Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Last Day of the Month

Today is Halloween, of course, and it's a day when many loved ones back East are struggling with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. But it's also the last day of the month, which is always a special day for me.

I love best the first day of a new month when I can begin a whole new life: exercise, healthy eating, fiscal restraint, astonishing writing productivity. But I also love the last days of a month as I scramble frantically to try to salvage the last new life, now about to come to an end - perhaps to a disappointing end, unless I act, and act quickly. The month began with so many dreams, goals, ambitions, aspirations! Surely there is something I can get done before midnight on the 31st, something I can point to as an October accomplishment.

My main goal for October was to write a full first draft of the third chapter book in my Franklin School Friends series: Izzy Barr, Running Star.  These are not super-long books; they run to around 14,000 words or 70 pages typed in my generous Courier 10 font.  I wrote a full first draft of Annika Riz, Math Whiz during the month of July, so I knew a draft-in-a-month was a genuine possibility. But in July I didn't have the competing demands of my university job. Still, one might as well aim high.

Two sayings have stuck with me over the years; I don't know who said either one.

"The greatest tragedy for most of us is not that we aim too high and miss our goal.  It's that we aim too low and reach it."


"If you aim at the stars, at least you won't shoot your foot off."

I've been writing fairly steadily throughout the month, scribbling a page or two a day.  Three days ago, I was still three chapters short: eight chapters done, three chapters left to go.  Three days, three chapters - six or seven pages a day - I could do this!  My writer friends who will be launching into National Novel Writing Month tomorrow will write more than that every single day all month long. I couldn't wimp out on this now.

So Monday I wrote a draft of Chapter 9, and yesterday I wrote a draft of Chapter 10.  Right this minute I'm halfway through Chapter 11.  If no students come during my office hours this afternoon, I think I have it in the bag.  And I don't?  Well, ten-and-a-half chapters for my month's writing total is nothing to sneeze at.  I accomplished vastly more than I would have if I hadn't set the writing bar high for myself.

Off to write.  And if I finish this final chapter, I'll be so set for my new life for November. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Hurry! Poetry!

Yesterday as I walking across campus after teaching a quite excellent class on Little House on the Prairie to my quite excellent students who had done quite excellent close reading of the text, a colleague from the English department accosted me. Breathless, he asked, "Are you free right now? Or are you heading off to a meeting?" When I told him I was free, at least for the next half hour before I had a gallery art talk to attend at noon, he said, "Go to the Hub! Go right now!  There's going to be poetry!"

That was all I had to hear.  I dashed off to the Hub (the cafeteria in the student union building), ready for some flash poetry read by poetry professor Joe Heithaus to cello accompaniment by music professor Eric Edberg. As the students swarmed about with their laden trays, Joe stood at the top of a stairway and sang out these lines from Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself":

This is the meal equally set, this the meat for natural hunger,
It is for the wicked just same as the righteous, I make appointments
    with all,
I will not have a single person slighted or left away,
The kept-woman, sponger, thief, are hereby invited,
The heavy-lipp'd slave is invited, the venerealee is invited;
There shall be no difference between them and the rest.
This is the press of a bashful hand, this the float and odor of hair,
This the touch of my lips to yours, this the murmur of yearning,
This the far-off depth and height reflecting my own face,
This the thoughtful merge of myself, and the outlet again.
Do you guess I have some intricate purpose?
Well I have, for the Fourth-month showers have, and the mica on the
    side of a rock has.
Do you take it I would astonish?
Does the daylight astonish? does the early redstart twittering
    through the woods?
Do I astonish more than they?
This hour I tell things in confidence,
I might not tell everybody, but I will tell you.

Yes, poetry astonishes, especially poetry read with cello responses in a crowded student cafeteria in the middle of a busy day.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Sing a Song

Today is the opening day of the week-long fall Arts Fest at DePauw. The theme of Arts Fest this year is "Art and the Other." Events include everything from a panel discussion on vampires in literature and film to a choral program of Gypsy music. The festivities opened this afternoon with an exploration of the arts for children called Art Attack, where children could encounter musical instruments in an instrument "petting zoo," write poetry at a poetry station, make necklaces of Lifesavers, pound African drums in a drum circle, and more. The event was headlined by local singer/songwriter Bobbie Lancaster who performed a children's concert and led a children's songwriting workshop.

