Saturday, April 30, 2011
Re revision, it strikes me that there are two approaches: 1) fix the big things first, do the major structural overhaul, and then make all the pesky little changes; 2) make all the pesky little changes first and then face the big things.
I'm a huge fan of the second approach. Now, in favor of the first approach is that, to quote writing guru Dennis Foley, you don't want to be worrying about the pattern of the wallpaper on a wall that is going to be coming down anyway. But in favor of the second approach is that it is so encouraging to be able to take some baby steps first, to change a comma here and a semi-colon there, correct a date or two, see some small progress actually being made. I find that when I start small, the supposedly big things turn out to be not so big, after all. I build to the big things and when I get there, they invariably are easier than I thought.
That's what I did on this round of revisions. I went through the manuscript with Margaret's comments on it three times. First I fixed everything that I could fix almost without thinking at all. Then I fixed everything that required just a little bit of thought and tinkering. And then I did the big-thinking items. But really, they, too, required hardly any thinking. At that point, after working through the entire manuscript on two previous rounds, those changes had begun to seem obvious, inevitable, exactly what had to be.
For me, it's always best to start small. That is why my blog is called "An Hour a Day." All big things are built out of small things. At least for me.
Friday, April 29, 2011
I attended a royal wedding party hosted by my friend Diana, who this year has also hosted a Superbowl party and Academy Awards party. But the royal wedding party was the best.
I arrived at Diana's house at 3:30. The other guests were my friend Leah, who also happens to be Diana's neighbor, and Diana's other neighbor Erin, who brought along her darling three-week-old baby; Leah's second-grade daughter, Sadie, joined us a couple of hours later.
Dress code for the party: pj's and slippers - I wore a flannel nightgown and bathrobe.
Refreshments for the party: proper English tea brewed the proper English way, home-made scones, clotted cream, and strawberry-and-champagne jam.
Best part of the wedding: the hats! Who could have imagined so many, from wide-brimmed traditional to bizarre head ornaments of all kinds. One looked like a white coffee filter tilted sideways to mime a satellite dish antenna. And that hideous THING on the head of one of Fergie's daughters! We imagined her trying on scores of hats and then finally THAT hat and exclaiming, "That's it! That's the one!" The party ended at 6:30 with the tasteful royal balcony kiss and RAF flyover.
We all agreed it was the best royal wedding party ever.
Thursday, April 28, 2011
During the course of the semester we read seven books that are advice manuals for how to live our lives as we ought to live them: Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, the Discourses of Epictetus, Kant's Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Mill's Utilitarianism, Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil, selections from the existentialism of Sartre, and then the neo-Buddhist Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior. On the final day, I have the students vote: if you could give just one of these books to the young Ivan Ilych, in time to influence how he lives out his life, which would you choose?
Different books win in different semesters. Yesterday the winner was Aristotle. A text from almost two and a half thousand years ago was the one that resonated most with my students in the year 2011. The second-place finisher was Shambhala. The huge surprise was who ranked third. It was a philosopher who in my decade of doing this has perhaps scored one vote, total, in those ten years, everyone's least favorite every single time, the crusty old, stern, rigorous Immanuel Kant. Kant came in third!
I asked them why. They liked Formula II of the Categorical Imperative, which tells us to treat humanity, whether in our own person or the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means. They thought that one of Ivan Ilych's problems was that he treated everyone else in his life too instrumentally. Kant would have showed him how to regard each one as having an inviolable dignity. Reading Kant would have made Ivan Ilych's life go better.
Tuesday, April 26, 2011
I doubt that they'll include the whole interview in the book - it was LONG - so here are a few of the questions, with my answers.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I always wanted to be a writer. The only other thing I even considered being was president of the United States. In third grade I made a $100 bet with Jimmy Burnett that I would be president someday, but now I’m starting to think that maybe Jimmy Burnett is going to win that bet.
What’s your most embarrassing childhood memory?
Oh, there are so many! In third grade I decided to run away from school one day, and I made a very public announcement to that effect. But when I got to the edge of the playground, I realized that I had no place to go, so I had to come slinking back again. That memory still makes me cringe.
What’s your favorite childhood memory?
