Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Mightier than the Sword

My revisions for Mason Dixon: Basketball Disasters have been approved. Hooray! I was desperately in the mood for some nice news this week, so when I got the reassuring email from Nancy Hinkel on Monday, I sat in my office at CU playing a YouTube clip of "Put on Your Sunday Clothes, There's Lots of World Out There!" from Hello, Dolly over and over again. I can now say that I wrote and revised three 125-page books this year, more than I've ever done in one year before. This nice news makes up for a lot.

There's a wonderful scene in one of my beloved Betsy-Tacy books, Heaven to Betsy, in which Betsy, heartbroken in her crush on the Tall Dark Stranger, Tony Marcus, has a writing triumph of her own, when she reads aloud her amusing essay, "An Adventure on Puget Sound," to the uproarious applause of the high school.

"[Betsy] was happy. She was proud. Let Bonnie have Tony if she wanted him! 'The pen is mightier than the sword,' she thought. Sword wasn't the word, exactly. But it was the best she could find with the Deep Valley High School whistling and stamping its feet."

That's how I feel right now. I've had some disappointments in my personal life recently. But now I have a book revision that has been approved! The pen is indeed mightier than a lot of the other things that drag us down and make us disheartened. So right now I'm whistling and stamping my own two feet.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Back from Thanksgiving Break

Thanksgiving break is over; classes resume today at CU - two more weeks of classes before finals, and then winter break.

I have to admit that I dazzled myself with what I accomplished over the past nine days. My secret was that I had a traumatic upheaval in my personal life, and the only way to deal with it was to observe strict, life-saving discipline in my professional life.

In my most-favorite-ever book on writing, If You Want to Write, by Brenda Ueland, she talks about a hard-working friend who is a violinist and author. When her friend had a very bad head cold, Ueland recommended that she lie down, covered with a warm shawl, and drink hot lemonade (which actually sounds very appealing to me). Her friend replied, with horror: "Oh, that is no way to treat a cold!" Instead, she cured her cold by working harder than ever.

And I have found that the way to cure deep personal sadness is to work harder than ever. So I made a stern, extremely long to-do list. I required myself to cross off three things on this list every day during the break, with the exception of Thanksgiving Day, which I took off from work completely. So now, as a result of my toil, I accomplished: the revisions on Mason Dixon: Basketball Disasters, laborious toil on the first-pass proofs for the issue of the Philosophy & Public Policy Quarterly that I am guest-editing, an entire set of papers graded for my Philosophy through Literature class, a entire set of reading journals graded for this same class, a careful review of a hundred pages of writing from my mentee's novel, a review of nine submissions for the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics conference, a preview of the final book I'm teaching in the Philosophy through Literature course, and more things that I won't even list here for fear of sounding even more braggy than I already do.

Plus, my broken heart feels tons better. It really does. My beloved philosopher Miguel de Unamuno wrote that "work is the only practical consolation for having been born." Amen to that, brother.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Why I Like Writing a Blog

Well, lots of reasons, actually. But the one that prompted me to write this is that when you put something out to the universe on a blog, sometimes it alerts the universe to send something back to you.

The other day I posted about my Thanksgiving week activities, which include going from shoe store to shoe store begging for empty shoeboxes to use for my church's Shoebox Gifts for the Homeless drive, which I coordinate every year. I have come to hate doing this, even though that didn't come through, I don't think, in my blog post. I'll call the stores, and they'll promise to hold the boxes for me, and then they'll forget, or give them to someone else, or they'll have boxes, all right, but without lids, or of weird sizes (humongous boxes for cowboy boots, teensy boxes for infant shoes), whereas I need boxes of a uniform, shoebox size. Of course, I could scavenge for boxes throughout the year, but something impels me to leave it to the last minute, which means that I go out on this miserable errand on Black Friday when all the parking lots are jammed, so if I do get a nice shoebox haul I have to stagger for miles to drag it back to my car.

I've thought about skipping the part of the drive where I hand out actual shoeboxes to people and just ask people to scrounge in their own garages for a shoebox that might work. But it's such a part of the drive to hand the boxes out in church. I sing a special song, to the tune of "Deck the Halls," and the congregation sings it with me:

Deck the halls with old shoeboxes. (Fa la la, etc.)
Fill the bottoms and the topses.
Fill with gifts to give the homeless.
Thus we share the joy of Christmas.

And then the children help me distribute the empty boxes, while we all sing. It wouldn't be the same with virtual boxes.

Okay. So I mentioned the shoeboxes in my blog. One of my readers, who is also a dear friend, emailed me privately to ask why I didn't just stock up on plastic shoeboxes from the Dollar Store or Big Lots. I am fainting with happiness at this idea! They will all be uniform in size! They will so nice for their recipients to have, people who need to cart their possessions from pillar to post. They will be so easy for me to get. They will look so much nicer stacked in the back of the sanctuary.

