Monday, June 27, 2011

Summertime Fairy Dust

Today my sister Cheryl came to NYC with me on the bus from her house in North Plainfield, NJ (also our childhood home), where I'm staying right now. We walked thirty blocks from the Port Authority up to Alice's Teacup on West 73rd Street for tea, scones, and fairy dust. She ordered a berry crepe and a pumpkin scone; I had an egg-white omelet with roasted asparagus and pears, together with a lemon raspberry scone. Afterward we were both sprinkled with their fairy dust. Cheryl cleverly brought a flash drive from her computer for her sprinkling, so all the documents on it received the magic treatment. I limited myself to a sprinkling on the ARC (advanced reading copy) of my new book to try to ensure its success with reviewers and customers.

The magically happy day continued with a fascinating exhibit of FROGS at the American Museum of Natural History, where 200 actual live frogs from all around the world were on display; some of them were amazingly colorful like animated tiny toy frogs; others were carefully camouflaged. Then in the afternoon we toured the Guggenheim Museum, featuring an exhibit of the Japanese post-minimalist artist Lee Ufan. The day concluded with a forty-block stroll back to the bus.

There is hardly anything in the world more fun than a sister day in New York City complete with scones and fairy dust.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Conference Fini

The Children's Literature Association conference finished last night with the annual banquet, this year held outside on the lawn of the beautiful academic quad on the campus of Hollins University. The centerpiece of the banquet is always the presentation of various awards, such as awards for the best scholarly book and article in the field of children's literature, and climaxing in the acceptance speech for the association's Phoenix Award.

The Phoenix Award is an award given to a children's book published twenty years ago that did not win a major award at the time of publication but that has stood the test of time. It's hard to imagine a nicer phone call for an an author to receive than to find out that her book is receiving this kind of recognition a full two decades after its initial foray into the world.

This year's Phoenix Award winner was The Mozart Season by Virginia Euwer Wolf, originally published in 1991. Virginia was present to receive her award and in her speech shared fascinating stories about how she had actually followed up on letters sent to her by young musician fans fifteen or twenty years ago, something she was able to do via the Internet for those who had distinctive enough names to trace and who also had an Internet presence - which these now no-longer-all-that-young persons did, as most of them had gone on to continue their passion for music with musical performance careers. My favorite line of her speech was a line taken from one fan letter, in which the writer reported having heard a recent rendition of the same Mozart violin concerto that character Allegra plays in the book; she decided that Allegra's (fictional!) performance was the superior of the two.

So now I need to go back and try to remember which books I published in 1992, 1993, 1994, so I can begin fantasizing about getting that phone call of rebirth from the ashes, a second chance at immortality, one more reason for hope to spring eternal in a writer's breast.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Greetings from Paradise

I've just finished day two of the blissful Children's Literature Assocation conference. I was lucky enough to find an abandoned computer where I can type this blog post; I have the unfortunate combination of being someone who is addicted to email and to blogging, but who is even more addicted to carrying nothing with her on a trip, thus no laptop, so this feels fortunate.

I don't think there is anyplace I go on this earth where I walk in and have so much of a feeling, "THIS is my world. THESE are my people." I feel even more this way when I am with children's literature scholars than when I am with children's book writers, even though I am a much more prolific and successful author of children's books than I am of scholarly articles on children's literature. But it's just that, above all, I am a LOVER of children's literature, even more than a maker of children's literature. And here I'm with people who love what I love, people who can discuss turns of plot in Lousia May Alcott's An Old-Fashioned Girl, or why Betsy's Wedding is so much more satisfying than other 1950s wedding novels, or why the predictable plot of Ginger Pye somehow doesn't count against it. There is nothing more wonderful than being with people who love all the same books that you love - and have read them all at least fifty times.

So far I have heard papers on topics including graphic novel versions of The Wizard of Oz, World War I patriotic propoganda, teen wedding novels of mid-century, Disney's placement of Tinkerbell in US Department of Energy public service announcements, adaptations for children of Oliver Twist, a theatrical production of Heidi set in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and an amazing biographical sketch of the author of Pollyanna in Hollywood. I gave my own paper on wartime dreams and disillusionment in Rufus M as well as a "Writers on Writing" author talk on my book One Square Inch. I had dinner with the ChLA International Committee, of which I'm a member. I had lunch with old dear author friends. I had margaritas with Lisa and Jeff and Andrea, with whom I spent time two summers ago in Taiwan. And tonight is the midnight feast.