We would vacation every summer at a little lake in New Hampshire, and I remember sitting out on the lake in a rowboat, writing poems and drawing pictures and making up stories about imaginary princesses with my sister. Those were very happy days.
As a young person, who did you look up to most?
I mostly looked up to characters in books who were braver and stronger than I was, like Sara Crewe in A Little Princess who loses her beloved father and has to live in poverty in Miss Minchin’s cold, miserable garret, but never stops acting like the princess that she feels she is in inside. I also looked up to Anne of Green Gables for her spunk in breaking that slate over Gilbert Blythe’s head.
If you were stranded on a desert island, who would you want for company?
I’d be happy with pretty much anybody. In elementary school, the teachers would keep moving my desk so I’d stop talking to the person next to me, but then they found out that I would be happy talking to anybody.
If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go and what would you do?
I’d like to live in Paris, in a garret, and write, and be very poor, and make money by selling flowers on the street corner.
If you could travel in time, where would you go and what would you do?
I’d go back to Amherst, Mass., in the 1850s, and walk by Emily Dickinson’s house, and see if she would lower a little basket out the window to me with a fresh-baked muffin and a fresh-written poem in it.If you want to find out more, as children say when they're concluding their book reports, read the book!
Saturday, April 23, 2011
Last night, I took part at my church in a very moving drama called Women of the Cross. Written by our pastor, and directed by our brilliant Rebecca Glancy, the play presents four women who were important in the life of Jesus, now gathered together at the foot of the cross to wait with him during his final hours. At first I was disappointed that I wasn't cast as Mary, or Mary Magdalene, or the mother of Zebedee's sons; instead I was a composite character representing the faith of all the many women touched by Jesus - the mother-in-law of fisherman Peter, the Canaanite woman whose daughter suffers from demon possession, the daughter of Jairus the ruler, and others. But as we rehearsed, I came to enjoy inhabiting all this different characters, and I couldn't have imagined the other roles played by anyone other than Amy, Michelle, or Carolyn.
I was surprised at how moved I felt during the performance itself, a tribute to the compelling performances of my fellow actresses. I found myself wanting to reach out and hold Mary's hand, to lean against the shoulder of Mary Magdalene, to nod with painful sympathy as Mrs. Zebedee shared the story of her wrongful ambition for her two sons. Just to sit in company with these other women, waiting, watching, never giving up faith that something wonderful could come out of this terrible suffering.
And now it's Holy Saturday. Our church has a huge community egg hunt this morning, and then I attend a Jewish friend's seder, which is always a wonderful event. Then, tomorrow morning, I have the option of going with the youth group at 4:30 a.m. to the Easter sunrise service down at Red Rocks, but I have a feeling I'm not going to do that. Instead, I'll help with our children's worship service, Where the Wild Things Worship, at 9:15, and go to big people's church at 10:15, where the sanctuary will be resplendent with lilies and other flowers of spring, and we'll sing "Christ the Lord Is Risen Today."
And I'll imagine how those women of the cross would have felt on that day of resurrection. And be glad that I was part of their community for a precious hour yesterday evening.
Friday, April 22, 2011
I was taking part in a mini-conference on philosophy for children preceding the main APA program. In last few decades, following the pioneering work of Prof. Gareth Matthews of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, among others, a movement has emerged for sharing philosophy with pre-college-age children, even with children in the early elementary school grades. The APA pre-conference was wonderful testimony to how far this movement has come.
I heard presentations on fascinating interactive philosophical exercises and games to share with children, on how to structure successful summer camps focusing on normative ethics, or on philosophy more broadly, on how schools have been transformed through philosophy in Australia, about how philosophy for children has the potential to bridge Israeli-Palestinian discord in the Middle East. My talk was in a session on how doing philosophy for children can enrich and transform our college-level teaching as well. It's rare, believe you me, to attend APA sessions that are not only intellectually exciting, but that move the audience to tears, and to cheers. The pre-conference was also infused with the poignancy of remembering the genius and vision of Gareth Matthews, who had passed away the previous weekend.