The rest of my life will be easy now, because of this new plan! Thank you, Kay!

This is one reason why I like writing a blog.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Revisions Done

I just finished my revisions for Mason Dixon: Basketball Disasters and emailed them off to Nancy Hinkel at Knopf/Random House. As always happens, it took me VASTLY less time to do them than it did to dread doing them. When will I ever learn to replace dreading with doing?

Though I do think it might be simply part of the process to spend time in dread, dismal as that may sound. Before I can make revisions on a book, I have to get myself used to the idea of changing my original text, and sometimes even my original conception of how the story should go. Then apparently I have to spend time wondering if I should maybe just give up and throw the whole book away and start over entirely. Maybe that IS what I should be doing? Maybe that is what my editor thinks I should be doing? Maybe she's expecting at the very least a MAJOR overhaul of the book? The kind that should take months to do? But I don't have months to do it. So I just sit and do nothing.

Then time runs out for me. I have a deadline I have to meet. For better or worse, this book is going to be revised in days rather than years. No, in HOURS rather than years. Why don't I start with doing the few, small, specific things that my editor recommended? In this case, set up Mason's initial involvement with basketball so that it doesn't so clearly echo his initial involvement with pets in Mason Dixon: Pet Disasters, and with joining the school choir in Mason Dixon: Fourth Grade Disasters. That means rewriting the first chapter extensively - but not the whole book - and then checking to see that the changes in the first chapter reverberate appropriately through the rest of the book - but not in every single line. This also means rewriting the last chapter to add a new scene in which Nora, so unflappable in the previous two books, finally is flapped. And heightening some mentions of her unflappability previously so that her ultimate flapping carries more weight.

Friends, we are talking now about rewriting mere pages of a 130-page-long book, but in a way that will make a big difference in differentiating the story arc of this book from the story arc of its predecessors, while still keeping the familiar feel that readers seek in the third book in a series.

So it's done, and I've sent it off, and if Nancy Hinkel wants more changes, well, then, I'll make more changes. After sitting paralyzed with dread for a while first.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Thanksgiving Break

For the fall semester at CU, we don't get a break until Thanksgiving week, two weeks before the end of the semester - terrible timing for those who yearn for a well-paced chance to catch one's breath. But this is when Thanksgiving falls, and so, for better or worse, this is when we catch our breath. At least we have all week to catch it.

I don't know how much breath-catching I'm going to be able to do, because I kindly - or foolishly - made the due dates for the second paper for both classes be right before the break, so that the students could relax during their family get-togethers, forgetting that this meant that I would have to spend MY family get-together grading, grading, grading. And I still have the revisions for Mason Dixon: Basketball Disasters to do, revisions which should have already been done. I have a hundred pages of a mentee's manuscript to read, and I need to preview the book I'm teaching after the break, Better than Well: American Medicine Meets the American Dream, by Carl Elliott, to figure out which chapters to assign as required reading, given that it just now occurred to me that the book is simply too long for us to read all of it. And I have to drive around to local shoe stores collecting empty shoe boxes to use for our church's annual Christmas drive: Shoebox Gifts for the Homeless. At some point I'm also going to have to generate my share of the food for the Thanksgiving dinner, which we're having this year with the family of Gregory's girlfriend, Sierra.

But there will still be time for walks with Rowan, and watching a movie with Diane, and emailing old friends, and hanging out with the boys. There will still be plenty of time for catching my breath, and counting my blessings.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Off to Kansas City

I'm heading off to Kansas City today to give two talks tomorrow at Mill Creek Upper Elementary School in Belton, Missouri. I was invited because my book, The Totally Made-Up Civil War Diary of Amanda MacLeish, is on the master list for the Mark Twain Award this year.

For those of you who aren't familiar with this kind of award: just about every state has a readers' choice award, and almost all of them are set up in the same way. Some committee of teachers and librarians generates a master list of titles, published in the past several years, and then children from all around the state read the books on the master list and vote for their favorite.

I've won a readers' choice award only once: 7 x 9 = Trouble! won the Virginia Book Award. Unfortunately for me, Virginia doesn't make much of a fuss about its award. I seem to remember that the only reason I even knew about the award was that I went on the Internet myself and found the announcement of it. But some states make a huge fuss over their award, presenting it to the author at a banquet in a chandelier-hung ballroom. That is one of my life's ambitions: just once to receive an award presented to me at a banquet in a chandelier-hung ballroom.

But the best thing really is just to get on the master list. Then tens of thousands of children read your book (and thousands of librarians buy your book). One of my books, You're a Brave Man, Julius Zimmerman, was on ten different state lists, which was so lovely for me. And now because The Totally Made-Up Civil War Diary is on the Mark Twain list, I get to board a plane today and fly to Kansas City to meet with readers tomorrow, two of whom have already emailed me to tell me how excited they are that I am coming to their school. Kaylin and Madisen, I can't wait to meet you!

