Wednesday, March 31, 2010

"The Day Before April"

My mother was an elementary school teacher as well as a writer of a few published stories for children. Her love of reading and writing is where I get my love of reading and writing. My sister and I were raised on poetry. One of our favorite collections was Silver Pennies, edited by Blanche Jennings Thompson ("A Collection of Modern Poems for Boys and Girls" - modern, meaning at that time, published in 1959). The preface to the book begins with the lines:

You must have a silver penny
To get into Fairyland.

The premise of the book was that poems themselves are these silver pennies.

Of all the silver pennies in the book, this poem was the one we loved best, by Mary Carolyn Davies:

The Day Before April

The day before April
Alone, alone,
I walked in the woods
And sat on a stone.

I sat on a broad stone
And sang to the birds.
The tune was God's making
But I made the words.

My mother, my sister, and I have long celebrated "the day before April" as a holiday, a Mills family women's holiday. A few years ago I hosted a "day before April" party, with my mother and my boys (who did think it was a somewhat strange party) as the only guests. I usually give my mother flowers on that day.

I've dreamed of writing a book with the title The Day Before April. Maybe someday I will.

It is the day before April today. I'm going to go buy some flowers - daff0dils, probably - and take them to my mother this morning before I head in to work.

Happy day before April, everybody.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Power of Poetry

The last day of poetry boot camp, I was the critique person assigned to this little gem of a poem by the amazing author Susan Campbell Bartoletti:

The farmhouse lamppost
Shines across the lake,
A pinpoint of light
A steady whisper
in the night.

Here's part of what I wrote to her about it:

"This is beautiful. I connected with its central image so well. Last Christmas, and well after Christmas, I would lie in my bed with the shade up, in the night, and see the neighbor's one strand of Christmas lights, and yes, it would make it easier to get through hard, cold, lonely times - that one little bit of light in the world. So I think you've come up with a central image that anybody would be able to identify with.

"The farmhouse lamppost felt like a lighthouse to me, standing tall, by the water, guiding us away from shipwreck. I love lighthouses - everybody loves lighthouses - so that made the image appealing also. You have both a visual and an auditory image - the pinpoint of light, and the whisper. I liked combining them. It added a layer of richness to the poem, so that we could experience it with both senses. Both the pinpoint of light and the whisper are so small - and yet, so steady, and reassuring. I liked the one rhyme - simple and natural, letting the last line fall into place with a sigh.

"And poetry IS the steady whisper in the night, isn't it? So you've given us a poem about poetry itself. We plunk our little lights on top of our little lampposts and shine them out there into the world, hoping someone might see them and get through the night a little bit better because of us."

To all my fellow poets and writers out there: let those little lights whisper and shine.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Last Day of Poetry Boot Camp

I just wrote my sixth poem of the week and sent it off to my fellow poetry boot campers. When I receive today's poem from my critique buddy for today, I'll email her my sixth critique of the week. Another exhilarating and exhausting poetry boot camp will be done.

I thought I'd share some of the best tidbits of critique that I received from our amazing leader, poet Molly Fisk:

On my first poem:
"In such a small poem, would it make things richer to have 'beauty' used only once and a synonym used for the second one? Twice in four lines seemed a lot - although there's nothing wrong with repeating a word, don't get me wrong - I just look carefully when I do it, so as not to be on auto-pilot and missing the chance for something new to add to the mix."

On another poem:
"My main thought is that you might play with your line breaks. Usually an especially short or long line in a poem is an indication of something: theme, or a clue to what's coming up, or something with import." My first short line in that poem, according to Molly, "doesn't deserve the attention it's getting," whereas my second one does.

On this same poem, Molly's single most dazzling insight:
"When you treat your reader as slightly smarter than you, everyone wins." She had me take out my third stanza and let the reader figure out the connection on his/her own.

And on yet another poem:
"Often when you're doing a lot of repetition, what makes the pattern seem stronger is to break it."

