Monday, January 30, 2012

The New Semester Begins

Today is the first day of the new semester at DePauw. I came to my Prindle Institute office at 6:15 this morning to try to get my life completely organized in preparation for the new semester and to make my time management plan.

Last semester I worked out a plan that had many appealing features but didn't work out completely as hoped. I taught my Rousseau class on Tuesday and Thursday from 10-11:30 and committed myself to office hours on those days from 1-4 in my cozy office in Asbury Hall. That office has no computer, so I had no temptations to distract me from the task I had set myself for those afternoons, of seriously making my way through the many brilliant scholarly books about Rousseau that I had bought once upon a time and never read. I managed to read three of them and even take good notes on them so that I'll have them at hand for when I teach Rousseau again in the future.

I spent Monday, Wednesday, and Friday out at my office at the Prindle. There I gave myself latitude to pursue a wide range of non-teaching-related tasks, from scholarly writing to organizing and participating in reading groups and Prindle-related events. The thing that didn't work out there was that I spent too much time just reading for the reading groups. There they were, all those huge, fat, appealing books lined up on my Prindle bookshelf: American Grace: How Religion Unites and Divides Us, Tangled Webs: How False Statements Are Undermining America from Martha Stewart to Bernie Madoff, Bound by Recognition by political theorist Patchen Markell, and more. I love to read. But prime work hours should not be spent reading.

So this semester I am going to spend Tuesday and Thursday once again on campus, preparing for and teaching my course on Feminism and the Family, which meets from 12:40-2:10. I am going to try to get all my course-related work, including grading, done on those days. I will still spend MWF out at the Prindle. But this time I am not allowing myself to do any reading on those days before 4 p.m. Instead I will WRITE: a paper for a collection on philosophy for children, my paper on Beverly Cleary for the conference in China, my paper on artistic integrity for the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics. Children's book writing I'll do early in the morning, either in my sweet little house or at the Blue Door Cafe.

I am planning to be astonished by my productivity. Watch out, world!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Say It

Yesterday was the next-to-last class in my Writing Children's Books winter term course. As we finished the critiques of the middle-grade novel chapters I realized that most of my students needed a workshop on dialogue. So I created this exercise on the spot. I think it worked out pretty well.

On the board I wrote the following bare bones conversational exchange:

“How are you?” John asked.
“I’m fine,” Mary said. “How about you?”
“Just okay,” John said.
“What’s the matter?” Mary asked.
“It’s my mom,” John said.
“What about her?” Mary asked.
“I think she’s sick,” John said.
“Oh, no,” Mary said.

It was not improved by substituting fancier speech verbs:

“How are you?” John inquired.
“I’m fine,” Mary responded. “How about you?”
“Just okay,” John muttered.
“What’s the matter?” Mary interrogated.
“It’s my mom,” John confessed.
“What about her?” Mary interviewed.
“I think she’s sick,” John whispered.
“Oh, no,” Mary exclaimed.

Nor by modifying each speech verb with adverbs:

“How are you?” John asked politely.
“I’m fine,” Mary said. “How about you?”
“Just okay,” John said nervously.
“What’s the matter?” Mary asked curiously.
“It’s my mom,” John said sadly.
“What about her?” Mary asked persistently.
“I think she’s sick,” John said softly.
“Oh, no,” Mary said sympathetically.

Nor by getting rid of most of the speech verbs altogether, though this is definitely less annoying:

“How are you?” John asked.
“I’m fine,” Mary said. “How about you?”
“Just okay."
“What’s the matter?”
“It’s my mom.”
“What about her?”
“I think she’s sick.”
“Oh, no.”

Instead, what worked to improve this stretch of dialogue was situating John and Mary in a setting and interspersing their bits of speech with body language, action, brief descriptions, and thoughts from our viewpoint character (it could be John or Mary: we picked John). The students decided to make our characters sixteen-year-olds. Where might teenagers find themselves? At the mall. This is the revised dialogue we wrote together:

“How are you?” John asked Mary, as they were approaching the Gap.

“I’m fine,” Mary said. “How about you?”

“Just okay." John lowered his eyes, hoping that the other shoppers couldn't hear. A kid from school walked by talking on his cellphone.

“What’s the matter?” Mary leaned in closer.

John hesitated. Then he made himself say it. “It’s my mom."

“What about her?”

“I think she’s sick." The kid from school seemed to be looking right at him, but John didn't care any more.

“Oh, no." Mary's eyes filled with tears.

Great. Now I've made her cry.

