Thursday, September 27, 2012

Writing Errands

I love doing errands.  I love having a list of all different kinds of little tasks to do out in the world: return library books, stop at the ATM, buy a new charger for my phone, mail a package at the post office.   Sometimes, when I'm home in Boulder, if he's free, Christopher will go on errands with me as my personal chauffeur.   It's so satisfying to make progress on my to-do list, to see some forward momentum in my life.  Library books, returned!  Checks, deposited!  Phone charger, bought!  Package, mailed!

My favorite errands of all are writing-related errands.  I love getting library books, but love getting them even more if they're library books to use for a book-related project of my own.  I love mailing a package at the post office, but love mailing it even more if it's a manuscript sent off to an editor (though nowadays I'm deprived of that particular pleasure because everything is sent by email, so I have to focus my satisfaction on clicking SEND). 

Earlier this week I was finishing up revisions for my forthcoming chapter book, Annika Riz, Math Whiz.  The storyline involves a class cookie-selling booth at the school carnival; Annika and her two best friends, Kelsey and Izzy, are selling lemonade at the booth.  The math whiz angle come into play when Annika realizes that her friends have priced the lemonade too low and are losing money on each glass.  This meant that I needed to make sure I had accurate prices for all the lemonade ingredients, and for cookie ingredients, as well.  So off I went to Kroger, notebook in hand, on a writing-related research errand.

I got all the information I needed - lemons are expensive! those girls had better price that lemonade high! - finished the revisions, and emailed them off: SEND!  The book is done, at least for now, so I can turn my attention to writing the next book in the series, Izzy Barr, Running Star.  Maybe today I should go to the library and check out some books on famous runners; Izzy will be doing a "Famous Footprints" school project on a notable personage of her choice.  Yes!  Another writing-related errand! I'm all set!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Red Barn Farm

I spent yesterday afternoon with my housemate Julia, her son Alex (pictured next to me here in the great photo by my colleague Rich Cameron), and several other DePauw faculty and their families at Red Barn Farm, a couple of miles south of town.  It was the most perfect early autumn day imaginable: blue skies, warm sun, cool breeze, highs in the low 60s.

At the farm we did the following farmy things:
1. climbed on a hay bale mountain
2. enjoyed a half-hour hay ride all around the farm, driving past turkeys and chickens and cows
3. cuddled with baby goats
4. gathered eggs from the egg barn
5. petted rabbits and chicks and a donkey named Mr. Sprinkles
6. played The Chicken Hokey, where we put our beaks in, took our beaks out, took our beaks in, and shaked them all about - as well as right wings, left wings, tail feathers, and whole chicken.

If truth be told, I didn't do all of these things.  In fact, the only ones I actually did myself were the hay ride and the goat cuddling.  But I watched the rest, and soaked up the sun, and loved every minute of a magical afternoon.

A few weeks ago I made a list of my goals for this second year at DePauw, and as I like to make my to-do lists in multiples of five, my list has five major goals on it:

1. host the Ethics and Children's Literature conference - done!
2. see if I can edit selected papers from the conference into a book
3. write an Indiana-inflected children's book
4. plan for a new wonderful life as I go back to Colorado at the end of this year
5. savor every Indiana/DePauw pleasure as fully as possible while I'm here.

Yesterday I did number five on this list for all I was worth. It was a day of mega, joyful savoring.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Touchstone Moments

Now that I am working on my plan to make the rest of my life as wonderful as possible, I dug up a list I started making a couple of years ago of what I call "touchstone moments" for my writing life, moments of pure joy in being a writer.

Here are a few of them:

1. sitting on the front steps of a little rented house in Princeton, on a day I took off from work at my secretarial job at Four Winds Press/Scholastic, working on the revisions to my first children's novel, Luisa's American Dream

2. writing a chapter of The Totally Made-Up Civil War Diary of Amanda Macleish in the tucked-away loft of the Hollins University Library during the two weeks I spent there as writer-in-residence one summer

3. writing the first line of How Oliver Olson Changed the World in a motel in Green River, Utah, on a family vacation: "Oliver Olson looked up at the moon."

4. having a date at my friend Leslie's house to try to see what would happen to a pickle if we put it in the oven at increasingly higher temperatures - research for the science experiment in Fractions = Trouble! where Josh is trying to answer the question "At what temperature does a pickle explode?"