Wow, Molly. You are GOOD!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

These Happy Golden Days

Spring break is half over, more than half. But oh, every single second of it has been wonderful.

Yesterday I spent the morning working on revisions on a book suggested to me by an editor who just might publish it. More on this possibility when and if it is finalized, but let me just say that this was the manuscript on which I had the fairy dust sprinkled back in January at Alice's Teacup. And let me just say that the revisions are going to make the book vastly and incomparably better. They are going to be truly brilliant revisions.

While I made them I ate a Pepperidge Farm apple turnover. I wanted to eat all four in the box, I love them so much, and it seems such a waste to preheat the entire oven to 450 degrees for just one, but I resisted temptation.

Then I walked for almost two hours on the mountain trails by my house with my friend and intrepid walking buddy, Rowan. The new-fallen snow was deep. The walk was difficult and exhilarating. A few weeks ago, Rowan gave me as a present a pair of trekking poles. She has a set, too. So we strode along through the snow, each with our pair of poles. Our conversation went like this, "Isn't this beautiful?" "Can you believe that we live in such a beautiful place?" "Look at the shadows on the snow!" "Look at the trees covered with snow!" "Remember last spring when there were wild flowers everywhere?" "Remember how in the fall the grass was so golden?" "Isn't this beautiful?" "Isn't this beautiful in the snow?"

Then back at home I gulped down some lunch and hurried off to meet at a local cafe with a philosophy department grad student. Together we planned out his dissertation and, for good measure, the rest of his life. Very satisfying!

Then I came home and wrote my poem for poetry boot camp and emailed it to my fellow boot campers, a poem inspired by Emily Dickinson's poem that begins, "I can wade grief, whole pools of it." My poem was about not wading through grief, but wallowing in it, but I have to say, I haven't had any grief to wallow in for ages, well, at least since spring break started.

Christopher's fiancee Samantha made incredibly delicious macaroni and cheese for dinner, with all different kinds of cheeses in it - gruyere, gouda, some gourmet cheddar. After dinner I read a few chapters for one of my mentees and thought of exactly what her book needs to bring it to complete and total greatness. And then I went to bed.

Sometimes I've been afraid that I might be struck down by some hideous ailment, and the whole rest of my life from that point on might be miserable, and I would have failed to have noticed and celebrated my last happy day. Just for the record, I am now paying attention. Whatever happens for the rest of my life, yesterday was a perfectly happy day.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Sneak Preview

Today I got the first glimpse of the cover art for my forthcoming middle-grade novel, due out this fall from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. I love it! I haven't always loved my covers, but I love this one.
For years - decades - I've wanted to write a book built around the hugely successful advertising promotion that Quaker Oats did in the 1950s, tied in with the radio program "Sergeant Preston of the Yukon." Every box of Quaker cereal contained a deed to one square inch of the Yukon. My husband still had his deeds, saved from his boyhood, and to me there had to be a story there: it was just so magical to have one square inch of land all your own, to do with whatever you wanted, to create whatever you wanted to create.
In the book, Cooper and Carly get their grandfather's deeds to eight square inches of the Yukon and create their own kingdom of Inchland as a refuge from their widowed mother's encroaching mental illness. But in the end, there is no safe place they can find anywhere, except whatever safe place they can create within themselves.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Poetry Boot Camp Begins Today

Today is the first day of my participation in a six-day poetry "boot camp," run by poet and teacher extraordinaire, Molly Fisk. Here's how it works. Find a group of your friends. Sign up with Molly and pay her some money. Every day for a week, write a poem every single day and email it to Molly and to everyone else in the group. Every day for a week, write a critique of one other person's poem (critique matrix arranged by Molly), and receive a critique of your poem by one other person plus Molly. Only rule: no recycled stuff, no revised stuff, a new poem every single day.