That's better, isn't it?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Outside My Comfort Zone

On Friday I decided to up the coolness quotient of my Writing Children's Book winter term course, as well as providing a huge surge of creative energy, by having Greencastle illustrator/author/animator Troy Cummings come to visit us. Troy is the author/illustrator of The Eensy Weensy Spider Freaks Out! (Big Time!), as well as the illustrator of the mega-fun read aloud More Bears! by Kenn Nesbitt.

Troy read Eensy to us, as well as giving a world premiere read-aloud of his forthcoming picture book about a dad who plays horsey so convincingly that he is captured by horse rustlers and then escapes to star in a rodeo, walk the tightrope in a circus, and win the Kentucky Derby.

Then Troy did drawing exercises with us. The first one involved making character sketches by combining a name, an adjective, and a noun. I got Billy/clumsy/waffle. I was the only one in the class who misunderstood the assignment. I tried to draw a boy named Billy who demonstrates his clumsiness by dropping a waffle. I couldn't even draw that: I had to cheat by making dialogue come out of Billy's mouth: "Oops! There goes my waffle!" But that wasn't the assignment. I was supposed to draw Billy the Clumsy Waffle. Billy WAS the waffle.

Then we had to use pictionary cards to make up a dummy page or spread for a picture book. I couldn't do that one either. I could stick-figure draw a couple of the items on my card: a scarf, a man wearing sideburns, and a fruitcake. But I couldn't come up with any story line connecting them, let alone draw a scene relying on that story line.

The final assignment even Troy admitted was impossible. We each got a slip of paper with something literally impossible listed on it: mine was to draw someone opening a lid and releasing an entirely new COLOR. Needless to say, I couldn't do that one, either.

Here is the humbling thing. Lots of my students COULD do these exercises. Lots of them did them BRILLIANTLY. I would say that out of the group of sixteen of us, there were only three who had visible trouble with the exercises, and I was one of the three. Oh, and I had to show my failed attempts to the class, going FIRST, to show what a good sport I was.

What should I conclude from this? Several things, I'd say.

One is that I've always had trouble with this kind of spontaneous exercise, so my failure here really comes as no surprise. When my boys were small, people often said to me, "I bet YOU make up wonderful bedtime stories!" But I didn't. I can think of a story only if I brainstorm ideas for a month or so, then laboriously work the chosen idea over many more months into its final form.

Two, this makes me a LOT more sensitive to why some of my students feel shy about sharing their writing exercises with the class.

Three, different people have different creative processes. Some of the students who were not shining in the writing exercises I assigned shone here. Different people create in different ways. This is to be celebrated.

Finally, my creative goal this year, you may remember, is to write a book that surprises me, to try something new and different. And so, hey, on Friday I did try something new and different. I found out that it's hard to do this. Maybe I'll try this exercise again sometime in the privacy of my own home just to limber up my creative brain a little bit. Maybe not. But it was a good thing to shake myself up a bit. Scary, yes. Embarrassing, very. But probably on balance, good.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

By Popular Request

More pictures of my Greencastle world: views from my office window out at the Prindle Institute for Ethics. This is the peaceful, serene place where I have one of my two offices at DePauw; the other is in the cozy suite of offices belonging to the Philosophy Department in Asbury Hall, right in the heart of campus, steps away from the Roy O. West Library and just a block from my little house. Usually during the semester, I spend Monday, Wednesday, and Friday out at the Prindle, and Tuesday and Thursday (my teaching days) on campus.

During Winter Term, I'm teaching every day except for Thursday from 1-4 in the afternoons, so I spend every morning out at the Prindle, then head to campus to teach, and then return to the Prindle in the late afternoon because there is a Winter Term baking class that meets there and delivers kuchen to us fresh from the oven just as my own class is coming to a close. As part of my new mindful eating routine, I'm trying to make myself a cup of tea and put the wedge of cake on a plate first before eating it. Then: ahhhh.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Blue Door Cafe

It is somewhat of an ordeal for me to post pictures on my blog. First I have to remember where I put my camera; then the battery invariably needs charging, and I have to remember how to get it out of the camera and how to put it into the charger, and then after I take the pictures, I have to remember how to upload them onto my computer. Of course, all of this remembering would be vastly easier if I executed these operations on a regular basis. One of my new year's plans is to do just that.