5. waking up at the Times Square Mariott Marquis Hotel when I was in NYC as a judge of the 2005 National Book Award in the category of Literature for Young People

6. staying in a little tiny room on a little tiny hall in a converted former orphanage at a convent in Mendham, NJ, for a poetry writing retreat

7. walking with other writers at the annual Children's Literature Festival in Warrensburg, Missouri, to see some cows

8. sipping champagne and eating strawberries at the spring reception for new books by local authors at the Cheshire Cat bookstore in Washington, D.C., many many years ago

9. getting up early when I was in junior high school and writing my autobiographical book T Is for Tarzan while listening to WABC on my transistor radio

10. going to see the film Julie and Julia with my writing group on one of our summer retreats at Lake Dillon

11. writing at the general store in the Colorado mountain town of Gold Hill with my friend Cat

12. writing poetry based on prompts from the first lines of Petrarch sonnets with two other poet friends. The best prompt was: "I swim a sea that has no shore or bottom. . .. "

So here's what I want the rest of my life to be: a life with more moments like these.  That isn't so hard. I  want to collect more glimmering, shimmering moments of writing joy.  First I want to have them.  Then I want to write them down on my list.  Then I want to savor them in memory.  I can do this!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Nibbled to Death by Ducks

My Ethics and Children's Literature conference concluded on Sunday, leaving all of the presenters, attendees, and me with a warm, contented glow. The presenters and attendees said lovely things that I can cherish in my heart, like my student who wrote in her response paper to the conference: “In a mere two and a half hour time, speakers at the Ethics and Children’s Literature Symposium mentioned topics spanning from Latin America, sex, abortion, child abuse, rage, moral perfection, all in the context of children’s literature. And this was all before lunch. The Ethics and Children’s Literature Symposium’s sessions I attended presented topics that helped my understanding of the influence and importance of children’s literature and the complexity that is embedded in every story.” Or the student who wrote: “After going to a couple of sessions, all I wanted to do was spend hours at the Prindle Institute talking to the authors.” Yes!

So the huge work of planning and executing the conference is over! The conference was a success! Now what am I going to do with the rest of my life?

Alas, the first thing that I have to do is all the things I left undone for the past two or three weeks in preparation for the conference (and for the all-day writing workshop in Skokie, and for the middle-school writing workshops here in Greencastle, as well as finishing up - after first facing and starting - a philosophy paper that was due September 1). I have dozens of tiny things to do, those things I call Loathsome Tasks, or LTs, small pesky jobs that I find so hard to face. On this, my first "free" day in weeks, I am being nibbled to death by ducks! So this is prompting some reflections on my part about how to deal with duck-nibbling LTs. 

I do know that if we're not careful, LTs can nibble away our entire lives. It's so easy to fill a day doing nothing but sending and answering emails. Sometimes that may be necessary, but it's seldom satisfying, and I  don't want my tombstone to read, "Many were the emails she answered."

My most important strategy for avoiding this fate is to make sure I have enough big, major, meaningful tasks to do that I have no choice but to prioritize them, giving them the first and best hours of my day. That is what I have done for all of September so far. But one can't neglect LTs forever. Sooner or later they have to be done - someway, somehow. Perhaps it would be ideal to leave them till the end of the day, or use them to fill up little bits of time in between other things. But I hate them so much I can't make myself do them on a day when I've already accomplished anything else. But if I give the first, best hours of my day to them, I'll live my whole life never accomplishing anything else.

So what I tend to do is declare one day simply as LT Day. I get up early in the morning on LT Day and make a very long master list of LTs and then I start to do them, and keep doing them until I get a sufficient quantity crossed off. Today is an LT Day. I have 35 items on my list, ranging from  "call Superior Self-Storage to try to arrange auto-pay on my account" to "update recommendation letters for grad students x, y, and z" to "invite another speaker for the Undergraduate Ethics Symposium" to "call that nice man from tech support services to see if he will come help me with the visiting speaker for my class who is going to use Power Point in her presentation on Friday." 

I have now, at 1:30 in the afternoon, crossed off 22 things on the list. Writing this blog (not an LT, but a T) will be number 23. A bunch of items remain, but, hey, 23 is pretty good. Perhaps good enough to go and eat some blueberry crumb cake left over from my conference snacks. And then on Thursday, I'll launch another major project - revising Annika Riz, Math Whiz - now that the ducks are somewhat pacified.


Thursday, September 13, 2012

Ethics and Children's Literature

Today is the long-awaited first day of the conference on Ethics and Children's Literature that I have been planning for the better part of this calendar year. In fact, I remember sitting with Lisa Rowe Fraustino at the poetry-writing retreat early in January, as she helped me brainstorm how to word the call for papers. And now the conference begins this evening.