This might even be better than the banquet in the chandelier-hung ballroom. It really might.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

My Book Signing

I had my book signing Tuesday night at the Boulder Bookstore, Boulder's wonderful treasure of an independent bookstore, down on our nationally known Pearl Street pedestrian mall. Of course it snowed that night, the first snowfall of the season. So I was in a panic that nobody would come.
But so many people did.

This is the single best thing about a book signing: to look out into the room and see so many people you love from so many different parts of your life. Two dear friends, whom I met because they were mothers of Gregory's first two best friends at Boulder Montessori preschool seventeen years ago - another two dear friends who were part of the enchanted circle of "Grandpa's people," the women friends who brightened his life so much during its last decades - grad students from the philosophy department - a colleague from the philosophy department - another colleague's wife - a member of my writing group with her husband and granddaughter - a couple I'd never met before who came because they are friends with a Children's Literature Association friend of mine who lives in Blacksburg, Virginia, but who saw my post on Facebook about my signing and told them to come - and a new friend - and his next-door neighbors - and heaps and heap of people from my church. Fellow writers, if you want a big crowd at a book signing, join a church! There were more people there from my church, St. Paul's United Methodist Church, than from all the other parts of my life put together. And they all bought multiple copies for all their friends and relatives.

I felt so blessed that evening, seeing those faces in the audience, sharing with them my journey of how I came to write One Square Inch. Thank you, dear friends, for braving the snow and coming to join me at the christening of this newest of my book children. I love you all.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Things I Hate

I don't know if any of you have this problem, but I have this terrible tendency to keep signing up to do things that I hate. I'll sign up to do something I hate, and I'll do the thing, hating every minute of it and allowing it to poison every waking moment of my life, and I'll vow to myself and to anyone who will listen that I'll never EVER take on this Loathsome Task again, and then (this is the bizarre part): a few months later there I am, signing up to do the very same Loathsome Task.

How can this be?

Part of it is that, like most of us, I have the blessed ability to forget how terrible something is once it's over. I've heard it said that the only reason any woman has a second child is that she forgets how terrible labor and childbirth were the first time around, and by the time she remembers, it's too late.

I'm also sometimes paid a lot of money to do the hateful and terrible thing.

I also start to tell myself that THIS time, I'm going to be able to control how terrible the hateful thing is. Okay, it's hateful, but that doesn't mean I have to let it poison every waking moment, does it? What if I just DID the hateful thing, for the relatively few hours that it takes to do it, and skipped the part where I think about how much I hate it, and tell everybody how much I hate it, and dread doing it because I hate it so much. That could work, right? Isn't the hateful thing only hateful because I've made it hateful? Because I've allowed myself to hate it? What if I just DID it without hating it so much?

So that's what I tell myself. And now I have the hateful thing to do today, after having dreaded it and postponed it and allowed it to poison every waking moment of my life. Again.

Here is my vow: I am never again going to sign up to do something that I hate. I'm going to file this under the heading: "Life Is Too Short." I'm going to re-read this blog entry once a month, maybe even once a week, in case I am in any danger of forgetting.

Dear readers, do not sign up to do something you hate! Really. Don't do it. Life is too short to sign up to do something you hate.

Friday, November 5, 2010

How Full Is Too Full?

I gave my talk last night on "Sleeping Beauty Awakes: Unexpected Retellings in Recent Children's Literature." I would say that the whole thing was a fairly stressful experience. First of all, and most of all, I didn't know ANYTHING about the topic when I signed up to do this - I had never spent a minute in my entire life doing any scholarly work on fairy tales. So I had to start completely from scratch - or thought I was going to have to start completely from scratch, until I discovered a brilliant essay by scholar Tina Hanlon on this topic from which I could borrow heavily and gratefully. But I still had to read all the books she discusses, come to my own thoughts about them, write up these thoughts, locate the images for the Powerpoint, hire the graduate student to make the Powerpoint....

The Powerpoint was another source of stress. I thought I did have to have images to accompany the talk, but I am so clueless, so pitifully and pathetically clueless, when it comes to technology! This is where I am so blessed to be a faculty member at CU, where I can send an email out to our grad students begging them to help provide any service I ever need. Wonderful David Meens agreed to help me, not only to make the Powerpoint, but to show the Powerpoint at the talk itself.

I worked for days on the talk, and all afternoon on Tuesday with David on the Powerpoint, and then rehearsed the talk. But on the day of the talk I was further stressed by having not one, not two, but THREE Skips (our Boulder bus) break down on my way to the talk! A terrible omen? A sign of the impending end of Western civilization as we know it? And what if David didn't remember to come, given that my talk was now on HIS computer? And what if nobody else came to my talk, either, after all this work? And what if -???