So: here are some pictures of my beloved Blue Door Cafe. The two interior pictures were taken in the early morning. The Blue Door opens at seven, and I am usually the second customer there, at least during this quiet time of January Winter Term. You'll notice that it is DARK outside at seven. Indiana is on Eastern time and really should be on Central time, given its geographical location. So the sun rises late here. However, this only makes the Blue Door all the more cozy. The woman at the counter is Sue, the owner and manager who presides there in such a warm and welcoming way and who knows exactly how I like my hot chocolate: made with skim milk, but with whipped cream and chocolate shavings on top.

Maybe tomorrow if I'm feeling extra ambitious I'll take a picture of my mug of hot chocolate, too.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Pajama Party

Last night my Writing Children's Books winter term students and I had our class pajama party by the fireplace in the Great Hall at the Prindle Institute for Ethics. I switched our class time from afternoon to evening, encouraged students to wear pj's and/or nightgowns (complete with robes and slippers if so desired), and to bring stuffed animals and a favorite book to share. I wore a nightgown as well, my favorite new warm flannel Lanz of Salzburg nightgown ordered from the Vermont Country Store, and provided hot chocolate, milk, apple cider, and a tray of cookies, plus a dozen tiny red velvet cupcakes. The cupcakes were in honor of a student who had written her picture book about a cupcake war between two sisters resolved when they discover a shared love for red velvet cupcakes.

I would say that the event was a success. Only a few students actually appeared in their pajamas, but at least there were those few, and we had a total of five stuffed animals, including my jackrabbit, Ruby. I was shocked to find that one bear didn't have a name yet and also noticed some hesitation on the part of my students to make the voices for their stuffed animals. But by the end of the evening, all the stuffed animals were conversing comfortably.

We heard selections from Fancy Nancy, Frog and Toad, and Dr. Seuss, as well as snippets from some older chapter books. The highlight of the evening was when we started reading Junie B. Jones Is (Almost) a Flower Girl, and just couldn't stop. We ended up reading the entire 68-page book aloud, passing it from reader to reader, each one taking a chapter. I especially loved hearing the boys reading Junie's lines with lots of expression.

Next treat for my class: tomorrow we have a visit from illustrator/animator/author Troy Cummings.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Plotters and Pantsers

Last night I took my Writing for Children class to a talk at the Putnam County Library by Indianapolis-based young adult author Mike Mullin, author of Ashfall, a coming-of-age novel about a boy struggling to survive post-apocalyptic conditions following an eruption of the Yellowstone super-volcano. I thought, correctly as it turned out, that Mike's presentation would be a good counter-weight to my focus on younger, sweeter stories. After all, there is quite a difference between trying to stay alive during the aftermath of a volcanic holocaust and trying to get the promised ice cream cone for having passed all of your times tables tests (7 x 9 = Trouble!). And I thought Mike's talk would up the coolness quotient of my course, as well, which it did: Mike studied Taekwondo in order to write the book and ended his presentation by smashing a sizable cinder block with his bare hand.

I confess that I did have a moment of despair at this point in the evening as I wondered how a staid middle-aged authoress is supposed to compete on the lecture circuit these days.

For me, the smashingest part of the evening, however, was NOT the karate chop. It was an insight the Mike offered during Q & A into the age-old writing question of whether it's better to write from a detailed, self-conscious outline, or better to grope your way through a story without any clear plan. Mike called this the difference between being a plotter and a "pantser" (flying by the seat of your pants). I had always thought that both approaches were viable: some writers are plotters, some are pantsers, and both can produce wonderful, and terrible, results.

Mike had a different insight, which I'm still pondering this morning. He pointed to empirical research comparing "logical" versus "intuitive" creative styles. He claimed that according to this research, when logical people try an intuitive style, creativity goes up. BUT (and this is the interesting part), when intuitive people try a logical style, creativity also goes up. He concluded that there are considerable creative benefits in trying the style with which you are LESS comfortable.

Hmm. While I'm not a rigid plotter, I definitely start with a fairly clear vision of what the structure of my story needs to be (details to be filled in later). As I continue on my creative journey this year, with the goal of "writing a book that surprises me," perhaps I need to give myself some "pantser" freedom.

It's worth a try.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

A Few of My Favorite Things

When I went on my new year's trip to tiny Goldsmith, Indiana, to visit the boyhood home of my friend Keith, he took me to an indoor flea market/junk shop in Kokomo. I don't consider myself much of a shopper: it's been years since I've set foot in a shopping mall, I buy all my clothes at yard sales and Goodwill, I'm not one for having very much STUFF in my life. But this Kokomo market was irresistible.

