Monday, November 30, 2009

Five Episodes of Happiness

Thanksgiving break is over, and I'm back teaching, the intense home stretch of the semester with just two weeks of classes left (and with so many of those papers left to grade, all the ones I didn't get done last week), and then on to the stress of finals.

So it is time for me to resume my practice of scheduling five episodes of happiness for myself every day. I plan them out as I walk to get the Skip to work in the morning. I always insist on having five - not four, not six. I love lists that are in multiples of five!

Here is my list for today:
1) The walk to the Skip itself - the bus stops every few blocks, so I try to leave myself enough time in the morning to walk for a mile or so before I hop onboard, paying attention to the crisp, clear beauty of the morning.

2) A cup of tea when I get to my office - actually, I forgot to do this one! Oops! But after I type this blog entry I will go fix myself one (I'm in my office for my office hours right now).

3) Reconnecting with my sweet freshmen in my 1:00 class, the little class that I teach right in the Farrand dorm, as part of CU's residential academic program: all the students from the class live in the same dorm, and I walk over to the dorm to teach. This particular group is so bright and motivated; I can't wait to share with them the book we'll be focusing on for the final two weeks of the semester: Shambhala, or The Sacred Path of the Warrior.

4) Dinner at Dazzle, the jazz club in Denver, where Christopher is playing drums tonight with a combo sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Center for Musical Arts.

5) The concert at Dazzzle, watching Christopher doing something he loves so much, and hearing some great mellow jazz as well.

Those are my five for today. I haven't yet planned my full five for tomorrow, but I know one of them will be luxuriating in a free morning at home, with time to write and catch up on some of that grading, and another will be Christopher's concert with the symphonic band at Metro State, playing trombone this time. That means I have to come up with three more - ooh, maybe an early morning walk with my friend Rowan, and maybe baking a pan of apple crisp - and one more - what should it be??

And then five more on Wednesday, and five on Thursday, and . . . .

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Risks and Rewards of Self-Googling

Thanksgiving break meant time to write, time to read, time for family and friends - and, alas, time to spend at the computer Googling myself and my books to see what I could find. In the days before the Internet, I would anxiously await each of the half dozen or so published reviews that would follow the publication of each book to see what Horn Book, Booklist, School Library Journal, Kirkus, the Bulletin from the the Center for Children's Books, and Publishers Weekly had to say. But now I can check the Internet any time day or night to find out what various bloggers have to say - in fact, I have a Google blog alert set so that I will get an email telling me whenever I am mentioned in a blog. (Well, whenever "Claudia Mills" is mentioned in a blog, which might be me, but also might be the marine biologist Claudia Mills, or the fabric artist Claudia Mills, or the young British singer Claudia Mills). And I can also go to the fascinating website Goodreads to find out what real people, actual readers, are saying about my books.

Oh, this is a perilous thing to do!

For How Oliver Olson Changed the World, Goodreads gives 54 ratings of my book, with an average rating of 3.89 on a five-point scale, and 31 actual reader reviews. Some are wonderful: "Better than gold. Better than diamonds and jewels," says Elizabeth, who is Elizabeth Bird of the ultra-mega-major-prominent blog Fuse 8. Yay! But somebody called "The Library Lady" said: "Pretty ordinary story from a writer who does nice ordinary books for kids. Nothing here to rock my world or theirs." Ooh! I hate the Library Lady! I hate her! And "Lana" said: "What a perfect book for young middle-graders. The characters, the tone, the voice, the not-too-complex plot--Claudia Mills nailed each one." I love Lana! And then some guy named Eric, who is apparently a teacher, said that he hated the teacher in the book (who in my opinion is a WONDERFUL teacher who lets her students' passion for the planetary status of Pluto drive how she teaches the entire unit on the solar system); he hates her because she assigns spelling homework and has her students make dioramas! "Yuck!" says Eric. Well, Eric, I say: Yuck to you!

