in charming Nashville, Indiana.
And hooray for booksellers who want to partner with local authors so that we can make book magic together.