I have three keynote addresses.  Acclaimed children's book author Susan Campbell Bartoletti (who won a Newbery Honor for her book Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler's Shadow, as well as just about every accolade available for her searing nonfiction for young readers on topics ranging from the Klan to the Irish potato famine) will open the conference tonight with “Moving Through Fear: Writing History for Young Readers.”  Friday night we'll hear from prominent children's literature scholar Claudia Nelson of Texas A& M University, who will look at one moment in our long history of moralizing to children through children's books in her talk “Transmitting Ethics through Books of Golden Deeds for Children." On  Saturday night, philosopher Tom Wartenberg of Mount Holyoke College will give the closing keynote, sharing his pioneering work in getting kids to talk about philosophical questions connected with ethics via picture book texts; his talk is "Teaching Ethics with Frog and Toad."

We'll also spend two and a half wonderfully full days listening to dozens of papers and talks by both scholars and children's authors. Many of the presenters are my dear friends, and I can't wait to welcome them here to the Prindle Institute so they can see my beautiful little DePauw world. The full program for the conference is available on the conference website at

I wish all of you, my dear blog readers, could be here for the conference, too. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Middle School Writing Workshop

I spent yesterday at Greencastle Middle School as part of the Castle Arts program to bring guest artists into the classrooms of local schools to enrich their arts curriculum as they struggle with budget cuts and the pressures of high-stakes testing. I was asked to give SIX 43-minute-long writing workshops to various-sized groups of seventh graders - oh, and asked to incorporate a focus on bullying as well. I was somewhat dreading the day: would the students be silent and sullen? would they look upon me with withering scorn? could I explain a writing principle, get them to write and share their pieces, AND work in a focus on bullying, all in 43 minutes?

Well, as so often is the case with things I dread, the day turned out to be a delight. The students were engaged and on-task; the teachers were appreciative and supportive; the library even had numerous books of mine in their collection that I was able to sign. 

Here's what the students and I did together.

First I talked about point of view: the way an author invites readers into a character's head to share his/her thoughts, feelings, experiences, and perspective on the world. I briefly presented the different creative choices available for an author regarding point of view - first person, third person, omniscient narrator - and the strengths and limitations of each one.

Then we made up the outline of a story together. I told them the story had to involve one kid being mean to another. What mean thing should it be?  The students offered answers like: hitting/punching, calling names, stealing homework/lunch money, spreading rumors. Why would the kid do this mean thing? Here by far the favorite answer was: because the other kid was flirting with the first kid's boyfriend or girlfriend. (One group worked up a different story where the mean kid was picking on a new foreign exchange student, who hadn't even had time to hit on anybody else's girlfriend yet!). The third character in the story was a bystander to the meanness/bullying (usually the girlfriend/boyfriend in the story).  The students did a great job of coming up with a backstory for each character.

Then they spent ten minutes engaged in writing this short scene, taking either the point of view of the bully, the victim, or the bystander. I made sure that every point of view was represented.

When students shared their work at the end of the class period, we could all see how much the story changed according to who was telling it. We learned that often the "mean kid" was responding to someone else's prior meanness (name-calling, for example), or felt remorse for how he acted. All the characters became humanized as we saw the event unfolding through the lens of their own point of view.

So now I have a new writing workshop I can do at schools - and an anti-bullying workshop at that! Thank you, Castle Arts, and thank you, Greencastle Middle School students!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

My Writing Bloopers

In my last post, I promised that I'd share a few of the writing mistakes I've made over the years in crafting my books. What puzzles me is not so much that I made these mistakes once upon a time, but that I continue to make them, or at least some of them, even in recent work.

1. When I wrote my picture book Phoebe's Parade, I had an entire full manuscript page devoted to a scene in which all that happens is that Phoebe and her family are eating breakfast and chatting together about the upcoming Fourth of July parade. In a picture book, you have to compress your story into fewer than a thousand words. You can't spend two hundred of those words on breakfast table chitchat.

2. When I wrote my middle-grade novel Dynamite Dinah, Dinah and her best friend Suzanne have a huge row over Dinah's bad behavior during the class play (Dinah is stunned when Suzanne ends up with the leading role in the play, a role that Dinah thinks by rights should have been Dinah's). The whole book has been leading up to this scene. Then in a later chapter, I mention in passing that they've made up their quarrel. What?! If the fight is so crucial, their reconciliation is equally crucial. You can't have such a significant scene happen offstage.