I made three purchases, pictured above: a lovely blue-and-white ceramic teapot, a copper teakettle, and a goose-shaped cookie jar. The teakettle was quite tarnished, but Keith brought me over some Brasso, and I tried polishing it with amazing results. Then Keith re-polished what I had already polished with even more amazing results. And the goose was already amazing, especially as she cost three dollars. This is the goose who might become my story goose, my jar of ideas. Or maybe she's my muse, a benign, serene creative presence in my life.

As of this moment I have yet to boil water in the teakettle, make tea in the teapot, or put a cookie or story idea into my goose. I just have them all lined up on my stove to look at. The gleam of the copper makes my heart sing. Every glimpse of the goose makes my heart shout. The teapot actually cost more than both of them together and right now I love it less, though I still do love it.

I love all three. Especially the goose.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Cocktail Party

Yesterday I gave a motivational/inspirational/how-to-accomplish-all-your-writing-goals-and-dreams talk at a Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators schmooze in Carmel, north of Indianapolis.

I began my presentation with an exercise/game I learned from creativity guru Cynthia Morris. It's called "Cocktail Party," or at least that's what I called it yesterday. In the game you project yourself forward to the end of the year, or to some point in your future, imagining that all your wildest dreams have already been accomplished. You are surrounded by bright, creative dreamers who have also achieved great things. You have all come together to celebrate your accomplishments, without shyness, without envy.

So: you approach somebody at the party, introduce yourself, and then say, "How was your year?" You listen as they tell you of wonderful creative breakthroughs and well-deserved recognition. "What about you?" they then ask. And you tell them.

It's quite an amazing thing to project yourself into a place of confidence and success. Some people in our group yesterday had trouble doing it. "I think I'd like to have my book finally accepted," they'd say timidly. No! In this game you say, "I'm thrilled that the middle-grade novel I've been working on for the last three years was accepted by HarperCollins in a two-book deal."

In my own case, I found that it was illuminating for me to see what I was hungering for by what particular kind of success I was projecting for myself. I found myself saying, "It's been a good year. I took some creative risks I'd never taken before and really went out on a creative limb, and now my experimental novel has just gotten its third starred review, this one from Horn Book." I DO want to do something different this year. And, while all we can control is the effort and not the outcome, I'd love love love to have that level of critical recognition.

For ten minutes yesterday, I had done it, and I had it. It's something to hold on to, to inspire me and guide me, in the eleven and a half months ahead.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Not for Dummies

Yesterday in my Writing Children's Book winter term class, we had a workshop on making picture book dummies. This was a very smart thing for us to do.

I came to class with a stack of blank book dummies. For each one, I took sixteen pieces of copy machine/printer paper and stapled them together on the left-hand side to make a 32-page book. For readers who are not children's book authors: that is the length of a standard picture book. All books are manufactured in such a way that the number of pages is some multiple of eight. You might see a picture book of sixteen or twenty-four pages in the educational market, but not in the trade market. And as picture books grow to forty or forty-eight pages, production costs skyrocket. So: thirty-two pages it is.

Of that, four (most likely) go to front matter: title page, copyright, dedication, etc. So that leaves twenty-eight pages for text and art. A picture book story has to fit in that number of pages, with enough action - and variety of action - to give the illustrator something to draw - and enough moments of suspense to give the reader reason to turn to the next page.

I came to class with a huge bag of scissors, tape dispensers, colored pencils, crayons, and markers. And we got to work. Students sat busily cutting up their manuscripts into little strips of words to tape onto the pages; they sketched out what art they might imagine accompanying their words. And they learned a lot about what didn't work about their manuscripts.

Some students discovered they only had enough material to fill half a book: by page 16, they had petered out entirely. Some saw how text-heavy their story lay on the page. Long paragraphs needed to be broken up into smaller morsels. One particularly serious writer gave up her story halfway through and started another one: what she had was a lovely poem, but it wasn't a picture book.

I asked each student to identify the central problem faced by the main character. On what page was it introduced? The earlier, the better! A third of the way through the book: much too late. And on what page was it solved? Two-thirds of the way through the book: much too early.

So on a gray, snowy day, we sat cutting and coloring and truly becoming picture book writers.

Friday, January 13, 2012

First Snow in Greencastle

Snow has been late to come this winter in Indiana, but it snowed an inch or two yesterday, and it's snowing now outside my window. Snow here has a different feel from snow in Colorado. In Colorado snow feels like: "Hooray, it's snowing, and the skiers will be happy, and tomorrow the sun will be out and glittering upon all that wonderful white fluffy stuff, and most of it will melt, and by the day after that kids will be out on the playground again in shorts and T-shirts." In Indiana snow feels like: "Winter is here and is going to stay a long long long time."

