Saturday, July 28, 2012


I am writing this from a stool at the kitchen counter in the gorgeous house that my writing group has rented for our 18th - yes, 18th - annual retreat together up at Lake Dillon in the Rocky Mountains.  This year, for the second time in a row, we've expanded our traditional format from a two-night retreat to a three-night retreat, and we are adoring every minute of this luxurious expanse of time together.  On our first night, as we always do, we discussed this year's Newbery medal winner, Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos, and read aloud the Newbery acceptance speech from the Horn Book. We have given in-depth critiques to five manuscripts.  We have had long walks along the lake.  And we have eaten delicious and nutritious food; each of the seven of us is assigned a meal to share (I had lunch yesterday: curried tuna salad, made with green onions, celery, and chopped apples - quite tasty if I do say so myself).

I didn't bring a manuscript for critique this year, because I have been writing against the clock to finish a new chapter book, Annika Riz, Math Whiz, a companion book to Kelsey Green, Reading Queen, coming out this fall. (Next up: Izzy Barr, Running Star.)  This has been an intense month of writing for me, as I already had a tight deadline, and then got off to a bad start with my initial framework for the story (see my July 11 post titled "What you planned will not do").  I began all over again mid-month, with a much stronger story premise, and I've been frantically and happily writing ever since.  I've discovered that I'm happiest not only when I'm writing, but when I'm frantically writing, with real urgency and unflagging momentum.  There is no bliss like being on the home stretch of writing a book.  Joseph Heller once said, "The last third of the book takes about 10 percent of the time.  I don't know if that's due to confidence or because the alternatives have been narrowed down."

I have written an astonishing amount up here in the past two days - away from the distractions of the rest of my life and in the company of extremely creative and stimulating fellow writers.  I think what I've written is actually pretty good.  And - now I'm bragging - I just checked the word count on this chapter book after typing the last lines of Chapter 11, hoping that it would be pretty close to 14,000 words, as Kelsey's book came in at 13,969.  And here's what it was: 14,016!

Now I have major rewriting ahead, of course, but that's the easy part, and I'll have help from my writing group and my editor. It will get done! I think a glass of champagne is in order, don't you?  And luckily I just happen to have one with me, chilling in the fridge this very minute.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Paper Clips

I came home from the Betsy-Tacy convention with many purchases, even though I am someone who almost never buys anything.  Packed into my luggage for my return home were:

1. Convention totebag
2. Convention T-shirt
3. Hardcover former-library edition of Betsy and the Great World
4. Hardcover former-library edition of Betsy Was a Junior
(I already owned both in paperback, of course, but craved a hardcover edition.)
5. Julie Schrader's  Discovering Deep Valley: A Guide to Maud Hart Lovelace's Mankato
6. Two books about the real life stories behind the book characters, by Amy Dolnick Rechner
7. Two packets of Betsy-Tacy note cards
8. Four little plates in the shape of knitted hats and mittens
(bought at the silent auction - I really didn't even want them and hated to have to lug them home, but somehow couldn't stop bidding on them, they so much represent the coziness of the winter scenes in all the books)
9. The most recent entry in the Mother-Daughter Book Club series by Heather Vogel Frederick, in which the girls are reading Betsy in Spite of Herself

That was all well and good.  But the purchase I most treasure?  I paid $15 to buy five paper clips from Maud Hart Lovelace's literary estate, paper clips used for her Betsy-Tacy manuscripts and research notes.  They came in a tiny plastic bag stapled onto a decorative slip of paper with the conference logo and the label "Maud's Paper Clips."  They are definitely old paper clips, even starting to be a bit rusty.

No clue was provided regarding the particular manuscript to which these paper clips were affixed.  I am going to believe that they came from Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown, my favorite book in the series.  I'm hoping that at least one of my paper clips held together my favorite chapter in this favorite of all books, the chapter where Betsy makes her first-ever visit to the new Carnegie Library.

I'm not sure what I'm going to do with these paper clips. Maybe I'll clip one of them to a manuscript of my own, if I ever have a manuscript that seems worthy.  Maybe clipping it to one of  my manuscripts would inspire me to make it be more worthy.  For now, I'll just look at them, and rub them, and hug myself that I have in possession actual paper clips once touched by the author in the whole world whom I admire most.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Betsy-Tacy Bliss

I am home after four days of a literary pilgrimage to Minnesota with my sister and some 150 other fervent fans of the Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace.  I hope that all of you know and love these books, but in case you don't know and love them yet: they are a series of children's books based on the author's own childhood in Mankato, Minnesota ("Deep Valley" in the books) around the turn of the last century.  The series begins when Betsy meets Tacy at her fifth birthday party, in Betsy-Tacy, and ends when Betsy begins married life with her long-time love Joe Willard in Betsy's Wedding.  Two additional titles focus on characters other than Betsy: Carney's House Party and Emily of Deep Valley.  Because Lovelace based the characters in the books on her childhood friends, and set the book in her childhood hometown, it is possible for fans of the books to come to Minnesota and visit Betsy's house and Tacy's house, now maintained as charming museums by the Betsy-Tacy Society, as well as to tour other Betsy-Tacy landmarks.

