Friday, June 19, 2020

The Ultimate Author Betrayal: Falling in Love with a NEW PEN

For as long as I can remember, I have loved Pilot Razor Point Fine-Tipped Black Marker Pens.

I have written almost all of my sixty books with Pilot Razor Point Fine-Tipped Black Marker Pens, on narrow-ruled, white, 8 1/2" paper (no margins!), leaning on the clipboard-missing-a-clip that I've had since college, while drinking Swiss Miss hot chocolate.

In every school visit for decades I would mention my deep and abiding love for these pens as part of my presentation. I'm not sure my young audience really needed to know this, but I wanted to share with them the JOY of writing, and part of the joy for me comes from these creative rituals.

I vowed that I would never ever EVER give my love to another pen.

But then . . .  a year ago, when I started my new little notebook for the year, buying the same brand I had always bought, this time the paper must have been a little bit thinner and cheaper, because, to my horror, my pen LEAKED THROUGH TO THE BACK OF THE PAGE. This would not do. I have to be able to write on both sides of the page - I just have to!

I happened to have in my possession another pen that had somehow come my way, a Pilot 5-500 extra-fine marker pen. Desperate, I gave it a chance to see how it would do at writing my goals and dreams in the new little notebook.

 It did NOT leak through to the back of the page. And its lines were SO thin and and SO fine, SO refined and delicate and elegant, that now the lines of the old pen seemed crude and coarse, garish and vulgar.

And so it happened: I fell in love with a new pen. This is now the pen I crave and cherish.
I feel terrible for my old pens, languishing in their boxes, forgotten. I remember a song my sister learned in kindergarten (which I've never been able to find by Googling), which began: "Dolly's lying on the closet floor / since my new bear came." I can tweak the lyrics to be: "Pilot Razor Point pens are lying in the drawer / since my Pilot P-500s came." This isn't as catchy, but it's just as true.

So I have a new favorite pen now. I just do.

 I was about to say that I've callously moved on, but that isn't right. I've sorrowfully moved on with a heart full of tender memories. I will always remember the old Pilot Razor Point Fine-Tipped Black Marker Pens with deep affection for their faithfulness through all the years we had together. And at the end of my writing days, it will be the Pilot Razor Point Fine-Tipped Black Marker Pens I remember most.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Trying to Make (Teaching and Writing) Magic Happen from Afar

Today, if COVID-19 hadn't happened, I would have been in Roanoke, Virginia, getting ready to start teaching the Advanced Creative Writing Tutorial for the Graduate Programs in Children's Literature at Hollins University for their summer term that begins tomorrow. Instead I'm here in Boulder, Colorado, getting ready to teach the same course online.

After teaching online this past spring for University of Colorado (philosophy) and University of Denver (children's literature), I've made my peace with teaching online. But, oh, giving up the in-person Hollins experience is hard. Teaching at Hollins isn't just about what happens with the students in the classroom. It's about being fully immersed into the life of this truly enchanted place, teaching what you love most in the world to students who want most in the world to learn it. To enter Hollins, I once said, is to "enter the portals of paradise."

This summer there will be no early morning walks past pastures where horses are out to graze.
There will be no writing at "my" table in the beautiful Hollins library.
Or writing in a rocking chair on a veranda.
Or eating divine cafeteria breakfasts with made-to-order omelets. Or walking home from stimulating evening talks past trees festooned with fireflies (we don't have fireflies in Colorado). Or encountering children's book friends hiding in the shrubbery.


But the director of our program, my dear friend Lisa Rowe Fraustino, has urged us to still make as much of the Hollins magic happen as we can, and I'm going to try with all my might to do that.

I'm going to lavish love on my six students, adding individual one-on-one ZOOM meetings each week to our class ZOOMs and Moodle discussion boards. I'm going to "attend" every ZOOMed evening talk and savor every morsel of wisdom. I'm going to immerse myself in revising my verse novel and try to vary and beautify my writing spaces right here in my house. I'm going to walk with my favorite early-morning Hollins walking partner, me in Colorado and her in South Carolina, while chatting on our cell phones. I'm even going to make myself omelets-to-order.

I am committed to making as much magic as I can this summer for my students and for me.

And maybe next summer I'll be there in Roanoke once again, with the fireflies.

Friday, June 12, 2020

The Exhilaration of Brilliant Critique

Ever since the COVID-19 lockdown began, I've been working on a verse novel (currently titled The Lost Language) about two sixth-grade best friends who are trying to save one of the world's hundreds of endangered languages from going extinct. By devoting an hour a day to writing it (what I dubbed my "hour of bliss"), I finished a full first draft in around two months.