This means I can't re-use any of my previous Sappho poems. But that doesn't mean that I can't write a poem ABOUT Sappho. So here is my poem for day one of poetry boot camp:

Fragments of Sappho

It feels now as if she meant to have them

this way

the spaces in between

the gaps

a part of

the poem itself

This is all that is left
these broken lines
these words

so few

Their brokenness a grief
for all that has been lost
all that will never be restored

and yet there is

a beauty in
the pause

the breath

a beauty in the


Saturday, March 20, 2010


It's almost one o'clock in the afternoon on the first full day of spring break. I'm still in my nightgown. My bed still isn't made. I've spent the morning writing poems from prompts based on fragments from Sappho, for the Tupelo press poetry project.

Some of them are so hard! Here's the hardest one, based on fragment 40:
"But I to you of a white goat"

Huh? "But I to you of a white goat"? You're kidding. You've gotta be kidding!

Here's what I wrote. I confess to being in love with it.

“But I to you of a white goat”

The words make no sense.
“A white goat,” for starters.
There is no white goat,
has never been.
Well, except that one time –
did I really forget? – the walk
in the country – by the farm
with the broken fence – and the goat –
was he white? – he might have been -
and I was startled –
and you took my hand.
All right, there was a white goat.
“But I to you”?
I to you am nothing now.
Why must I recall the field,
green with spring rain, the goat,
our reaching hands. . .

Friday, March 19, 2010

Spring Break

This is the first hour of spring break. There is almost a foot of new-fallen and still-falling snow outside my window, but it's spring break in my heart, ten glorious days of doing nothing but what I want to do. Well, work of course. But all fun work.

Here are my spring break projects:
1) Go over the copy-edited manuscript for Fractions = Trouble! (due out in 2011)
2) Work on my essay about recent garden-themed children's books for the edited volume in honor of the centennial year of The Secret Garden
3) Read the latest installments from my mentees
4) Read what looks to be a fascinating undergraduate honors thesis from a terrific CU history major on the development of the English medieval jury
5) Review a batch of books for the Children's Literature website
6) Write some Sappho-inspired poems
7) Brainstorm some ideas for how to become more famous as a writer
8) Grope toward a new novel.

Could there be a better week? I think not. Henry James is often quoted as saying that the two most beautiful words in the English language are "summer afternoon." I'm thinking he might be wrong. Right now the two most beautiful words in the English language are "spring break."

Thursday, March 18, 2010

My brilliant mentees

I'm meeting with one of my mentees this morning. I just read her revised first fourteen chapters of her novel, and I'm SLAIN. Stunned, astonished, humbled. I want to take one of her chapters and have it as the sample for a writing prompt that would say:

"Write a scene where all that happens is that three characters are unloading groceries together, and yet we see each one's character revealed in a way that heightens the tension of the story significantly."


"Write a scene of banter in a carpool with dialogue that is simultaneously:
a) hilariously funny; b) completely believable; and c) poignant and painful. Oh, and that advances the plot as well."

Tracy did both, brilliantly.

I read her writing, and the writing of my other mentees, and I want to write better books. I want to stretch and grow as they are stretching and growing. I want to do what they are doing: take something good, even something great, and make it to-die-for.

Ceil, Tracy, Rondi, Bevin, and Sonja: you rock!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Greetings from Warrensburg

It's the first real day of the festival, the first day when the dozens of school buses arrive, disgorging the thousands of school kids. I just finished my four sessions. I always sort of dread giving my talk yet again, but then as soon as I'm there, and the kids are there, the magic is there, as well.

I always give exactly the same talk. Over the years of giving the talk countless times, I've learned which stories bore them (now dropped from the talk) and which are guaranteed to make them laugh; sometimes I stumble upon a particularly successful line during the question period that then becomes incorporated into the body of the talk. The content of the talk does vary a BIT, depending on which recent books I use as my examples of my writing process. But the heart of the talk is the same.