In addition to savoring the abundant energy of the philosophy for children pre-conference, I also had my usual fun on the plane: reading an excellent dissertation on philosophical questions around the concept and practice of apology, reading a friend's lovely poetry collection manuscript, and starting an enjoyable novel that I bought in the San Diego airport: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson. I breakfasted with beloved former grad students, and then sat on the hotel terrace in the late afternoon with other beloved former grad students, looking out at the bay. Best of all, I awoke early in my gorgeous (and very expensive) hotel room and faced the revisions for my chapter book, Third Grade Reading Queen, which I had been avoiding through that pointless dread that dissipates instantly once one spends even ten minutes doing the work instead of dreading it. Fixing this book is going to be a most delicious piece of cake! And for good measure, I sat alone by the large windows in the hotel bar sipping a pomegranate martini and planning out another book. Which maybe I'll be writing over a pomegranate martini some future year at some highly satisfying future philosophy conference.
Tuesday, April 19, 2011
I am having tons of fun playing Tour Guide Lady for Chris (my high school friend visiting from New Jersey) and Susie (her daughter, who transferred to CU this semester from Rutgers and is taking my Intro to Ethics class).
Our first day, the three of us had dinner together at the Boulder Duchanbe Teahouse, the amazing treasure of a building sent to us by our sister city in Tajikistan. This is a building so stunning in its detailed mosaics and other artistic delights that my boys even went on a class trip there when they studied Boulder in second grade.
Yesterday Chris attended my class, sitting next to Susie, both of them diligent students with their notebooks open, scribbling away during my lecture on Shambhala: Sacred Path of the Warrior. Then Susie gave her mother a tour of "Susie's world" while I taught my 11:00 class and engaged in other toiling, including attending a Boulder Faculty Assembly Executive Committee meeting, where I wrote another in my sequence of poems about doomed love on the back of the meeting agenda. For dinner: cheese fondue followed by chocolate fondue at the Boulder Cafe down on Pearl Street: I read just a very few of my poems aloud to Chris and Susie, who claimed most politely to like them.
Today we're to have breakfast at Lucile's, and then a tour of the Celestial Seasonings tea factory. I've done my best to prepare Chris and Susie for its overwhelming sinus-clearing Peppermint Room. Susie has class this afternoon, so maybe a hike for Chris and me? Oh, and of course, the outing to the knitting store, and perhaps to a quilting store.... And then, perhaps, more tea.
Sunday, April 17, 2011
Susie's mother is Chris G., formerly Chris D., who went to high school with me at North Plainfield High School in North Plainfield, NJ. Chris is the one who taught me to knit! And to purl! She is the one who sewed my prom dress for me. She is the one with whom I baked that quiche for the French Club dinner, the quiche that spilled all over her mother's kitchen floor as we were trying to maneuver it into the oven - a quiche that made its way into my book You're a Brave Man, Julius Zimmerman. And she's the inspiration for the moment in Lizzie at Last, when Lizzie realizes that she doesn't have to go to the boring football games to try to be part of the popular crowd: she can have vastly more fun staying at home with a girlfriend and baking cookies - which is exactly what Chris and I decided.
This afternoon, as a result of Susie's and my scheming, Chris is flying in from New Jersey to visit for a few days. She'll stay with me at my house, but also see plenty of Susie, and she'll come to my class tomorrow to sit next to Susie, and they can both take notes side by side. And I'll take her to Boulder's wonderful knitting store, Spindles, Shuttles, and Skeins. And we'll talk, and talk, and talk, and talk. Oh, and maybe bake some cookies, too.
I can hardly wait.
Saturday, April 16, 2011
The one technology I do love, love beyond all reckoning, is email. I check mine every few minutes, with hope springing eternal each time that I'll receive notification that one of my books has been nominated for an award, or that I've been invited somewhere fun and fascinating, or that a ten-year-old is primed to do a language arts report on me.
And I love being able to email manuscripts. No more hunting for the right-sized envelope, driving to the post office, waiting in line. Though, I actually did like doing those things, too. But for instant gratification, nothing beats attaching your manuscript to an email and clicking SEND.
I just did that, five minutes ago. I sent off the manuscript of my novel, all 281 pages of it, to Margaret Ferguson at FSG, and now I can start awaiting what I know will be her brilliant editorial insights. I don't expect them this afternoon, of course, or tomorrow, or even in the next few months. It will be good to be away from the book, to give myself some distance on it so that I can react thoughtfully to whatever she will say. The important thing for now is that it is off my desk and on her desk. I'm done done done with it for now now now. It's on its way!