But finally the third Skip got me close enough to the university before breaking down that I could walk the rest of the way. And of course wonderful David was already there ready to set up the computer for me. And of course the terrific publicity by the University Libraries brought in a good crowd. And my talk went reasonably well, though ran a tad too long. It was all good.

Afterward, I wondered a bit why I continue to sign up for things that are so time-consuming and stressful, given that I already have an adequately full life as a philosophy professor and children's book author. Did I really need to devote a week of my life to preparing a talk on recent retellings of Sleeping Beauty in children's literature?

And then I realized the answer: I do these things because they're fun. It was fun learning something new, it was fun reading all these versions of Sleeping Beauty, it was fun pondering the various ways that writers have taken on the challenge of making this problematic tale fresh and beautiful to new generations of children. I loved getting to meet the other scholars at CU who work on fairy tales. I loved looking in my planner throughout the semester and seeing "FAIRY TALE MEETING" or "FAIRY TALE FILM" and finally "FAIRY TALE TALK - ME."

Would I do it again? Well, yes, I would. A full life is a good life, even if sometimes - say, when the third Skip in a row is breaking down on your way to give a high profile talk on some topic you have just learned about for the first time this week - it can seem a bit too full. A full life is a good life.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Book Signing Next Week

This coming Tuesday, November 9, I'll be doing a book signing for my recent middle-grade novel, One Square Inch, at 6:30 p.m. at the Boulder Bookstore, Boulder's fabulous independent bookstore on our beautiful Pearl Street open-air pedestrian mall. I'll also be talking about how I came to write the book and reading from it.

Like most authors, I've done a million signings where nobody has come, but I think a lot of people are going to come to this one, because the store is willing to send out up to 200 (!) postcards to the author's own mailing list, so I've invited friends from the philosophy department, from church, from my writing group and other writing organizations, and from the neighborhood. In fact, one of the most satisfying things about the signing should be seeing friends from different parts of my life sitting next to each other - sort of like when I post something on Facebook and see replies from philosophy grad students next to replies from high school buddies or from people I don't even know in person but only via the Internet.

If you're going to be in Boulder on Tuesday evening, come on by!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Sleeping Beauty Awakes

My talk for the fairy tale symposium at CU is going to be this Thursday from 5-6:30 at Norlin Library. So far the lineup of events has included a screening of the 1946 film The Stone Flower, a pair of talks on eroticism in early modern French and Italian fairy tales, and a screening of the 1966 film Father Frost. My talk will look at retellings of Sleeping Beauty in relatively recent children's literature, borrowing from scholar Tina Hanlon's fabulous article on Jane Yolen's retellings of Sleeping Beauty that appeared in the journal Children's Literature some years ago.

I'm framing the talk as a look at the problem posed by Sleeping Beauty - her slumbering passivity and need for a prince's kiss to rescue her - and various approaches to solving it. One approach, of course, is simply to walk away from fairy tales altogether, a "solution" that has had its moments of popularity in every century, from Mrs. Trimmer's attacks on "the impropriety of putting such books in the hands of little children" in the 18th century, to Samuel Goodrich's horror of fairy tales in the 19th century - "Why do they tell such falsehoods?" - to Lucy Sprague Mitchell's attempt to replace fairy tales with realistic fare for children at the Bank Street College of Education in the early 20th century.

A second solution, popular since the 1980s, is feminist-inspired parodies of fairy tales, such as Prince Cinders and Princess Smartypants by Babette Cole, in which a hapless drudge of a wimpy prince is in need of rescue and a confident princess sends away all suitors so that she can happily remain a "Ms." rather than becoming a "Mrs." Or, in a less heavy-handed inversion of gender roles and expectations, we see variants of Sleeping Beauty either where she doesn't sleep (Jane Yolen's Gwinellen, Frances Minters's Sleepless Beauty) or isn't beautiful (Yolen's Sleeping Ugly).

But the problem with parody is that it works only if readers are still familiar with the original tales - and it always lacks the depth and beauty of the original. So then the problem for authors becomes: how can we reclaim the original story in a way that doesn't reinforce and foster sexism? Jane Yolen is the master here, and my talk looks at her retelling of Sleeping Beauty, illustrated by Ruth Sanderson, as well as her original tale The Girl in the Golden Bower that resonates with Sleeping Beauty, and her brilliant use of Sleeping Beauty in her novel Briar Rose, set against the background of the Holocaust.

I'm going to close the talk with this quote from the poet Schiller, quoted by Bruno Bettelheim in his The Uses of Enchantment: "Deeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told me in my childhood than in the truth that is taught by life."