There are two parts they always love most, as I know from the letters they send me afterward. I begin by telling them about the book I wrote in eighth grade, T Is for Tarzan; I tell them that the book was not about Tarzan, but about ME, because my nickname in eighth grade was Tarzan. I promise them that if they remember to ask me during the question period why my nickname was Tarzan, I will tell them, but that I hope they forget, because it's embarrassing. I then tell them the best story from T Is for Tarzan (after first acting a bit nervous about telling it), which was about how much we hated our French teacher, whom we nicknamed the Cow, and how we organized the Great Cow Crusade to collect money to buy her a one-way ticket to Calcutta, India, where cows are worshiped. I tell them a lot of other things in the course of the 30-minute talk, but the parts they remember most are 1) the Great Cow Crusade, and 2) why my nickname was Tarzan. Because of course they never forget to ask, and of course I act upset when that is invariably the very first question, but then I tell them that I was called Tarzan because I was famous for doing a certain ape dance. "You don't want to see the ape dance, do you?" I ask. "Yes!" they cheer. And so I do the ape dance.

I like telling my cow story. I like doing my ape dance. And now I'll do them each again four times tomorrow.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Off to Warrensburg, Missouri

So I DID get up at 3:30, and I finished ALMOST all of the papers - I finished all the papers that came in on time, and timely return of the on-time papers is about all that can be expected of me, don't you think?

My reward: tomorrow I leave for Warrensburg, Missouri, to attend the annual children's literature festival sponsored by Central Missouri State University. It is bliss. It's puzzling that it's bliss, because we work hard, for days, for very little pay, and Warrensburg, Missouri, is hardly a thrilling metropolis. But bliss it is: over 40 (!) authors and illustrators from all over the country, including a concentration of Missouri's finest, and thousands of school children bused in from anywhere within a hundred mile radius (or more). Each author gives four talks a day; each child attends four or five talks a day. And the rest of the time, the authors talk - incessantly - to one another.

Although there are always a few new faces, the majority of the authors attend every year, so we have become once a year festival friends, eager to bring each other up to date on everything that has transpired in the year gone by. We walk for hours, walk for miles and miles, past silos and cows, talking, talking, talking. And then we talk some more. We also have an annual shoe-buying extravaganza at an old-fashioned shoe store on Warrensburg's main drag, which hosts a party in our honor. After the shoe-buying party, we go to the bar at Heroes, and order the Unknown Hero. And then we talk still more.

Sometimes I think that as much as I love the writing itself, I love the company of fellow writers. I love just being part of the world of people who write, and read, and love children's books. I love it so much!

And I'm heading there tomorrow.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Dessert First?

Every day I wake up in the morning and tell myself that TODAY is the day I am going to face grading the papers for my Rousseau class. I tell myself that if only I grade just FIVE of them, I will be so filled with relief at laying down the burden of my procrastination that I will be fired up all day with energy to deal with all my more fun tasks, like, well, writing. But every day, when I have this thought, I find that I can't even make myself get out of bed, let alone grade. So then I tell myself, okay, well, why don't you write for a little while first, and THEN you'll be so fired up with happy energy from writing that you will leap upon those Rousseau papers with delight. And yet, after I finish my writing, that isn't what happens at all. I do feel pleased with myself from writing, but find that I'm now so completely satisfied with what I've accomplished for the day that I have no need or desire to do anything else.

I sense that this might be a problem! But I'm not sure what to do about it. Part of me thinks that maybe it isn't a problem - after all, I'm getting done what I love best and what is most important to creating a flourishing life for myself. Many of my writer friends have the exact opposite problem: they dutifully do everything else first, and then find that they have no time and energy for what they love best. They fill themselves up on what they take to be their meal, and then have no room left for dessert. I have dessert first, justifying this with the thought that in my case, dessert really IS my meal. Writing IS my chief source of nutrition. It's where I get my emotional and spiritual vitamins and minerals.

And yet, those papers still need to be graded. And I do think that if I ever COULD force myself to leap out of bed and do them, I WOULD have that light, airy feeling for the rest of the day.