Tuesday, April 12, 2011
In fact, I think it's pretty darned good.
But I have the tendency to like my own books. Sometimes I'll read one published long ago, so long ago that I have forgotten most of everything in it, and as I read, invariably I find myself struck by the uncanny way the author has of engaging with this particular reader. I'll come to a funny bit, and I'll chuckle: that author's sense of humor is so like mine! And I'll come to a sad bit, and I'll wipe tears from my eyes: that author sure knows how to touch the heart of a reader like me! And then I'll come upon the deep truth at the heart of the novel, now laid bare, and I'll swoon with satisfaction: it is SO true, SO deep, SO completely right!
With this novel, I hadn't yet forgotten the early chapters, but I still read them from enough distance that my eyes were fairly fresh. But also undeniably fond.
This is a pretty darned good book! If I do say so myself.
Monday, April 11, 2011
Three weeks! And during this time, I have one more major set of papers to grade, a book to revise, a talk to give at the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association in San Diego, a house guest (a beloved high school friend from New Jersey whose daughter is in my Intro to Ethics class this year), Holy Week (where I'm taking part in our Good Friday production of "Women of the Cross" playing a composite character representing Mary-and-Martha, Peter's mother-in-law, the Centurion's daughter, and who knows else - must start memorizing those lines!). And my brother-in-law is in town, and I want to help him in his herculean task of beginning to clean out Grandpa's house. And I have a set of book reviews that are due, and a manuscript to review for a journal, and conference submissions to review for our department's Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress (RoME), and manuscripts to read for my mentees, and - and - and!!
But panic mode helps nobody. Panic mode is unproductively paralyzing.
First: a reality check. A lot of these things on my list - the vast majority of them - are actually FUN. I WANT to do these things. I LOVE doing these things. So quit yer complainin'!
Second: I do not have to do all of these things TODAY. Today all I HAVE to do is teach my two classes, rehearse for the production of Sartre's No Exit that my TAs and I are putting on in the Intro to Ethics class on Wednesday, and attend my writing group meeting tonight. In addition I also plan to write three book reviews (actually, two of them are already done, as I got up bright and early to do them, and the other I'll do as soon as I finish writing this blog post) and read just five of the twenty submissions for RoME assigned to me. I can do that! I don't have to have my house guest today; I don't have to fly to San Diego today; I don't have to put on the Holy Week play today - in fact, I can't do any of those things today even if I wanted to, so there is no point in even putting them on my to-do list for today.
So: no panic/manic mode for me. Just a few pleasant and productive activities today, and a few more tomorrow, and a few more the day after that, and it will all get done, and the rest of my life will be wonderful.
Sunday, April 10, 2011
I'm back from two lovely, lovely days at the Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University, my home for the 2011-12 academic year. That's it, above, the beautiful place where I'll be writing and working all next year.
I visited during their fourth annual Undergraduate Ethics Symposium. For the last two years I led the "creative" seminar at the symposium where students share poetry, plays, short stories, documentaries, and artwork illustrating various ethical themes; I also gave a talk each year, one year on "Artistic Integrity" and the other year on "Divine Love and Moral Arbitrariness." This year I was simply a very happy guest, soaking up the faculty talks as an appreciative audience member and marveling at the creativity of the students.
This year, as every year, the three faculty talks were wonderfully diverse in content, disciplinary approach, and style of presentation. I heard a talk on "Understanding Hate Crimes from the Perspective of the Injured" by philosopher Alison Bailey, a talk on "The Case of the Dorm Room Drug Dealer" by A. Rafik Mohamed, and a talk on the making of the post-Katrina documentary "The Old Man and the Storm" by journalist June Cross. Student work included a professional-quality documentary on racial identity in post-genocide Rwanda, a cycle of poems by "a queer woman of color" performed for us outside in the late afternoon around a fire circle, and a short story set during China's Cultural Revolution.
Pretty simulating, huh?