I loved the songwriting workshop so much. Under Bobbie's gentle guidance the six or seven children in the audience, all around ages six or seven I'd say, wrote a song together. I always err on the side of being too controlling when I work with children, or with emerging writers generally; I have such a clear sense of how the project needs to unfold that it's all I can do to hold back and not will my vision into being. Bobbie let the children go where they wanted to go, and yet they came up with a song with a delightfully funny and spooky Halloween flavor.

First they brainstormed together for topics. One child wanted a song set in a graveyard; one child wanted a song about a tooth, or perhaps a dentist dressed up as a tooth; some third topic was suggested, but the graveyard theme won out. Then the children started tossing out ideas about zombies, skeletons ("creaking and clanking"), and mummies (one boy insisted that the song include the fact that mummies came from pyramids in Egypt - these were very well educated children!). Bobbie collected all the ideas, putting them into two categories on the chalkboard: ideas best suited to the verses of the song, which could tell a detail-rich story, versus ideas best suited to the chorus, which would be at a level of greater simplicity and generality, establishing the basic theme for the song. As the ideas began to form themselves into song lines, Bobbie had occasional suggestions for rhythm and (slant) rhymes, but the children did the rest. The bathroom humor was definitely theirs.

Here is more or less what they had come up with by the time I had to leave; two further verses were planned, one on skeletons and one on zombies. Imagine this sung to ukelele accompaniment in a minor key:

Down in the old graveyard
Something is happening.
Creaky and lurking things,
Creepy Halloween!

In Egypt Land, the pyramids stand.
Mummies arise from their sarcophagi.
They get up from their naps
And try to unwrap
Because they haven't gone potty
For a long long time.

I thought that was pretty funny.  It all sounds much better sung in Bobbie's pure, lilting voice, too.

So what I learned from the workshop is that the most important guidance beginning writers need is a structure on which to hang their own ideas, whatever they are.  Once Bobbie had given the children the concept of chorus (simple, general, thematic) and verse (detailed, narrative), they were off and running.

And now "Creepy Halloween" is singing itself in my head, a good omen for Arts Fest.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Midwestern Rambles

This fall I'm trying to continue my explorations of the Midwest. I led an all-day intensive children's book writing workshop at Skokie, IL, in September; on one beautiful autumn weekend I went on a hike with a philosopher from Indiana University at McCormick's Creek State Park, Indiana's oldest state park; next month I'll be giving a guest lecture at two children's literature classes at Illinois State University in Normal, IL; and this week I gave a guest lecture at a children's literature class at Indiana State University in Richmond, IN.

My trip to Richmond was part of a guest-lecture exchange between me and another scholar friend. We agreed that she'd come teach my class one day, and then I'd return the favor, so that our students could have the treat of something different to shake up the ordinary classroom routine. It's about a two-hour drive east along I-70 from Greencastle, in the west of Indiana, to Richmond, right on the Indiana/Ohio border. As I drove I listened to Indiana music by local folksinger/songwriter Carrie Newcomer, especially my favorite of all her songs, "Wish I May, Wish I Might," a haunting, wistful celebration of all the varied festivals around the state from Dogwood Days to the Pork and Pumpkin Rendez-Vous.

My talk to Alisa's class went well, I think, and then the real fun of the visit began, as I had the chance to observe a costumed rehearsal of Act Two of the children's musical Pocahontas, which she is directing for the Richmond Civic Theater, with seventy children (!) in the cast. The theater is housed in a historic building that once saw vaudeville performances by Charlie Chaplin and Groucho Marx, and it was wonderful to sit there watching young Indians and settlers parade across the stage. Afterward we dined at the Old Richmond Inn with her husband and ten-year-old book-loving daughter, Annetta. The evening concluded with a spirited round of the card game Authors back at Alisa's house, which I narrowly won, a victory deemed appropriate since, after all, I am an author.

I may return to Richmond in the spring to do an author visit at Annetta's school and to see the Richmond Civic Theater production of The Hundred Dresses, based on the book by Eleanor Estes on which I've published a scholarly essay. It's so satisfying when I can be an author (even winning an Authors card game!), and be a scholar, AND explore the adopted state I love so much.