Luckily, I absolutely have to get the papers back to my students tomorrow. I have no choice. The lack of any choice is also a powerful motivator. So I did force myself to get through TEN of them this afternoon, and tomorrow morning I'll get up, not at 5, or at 4, but at 3:30, and I'll finish the rest. And then I'll feel light and airy for the rest of my life. Or at least until the next set of papers is due.

With any luck, by 9:00 tomorrow morning, I'll have papers graded AND a happy week of writing behind me - dessert/vitamins/minerals AND an obligation crossed off my list. In that order.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Another Interesting Class

I blogged last week about the two classes I observed by faculty nominated for this year's Boulder Faculty Assembly Excellence in Teaching Award - one class in calculus (!) and another in chemistry - and what I learned from each one. Yesterday I observed a third nominated class. This time I had a better chance of actually understanding what was going on, because it was a class in - writing! Business communication writing, but still, writing. I do know something about writing.

The particular class I observed was on genre - already intriguing, for a business writing class. The instructor's plan was to build toward a discussion of the genre of writing cover letters and resumes (hardly my favorite genre), but this was a day just on genre itself. I came away from it with one big important point.

The teacher asked the students to think of how they use the word "genre" - I could tell that most of them thought that they had never yet used it in their lives. But then he pointed out that we use the word in its adjectival form at least once a week: "generic" - as when we go to the drug store to find a generic drug for our ills, one that has the right ingredients. However, it isn't the ingredients that matter most of all for genre, that is to say, the various conventions we might seek to observe; it's the whole effect, in particular, how something MAKES US FEEL. This is what we care about when we look for the generic drug: not whether the label reveals that the drug contains chemical compound x, or y, but how it will work on us, in is, that is to say, GETTING WELL. And in writing, it's the same: the point is the overall effect, on our overall affect. The reading for the class focused on what its author called "exigence" - the urgent need to which I am responding as I write.

This was my take-away point from his excellent and engaging class. So my new question for myself as I write is: to what urgent need am I responding? If I do succeed in responding to it, then maybe I've done the most important thing a writer ever can do.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

If Not, Winter

This is one of the prompts for the Tupelo Press poetry project, based on fragments from Sappho. I'm so in love with this one that I think I could write a poem based on just those three words every day for the rest of my life. I just ordered the book of Sappho fragments which also takes those three words as its title: If Not, Winter.

Here are the three I wrote yesterday:

Do You Love Me?

If not, winter
If yes, spring

If not, feet
If yes, wing

If not, empty
If yes, filled

If not, barren
If yes, tilled

If not, hole
If yes, healed

If not, desert
If yes, field

If not, homeless
If yes, home

If not, silence
If yes, poem

If Not, Winter

Demeter’s daughter, don’t! Not one seed,
However small. Six of them? No!
Spit them out. Here, in my hand.
Leave their bittersweet untasted.
One swallow, and the world lies wasted.


If not, winter,
Why not, spring?
The heart has
A calendar within.
After months
Of frozen grief,
On that branch,
A budding leaf.
Here, a crocus,
Only one,
Yellow in
The morning sun.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Back from Cincinnati

I had a lovely time at the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics conference in Cincinnati. The second-best part of the conference was going not once, but twice, to Graeter's for ice cream, right across the street from our hotel; both times I had black raspberry chococolate chip and it was scrumptious. The first-best part of the conference was sitting in the gorgeous bar of the gorgeous Hilton Netherland Plaza Hotel (a 1930s art deco gem on the National Register of Historic Places), with beloved former graduate student friends, drinking pomegranate martins and listening to the piano player deliver schmaltzy versions of "Embraceable You" and "More" (which I so loved when I sang it in Girls' Chorus in 10th grade, imagining myself singing it to Dick Thistle: "More - than the greatest love the world has known! This - is the love I give you to you - alone!")

The papers were good, too.

But now I'm home, and I have to return to real life, where there is a distinct absence of Graeter's ice cream (though one of my Facebook friends told me that I can buy it in the freezer aisle at King Soopers - but would that be the same?) and pomegranate martinis. And a distinct presence of heaps and heaps of midterm grading.