It's become clear to me already that I need to buy a much warmer coat, a long padded one that will cover me from shoulders to knees. I've already bought a warmer hat at the Dollar General. I have a pair of warm boots that I bought last year on my once-a-year shoe-buying spree at Brown's old-timey shoe store in downtown Warrensburg, Missouri. But now I need to spray them with some extra-strength waterproofing.

I'm also going to have to focus all my energies on COZINESS and CHEER. So this morning I went to Kroger's in the early morning dark and bought a huge heap of art supplies, because in my Winter Term children's book writing class this afternoon we're going to be making dummies for our picture books. I am now the proud owner of many pairs of kid scissors, many rolls of Scotch-brand Magic tape, boxes and boxes of crayons, colored pencils, and markers. And then I took myself to the Blue Door Cafe for breakfast. Outside it was so gray and cold and bleak. Insight the Blue Door it was so bright and warm and merry. Today I had a tomato, onion, pepper, and cheddar omelet: most tasty. Now I may turn on the gas fireplace in the Prindle Institute Great Hall and write.

Coziness. Cheer. Coziness. Cheer.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Someone's Got to Do It

As part of my project of being a stellar campus citizen during my visiting professorship at DePauw, I responded to an emailed call-for-volunteers and offered my services as a judge for one of the four cooking competitions staged for the students in the Winter Term "Sweet and Savory Science" food class. Competitions will be held over the course of the month in four categories: Childhood Favorites, British Pub Food, Vegetarian, and "Chopped" (in imitation of the Food Network show). Guess which category I signed up for? Yes, indeed: Childhood Favorites.

So at 11:30 yesterday I arrived at one of the residence halls with my fellow two judges and was served two different meals by two rival teams, each to be judged on four dimensions: adherence to the theme, menu (attractiveness and informativeness of the written menu given to us), presentation (including table setting), and of course, taste. The first team served: mozzarella sticks with marina sauce for dipping, Roman pizza, side green salad, and a dessert creation of their own called Puppy Chow Pie. The second team served: pigs and blankets, tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, and funfetti cake balls for dessert.

Boy, was it close! All three judges thought that the second team was the clear winner in terms of their interpretation of the category theme and their over-the-top beautiful menu (with a cheery kidlike cover and delightful information provided in a lively attractive way). All three judges thought the first team won more points on taste, which is, after all, a not-inconsiderable part of an eating experience. The overall verdict, when all was tabulated: the second team. I was the judge who put them over the top with my raptures over the menu they produced. I guess I just don't care that much about how food tastes; it's the IDEA of food that I love most. (Hmm: maybe something to think about as I proceed on my new year slimnastic plans.)

So: when there is a job that needs to be done, I offer my services. Someone's got to judge an amazingly fun student cooking contest. Oh, heck, it might as well be me.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Driving at Night with Headlights

E. L. Doctorow is quoted as offering this wonderful insight into the process of writing a novel: "It's like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."

That's how I'm feeling about my Winter Term writing-for-children course right now. I realized on day one that the course presented three challenges that I am going to have to deal with somehow:

1) The class is very large for a writing class: 22 students.
2) The class sessions are very long: three hours a day, four days a week, for several weeks.
3) The class population is not what I'm used to: I'm used to middle-aged women, and this class has a sizable population of 20-year-old guys who have never read any of my own childhood favorite texts (no Betsy, Tacy, and Tib fans) and who are primarily interested in writing graphic novels.

So I am going to have to make some changes to what I had planned.

I have to do a lot more small group work as it's deadly to have to listen to 22 students report on their weekend reading, 22 students each share a picture book manuscript for critique, 22 students each share a book chapter for critique. I have to mix up the format to accommodate the long class sessions and the student learning styles: scrap the long lectures in favor of interactive exercises. I'm making the changes day by day, so that I can learn each day from what I did the session before and whether it worked out the way I wanted it to. Basically, I have to keep on my toes. Make that: on my tippy toes!

While peering out through the windshield at that next stretch of road ahead, lit up by those headlights.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Sheer Quantity

I'm home from the poetry retreat. One of the authors there did an estimate and concluded that together we read and discussed some THREE HUNDRED AND TWENTY-FIVE POEMS over the course of those four days.

That is a very big number. It includes poems we were given as inspirational exemplars in each writing session, plus the poems that the fifteen of us wrote in response to each of the many prompts we were given, and then shared in our circle. So right now I am saturated with poetry, stuffed to bursting with it, reeling drunk with it.