So this past weekend, my sister and I met in Minneapolis for the four-day Betsy-Tacy convention.  On the first day attendees explored Minneapolis sites from Betsy's Wedding, including walking through Betsy and Joe's first apartment of their married life; the kind young woman who was renting it graciously allowed us all to traipse through, awe-struck, ten at a time.  We also visited Minnehaha Falls; Betsy's proximity to this landmark made world famous by the popularity of Longfellow's Hiawatha served as an ice-breaker on her tour of Europe in Betsy and the Great World.

Then it was on to Deep Valley: an early morning pilgrimage to the Betsy and Tacy houses, a chance to stand on the front steps of Betsy's beloved Carnegie Library, a "bat" to Minneopa Falls (scene of a picnic and baseball game in Carney's House Party), some dozen or more talks (one given by me, on Syrian and German immigration to Mankato), a sing-along of tunes sung by Betsy's high school Crowd ("Dreaming," "Mornin' Cy, Howdy Cy," "In the Good Old Summertime").  Best of all was the chance to be in the company of people from 40 states and three countries who all love these books as much as I do.

Pictured below: me at the Carnegie Library, me at Minnehaha Falls, Cheryl and me at Tib's house.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Boulder Summer Pleasures

I have been back in Boulder a little more than two weeks now, trying to cram each day as full with as many of Boulder's summer pleasures as I can.  I had a house guest last week, my friend Nicki who works with me at DePauw and with whom I share those Prindle breakfasts each morning; her visit provided an excuse for intensifying my savoring of Boulder's summer joys.  In just the first twenty-four hours of her visit, we had dinner at the Wednesday evening farmers market, strolled up and down Pearl Street, walked around Viele Lake with my friend Rowan, had a mojito on Rowan's beautiful deck, hiked the South Fork Shanahan Trail, toured the Celestial Seasonings tea factory, had lunch at the Boulder Dushambe Tea House, took photographs at Boulder Falls, rode the Carousel of Happiness in the mountain town of Nederland, had a scrumptious bakery treat in Nederland, and drove around Chautauqua - and that was all in less than one day.

Since being home I've also gone to see the hilarious play Noises Off at CU, attended two surprise birthday parties (a 40th and a joint 90th), participated in the women's summer book group at church, hosted my writing group, and hiked repeatedly on the trails near my house.

But the summer pleasure I've savored most fully has been the Colorado Music Festival up at Chautauqua, to which I subscribe with my friend Diane.  Each year the festival contains within it a mini-festival.  One year it was all the Beethoven symphonies; other years it has been the world's great piano concertos, the world's great violin concertos, and a tribute to Brahms.  This year it was "Magnificent Mozart." So for five evenings last week I went up to Chautauqua with Diane to hear Mozart's Requiem, his Jupiter Symphony, his Prague Symphony, the overture to the Magic Flute, selections from The Marriage of Figaro, and a head-to-head comparison between works of Mozart and his arch-rival Salieri (with commentary by F. Murray Abraham who won an Oscar for his portrayal of Salieri in the film Amadeus).

On each festival evening, I arrive at Diane's house on Columbine around 6:45.  We walk over together to Baseline and take the free Hop to Chautauqua, to avoid parking up there.  The Hop is always filled with people I know from every part of my life: my church, the philosophy department, old friends.  We stroll around the historic Chautauqua grounds and gardens before the concert begins.  Then there is the concert itself, of course.  We each buy a fresh-baked cookie during intermission.  And after the concert we walk back down to Diane's house beneath the stars, marveling at the glories of Mozart's music and the beauty of Boulder at the peak of its summer pleasures.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

"What you had planned will not do"

Among the many writing-related books on my shelf, one of my less favorite ones is The Writing Life by Annie Dillard.  While she offers many dazzling insights into the writing process, her overall tone is one of bewailing the grueling labor of writing. According to Annie Dillard, "Writing a book, full time, takes between two and ten years."  For me, writing a book, part time, takes between two and ten months.  For Annie Dillard, much strong coffee and many cigarettes are required.  For me, just some nice creamy hot chocolate and the occasional Hershey's cherry cordial kiss. And Annie Dillard says that she hates to write and "would rather do anything else."  It's tempting to retort, "Well, why don't you, then?"