The book came pouring out of me with such joy in creation that I had no idea if it was wonderful or terrible, or a mix of both, and in which case, which were the wonderful parts and which were the terrible parts? The only way I've ever known how to answer such questions is by giving the draft to my writing group for their review. So last week I sent what I had of The Lost Language to the Writing Roosters, and awaited their verdict with the usual terror and trepidation.

We met Wednesday night, via ZOOM, and this is what they said:

"I love it!"
"I love it, too!"
"I really do!"
"This is my favorite of your books, and I love all of them!"
"I could totally hear Claudia!" (which would not necessarily be a good feature in all books by all authors, but is probably a good feature in this book by Claudia)

Whew! Did this mean the book was ready to be rushed off to my agent?

Um - that would be a no.

For here is what else they said.

The two main relationships in the book are between my main character (Betsy) and her best friend (Lizard) and between Betsy and her mother. The Roosters had a lot of problems with the relationship between Betsy and Lizard, mainly because they didn't like Lizard and couldn't see why Betsy wanted to be friends with her.

They also had a lot of problems with the relationship between Betsy and her mother, mainly because they didn't like the mother and couldn't see why Betsy's perfectly lovely father ever married her.

They also had a lot of problems with the relationship between Betsy's mother and Lizard, who (unlikable as they both are) also don't like each other.

They liked the idea of two kids trying to save a dying language, but they needed more motivation for these particular two kids to be so invested in the project.

One of the climax scenes turns on a betrayal of Betsy by Lizard; they want that totally overhauled.

There is a story line involving Lizard and her father that didn't work for anybody.

They needed more interiority from Betsy, to see her evolution more clearly from the inside.

They identified some problems with pacing.

They weren't sure about certain aspects of the verse format.

And a whole bunch of other things that are in my SEVEN PAGES of handwritten notes.

Am I discouraged?


I am exhilarated.

For here is the weird and wonderful thing about writing. I wrote a book that four of my fellow writers LOVED despite finding fault with just about every single aspect of it. That seems impossible, but it's completely true.

 And guess what? All these things they want fixed are FIXABLE.


By ME!

So tomorrow morning I'm going to wake up early for the first of many daily hours of bliss spent happily rewriting. Thank you, beloved Roosters!

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Falling in Love with What You Once Hated

It's the well-worn trope of romantic comedy, of course. Boy meets girl, boy and girl hate each other, then boy and girl end up falling in love. One of my middle-grade books from many years ago, Dinah in Love, had this very story line, which netted me the single best line in any review for any book of my long career. Deborah Stevenson wrote, in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, "It's predictable, sure, but so were Tracy and Hepburn."

I'm here to report that this 180-degree change of heart can happen not only in love life, but in work life as well. 

I signed up to teach an online children's literature course this past spring. I hated the course before it even began. At that point I was already hating anything that was online, as the COVID crisis had just erupted. Furthermore, I hadn't realized that for this particular program, all instructors had to teach every course in the exact same way as designed by the course creator. The course, in fact, was in a "container" that couldn't be tampered with by individual instructors. My role was limited to participation in the course's endless discussion boards and grading the course's endless assignments. Worse, I knew that I couldn't have done most of the assignments myself as they required enormous tech expertise that I don't have. The students had to make graphs on the computer and post them on the course website - and attractive, eye-catching posters - and video presentations - and PowerPoints with voice narration. So I was not only a glorified grader, but a grader who couldn't even do the work she was supposed to be grading. 

Here's what I said about the course two weeks in: "I HATE THIS COURSE! WHY OH WHY DID I SAY I'D DO THIS? REMIND ME NEVER EVER TO DO THIS AGAIN!" I said that the one good thing about the whole dismal experience was that I had acquired needed clarity about my career from this point forward because now I knew for SURE that I never wanted to teach ANYWHERE ever AGAIN!

Well, the course ended this past week. I turned in the final grades yesterday. And guess what?

I ended up loving the course.

I learned so much from spending time in that "container" brilliantly constructed by a veteran educator. I managed to add some content of my own by sending out a weekly "Announcement" post to the students (which some of them didn't read but many of them did). The conversations on the discussion boards were amazing, and through them I formed a close relationship with many of the students - all of whom were dazzlingly brilliant. The last week of the course became a total love fest, complete with weepy farewells, which is what I think teaching should be.

Best of all, the course design prioritized the importance of diversity in children's literature. We spent a full week of the ten weeks of the quarter analyzing the sobering statistics on the lack of diversity in children's literature from the Cooperative Center for Children's Books (CCBD) at the University of Wisconsin. We engaged in heart-felt dialogue about why it is so important that books for children be both "mirrors" and "windows," to use the metaphor made famous by Rudine Sims Bishop. The assigned books for the course made up a wonderfully diverse list, from Yasmin the Explorer by Saadia Faruqi to Makoons by Louise Erdrich to the stunning Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds. When the students wrote their final posts about their biggest "take-aways" from the course, over and over they wrote, "We need diverse books! Diversity matters! I am going to read more diverse books myself! I am going to give these books as gifts to children I love! I want the world to change so that all children can see themselves in books!  I want the world to change so that readers can see the humanity of all children in books!"