And I did find time to curl up in the peaceful Prindle library to write the final chapter, Chapter 40, of my book. I so love writing important chapters in significant places. So now I have a full draft done of my longest and perhaps most complex book ever. Plus a sonnet written at the airport and a sonnet written on the plane, and two books read, and a drink with a very dear friend at Greencastle's charming little bar, The Swizzle Stick.
To quote Annie from the Broadway musical: "I think I'm going to like it here."
Wednesday, April 6, 2011
I still haven't finished my novel. There is only one chapter left to go, but it's such a fateful chapter, when the whole book will either all come together or all fall apart. Well, that is an overstatement, because if it all falls apart, that just means that I'll need some putty and super-glue. But the writing of this chapter is intimidating me, apparently, as it's sitting there unwritten staring me in the face and has been for the last three days. So I'm hoping that at the airport, or on the plane, or in the cute little inn where I'll be staying in Greencastle for the next two days, I'll make myself face it, and write it, and maybe even be able to look upon it and pronounce it good. Or at least better than non-existent, which is saying a lot.
The end of this first-draft-of-the-novel adventure, and a glimpse into my next-year-in-Indiana adventure: I'm ready!
Tuesday, April 5, 2011
The assignment: create a piece that uses a wooden frame (of any shape or size) covered by some kind of mundane object that is somehow transformed in the process. One piece looked like part of a wrecked ship covered with coral made from those little paper cups for ketchup at fast food chains; another looked like an orphaned clothes basket. There was a large wooden briefcase covered with pennies (interesting student discussion: did this suggest the pitiful poverty of the briefcase's owner, or his casual attitude toward money based on his great wealth?), as well as an Abe Lincoln stovepipe hat covered appropriately with Abe Lincoln pennies - an utterly amazing structure of moving pine cones suspended on pieces of white string - a dandelion made of beads - a mountain fashioned of broken glass - a colonial-era stocks covered with broken mirrors (for rueful self-reflection by the transgressing? or sobering self-accusation by those too quick too accuse others?) - and, finally, a Rubik's cube covered with 6500 Skittles.
I learned about the "abject" (art that makes use of "things once loved and neglected and now forgotten") - about "site-responsive" pieces that respond in some way to their architectural or topographical location - about the intersection of art and craft. Amber, the gifted teacher, had wonderful suggestions throughout, e.g., for photographing that huge Skittles Rubik cube after placing it in various unlikely public locations, and for flipping one piece of art at a different angle in such a way that the whole class moaned with pleasure at the change in its presentation.
I don't think I want to make something in a woodshop, particularly as I've never used a hammer or a saw in my life. But I'd like to find some mundane object and transform it, make us see it with new eyes, honor it in its very mundaneness. After observing this class today, I confess that I'm tempted to run away to become a sculptor. But maybe I can do with words what those students did with wood and buttons and doorknobs.
Monday, April 4, 2011
Of all my books, this is the one I've been least sure about as I've been writing it, least confident of where the story was going, or if I liked where the story was going. But I kept on writing it, making good on my guiding principle for 2011 of living my life without hope, fear, or expectation. And my main attitude toward the success or failure of the book right now really seems to be disinterested curiosity: Hmm - will this be my best book ever? my worst book? somewhere in between?
If it's my best book ever, it will be partial vindication of my new stance toward life of living each day as it comes with no sense of where the story of Claudia as a whole is heading. If it's my worst book ever, well, then I may need to make some strategic corrections, at least where the writing portion of my life is concerned. But that's okay, too. Correcting my policy of groping through life, if need be, is part of the overall project of groping itself. This is my year of trial and error. Of wait and see. Of in the moment. Of page by page, day by day.
And tomorrow I should have one big part of the trial and the waiting accomplished. At least provisionally. At least for now.
Friday, April 1, 2011
The day before April
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.
I call or email my sister on that day, and I would give flowers to my mother, or host a little springtime party.
Yesterday was my first "Day Before April" without my mother, a poignant day for me.
But yesterday I also received an email from someone who found my last year's Day Before April blog post when she was searching for the exact words to "The Day Before April" on the Internet. Why was she searching? Because she and her sisters also grew up loving that poem and celebrate their own Day Before April holiday each year! Her sister had memorized the poem for a school program, and the whole family fell in love with it from hearing her practice.
What an uncanny and beautiful connection between two families who both built family memories around loving the same poem. . . .