Monday, October 22, 2012

From Home to Home to Home

I'm home in Indiana from my DePauw University fall break, which I spent at home in Colorado. So I've gone yet again from home to home to home.  My whole week in Colorado I kept marveling at how I ever could have managed to tear myself away from golden autumn trees, hikes on the South Shanahan trails with my friend Rowan, cultural outings in Denver, lunches and teas with dear friends, literary conversations with my writing group, hymn sings with my church family, precious time with my boys. Oh, if only I never had to go back to Indiana! If only I didn't have a full eight-and-a-half months left to go before I return permanently to my life in Colorado!

And then I woke up this morning in Indiana, and the trees here are equally beautiful, with more shades of red and orange in the autumnal palette, as opposed to Colorado's gold, gold, gold.  My children's literature students came as early to class as I did, so eager for our first discussion of Harry Potter, the books of all books that most structured their childhood as readers. At lunch I attended a fascinating lecture by Dr. Emilie Savage-Smith, professor emerita of Oxford University, on myths about the medieval world. Here are some wrong things many if not most people believe about this widely misunderstood period of human history:

1. Medieval people stayed close to home and seldom traveled.
2. Medieval people were thought to be old at the age of 30 or 40.
3. Medieval people were quite short.
4. Medieval people believe the world was flat.
5. Medieval people had a very low level of literacy.
And more! I have to confess I believed most of these and am glad to be disabused of my ignorance.

Now I'm in my lovely office in Asbury Hall, awaiting an appointment with the wonderful student whose Honor Scholar thesis I'm advising - and then I'll go out to my lovely office at the Prindle Institute to catch up with friends and colleagues there. Tonight I might connect with another friend for dinner at the Dairy Castle, which closes for the season at the end of the month. Thank goodness I have eight-and-a-half months left before I have to resume my life in Colorado! No, thank goodness I have eight-and-half-months left before I get to resume my life in Colorado! Thank goodness that right now I have not one but two places that I love - loving each one, while I'm living in it, with my whole heart.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Ask, and it may be given you

Sometimes the Bible has very good advice.  Here is the piece of very good Biblical advice I'm thinking about today: "Ask, and it shall be given you." Now, in my own personal experience, this isn't strictly true. I have asked God, and the universe, and my friends, family, employers, editors, and cat, for many things that I have not received. That is a plain fact. But I have also asked for many things that I have received, things that I would not have received had I not asked.

Right now my project is to make my life as happy and wonderful as it can be by the time I have a milestone birthday in a little less than two years. I've settled on some things that I want to have happen in order to achieve this goal. And I've decided to ask around to see if I can get them.

The main thing I want right now is to teach an occasional course in children's literature when I return to CU.  I love teaching my children's literature course at DePauw more than I have ever loved doing anything. So why not see if I can continue to do this beloved activity when I return? This would be not only good for me, but good for the university, as it is always good for the university when professors can share their deepest intellectual and creative passions with their students.

So I started asking.  I asked the College of Education at CU if I could teach children's literature there; within minutes I got back a prompt, pleasant, firm no.  Okay.  I asked the English Department at CU if I could teach children's literature there; I got back an expression of qualified interest that also made me realize there would be considerable bureaucratic hurdles to leap over (what happens when a professor in the Philosophy Department wants to teach a course in the English Department? which department pays for that professor's time? which department gets credit for generating those student credit hours?). My brain abuzz, I kept on asking. I remembered that at a party once I had met a lovely woman who is in charge of a small honors program on campus who had approached me about my teaching a course for that program some time in the future.  I emailed her. I called two deans about the English Department possibility, and this week I've already met with one chair and am about to meet with another.

You know, I really think this might happen!  In 2013-14 I might be teaching both a children's literature course in the CU English department and a small one-credit course called Fairy Tale Transformations for the Norlin Scholars program. All because I asked.

If you want something, ask! Focus on how what you are asking for can benefit all parties concerned. Ask nicely. Be enthusiastic but not pushy. Be open-minded and flexible about different ways to work things out. Have a Plan B if needed, as well as a Plan C, D, E, F, and G.  But do go ahead and ask.  The worst thing that can happen is that someone will say no, and that no may lead you someone else who will say yes.  Ask!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Off for Fall Break

Even though fall break technically doesn't start until Friday afternoon, mine has started right this minute.  I'm typing this in Concourse A of the lovely Indianapolis International Airport.  I love flying anywhere, anytime.  But I especially love flying from the Indy airport. It's a new, post-9-11 airport. Along both concourses there are enormous stained glass windows with poetry on them, including a poem by my DePauw colleague Joe Heithaus. Lines are short. Everything is easy. WiFi is free.