This is my world. These are my people.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Packing for Roanoke

Well, I finished my Rainbow Fish-as-seen-through-the-eyes-of-Nietzsche paper for the Philosophy in Children's Literature collection. It didn't look ridiculously short in my nice old-fashioned Courier font, but when I reformatted it into the prescribed Times Roman it shrank alarmingly. It really does look pitiful now! But I said all that I have to say, and maybe brevity is not only the soul of wit but the soul of something deep and philosophical as well.

When I had my review for tenure a decade ago, I remember being worried that my tenure file was "scanty, skimpy, and quirky," where "scanty" referred to the number of articles, "skimpy" to their length, and "quirky" to their content. And, hey, I did get tenure anyway. So I hope my skimpy Rainbow Fish/Nietzsche paper will pass muster with the volume's editor. And if it doesn't, maybe he'll have some good ideas for things to add. And in any case, right this minute it's off my desk and onto his.

So now I can pack for the Children's Literature Association conference in Roanoke. I'm giving a paper on Rufus M, by Eleanor Estes, making the fourth in a series of papers I've given/published on her books - one on The Hundred Dresses, one on The Witch Family, one on The Middle Moffat and The Alley, and now this one on Rufus M. It's also skimpy, but that's good for conference presentations, and I know the wonderful supportive audience at the conference will have great suggestions for expanding it into publishable form. And I need to find something to read at our annual "midnight feast," where a bunch of us crowd together into one of our rooms, garbed in pajamas if possible, and read aloud to each other from favorite children's books.

So right now I'm off to start my packing pile with a light conscience from having added another skimpy entry to my no-longer-all-that-scanty list of quirky papers.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Forty-Eight Hours

In forty-eight hours I'll be on my way to Roanoke for the Children's Literature Association conference, and then heading from there up to New York City for what promises to be a wonderful symposium on philosophy for children held at Columbia Teachers College. So I have two days to do everything I need to do before this eight-day trip.

I'll meet with my two children's book mentees, Peggy and Susan. Peggy and I will discuss the stunning finish of her middle-grade novel-in-progress, which I had the chance to read yesterday evening. Susan and I will plan together the stunning finish of hers.

But the main thing I have to do before I leave is write a paper for an edited collection on philosophy and children's literature, for which I submitted an abstract a year ago. My paper is on a Nietzschean reading of The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister. Each year when I teach Nietzsche in my Intro to Ethics class, I read my college students The Rainbow Fish (with an appropriate high squeaky voice for the little blue fish and deep resonant voice for the wise old octopus), and then I tell them, "Now we're going to talk about why Nietzsche would hate this book." We then examine how the book seems to glorify "slave morality," the "green meadow happiness of the herd."

So I have a good start on the paper. But I'm not quite sure how to fill out that good start. I just read over my four-page abstract, and while I liked it well enough, I also have the fear that it says just about all that I have to say on this subject. But I have to fill it out somehow into a respectable-length scholarly paper.

Oh, well. As Roxanne says to her tongue-tied lover, Christian, in Cyrano de Bergerac, after he manages to stammer out only "I - love - you": "You have your theme: improvise! rhapsodize!" So today and tomorrow I'll be improvising and rhapsodizing about The Rainbow Fish.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Home from Utah

I’m back from five intense and wonderful days teaching at the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers Workshop held on the manicured grounds of the posh Waterford School in Sandy, Utah. Each morning I taught a four-hour critique-based class to fourteen extraordinarily motivated writers, and for the rest of the time I attended stimulating talks by my fellow faculty members, and gave a couple of talks myself.

Highlights of the week:

A talk by National Book Award finalist Kathleen Duey supposedly on the topic of “scene layering,” but actually on dozens of topics that provided glimpses into her fascinating writing process. Among her great lines: “The assignment for every writer is to get you to read the next sentence.” Among her boldest instructions: “Don’t outline! Force your characters to act on their own.” This, she claims, and I think I may almost be persuaded, is the key to elevating mere craft into art. In lieu of outlining, she starts with a character and “interviews” him until he finally yields up his story.