What value, if any, is there to reading these reader comments? Part of me thinks that there has to be some value: why on earth wouldn't a writer care about what her readers think? What kind of insulated, isolated, narcissistic creature would I have to be NOT to care? Isn't the whole point of writing - or at least a pretty significant point - to connect with readers? So gathering reader responses to my work, so helpfully collated on Goodreads, can help me grow as a writer. But of course all these responses have to be taken with a grain - nay, an entire shaker - of salt. Because, as my little sampling above just revealed, readers differ: what one loves, another hates; what moves one leaves another lukewarm and indifferent (with her world unrocked - oh, Library Lady!). It's a helpful exercise in perspective to Google other people's books as well - even authors I adore, where I cannot imagine any human being anywhere not adoring their books, get rankings less than 4 on the 5-point scale. Anne Tyler's Ladder of Years, one of my most favorite books EVER, got an average ranking on Goodreads of 3.64 - lower than Oliver Olson! This could make me want to throw up my hands and abandon the whole enterprise of self-Googling altogether.

But it doesn't. It makes me want to continue to do it, but sparingly - not too often, so I don't drive myself crazy - and with some perspective, as well. I have to confess that it also makes me want to write some book someday that WILL rock the Library Lady's world. And maybe that's a good thing.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


One time when my sister and I were home for Thanksgiving in New Jersey, we glanced at the Courier News for the day and were cracked up by the huge headline: "Central Jerseyans Thankful - Family, Friends, Top Grateful List." Breaking news! Extra, extra, read all about it!

But what other headline could there really be for Thanksgiving, this one day a year when we all do sit down and make our grateful lists? Family and friends top mine, of course. But I have to say that right behind them comes work: I am truly grateful that I have work that I love to do, work that gives my life meaning and purpose and tons of fun.

It's become a cliche to say that work can't compare to family and friends: "No one ever lay on his deathbed and said, 'I wish I had spent more time at the office.'" Fair enough. But I can well imagine somene saying, on her deathbed, "I wish I had written that novel I always wanted to write" or "I wish I had taken time in my busy days to scribble a poem or two or three" or "I wish I had followed my dreams and shared the stories I've yearned to tell."

I'm grateful above all for the family with whom I'll be eating our Thanksgiving feast, and for other family members, just as dear, who will celebrating thousands of miles away. But I'm also grateful for every hour I have spent chasing after my dreams. My grateful list is long, indeed.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

More Hours or More Days?

Thanksgiving break is bliss! I'm ahead on writing, ahead on my one-a-day extra little tasks, behind on grading my five papers a day - but the good thing about grading is that one way or another, it always does get done. I took not one but two glorious walks yesterday, with two different friends; I have a third friend lined up for a mountain walk this afternoon.

Of course, I wish that Thanksgiving break would last longer, and yet, I have to say that by evening yesterday, I felt that the day was seeming a bit, well, long. Write, write, grade a couple of papers, walk, read, read, walk, write, read, read, read. I really didn't feel like writing or reading any more that day, even as I could hardly wait to start writing and reading again tomorrow.

This made me think how often people say that they wish there were more hours in a day. I never wish this. Instead I wish that there were more days in a week. By suppertime, I'm tired; I don't want the day to go on and on and on. What I love best is that first hour of the early morning, full of hope and promise. I want more of THOSE - but you can't have two first hours of the day on the same day, two bursts of hope and promise. First hours, hours of hope and promise, are meant to come just once a day. So that is why I need not more hours, but more days.

Especially more days of Thanksgiving break.

Monday, November 23, 2009

First Draft Done

This morning, I got up around 5:00, awakened by the incessant meowing of the world's most insistent alarm clock, my cat, Snickers. I made myself my oversized mug of Swiss Miss hot chocolate. And I finished writing Chapter 10 of the first draft of the new chapter book, which means that the entire first draft is now done.

Some writers - most? - say that they hate to write first drafts, they just have to force themselves somehow to get through a first draft, and then they can settle down to the true joy of writing, which is rewriting, taking that half-baked, embarrassing thing and turning it into a slightly more baked, less embarrassing thing, watching the story strengthen, the characters deepen, before their very eyes.

Well, I do love revision. But secretly I love writing the first draft most. I love everything about it. I write my first drafts with a pen on paper; subsequent drafts I do on the computer - and I love best writing with a pen on paper. I love watching the pages mount up, line by line by line. I love finding out what happens, the same way the reader would find it out; I love hearing my characters say and do things I didn't ever plan for them to say and do. Subsequent drafts are always more deliberate, intentional - I think hard in subsequent drafts about what has to be added, subtracted, changed, to produce a more coherent, unified, suspenseful, funny story. But the first draft just . . . happens, just emerges on the page. For me, while subsequent drafts are where the true craftsmanship of writing shows, the first draft is where the magic is - it's where the elves miraculously appear in the night and do their fairy stitching.