My destination today is Richmond, Virginia, connecting in Chicago O'Hare (NOT my favorite airport); tonight I'll be in Williamsburg, getting ready to take part in the Joy of Children's Literature Conference hosted by the College of William and Mary tomorrow.  On Saturday I'll hang out with my dear librarian friends Noreen and Alan Bernstein.  And then I'll fly directly from Virginia to Colorado, for fall break with family and friends.

On my fall break to-list for Boulder:
1.  a jazz concert by CU's Jazz Ensemble 1, with my son Gregory playing in it
2. a family dinner with all of us together
3. hikes with my friend Rowan
4. the play Fences in Denver with my friend Diane
5. lunch with my friend Maureen
6. playing with  my friend Cat's little boy Max
7. a meeting with the grad student whose dissertation I'm advising
8. observing the class of another grad student so I can write a teaching letter for his dossier
9. church, and dinner with my church family
10. writing, reading, resting, relaxing, mountains, blue skies, sunshine, autumn!

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Dithering and Deciding

Lately I have come to realize that I spend far too much time dithering.  For various things in my work-related life, and sometimes in my personal life as well, I need to make a decision in order to move forward. Which books should I order for my course on the philosopher John Rawls next semester? Which talks at my Ethics and Children's Literature conference should I select for possible inclusion in an edited collection drawn from the conference contributions? What grades should I give my students on their first paper?

These are all worthy of some serious consideration. The books I select will determine the shape of the course. The talks I select will determine the shape of the volume. My students care intensely about their grades and have worked hard to earn them. So I'm not opposed to spending careful time weighing various options about each of these choices. But what happens too often in my life is that I spend careful time weighing options; I consult with other people whose judgment I respect about those options; I give the decision a good night's sleep. And then what do I do?  I dither.  I just can't bear the thought of actually deciding one way or another.  So I sit and stress and worry and fret and dither.

My new vow is to stop doing this. I don't think I've ever changed my mind about a tentative decision from further dithering. And I certainly don't remember a single time I ever changed it for the better.

I spent a full morning last week pondering the choices for my Rawls course and came up with a good list of what to order. I reviewed all my notes from the conference and compared thoughts with another scholar, looking both at the quality of the papers and the overall vision for the volume; I now have a plan for the book. I read my student papers, after having already read multiple drafts of some of them, and put a pencil grade on each one.

So what will be gained at this point by asking myself: Have I ordered too many books for my class or too few?  What if one of the papers for the conference book doesn't turn out to be as good, in its final version, as I am hoping it will be? Are my grades too high or too low?

Enough dithering! Order those books! Send out emails about the conference collection! Put those grades on the papers in ink! I've actually already made a reasoned and reasonable decision in each case, so I don't even need to tell myself to go ahead and decide. All I need to do is to stop dithering and act on my decision. Might it be the wrong decision? Yes. But I can't see how any more dithering will prevent that standing possibility from eventuating.

From this moment onward, I shall dither no more!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Landscape of Imagination

I spent yesterday at Fillmore Elementary School as part of the Castle Arts program, which brings local artists of all kinds (writers, musicians, painters, dancers) into the public schools to enrich arts offerings in a time of slashed education budgets and increasing emphasis on preparing students for high-stakes testing.  I decided to try out a new writing exercise of getting each class to work together to create their own imaginary country.

I started out by telling the children how my sister and I had created four imaginary countries when we were little girls: Bladen (completely round), Socker (shaped like a sock), Malone (shaped like a star), and Moo (shaped like a cow).  Moo was the most interesting. Obviously influenced by the Cold War ideology which shaped so much of American life during our childhood in the 1960s, Moo was a Soviet-style totalitarian state, with the exception of one leg, "the Good Leg," which had broken off  during an earthquake; it remained under the domination of the central Moo government but was more like Eastern Europe behind the Iron Curtain.  I then told the children how the child characters in my recent novel One Square Inch create the tiny imaginary society of Inchland, only a few square inches in size, with its capital Inchopolis, ruled by King Inchard and Queen Incharina, and Princess Inchitella as their cherished only child.