A talk by National Book Award finalist Martine Leavitt on theme. Theme, Martine says, asks a question; “message” or “moral” delivers an answer. Martine argues that message/moral-driven writing is disrespectful of the reader, an attempt to make children convert to social conformity. In an impromptu author panel following her stunning talk, I gamely tried to defend the contrary point of view: isn’t there a role for some fiction that attempts to deliver a powerful searing message? (E.g., my childhood favorite, The Hundred Dresses, with its unforgettable indictment of prejudice.) But Martine did make a powerful anti-message case.

A talk by brilliant and hilarious Carol Lynch Williams, who SHOULD be a National Book Award finalist and winner, on using real life in our stories: how to shape real life into a more interesting shape that can provide a satisfying story arc, when we go too far in making fiction track real life. One dazzling line from her forthcoming book: “I still believe in God. But I don’t know if God believes in me.”

And finally, a potluck reception on a perfect Utah June evening at The King’s English independent bookstore in Salt Lake City, a charming, book-filled readers’ paradise. It’s hard to imagine a more appealing store or a more supportive community of writers than I met that evening.

Now: unpacking, laundry, and preparing to leave on Wednesday for the Children's Literature Association conference held this year on the campus of Hollins University in Roanoke. Whew!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Off to Utah

I leave tomorrow for a week teaching a class on writing middle-grade fiction at the wonderful Workshop on Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers, held this year in Sandy, Utah, organized by the brilliant and hilariously funny Carol Lynch Williams, one of my most favorite authors in the whole wide world.

Each day I'll teach a four-hour class in the morning. It sounds harder than it is, because all of my fourteen students already have novels-in-progress, and the bulk of class time will be spend in a supportive critique group session on the manuscripts submitted. In the afternoon, the various authors on the faculty will give breakout session talks; mine is a reprise of a talk I gave for a local SCBWI conference a couple of years ago. Here's the blurb I'm using to advertise it.

Most of us hear a chorus of hideous voices in our heads trying to shout down the voices of the characters in our stories: “I should be cleaning my house instead”; “This idea has already been done before a thousand times”; “It’s impossible to get published”; “My mother will die if she reads this”; “Kids today don’t ready, anyway.” Claudia Mills promises to offer snappy comebacks and brilliant refutations to silence these devious, disillusioning, deafening voices forever.

There will also be time to hang out with the other faculty members, talk shop, sign books, hug old friends, meet new ones. I'm ready!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Sleeping Beauty Awakes

For the past two days I have done just about nothing but sleep. I have slept eleven hours a night, and then napped again during the day, long deep naps that felt like being under general anesthesia. Was it hantavirus from the mouse droppings at this house-clearing project (usually fatal)? Pernicious anemia? Chronic fatigue syndrome? Or some other mysterious wasting disease? Or was it just being plumb wore out from all my travails?

I hope it's the latter, and I hope I've now slept enough. Because this afternoon I have to give a talk at the Longmont Public Library, a variant of the talk on recent retellings of Sleeping Beauty that I gave as a participant in the fairytale symposium sponsored by the University Libraries last fall; we're now turning to the public outreach component of the program, with talks at two different local public libraries. So I've recast my academic/scholarly talk for a young audience.

And then tomorrow I work frantically on getting ready for the course in writing the middle-grade novel that I'll be teaching at the Workshop on Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers in Sandy, Utah, all next week. I have thirteen student manuscripts to read, and comment upon, and all my course materials to prepare.

So it's time for this particular sleeper, beautiful or otherwise, to rouse herself and reclaim her life. At least I slept only two days, instead of a hundred years. And I didn't need any prince to wake me, either, just a couple of real and earnest deadlines looming large before me.

Though I may have ONE more little nap when I return from the library today. And maybe ONE more little nap tomorrow....

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Done Enough for Now

The house is now in good enough shape that I had a realtor come to look at it last night; I think I can say that it's in sellable condition as a "rare opportunity for a fixer-upper in a desirable neighborhood." Much more remains to be done: trying to sell surplus furniture on Craigslist, researching storage facilities for the stuff we'll be keeping, and more. But for now, enough is enough, and I'm ready to pronounce this project done for now. "Done for now" is often the best we can do.