I also realized that while I was away I posted my five hundredth blog post. This is now blog post 502. That is also a very big number. I have done a lot of consistent blogging over the last two years.

So this is leading me to reflect on the benefits of sheer quantity. Author Malcolm Gladwell is quoted all over the place as saying that it takes 10,000 hours of doing anything to become really good at it. And it seems to be the sheer quantity of hours amassed that matters.

I have found that when I've written something that hasn't worked the way I want it to, the best thing to do isn't to try to rewrite it over and over again, but simply to write something else, something new. Then I return to rewrite the earlier failed piece with hardly any effort at all. Writing guru Brenda Ueland says the same thing, that rather than endlessly polishing the same little pearl, write something new and then you'll see how to fix up that pearl in no time flat.

When I was working on my Mason Dixon series, I started off with trying to write the book that became Mason Dixon: Fourth Grade Disasters. My writing group had much fault to find with it. I put it away and wrote Mason Dixon: Pet Disasters instead. My writing group loved it, and by then I knew exactly how to write Fourth Grade Disasters to that same level.

Sometimes, less is more. But sometimes more is more.

Sunday, January 8, 2012


If I were to use one word to describe my experience at the poetry retreat this year, the word would be: humbled. I'm inspired, yes, and I'm growing, yes, but I'm also stunned, astonished, slain by what some of my fellow poets are producing. We take a pledge not to share details of anybody's poems - at this stage so raw, so private, shared only with those who are also willing to make our work vulnerable to others' eyes - but I think I don't run afoul of this agreement by saying merely that some of the poems are amazing. I have known many of these poets for many years now, and I am seeing work from some of them at a level I have never seen before.

But what I'm also seeing, sad but true, is that at least here at this retreat, the most truly amazing work is coming out of a place of pain. People are dealing with extremely difficult and agonizing burdens in their lives, and they are transforming those into exquisitely moving poems. In the past, that was sometimes me, as well. But this year I'm happy. I'm just happy all the time. And that's good. For me. Less good for my poems.

Though maybe it's not so much that we need to have pain to write. Surely that's true. But as we're learning to be poets, groping to explore new forms, it helps to have a standing topic, a subject matter already intimately inhabited, so that we can focus not on what to write about but on how to write about it. It helps to have a theme.

Yesterday I remembered, in the nick of time, that the theme doesn't have to be about me. Or, it can be about me, but only obliquely. I decided to return to an old favorite of mine: fairy tales. For the prompt to write a pantoum (a form of poetry that has repeated, braided lines), I wrote about Hansel unable to retrace his bread crumbs in the woods. For a prompt about under-rated pleasures, I wrote about Rapunzel opening her tower window after the rain. And for a prompt about using repetition in a poem, I wrote this:


Straw my father claimed I could spin into gold,
Straw in that dusty chamber piled high,
Straw upon straw, all the straw in the world,
Straw I must spin into gold or else die.

Straw that he spun for me, strange little man,
Straw in exchange for the child he would take,
Straw for a promise no mother could keep,
Straw for a promise I knew I would break.

Straw, little darling; straw, sleeping babe.
Straw is the reason I have you to hold.
Joy of my arms, light of my heart,
You are the straw spun into gold.

But I haven't been spinning as much straw into gold as usual this time around. The fact is, I just haven't had as much straw as usual, for the spinning. And for that, I guess I should be grateful.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Poetry, Day Three

My head is crammed full of poetry!

Our leader this year is Leslea Newman (there is an accent mark over the second e in her first name, but I don't know how to type accents in Google blogger - it's pronounced Les-Leah). She is wonderful. For every session, she gives us a HUGE packet of brilliant published poems by a wide range of poets based on some theme: poems about names/naming, poems about common occasions (birthdays, first menstruation), poems about the body (including poems about hands, poems about hair, poems about bellies), list poems. We read them aloud and talk about them together and then we disappear to all corners of the convent to write a poem of our own on that theme. Finally, we reconvene and share. This is pretty much the format all of our poetry retreats have followed, though our packets seem to be extra-fat this year.

I haven't yet written any poem that I adore, but I feel that I grew a lot as a poet - and as a person - by writing a poem about my red skin (which I hate) - and then trying to write an affirming poem about it as well. I wrote a funny poem about my belly button (but not so funny that I feel confident sharing it here). And a funny poem called "Manicure" about how much I enjoy biting my nails (also not worth sharing over the Internet, but my poet friends here chuckled when I read it).