Even as I say this, I do have to confess that in just about every single one of my books, my favorite scene ended up being a scene I added in the very last draft, after months and months of revision. So there is plenty of wonderment later on as well.

But there is still nothing like that first draft - that maiden voyage of discovery, when you just might set off for India and end up in a new and completely unexpected world.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Making a Plan

It's Thanksgiving break at the university, hooray, hooray! If I think about how much work I need to get done over the next nine days, I will feel overwhelmed with stress and misery, instead of lighthearted and merry. So I need to make a plan.

For example, if I consider the fact that I made the due date for the papers in BOTH classes be yesterday, so that I now have 22 papers to grade for one class and 47 (!) for the other, I will sit paralyzed with doubt that I can grade even one paper, let alone 69. But, if I tell myself, "Just do five papers each day," for eight days (not counting Thanksgiving), then I will have 40 of them done by the end of the break - and probably, thinking realistically, I don't have 69 papers, as probably I granted a bunch of extensions to people that I've already forgotten about. So maybe I have 60 papers: do 40 over the break, and then do 20 (at the same rate of 5 a day) the week after the break. Papers, done!

I often have lunch at one sandwich joint on the Hill where you order sandwiches, writing down your order on a brown paper bag, checking off your choice in half a dozen different categories: kind of roll (white or wheat), kind of protein, kind of mayonaise, kind of veggies, kind of condiments. That is how I am going to organize my eight days of Thanksgiving break. Each day I will choose from the following menu, one item from each category:

1. Grade five papers (any five from either class).
2. Write one page on my chapter book-in-progress for an hour OR spend one hour revising my sequel to 7 x 9 = Trouble! (now returned to me by my editor).
3. Do at least one thing from the following list: write up one last teaching observation, write one last recommendation letter, write any of the five book reviews I need to do for Children's Literature.
4. Take one long walk.
5. Have one episode of fun either with my mother, the boys, or a friend.

It's a plan!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Writing Anything

I like to write anything.

I think this is an important thing for people to remember who want desperately to write a big important book and publish it with a big fancy New York publisher. I want that, too, oh, yes, I do.

But I also like to write anything. And publish it anywhere.

This afternoon I'm going to interview a surpassingly delightful woman in my church for a little feature for our church newsletter called "Saint of the Month" in which we feature some member who has made wonderful contributions to our church community. As we have a relatively small church with an extremely active memberhip, this means that just about everybody is a "saint" in this way. So this afternoon I will go talk to Skippy and get some juicy details for my article. I already have one: this woman, who hails from Texas and speaks with a terrific Texas twang, and dresses in a different elegant outfit whenever you see her, wrote a master's thesis on the novels of Anthony Trollope!

Then, as soon as I finish interviewing Skippy, I'm heading off to the launch party for the new issue of a campus online literary magazine called sub-scribe, in which I have three poems included. The theme of this issue is "recovery," a topic on which I consider myself to be something of an expert. I have no idea how many people read sub-scribe. But I loved writing the poems, and I'm thrilled that sub-scribe is publishing them, and now I get to go read them at a launch party. How fun is that?

Write anything. Publish it anywhere.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

No Exit

Today is one of the most fun days of my semester. It's the day that my TAs and I perform a readers' theater version of Jean-Paul Sartre's famous play No Exit in my Intro to Ethics class as the conclusion of our unit on Sartre's existentialism. It's always a treat for me to be able to bring literature into a philosophy class. When I teach Rousseau we read the entire text of his VERY long epistolary novel, Julie, or the New Heloise (the best-selling novel of the 18th century). And when I teach Sartre, we perform No Exit. My first semester teaching Sartre, I tried to find a video version of the play and couldn't locate one; anyway, I'm terrible at technology. So: why not perform it ourselves?!

I always take the role of Estelle, explaining to my students that they're going to need to pretend that I'm thirty years younger. One TA takes the part of Inez, and another of Garcin. They are always good sports about it. When the script calls for a kiss, we don't kiss, of course; we just stand close and lean in toward each other. The play builds to the wonderful line delivered by Garcin: "Hell is - other people!" At the end we bow and accept the deafening applause (well, the polite scattered clapping) of the somewhat dumbfounded class. We're going to do two performances today: one for my large lecture at 9, and another for my smaller version of the same class (22 students) that I teach in a residential academic program in one of the CU dorms.