Books are the same way. We write them the best we can, and we know there is more that can be done and needs to be done to make them better, but we simply can't proceed any further at this point. We need input from critique group members, or from an editor, or we need the sheer passage of time to give us some distance on the book and let us have a fresh perspective. Heck, we just need to REST.

I'm going to call Western Disposal and have the dumpster not only emptied - for the seventh time? the eighth? - but have it hauled away. I may need it again, for furniture that simply can't be sold and will have to be discarded, but I can't face those decisions right now. Right now I want to see that dumpster GONE, and I want to close the door of the house and not open it again for several weeks, weeks spent reading manuscripts, teaching classes, maybe even writing something of my own. I want to get out my little notebook and list as one of my "nice things and accomplishments" for June: Briarwood house cleaned out, cleaned up, and ready for sale.

It's done enough, for now.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Not Done Yet

Every day I think, TODAY is the day that I'll be done with this house-salvaging project, or at least done for now, done enough to have a realtor walk through the place and size up the situation, done enough to put the project on hold for a bit so I can turn to all the work that has piled up since I took this on. But every day I still feel so far away from completion.

I now have such a hatred for STUFF that I can well see Jesus' point when he told the rich young man that the only way to the kingdom of heaven is to get rid of all our stuff for good. And yet stuff that I haven't seen for years, once I've seen it, exerts its claims on me: a darling doll's tea set, a ceramic bear Gregory made in third grade, a patchwork quilt top for a quilt I never finished, marching band videos even though we no longer have a video player. How do you get rid of these things? But if you don't, how can you live crushed under their cumulative weight?

Well, I now do think that TOMORROW will be the day I'll be done. The realtor is actually coming at 6 p.m. whether I'm done or not. And then I'll have four days before I leave to teach children's book writing for a week in Utah. In those days I have to: read the manuscripts submitted by my students, decide what to teach my students, read a colleague's book-length manuscript, write a promised article for an edited collection on children's literature and philosophy (due next week), organize the talk I have to give on fairy tale retellings to the Broomfield Public Library on Friday, and work through the edited manuscript for Third Grade Reading Queen. Oh, and go on an outing to the Denver Art Museum with Rowan and Gretchen. And have a celebratory lunch at the teahouse with two favorite grad students.

So tomorrow the house project HAS to be done or, done-or-not, abandoned. And heck, I can read manuscripts on the plane. If my colleague has to wait another week for his comments, so be it. If my paper is late, I bet I won't be the only contributor who will require nagging. The fairy tale talk is just a version-for-kids of the talk I already gave to the university libraries last fall. The edited manuscript should only take two or three hours. And the museum outing and lunch are well-deserved treats.

So I'm not done yet. But tomorrow I will be, one way or another.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Day of Rest

One good thing about being a churchgoer is that you spend Sunday morning in church, which means that you don't spend it working at your computer, working around your house, or working in your yard. I spend every Sunday morning in church, usually attending two services: the Where the Wild Things Worship children's service at 9:15 (which I help to organize) and big people's church at 10:15. Until Grandpa died last summer at age 99 1/2, the boys and I spent every Sunday afternoon visiting him at his house down in Golden, the setting for my ten Gus and Grandpa books. Sundays were always my favorite day of the week.

I'm keeping the Sabbath today. Church this morning: communion, with Christopher playing all the hymns and communion background music on the piano, beautifully. Now I'm heading to the pool with Rowan, to sit in the shade and eat cherries. I'm not going to work at house-salvaging. I'm not going to catch up on grotesquely neglected writing-related tasks.

I'm going to do nothing, and I'm going to spend all day doing it.

I've often marveled that for much of the last several thousand years, desperately poor subsistence farmers and herders managed to keep a Sabbath, but we, in our position of comparative privilege, find it almost impossible to do so. There are always more items to cross off on our to-do list, so many, so many!

But today there are just two items on mine:
1. Go to church
2. Go to the pool and sit in the shade and eat cherries

Sounds good, doesn't it?

Friday, June 3, 2011

Will There Really Be a Morning?

As happens so often, Emily has the words to capture my situation at this moment:

Will there really be a morning?
Is there such a thing as day?
Could I see it from the mountains
If I were as tall as they?