3. When I wrote my recent novel, One Square Inch, in which Cooper is dealing with his mother's mental illness, my editor told me that the book felt as if we as readers were just watching Cooper watching his mother fall apart. Cooper was reactive rather than active. Nobody wants to read a book where we just watch a character watching bad things unfold, as a passive bewildered bystander.

4. In the same book, my editor pointed out to me - this is what I most cringe now to report - that when Cooper comes to his central moment of epiphany (that he has to find some small safe place inside himself to deal with the terrible things in his life that he cannot control), it's Cooper's grandfather who tells this to him. This violates what is probably THE cardinal rule of children's book writing: your main character needs to solve his problems himself; your main character cannot have any kind of "lesson" spelled out to him from an adult authority.

Okay, that's enough confession for one blog post! Fortunately, even though I can't recognize my own blunders as I'm making them, I have a wonderful critique group and I've had wonderful editors who haven't been shy at telling me where and how I've gone wrong. And at least I know enough to listen to them when they do.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Back to School Writing Workshop

Last weekend I drove up to the Chicago area (careful not to hit any trucks AT ALL on the way there and back) to give an all-day writing workshop for the Illinois chapter of the Society of Children's Books Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Skokie-based author Carol Grannick did a brilliant job organizing the event; she had attended the retreat I facilitated two summers ago for the Rocky Mountain chapter of SCBWI, and ever since then, the two of us have been scheming about how to put on an intensive, but low-key and low-cost, program in the Chicago area focused on craft rather than marketing. And on Saturday, we did just that. We called the day "Back to School with Claudia Mills," since we knew that writers adore any excuse to buy freshly sharpened number-two pencils and brand-new notebooks.

Over the course of this very full day I gave four talks:
"Sturdy Structure and Peppy Pacing: A How-to Guide"
"'Don't Rub My Face in It": Writing about Weighty Issues without Being Heavy-Handed"
"Manuscript Makeovers: Taking Your Manuscript from Good to Great"
"How to Succeed as a Writer in An Hour a Day: Time Management for Writers"

I also gave thirteen ten-minute critiques on ten-page manuscripts (either picture books or chapters of a novel) submitted to me ahead of time.

I was somewhat nervous about the day because the forty people signed up for the conference ranged from complete beginners to established, well-published writers with starred reviews to their credit. But I think everyone came away from the day with something useful, especially given that I invited the starry stars to chime in with their own insights. I shared every mistake I've ever made as a writer - including mistakes I'm still making ALL THE TIME - and that made everyone willing to 'fess up to all those problems with our own manuscripts that we somehow can't see until someone else points them out to us - even as we can see the same flaws so clearly in everyone else's manuscripts except our own. And maybe now, after an exhausting and exhilarating day spent together, we'll all be a teensy bit better at avoiding them.

In my next post, I'll share some of my own best writing bloopers.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

More about Sudoku (Alas)

You may remember that I started doing Sudoku puzzles last summer as part of my research for writing Annika Riz, Math Whiz. Alas, despite my being terrible at Suduko, despite my not even liking it, I almost instantly became addicted to it, as years ago I became addicted to solitaire. Tense, stressed, I'd tell myself, "I'll just do ONE puzzle to relax a bit." Hours later, I'd stagger away from my I-pad, bleary-eyed and drained. I'd delete the Sudoku app, pledging never to play it ever again - and then upload the app again a few hours later.

This was very bad.

When I returned to Indiana, I vowed that Sudoku would be a Colorado summertime vice, left behind as I flew a thousand miles to my other life in the Midwest. I made good on this vow for two weeks. But then one night, I was feeling tense and stressed. "I'll just do ONE puzzle to relax a bit. . . " And you can guess the rest.

But now I have a new weapon in my fight against this addiction: Disney princess stickers.

I'm sharing a house right with a DePauw colleague and her adorable three-and-a-half year old son. He agreed to share with me one of the many sheets of stickers he had been given at preschool; he said I could have "the girl ones." Now each day that I don't play Sudoku, I get one of these tiny Disney princess stickers. I haven't made myself a chart to post on the refrigerator, but I put the sticker on the day's page in my academic-year planner.

I have earned two Disney princess stickers so far. I love looking at them, rewarding me for Tuesday, and for Wednesday. Tonight, if I'm successful (and I know I will be, I will, I will!), I'll get my Thursday sticker.

I think I have this one licked. Or will have it licked very soon. And now I know that the same behavior modification strategies that work on three-year-olds work on me.

Little Red Riding Hood

This week in my class I'm teaching Little Red Riding Hood.

I love being able to say that.