On their course evaluations at the end of the semester, students always write that this was their favorite part of the course. It's my favorite part of the course, as well.

And so, on with the show!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Last Third

It's been a month since I started my chapter book over again from scratch. Well, not entirely from scratch: I kept the characters and their traits and quirks. But they are now starring in an entirely new story. There isn't a scene - or a SENTENCE - that could be salvaged from the last draft. And now I have eight chapters done (of ten) and plan to write chapter 9 today. I could have a full first draft done by this weekend.

This made me remember a quote I read in the wonderful little book of meditations for writers, Walking on Alligators, by Susan Shaughnessy. Every page begins with a quote on the writing process or the writing life - or life itself - followed by Susan's ruminations about it. The quotes alone are worth the price of the book. Here is the one I just looked up to include in today's blog:

"The last third of the book only takes about 10 percent of the time. I don't know whether that's due to confidence or because the alternatives have been narrowed down." - Joseph Heller

I don't know, either, but I do know that it's true, at least for me, that as I write the last third of a book I have the same momentum that readers have as they read the last third of the book. As a reader would stay up all night to finish reading it, I want to stay up all night to finish writing it (except that I would never stay up all night! I'd want to, but the pen would fall out of my hand at 8:30. But still.) I feel the inexorability of what is going to unfold; the die of destiny has been cast for my characters; what is to be is what must be, given who they are, and everything they have said and done thus far. And yet there is endless fascination in seeing exactly how it is going to unfold.

And so my hand moves faster across the page. Faster! Faster!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

"I Could Have Written That"

On Saturday, I headed out in the snow to teach an all-day advanced children's book writing workshop for Lifelong Learning, the continuing education program of Boulder Valley Public Schools. There were six students in the class. The class was structured entirely as a critique group; we spent the full five hours of class time in an in-depth critique of each student's manuscript, with a lovely break for lunch, all of us together, at a nearby Chinese restaurant.

The manuscripts were amazing - and one of them was even by a sixteen-year-old high school girl, whose mother had to petition to get special permission for her to take the class. I was supposed to be the teacher, but at least three of the students, although unpublished, had manuscripts, in my view, as worthy of publication as my own.

Now, a lot of beginning writers get interested in writing by looking at published work that doesn't impress them all that much and thinking, "Hey, I could have written that." As a spur to creativity, this is probably a good thing. But often, these writers don't get very far in developing their craft. I think we get a lot farther not when we look at other writers' work with disdain, but when we behold it with admiration and awe.

When I read my students' manuscripts on Saturday, I thought, "I'm going to have to work VERY VERY HARD to continue to get published in a world where not-yet-published writers have work this good." Instead of wondering how it can be that I keep on not winning the Newbery, I need to wonder how I can keep on getting published at all. The standards are high. They are getting higher. If I am going to continue to be a published author, I had better do some honing of my craft; I had better push myself harder, force myself to go deeper. I am going to have to stretch and grow if I am going to equal, let alone exceed, the work of the students whom I was privileged to "teach" yesterday.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Inside the Box

One of the best things about working on a college campus is that I can attend stimulating talks, lectures, and performances almost hourly - well, except that then I wouldn't get any of my own work done. But still: I can sneak away with some regularity to expand my intellectual and emotional horizons. Last week I heard a wonderful talk on "Evil in Macbeth" by English Department Professor Emeritus Doug Burger. And I try to attend all of the Performance Fridays hosted by the Center for the Humanities and the Arts (CHA). Luckily I'm currently a CHA board member so I don't even have to feel guilty when I attend the Performance Fridays: enjoying their free light lunch before the performance, and then watching an amazing 45-minute production of music, theater, or dance, is actually what I'm SUPPOSED to be doing - it's what the University of Colorado is paying me to do.

Yesterday's Performance Friday featured CU's astonishing new assistant professor Tamara Meneghini in a series of monologues using the technique of "RasaBoxes." The stage was marked out with eight different boxes, each one representing a different zone of emotional energy, identified with a Sanskrit name, including wonder/awe, love, disgust, laughter, and rage. First, some of Tammy's students moved from box to box "warming up the RasaBoxes," using their bodies and wordless voices to portray the emotions in each one. Then Tammy took the stage, delivering a series of beautifully crafted, powerful sketches: a young child's boundless enthusiasm tempered by her grief for missing her absent mother, an aging country-western singer trying too hard to laugh at her own decline, a homeless woman picking invisible lice off herself as she rages against the passersby. Wow.