Today we're going to focus on FORM. I love writing in form, so maybe this will be the best day yet for me. But really, the best part is just trying everything - even the exercise yesterday afternoon where we were given a poem written in RUSSIAN, yes, Russian, and had to write our own stab at a translation of it - which forced us to focus on how the original poem looked on the page, so freeing us to play with form rather than obsessing about content.

So maybe I'll have a poem I can share on this blog today. Maybe not. But I'm learning so much in every session, stuffing myself full of poems, poems, poems, poems, poems.

Thursday, January 5, 2012


I wrote my first book when I was six years old. It had about eight words in it, each one spelled out by me and accompanied by a crayoned picture: flowr, burd, fathr (feather). But on the last pages of the book, already confident in my future output, I advertised two forthcoming titles. One was going to be a BIG BOOK about MY LIFE: 100 PAGES! And the other was going to be a book of POWATREE.

And now this weekend, for the sixth year in a row, I'm off to a poetry-writing retreat. I fly to New Jersey this morning, rent a car at Newark Airport, drive to a convent (and converted former orphanage) in Mendham, New Jersey, and then I'll spend the better part of four glorious days doing nothing but reading and writing POWATREE. The retreat, founded by the incomparable Susan Campbell Bartoletti, is for women children's book authors who want to develop their poetic voice. Susan invented it out of her amazingly fertile brain and energetic self because she believes that there is no better way to grow as a writer generally than to immerse oneself in poetry. Each year she finds a different poet to come be our workshop leaders. Past leaders (of the retreats I've attended) have been Sally Keith, Vivian Shipley, Molly Fisk, Kathleen Driskell, and Jeanie Thompson. This year it will be Leslea Newman.

I haven't written a poem in many months - probably since I gave up my poem-a-day regimen (inspired by last year's retreat) last spring. But I know I will write at least one poem today. Probably two. Some of the poems I write this weekend will be better forgotten. Others will be small treasures - at least for me. And as my writing goal for this year is to write a book that surprises me, perhaps I'll write a poem that surprises me, too.


Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Winter Term Begins

Today is the first day of DePauw's three-week Winter Term - it begins today and then ends on Wednesday, January 25. For the first time ever, I'm teaching a full-length course on writing children's books. I've done four week one-evening-a-week classes on writing children's books for Lifelong Learning (adult continuing education) in Boulder; I've been a retreat leader/facilitator; I've given countless talks on craft at various writing conferences; and I've mentored seven writers through the terrific mentorship program run by the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. But this course is my most ambitious venture to date: it meets four afternoons a week from 1-4 for the three weeks of Winter Term. That is a lot of class time!

I've planned some fun things. One fun thing is an outing to the Putnam County Public Library (just two blocks from campus), where the fabulous children's librarian there will present to us her favorite of the newest crop of recently published children's books. Another fun thing is going to be an evening of reading aloud stories to one another up at the Prindle Institute fireplace, while sipping hot chocolate and eating cookies: the wearing of pajamas will be encouraged. In fact, I just bought a new nightgown for this very purpose: a Lanz of Salzburg flannel nightgown ordered from the Vermont Country Store (see above). Of course, I'll also give my talk on Peppy Pacing and Sturdy Structure - and play an entertaining "show, don't tell" game - and do a great character-development exercise borrowed from children's author Denise Vega (where you get two cards, one with a character trait and one with a situation, and have to write a short scene showing how that character trait could be exhibited by your protagonist in that situation). And we'll write tons, and read tons, and do tons of critiquing.

I'm not sure that I'll be able to use the Story Goose I blogged about yesterday. I may put cookies in her, after all. I'll just have to see.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Circus in Winter

On day one of the new year I preached my new year's sermon and then said goodbye-for-now to my Colorado life and flew back to my life in Indiana. I arrived late at the Indianapolis airport and drove in the darkness to the tiny town of Goldsmith, Indiana, population 200, where I spent the night with my friend Keith's family.

On day two of the new year I had persimmon pudding for breakfast and explored rural Tipton County. Highlight: an indoor flea-market-junk-market in Kokomo (to the north of Goldsmith) where I bought a tea kettle, a teapot (my new year is going to have lots of tea drinking in it), and a very large Mother Goose cookie jar - or maybe it's Jemina Puddle Duck - or some other statuesque fowl in a kerchief. I'm not going to put cookies in her. I'm going to put book ideas in her instead. I may make her the centerpiece of my Winter Term class on writing children's books - I'll let you know.