To paraphrase: will this house salvaging project ever be completed? Will I ever reclaim my life? I think the dumpster has now been emptied six times. I have lost track of how many trips have been made to Ecocycle and Goodwill. And it seems as if I am no closer to being done than I was four days ago.

And yet. . . . I did have a glimpse this afternoon of progress. Today we filled only one dumpster; previously we'd fill the dumpster to the brim within minutes of emptying it. Today I worked with only two tireless, brilliant, take-charge grad students instead of six. Today we saw a cleared, cleaned, and vacuumed stretch of carpet. Today I can at least imagine being done with this job not only in this lifetime but maybe even next week.

Oh, some scholar! Oh, some sailor!
Oh, some wise man from the skies!
Please to tell a little pilgrim
Where the place called morning lies!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Sprint or Marathon?

As all of you now know, I fortunately learned how to delegate in the nick of time. The house cleanup/salvaging operation is still in full force with my astonishing grad student army winning heroic battles hourly against the forces of horrendous hoarding. But now I need to learn how to be involved with such a massive and ongoing and urgent project without letting it overwhelm me and swamp everything else in my life.

Right now I am overwhelmed. Right now I am swamped. I wake up in the morning nice and early, but I have no motivation to do any other work when this house project awaits me. All I do is twiddle my thumbs until it's time for me to go greet my crew and launch into another day of progress, progress, progress. And then I stagger home after hours of toil drained and exhausted: so much done, yes, but so much left to do! I go to bed and lie awake thinking of what tasks to tackle on the morrow. I dream about it. I wake up in the middle of the night, and it's there beside me in bed. I am a woman obsessed! So I need a new strategy.

Or maybe not. I think I have to decide if this is a sprint or a marathon. If it's a sprint, I might as well throw myself into it and give it my all. If it's a marathon, pacing is key, or else I won't even finish, I'll just be found lying beside the roadway in a blubbering heap. How does one tell which is which?

When I was caring for my mother last year, I knew that was a marathon: it was going to go on for a long time, for an indeterminately long time, and I still had to keep my job going and deal with other life obligations, as well as the self-care that allows a caregiver to keep on giving care. Writing a book is a marathon: you have to be able to go the distance, page after page after page.

An intensive visit from a house guest, like my fun with Kim last week, is a sprint: I told myself, all you have to do for these three days is have fun with Kim, and I did it. A short-term writing project under a tight deadline is a sprint: stay up late, get up early, just do it.

I'm thinking that my house project is a sprint right now. Once the house gets under control, the rest of the work readying it for sale can become a marathon. After all, I've only been at the task for three days. I'm starting to hope that in another three days, it may be under control enough that I can start prioritizing other tasks, like the academic paper that I have due June 15 and haven't yet started (another sprint in the works). I think I'm going to give myself permission to be overwhelmed by this house project until Monday. And then, well, then, I'm going to have to make some different choices about how I use my time.

But right now, I'm racing, racing, racing, as the crowd cheers....

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

How to Delegate

I've learned how to do it!

Here's how. You state the task with clear parameters: e.g., "Everything in this section of the garage must go." You give those doing the task some autonomy: e.g., "If it's worth giving away, take it to Goodwill. If not, see if if can be recycled. If not, put in in the dumpster." And then - this is the crucial part - you walk away. You do not stand there and hover, offering comments like, "Do you really think Goodwill would want THAT?" or - "Wait, that's paperboard, not corrugated cardboard, so it will have to go in a different bin when you get to Ecocycle." Just walk away, and then, two hours later, let them call you back to admire that section of the garage in all its dazzling beautiful gleaming emptiness.

My graduate student crew have been absolutely amazing, valiant warriors in the battle to reclaim this house we're salvaging from clutter, chaos, and the detritus left by MANY rodents. I get tired and want to cry. They don't. I start to agonize over every decision; they simply go ahead and act. After all, does it really matter if one hammer gets donated that should have been kept, or gets thrown away when it could have found a happy home on some workbench somewhere? No, it does not. What matters is that this job get done, preferably in my lifetime.

I can't wait until my crew arrives for day three tomorrow. Maybe Rome COULD have been built in a day, or at least in a reasonable amount of time, if Romulus and Remus had only delegated.