Our text for this section of the course is the Norton Critical Edition of The Classic Fairy Tales, edited by the brilliant Maria Tatar, who organized the Harvard University symposium on fairy tales in honor of the 200th anniversary of the publication of the first edition of the Grimm Brothers' Nursery and Household Tales; in eager anticipation of teaching this course, I attended that symposium last winter.

My students read six different versions of Little Red Riding Hood: an early oral version of the tale, "The Story of Grandmother," transcribed by a scholar of folklore; Charles Perrault's late 17th century French retelling; the early nineteenth-century Grimm version; an Italian version retold by Italo Calvino; a Chinese version told by Chiang Mi, and humorous renderings of the tale by James Thurber and Roald Dahl.

We looked at two psychoanalytic readings of the tale as revealing deep, universal, timeless feature of the human unconscious. In Eric Fromm's reading, the color of Little Red Riding Hood's signature garment is important: the color of menstruation, marking the onset of puberty; here her mother's warning not to stray off the path lest she "fall and break the glass" [of wine she is carrying to her grandmother] carries a warning about lost virginity. In Bruno Bettelheim's reading, the tale reveals Oedipal-stage anxieties for LRRH to vanquish her mother [grandmother] and sleep with her father [wolf[.

We read an analysis of the difference between Perrault's version and the Grimm version that focused on differences in French versus German national character: the French offer more humor, the Germans offer more terror. Another analysis of the difference between Perrault and Grimm focused not on national identity but on changing constructions of childhood over the more than a century that separates them. Perrault is telling his tale primarily to a sophisticated Parisian salon audience, winking over the heads of children to spin out a moral to young ladies that "tame wolves are the most dangerous of all." The Grimms are more intent on telling children to obey their  mothers.

And James Thurber concludes his brief retelling in this way:

She had approached no nearer than twenty-five feet from the bed when she saw that it was not her grandmother but the wolf; for even in a nightcap a wolf does not look any more like your grandmother than the Metro-Goldwyn lion look like Calvin Coolidge. So the little girl took an automatic out of her basket and shot the wolf dead. Moral: it is not so easy to fool little girls nowadays as it used to be. 

In their short response papers on the tale, one student wrote about which versions of the tale were more "wolf-centric" versus "little red-centric." Another wrote her own version of the tale in which LRRH is noteworthy not for her beauty but her kindness; her mother walks with her to grandmother's house and gives her much clearer warnings about how and why to avoid wolves; and when they do encounter a wolf, LRRH is able to tame him through kindness.

I love my class!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Things I'm Good at

I have been spending considerable time lately doing things I'm not good at doing. I've also been spending considerable time lately doing things I am good at doing.

Doing the latter is vastly more satisfying than doing the former.

I used to think that maybe it was good for the soul to do things that I was bad at doing; maybe that would challenge me, help me develop hitherto hidden talents, keep certain neural pathways in my brain from further atrophying, or at least build character. I no longer think that. I now think that life is too short to spend doing things I'm terrible at (all of which also happen to be things I hate doing, although I appreciate others' talents at all of these; indeed, I'm weak with gratitude for other people's talents in all these areas). This is especially true when there are so many other ways I can make a contribution to the universe, doing things that I adore.

Here are some things I am bad at:
1. anything to do with money-related math, from trying to count up the offering after a church service to balancing a checkbook to budgeting for the conference I am currently organizing
2. detailed logistical planning for a big event
3. driving (especially avoiding trash trucks at intersections)
4. cooking
5. dealing with any interpersonal conflict whatsoever
6. dressing fashionably
7. computers/technology/Power Point/using the features of a "smart" classroom
8. writing certain kinds of "industrial-strength" analytic philosophy (once I was actually good at this, but I think the neural pathways in that part of my brain are pretty well shot at this point)
9. performing any kind of music in public (piano, bell choir)
10. all sports except walking

Here are some things I am good at:
1. writing children's books
2. critiquing other people's children's book manuscripts in an insightful and supportive way
3. time management
4. giving inspirational talks on time management
5. revising other people's law school essays, with special strengths in cutting texts to the required length
6. teaching about anything that I love
7. mentoring students
8. preaching the occasional sermon
9. making voices for stuffed animals
10. keeping a fairly positive outlook on life despite various setbacks (though lately I'm less good at this than I used to be, which makes me think that I also need to work harder at avoiding the setbacks in the first place)

There are many more things I am bad at and good at, but right now I have a balanced list with ten items in each list, so I might as well stop there. The point of this post is to announce to the world that starting as soon as possible, I plan to focus my energies on what I'm good at.

Okay, world, so now you know!