I'm wondering if the RasaBox technique might work for writers as well as actors. Certainly I came away from Tammy's performance with some thoughts about how what I saw in that powerful hour could help my own work as an author. Here is some of what I'm distilling for myself:

1) Go deep into whatever emotion your character is experiencing. Be as filled with awe, love, laughter, disgust, or rage as you can possibly be. Don't hold anything back: you ARE awe! you ARE love! you ARE rage!

2) It can help to "warm up" the emotion with some other exercises that generate that feeling.

3) Clear boundaries are good: start the scene, end the scene, enter into your box, and then at the end, depart from it - each scene is a perfect little unit enclosed within its own defined limits.

And I even got a free light lunch, too!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Fantasies of the Writing Life

I've always had fantasies about creating a life for myself where I would best thrive and grow as a writer.

Sometimes the fantasies have involved renting out a room in an old-fashioned farmhouse, as Judy does in Daddy Long-Legs. I'd be far away from the bustle and toil of the city, writing away at my big wooden desk facing out the open window to the rolling fields; sometimes the farmer's wife would call upstairs to let me know that she was taking fresh-baked pies out of the oven, and I'd skip downstairs to have a thick wedge of applie pie, together with a glass of her foamy new milk just brought in from Bossy the cow.

Sometimes the fantasies have involved spending time at a writers' colony, like the famed McDowell Colony in New Hampshire. Oh, to live in my own little rustic cabin, where lunch is brought to me every day in a covered basket and left outside my door, as if by unseen elves! (I don't know if the McDowell Colony is the one that leaves the little lunch basket, but one of the famous writers' colonies does). I'd write all day, and then, at dinner, all the writers, and artists and musicians and filmmakers, would gather for dinner: wine, and fine food, and witty, erudite conversation.

My latest fantasy, which I've been nursing ever since Christopher's 21st birthday bash in New York City, involves my own teensy-weensy studio apartment either in Brooklyn or on the upper Upper West Side (Broadway above 100th). In New York, every other apartment has a writer in it, and the other one has an actor, and we'd all be feeling the pulse of a city fueled by creativity and fulfilled and unfulfilled dreams. I'd go to readings at the 92nd Street Y. I'd hang out with children's book lovers at the Bank Street College of Education. I would write my masterpiece!

Last night I went to see the Fairview High School production of the musical 42nd Street, and this did NOT lessen the pull of this fantasy! Wouldn't I be a better writer if I fell asleep every night listening to the "lullabye of Broadway"?

But maybe some other writer somewhere has the fantasy of the small house in Boulder, Colorado, right up against the Rocky Mountains, where she gets up early to write for an hour before her family awakes, and then wanders in to the University of Colorado, where she teaches a couple of classes in the philosophy department, and then in the late afternoon goes for a long walk on the glorious trails up the mountain canyons. . .

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Joy and Grief

I got some nice news yesterday: How Oliver Olson Changed the World has been selected by the New York Public Library as one of their "100 Titles for Reading and Sharing" for 2009. Oh, how I love turning on email and having some tidbit of good news. I can feast on this for weeks!

This made me think of Emily Dickinson's poem that begins:

I can wade grief,
Whole pools of it, -
I'm used to that.
But the least push of joy
Breaks up my feet,
And I tip - drunken.

I definitely feel a bit tipsy with happiness today.

I didn't use to be so good at wading whole pools of grief. It used to be that, even as the least push of joy made me tipsy, the least push of grief made me weep. Any amount of either one overwhelmed me. But in the last few years, I have had a lot more experience than I ever expected to have with wading pools of grief, and you know, you really do get used to it. You trudge on through. You do what you have to do.

I don't know if it's just that I haven't had enough joy in my life to get used to it - though I really have had a very happy life - or if joy is something you never get used to, that it's always Emily's "new liquor" to made us drunken and delighted. In any case, I'm drunken and delighted today.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Bad Times = Good Writing

Of course, we all know that one of the main reasons to be a writer is to be able to take the hardest, most painful parts of our lives - as well as all the minor and major irritations that confront us daily - and find some sort of redemption in them, and through them: "At least I can write about it." One of my favorite hymns, putting this in a spiritual context, says:

"Something beautiful, something good,
All my confusion, He understood.
All I had to offer Him was brokenness and strife,
But He made something beautiful of my life."