But sometimes I have to admit that Annie Dillard gets things exactly right.  Wrestling with the first draft of a new chapter book this month, about halfway through the writing of it, I've become stuck; it's been hard to force myself to go on, even trusting in the process, trusting that sooner or later there will be some life and sparkle to my story.  Suddenly I remembered the following passage from Annie D.  She says that when you are stuck in this way,

then the trouble is either of two things.  Either the structure has forked, so the narrative, or the logic, has developed a hairline fracture that will shortly split up the middle - or you are approaching a fatal mistake. What you had planned will not do. If you pursue your present course, the book will explode or collapse, and you do not know about it yet, quite.

Suddenly I realized that Annie D. was completely right.  What I had planned would not do! And, Annie D. says that once you realize that, "Acknowledge, first, that you cannot do nothing. . .  Something completely necessary is either false or fatal.  Once you find it, and if you can accept the finding, of course, it will mean starting again."

Correct you are, Annie D.! So rather than trudging through the rest of that doomed draft, I abandoned it, and yesterday I started over again.  At least I had wasted only weeks, not the better part of a decade. And at least I could fortify myself with hot chocolate and candy while starting over, instead of with coffee and cigarettes.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

"Two Shillings for Your Dreams"

My sister and I grew up devouring the "Shoes books" by Noel Streatfeild, a collection of books featuring English children making their way in such professions as dance, theater, tennis, figure-skating, classical music, and the circus.  Although the books that followed Streatfeild's 1936 best-seller Ballet Shoes were often published in Great Britain under other titles, they were retitled for their American publication as "Shoes books": e.g., Tennis Shoes (1937), Circus Shoes (1938), Theater Shoes (1945), Movie Shoes (1949), Skating Shoes (1951), and Dancing Shoes (1957).  In each book, readers vicariously share in the richly detailed experience of entering these fascinating professional worlds for the first time.  We watch Lalla practicing her "brackets" for her silver test in figure skating; we see Petrova struggling to master the proper inflection for her few lines as Mustardseed in A Midsummer Night's Dream; we follow every exercise that Santa has to do to become proficient as a circus acrobat.

I think we both loved Skating Shoes the best.  It was the one we stumbled upon first, drawn to it by the fact that Lalla has an Aunt Claudia.  In the book, Harriet is encouraged to take up ice skating as part of her convalescence from a long illness; at the skating rink she meets Lalla, who is being groomed by her overbearing aunt to be a skating champion following in the footsteps of her deceased father. Lalla enjoys teaching and mentoring Harriet - until Harriet starts to show too much promise of her own.

Harriet's brother Alec takes on a paper route to earn the twelve shillings a week needed to rent Harriet's skates, pleased to discover that he is being paid not twelve, but fourteen shillings a week - leaving two shillings for him to devote to his own dream of someday having a small greengrocer establishment.  Every week when Mr. Pulliam pays Alec, he says to him, "Twelve shillings for your sister's skates, and two shillings for your dreams."  That became a mantra for Cheryl and me.

Some years ago for Christmas, Cheryl gave me the jar pictured above, with "Dreams" emblazoned on it.  In the jar was a shilling.  Somehow over the intervening years, I lost the shilling - how I could have done this, I  have no idea.  When I saw Cheryl last month for my high school reunion trip, she had a replacement shilling for me, which she had gotten from a kindly coin vendor who gave it to her for free, claiming nobody wants shillings any more.

Well, Cheryl and I still do!  And now my Dreams jar has a shilling in it again, a shilling that represents everything I do to pursue my dreams as a writer, to earn my own cherished "writing shoes."

Monday, July 2, 2012

Forty Years Later

I'm back in Colorado now, after attending my 40th high school reunion on Saturday.  Forty years!

I stayed with my sister and her husband, who bought our childhood home several years ago, some fifteen years after my mother moved away and sold it to another owner.  Much of the house has been remodeled: entirely new kitchen, French doors leading out to an entirely new deck - but much of it is uncannily the same - same mailbox with same wrought-iron house numbers on it, same forsythia bush by the driveway, same doorbell chimes, same heat vent where we used to lie on the floor to dry our hair (though the vent now has a little shelf of teddy bears in front of it - in general, the house now has an estimated 10,000 more teddy bears than it did when we were growing up there).

The past three reunions, or maybe even four, were held at my friend Kim's beautiful house in Basking Ridge.  This year one of my classmates felt like mixing it up a bit, and so she organized a get-together at a roadhouse with a 60s vibe, where we could listen to songs like "Cherish" by the Association, and "To Sir with Love" (the very song to which I "led off" a dance with Dick Thistle at an 8th grade dance - oh, the memories!).

Someone had brought a yearbook, which triggered the idea of retaking pictures of the "senior superlatives" for our graduating year: the boy and girl voted most likely to succeed, best athlete, most popular, did most for class.  We were able to reshoot five pairings, which seems quite amazing, four decades later.  I was Class Actress.  Here I am with Nick Tufaro, Class Actor., holding the yearbook open to our page (we're the bottom photo on the left).  I don't know if we look like stellar thespians, but there we are, anyway.