Luckily, I also agreed with two other poet friends to take on Tupelo Press's new poetry challenge, this time writing poems where either the title or the first line has to be a fragment from Sappho. Some of the most delicious ones are:

"the one with violets in her lap
"if not, winter"
"no more than the bird with the piercing voice"

I do have to start grading midterms today, but first, Sappho. . .

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Off to Cincinnati

I leave today for Cincinnati, where I'll be attending the annual conference of the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics (APPE). This is one of my favorite conferences, which I attend almost every year. I've taken many graduate students with me, over the years, and now many of them are all grown-up, established in faculty positions all over the country, and sometimes they bring their own graduate students with them to APPE. These are my grand-grad students, the grad students of my grad students.

This year I'll be having a reunion at APPE with Sara (now teaching at University of Washington in Seattle), Rob (now teaching at University of North Texas), and Chris (now teaching at Cal State, Sacramento). We will hear lots of papers, of course, but we'll also have lots of fun. Sara will insist on it.

Sara loves to find the kind of fun that is distinctive to each place we visit. So far, we have to admit, Cincinnati has proved to be, well, somewhat unsatisfying in the fun department. One year we went to a bar, on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River, where we thought we could get mint juleps, which we took to be a very Kentucky-ish beverage, but the bartender had never even heard of mint juleps, and the bar itself was . . . let me just say that you would be better off avoiding the Howl at the Moon piano bar. Another year, we set ourselves the mission of sampling Cincinnati's distinctive mix of chili and spaghetti, at Skyline Chili. We still dutifully have some every year, but it isn't really a HUGE treat.

This year our plan is to try Graeter's ice cream, reputed to be Oprah's favorite. Now, I don't think this will have the magical properties of the fairy dust I encountered in January at Alice's Teacup in Manhattan, but Oprah certainly has a magical aura of her own, and perhaps her favorite ice cream will have hitherto unrecognized powers. At the least, eating it should make for a pleasant half hour together with dear friends in Cincinnati.

Monday, March 1, 2010

New Life for March

Today is the first day of March, and on the first day of each month I like to begin a new life. A whole entire new life, overhauling my old life from top to bottom: diet, fitness, finances, the reading of improving literature, and of course, huge and glorious accomplishments re work. I didn't do a new life in February, as I was chiefly in survival mode last month. So I am ready now for a new life with a vengeance!

I made my to-do list for the month last night, in preparation to leap out of bed at an even earlier hour than usual this morning and tackle it joyously. There are 137 items on it. This means that if I do a mere 5 a day, I will have the whole list crossed off by the end of the month, even taking off a few days for the two trips I'll be taking.

Some of the items on the list are very small, but they still need to be done, and I've been avoiding doing them. Having them on the list as tempting, low-hanging fruit is a way to get them finally accomplished. These include: photocopying my midterm exam, sending off a blurb to Barnes & Noble for the writing workshop I'm doing for them in April, organizing the materials I need to do my hideously loathsome FRPA for work (the annual Faculty Report of Professional Activities which we're required to submit every year), and emailing the printer to arrange for the next issue of the University of Maryland's Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly, which I've agreed once again to guest-edit.

Some of the items on the list are bigger - but still not too big. I try to break them all down into chunks that shouldn't take more than an hour or two. So I don't put on the list, "Grade all the papers for my Rousseau class, " but "Grade five papers for the Rousseau class" - this appears on the list five separate times as five separate installments of grading. I don't put on the list, "Write chapter eight of my book," but "Write one page of chapter eight" or "Write for one hour on chapter eight." Some of the things on the list are pure fun: attend Christopher's Metro State band concert.

I have crossed off TEN things so far already! Of course, they were the ten puniest. But it was still bliss to cross them off. And today isn't even over! The danger of being too gung-ho about the list is getting burnt out - it's important to pace myself so that I can keep crossing off items at a reasonably steady pace. But right now, I do feel that I'm a roll. I'm roaring into March like a lion.