Writing also always us to take our brokenness and strife and turn it into something beautiful. Or at least something bearable.

Lately I've been turning bad times into good writing in another way. I've had a Bad Week at work. I was already having a Bad Day one day last week when I got an annoying email from a graduate student and sent an Inappropriate Reply. Oh, why did I do that? Why didn't I just hit delete? Isn't this exactly what the delete button is for? I already get a torrent of philosophy department emails in my inbox every day, and most of them used to be about how bad some of my colleagues are - but now, in the wake of my Inappropriate Reply, most of them are about me! and how bad I am! And yes, I'm sorry. I told the student I'm sorry. Very sorry! And I wish all these emails would stop coming!

But here's the good part. This is giving me reason not to read my email. And to keep a low profile in the philosophy department for a while. For, knowing the way the world of academia works, it will only be a matter of days until somebody else does the Next Bad Thing that occasions the next flood of angry emails and public reprimands. So in the meantime, I can throw my energies into writing my book. And you know, even when the angry, accusatory emails start to be about Other People once again, I may just skip reading them. I'm already on Chapter 5 of my book - this is the one that wasn't working, and wasn't working, and then I started all over again, and now, I think it's brilliant. I love every line of it. I laugh out loud as I'm writing. I wipe away tears. My writing system has always been to write a page a day. Well, yesterday I wrote two entire chapters, pouring out of me in ecstatic relief that I was writing rather than reading philosophy department emails.

So, in the words, not of the United Methodist Hymnal, but of Carly Simon, right now I haven't got time for the pain. What I have time for is writing.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Mandatory vs. Optional

I have too much to do. I'm willing to bet that you do, too.

Here's the problem. The things that I have to do fall into two categories: mandatory and optional. I can't give up the mandatory things - things I'm contractually obligated to do as a result of my job, like teach my classes, serve on university committees, write recommendation letters for students (oh, so many right now! and each one has to be a little eloquent masterpiece!). Among the other mandatory things are probably things I need to do for my health, like walk and floss my teeth (every single day???). So that means I need to give up some of the optional things. But the trouble is that they are the things that make my life worth living: writing my books, engaging in fun writing-related activities (like the annual poetry retreat I attend every year back East), reading books just because I want to (not the books that I've ageed each month to review: those are mandatory).

I don't want to give up the optional things - after all, they are what I am opting to do. I want to give up the mandatory things. But I can't. That is what "mandatory" means.

Is there a way out of this dilemma? Here are some ideas for me that may apply to you, too.

1) Revisit the category of the mandatory. ARE all these things TRULY mandatory? For example, as a teacher I have to assign my students papers and exams - that truly is mandatory. But do I have to assign three papers? Could I assign two? Could I assign shorter papers? Would a five-page paper be just as good as a seven-page paper? Could I force myself to hire a grader as just about all my colleagues do?

2) Are there any currently mandatory things that I can move out of the mandatory category altogether? Along these lines, I just sent an email, at 5 o'clock this morning, resigning as Boulder events coordinator for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators - just like that, one mandatory activity is no longer mandatory. But I did want to do it . . . so it was sort of optional AND mandatory. No. What I want is to ATTEND these events. I can still do that. But that knife in the gut, guilty feeling I had every time I thought about all the events I was supposed to be organizing but wasn't organizing shows that this is a good one to give up.

3) Can I find ways to combine optional and mandatory? I do this now when I walk every day with my friend Rowan: exercise is mandatory, seeing a friend feels more optional, but I can opt to do my walk with a friend, and so mandatory and optional fuse. If I have to do something anyway, why not do it in a way that feeds my spirit?

Blogging is probably more optional than mandatory. But I can blog about what is optional and mandatory, which helps!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Some Thoughts About Rules

One day when I was in high school, it was raining; the teacher was out of the classroom for a few minutes, so I climbed out the second-story window onto the roof of the adjoining one-story part of the high school, to dance in the rain. The boys shut the window and wouldn't let me back in, so I was caught by the teacher when she returned and I had to go the principal's office. (So far, this was the inspiration for the opening scene of Dynamite Dinah.) When I got there, the principal said (and this is the part I didn't put in the book), "You think the rules don't apply to you because you're smarter than everybody else." Well, I probably did think just exactly that. I expected him then to say, "But the rules apply to everybody, however smart they art." Instead he said, "But I've looked up your IQ, and it's just average"!!! Can you imagine any school administrator saying such a thing today??