This was the perfect course for me to be teaching, and for the students to be taking, during this time of protest over the never-to-be-forgotten death of George Floyd. We all felt that reading these diverse books, and talking about them together, was work of supreme importance. I felt so grateful that I could be part of  this work. I can't take credit for designing this course - that credit goes to the incomparable Denise Vega - but I can take credit for teaching it - and, I believe, teaching it well.

So: sometimes you can hate something and then come to love it. My blindingly clear certainty that I WILL NEVER EVER TEACH ANYWHERE EVER AGAIN has been replaced with an openness to teach anywhere, any time. Or just . . . openness, more generally: openness to whatever opportunities come my way to make my own small difference in the world, when and where I can.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The Writing of Any Book Poses Some Insoluble Problem All Its Own

I'm back to loving my verse-novel-in-progress, hugging myself with joy at every new poem added to the growing stack of pages. It isn't that I found a way to solve the chief problem with the book that was giving me those intense pangs of doubt. I just found a way to resign myself to it.

For I've come to believe that every book - at least every book I write - but maybe any book anybody writes - poses some dire problem for its author that simply can't be solved.

Take my book How Oliver Olson Changed the World. On a school visit I saw a bulletin-board display of student work for the following assignment: Give an idea for how YOU would change the world. Ooh, this could be a book! I knew right away that my main character would have to be the kid in the class least likely to change the world, right? I decided to make him an unlikely world changer because of his over-protective "helicopter" parents, from whom he'd have to break free somehow in the process of engaging with this particular assignment.

But here's the insoluble problem: given that the whole story is about a passive, inert, non-world changing kid who FINALLY comes into his own, my main character has to be a passive, inert, non-world changing kid. But a classic weakness in manuscripts is that the main character is passive, not active. We want to read about someone who drives the action of his own story. So from minute one my book had a fatal, unfixable flaw.

All I could do was write the book anyway.

My book Zero Tolerance is about a goody-good girl who has never been in trouble until the day she grabs her mother's lunch bag by mistake, a bag that happens to contain a knife to cut her mother's apple. Dutiful, docile girl that she is, she instantly turns the knife in to the lunchroom lady, only to find herself facing mandatory expulsion under her school's zero tolerance for drugs and weapons. The fatal, unfixable flaw in this one: Sierra is initially self-righteous enough that she doesn't engage the reader's sympathy, but she has to be this way so that she can come to question her previous unthinking acceptance of adult authority.

All I could do was write the book anyway.

In my current work-in-progress, about two sixth graders trying to save one of the world's hundreds of endangered languages, my main character faces two extremely serious crises, both in her family and in her deepest friendship, and now has to find a new language for talking about things she has long avoided talking about. What made me turn against the book was that I dreaded writing a bunch of poems with people talking, talking, talking, especially since the book is first person, so the main character was already doing all this talking, talking, talking. Talking heads - ick! Talking heads that won't stop talking - double ick! Talking heads that won't stop talking about how important it is to talk - triple ick!

But. . . this IS a book about language, after all - about losing languages - about trying to get them back -  about groping toward finding your own language to say what has to be said. It's HAS to have a lot of talking about talking.

So all I can do is write the book anyway.

EVERY book has an insoluble problem. So what?

All we can do as authors is try to add enough compensating wonderfulness that readers will read it - and maybe even love it - anyway.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Defeating the Demons of Doubt

For several weeks now, I have been working on a book I love.

I've been working on it for an hour a day, dubbing this my "Hour of Bliss." To amp up the bliss, I have my beloved hourglass at the ready - and my fail-proof Swiss Miss hot chocolate - and a velvety soft blanket to spread over me as I lie on the couch - and even beautiful flowers to inspire me to greater beauty in my prose.

I posted this picture a few weeks ago, as I was starting to gather my ideas for this book, but I'll post it again here as the "Before" picture of writing bliss.
The book I'm working on is a verse novel, a form I've been yearning to try: a novel told entirely in poetry (though admittedly much of the poetry is on the prosy side).

Its central idea is one I've been drawn to for years: two sixth-grade friends discover that hundreds of languages worldwide are going extinct, and they decide to try to save one: to learn what they can of it, so that, because of them, there will be at least two more speakers of this endangered language on the planet. It's a doomed dream, of course, because having two sixth-grade kids in Colorado learn a few words of a dying language on the other side of the globe is hardly going to bring it back to life again. But I LOVE doomed dreams - who doesn't? And their friendship is also dying - and much of what the protagonist believes about her family turns out not to be true.... The book will be a beautiful metaphor on loss... and on finding the right language to make sense of that loss.