Then Keith and I drove to Muncie, Indiana, to have dinner at the gorgeous Victorian home of author Cathy Day and her husband, Erik. Cathy's critically acclaimed collection of interlocking short stories, The Circus in Winter, has been made into a musical by creative writing/theatre students at Ball State University. Cathy's home town is Peru, Indiana, which was the winter home of a Midwest touring circus at the turn of the last century, and she draws from local lore as well as family stories to create her gallery of portraits of circus folk in the dark still season of the year. The musical was being performed that night, and it was wonderful: poignant, sad, wrenching, uplifting - with not one but two amazing enormous puppet elephants.

Now it's day three of the new year, and I'm back in Greencastle, typing this from my office at the Prindle Institute, readying myself for the launch of my Winter Term class tomorrow. Will I use the Story Goose or not? Probably I will. It just seems as if it's going to be that sort of year.

Monday, January 2, 2012


My poet friend and creativity consultant Molly Fisk structures her new year around choosing, not a set of goals or resolutions, but a special WORD. She says that sometimes she finds her word, and sometimes the word finds her; sometimes she starts the year with her word firmly in place, other years it might not disclose itself until as late as the middle of March.

I decided to try Molly's choose-a-word system last year. I was starting to grope for my word when it suddenly became clear to me that that WAS my word: "grope." And so began a year of transitions, trying to figure out what to do next with my life, with my writing, with my heart. I no longer minded that I didn't KNOW any of this, because, hey, "grope" was my word, right? It was okay to spend 2011 in groping mode.

This year I thought I might preach my new year's sermon on Molly's find-your-word system. So that sent me to the Bible to look for possible words for me this time around. I opened it to Paul's first letter to the Corinthians and let my eye fall upon this passage: "For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength." And there was my word: "foolishness."

So now I'm going to spend some time in 2012 thinking about foolishness - bad, costly foolishness - good, playful foolishness - and how to tell them apart.

I think I've started the year with some good foolishness. After I flew back to Indianapolis yesterday, instead of driving directly to Greencastle and getting a sensible start on all I have to do for the new year, I drove in the other direction to my friend Keith's family home in Goldsmith, Indiana, population 200. I didn't get in until 1 in the morning, and then Keith and I talked until 2. This morning I walked in the bitter Indiana cold - windy flurries - and explored the town, picking out which house I would like to live in if I decided to move here someday. Who knows, maybe I will? Then I had persimmon pudding for breakfast, something I've never eaten in my life before.

Day two of 2012: persimmon pudding for breakfast. I'm liking 2012 so far.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Welcome 2012

Well, the first thing I did to start my new year was to give in yet again to Snickers's incessant 4:30 a.m. meowing and get up and dump some dry food into her bowl for breakfast. So some things never change.

My next task of the new year is to finish writing the sermon that I'll be delivering in church this morning. For the past couple of years, Christopher and I have teamed up to do the first service of the new year at our beloved church, St. Paul's United Methodist Church. Christopher takes over for the regular organist (as he does frequently) and plays all the hymns as well as prelude, postlude, offertory. I take care of the rest: call to worship, scripture selection, pastoral prayer, and sermon. I love being "the preacher girl."

The title of my sermon today is "Filled with All the Fullness of God." The idea for the sermon is that as we make our resolutions for the new year, we should consider the following strategy. Instead of trying to eliminate various bad things from our lives, we should try adding good things.

So, if the issue is weight control and healthy eating, instead of swearing off gluten, dairy, fat (every single one of my friends, it seems, has sworn off something), try adding more fruits and vegetables - so many of them that you won't have any appetite left for the foods deemed problematic.

If the issue is finding time for the work you love, don't spend enormous effort clearing the decks (or cleaning your desk) to make room for it. Because, sad but true, those decks and desk will probably never be all that clear or clean. Just start writing, or whatever it is you love best, and those other pesky projects will just find themselves somehow shoved to the side.

If you're wrestling with grief and loss, try adding some new source of joy. Remember the words of Carly Simon: "I haven't got time for the pain. I haven't got room for the pain." Crowd that pain right OUT, brothers and sisters!

And then, since this is after all a sermon for church and not just a self-help pep talk (much as I adore self-help pep talks), rather than emptying yourself out to make room for God, just stuff yourself full of God and then see what happens. Make more time for prayer, Bible reading, worship, service, and let the rest fall by the wayside. And here you don't actually have to do anything, really - just let God stuff you full of his goodness and grace.

So here's to a 2012 stuffed full of all good things for all of us.