The strange part is that, as a writer, I love rules. I adore rules. I make them up all the time for myself. In my novels each chapter has to be 10 pages long. In a chapter book, each chapter has to be 5 pages long. If it's 4, I add something; if it's 6, I cut something. A picture book cannot be over 1000 words - most of mine have come in with a word count in the 990-range. I teach workshops on rules about point-of-view, presenting it as being the end of the world if these rules are broken. You simply cannot have an entire novel written in the point of view of one character and then switch out of that point of view for one scene only simply because it's convenient for you as a novelist to do this. This flagrant violation of the rules for point of view simply cannot be allowed to be.

Then I took an online writing course last year from writing guru Dennis Foley. He said there is only one rule for writing - one rule only.

Here it is: "Don't bore the reader."

That's it. The only rule, according to Dennis.

So now I'm working on a chapter book and - gasp - I have a 7-page first chapter - and a 7-page second chapter - and then a 5-page third chapter. But I don't think any of them are boring. I think they're all funny and lively. I don't see anything I want to cut from the first two chapters or anything I want to add to the third.

And yet it feels wrong.

Or is it just right?

Monday, November 2, 2009

Boiling Roses

As part of my last round (I hope) of revisions on my Witch Family paper, the blind reviewer for the journal asked if I could "put [Eleanor] Estes in the context of other writers on the moral imagination," in particular, George MacDonald, author of the incredibly beautiful fairy story,
The Princess and the Goblin, among other enduringly popular tales. So that meant that I had to go out and read MacDonald's (apparently) classic essay (which I had never heard of before), "The Fantastic Imagination."

It was wonderful, proving that sometimes work you don't want to do can yield unexpected treats and treasures.

Here is how MacDonald expresses his unwillingness to spell out the meaning of his stories: "I say again, if I cannot draw a horse, I will not write THIS IS A HORSE under what I foolishly meant for one." Don't you love that?

And then he writes, "To ask me to explain, is to say, 'Roses! Boil them, or we won't have them!' My tales may not be roses but I will not boil them."

This made me cringe a bit, remembering books where I now think I underlined "the message" too baldly, labeling my poorly drawn quadraped-ish creature with "THIS IS A HORSE." I think I may have boiled too many of my roses.

New writing resolution: no more labeled horses! No more boiled roses!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Witch Family

I spent Halloween in the most Halloweenish possible way: not dressing up, not giving out candy to trick-or-treaters (I had the candy, but no trick-or-treaters came to collect it - not one!). I spent it working on revisions for the scholarly essay I've written on one of my most favorite ever children's books: The Witch Family by Eleanor Estes. In the book, a little girl named Amy decides to "banquish" Mean Old Wicked Old Witch to a glass hill in punishment for all her past wickedness; she and her best friend, Clarissa, then create a whole witch family to keep Old Witch company - Little Witch Girl arrives first, and then her baby sister, Weeny Witchie. Throughout the book it's hard to tell whether what's happening is "real" or just invented by Amy and Clarissa - or somehow both. So the book is both a wonderful, scary, funny story about witches and also a wonderful tribute to the creative power of imagination. And it all builds to its climax on Halloween, when Little Witch Girl arrives on her broomstick to go trick-or-treating on Amy's streeet and Amy takes her place, disguised in her witch costume, in Little Witch Girl's world.

I used to read the book to Gregory every Halloween - well, in the weeks leading up to Halloween, as it's a full-length novel. Toward the end of the years in which I read it to him, he'd tell me how dumb he thought it was - but still ask me to read it.

So I spent yesterday on final (I hope!) revisions on my essay. The essay focuses on how morality is handled in the story, for the witch world is portrayed as having a moral code diametrically opposed to ours: "The better the witch, from the witch point of view, the worse she is from our point of view." And vice versa. Old Witch is told by Amy that she has to learn "to be good, not good in the way witches enjoy being good - that is in casting spells and eating up little rabbits whenever they have the chance - but good in the way that real regular people ae good - that is in not casting spells and not eating up little rabbits every minute." My paper argues that Estes ends up showing that even witch morality shares certain key features with human morality, with any prescriptive system that can be called morality at all: "Estes's story reveals that even socially constructed morality operates within certain externally given constraints, just as the storyteller's imagination operates within constraints generated by the very nature of story."

I finished the revisions and sent it off. Now I have to wait to see: trick or treat?