In short, this book, tentatively titled The Lost Language, will be a PROFOUND AND IMPORTANT BOOK FOR THE AGES!! WRITTEN BY ME!!!

For the first two weeks, I was besotted with the book and everything about it. I love writing poems, and when I read my poems, I think they are wonderful. (In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says all poets are like this: "they dearly love their own poems, and are fond of them as though they were their children." Oh, that Aristotle was right about so many things!)

But now, almost a month into the writing, I don't think the book is profound or important.

I cringe at the poems, if you can even call them "poems" at all.

Would two kids really think they could save a language in this way? Would other kids want to read about them trying to do it? Does the deep, dark stuff in the book come out of nowhere? Does it emerge too late in the story and get resolved too easily?

Oh, why couldn't that first burst of bliss go on forever?

Now that the demons of doubt have emerged, I have to find some way to defeat them - or at least to silence them enough to keep on writing.

Here is what I am working hard at telling myself:

1. All writers feel this way at this stage of a project. I have always felt this way at this stage of a project. Why should this time be any different?

2. It's exceedingly unlikely that this book is either as fabulously wonderful as I thought it was last week or as totally worthless as I fear it is now.

2. If this book is like all of my other books, there are probably some lovely things in it and some things that need to be slightly revised, and some things that need to be massively revised, and some things that will have to be jettisoned completely. (But as the reliably gloomy Annie Dillard points out in The Writing Life, sometimes, "The part you must jettison is not only the best-written part; it is also, oddly, that part that was to have been the very point. It is the original key passage, the passage on which the rest was to hang, and from which you yourself drew the courage to begin." Sigh....

3. This is why I found myself a wonderful critique group and wonderful critique partners. After they read my pages, they will be able to tell me when to hold 'em, when to fold 'em, when to walk away, and when to run. When I'm done revising in light of their comments, I'm lucky to have an amazing editor who will do the same.

4. However flawed this book is, its flaws can be identified and remedied only if I keep on writing, that is to say, doggedly, hopelessly, patiently, ploddingly write a few more poems tomorrow, and then the day after that, and the day after that.

While I'm tired (at least right now) of the old chestnut that it's the journey, not the arrival, that matters, it's kind of true. For the fact remains that I had two weeks of writing bliss - BLISS!

Poet Sara Teasdale wrote as the last lines of her poem "Barter": "For a breath of ecstasy, give all you have been or could be." She could have written the same about a breath of bliss - and I had two whole weeks of it.

Let the demons of doubt howl all they want: I had those two weeks of bliss, and that is something even they can never take away.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Why I Like the Last Day of the Month

I have shouted far and wide that I love the first day of the month. On the first day of every month I start a whole NEW LIFE! This is my chance for a new beginning! A fresh start! A do-over on my entire existence!

Then, of course, after a few days of astonishing myself with progress on every conceivable front, I slip back into the old life again. After all, who can sustain a whole new life forever?

So as the end of each month draws near, I can't help but notice a gap between what I thought the month would be and what it turned out being.

Here is where I remember the wisdom of my therapist from many decades ago. One month, say it was April, I had a session with her on, say it was the 28th, where I bemoaned that I was stalled yet again in the LaBrea Tar Pits of my life, with all my month's goals left undone. "So much for April," I said, with a weary sigh.

And then she spoke the words I've never forgotten: "There's still two more days."


The last day of the month is now a day I cherish. It is my last chance to do something to salvage the month that is about to end.

During my teaching years, there would always be some student who had started strong, but then drifted away, who left for spring break and never came back again. He'd slink into my office as finals loomed, distraught at what had become of his semester, and I could never resist saying to him, "Let's see how much of it we can salvage."

Today I'm going to see what I can salvage of April. I know that for many of us this particular April, this April of coronavirus quarantine, has been a month for sheer survival, where nobody has any interest whatsoever in salvaging anything. I get that. But I am still irresistibly drawn to salvaging what I can.

Today I know I can't possibly DO this one academic project that I should have done back in January, but just . . .  didn't. What I CAN do is drag it out and look at it. Just look at it. Then when May's new life begins tomorrow, I'll be that much more ready to leap into tackling it. My sister, who posts a wonderful quote from some famous person each day on Facebook, has shared this one from Joseph Conrad: "Facing it - always facing it - that's the way to get through."

So: on this last day of April, I'm at least going to face that overdue abstract for my contribution to the Cambridge History of Children's Literature in English. How glad I will be tomorrow that I did that today! I'm also going to catch up on the week's work for the online children's lit class I'm teaching for the University of Denver. My future self will thank me for that, too. I'll spend one blissful hour on my verse-novel-in-progress so I can cast an admiring glance on a few more pages. A few more pages is so much better than no more pages.

Today I am going to salvage April, at least a little bit, as best I can.