Then the children in each class collectively created their own imaginary country and wrote and drew about it. 

We ended up with Equipeer, a tropical paradise shaped like a triangle, whose inhabitants try to keep themselves safe from walking sharks while feasting on exotic fruits like banana apples.   Fillmoretropica was an empire housed in an old mansion with individual countries named Closet and Dining Room; its capital city was Master Bedroom, of course.  When Closet and Dining Room were at war, one hurled balled socks as a weapon while the other hurled assorted cutlery.  Fillmornia was a tiny country under a dome, whose small chubby inhabitants drank all day long from a chocolate fountain. I was pleased that its queen was Claudonia Millsonis.

My favorite country, I think, was Flower Land, the creation of the second graders.  In Flower Land, situated on top of a large flower, the cars are bumblebees and the people eat pollen ice cream. Flower Land is ruled by King Bluebell and Queen Rosabelle.  The children attend Butterfly Elementary where they study such subjects as how to drive their bumblebees and how to stay safe from huge human people who might try to pluck their flower.

So that was my day at Fillmore Elementary, on a grand tour of countries bounded only by children's imagination.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Words and Pictures

Today in my Children's Literature course we began a two-week unit on picture books.  To give us a good body of texts to read together, without making my students buy even more books than the already huge number I had already ordered, I browsed online and chose a large, handsome anthology called The 20th Century Children's Picture Book Treasury: Celebrated Picture Stories to Read Aloud.  It contains dozens of classics like Make Way for Ducklings, Madeline, Curious George, Where the Wild Things Are, Millions of Cats, and Chicka Chicka Boom Boom.  We would be all set!

But when the book arrived in the mail, I found it disappointing in certain respects.  While the first few picture books in the collection are reprinted exactly as published, with every spread present though miniaturized (with perhaps four spreads to a page), others had the full text but only selected illustrations from the original picture book.  And none of them looked or felt the way a real book feels.  Oh, well, I had already submitted the book order.  It was too late to change my mind now.

What I did instead was make a virtue of necessity and use the very shortcomings of the anthology as a teaching tool.  I went to the well-stocked children's room of the Putnam County Public Library and lugged home as many of the original picture books as I could find and carry.  Then I lugged them all to class today to launch our picture book unit.  I put the students into small groups and gave each group four different picture books to read aloud to one another.  They were instructed to compare the experience of interacting with the real book with the experience of interacting with the book in its anthology condensation, as well as to notice what it was like to experience the book aurally rather than in silent reading.

We had some great conversations together about how features such as trim size - the size and shape of the book - affect us, and whether a book is oriented horizontally or vertically - and the use of color (or lack thereof).  The students were struck by how much the pacing of a story was affected by the shift from real book to anthology presentation: they missed the page turns that require the reader to slow down and pause; they missed the way that each spread invited parents to offer commentary on the picture, pointing out features the child might otherwise miss.  We even talked about the change from the warm brown/sepia text and art of Make Way for Ducklings on the cream-colored pages of the real book to the black-and-white reproduction in the collection: so much less warm, losing so much of its self-consciously old-fashioned charm.

I think I would do this class the same way again, ordering the same treasury (which really does provide an amazing number of texts for the price) and doing the same comparison to remember why we love real books so much - and why, at least for the picture book set, e-books will never replace the pleasure of holding a child on your lap, turning pages together.

The Moment to Decide

The great hymn by James Lowell begins, "Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide."  I don't know about the "Once" in that stirring opening line, but I do know that one of my own moments to decide came this morning.

It's the first day of October, and a Monday, so altogether a day filled with promise for accomplishments in the days and weeks to come.  I have a plan made for my "new life" for October, a plan that centers on writing a good first draft of Izzy Barr, Running Star.  The book isn't due to my editor for some time, but it's the next book in my publication lineup, and until I get it done, my imagination isn't going to feel free to wander toward the next project. Plus, I just finished revising Annika Riz, Math Whiz, so I've been spending quality time with these characters and have momentum for telling the next installment of their story.

But this morning when I woke up shortly past five and looked at the clock, I had no desire whatsoever to get out of bed.  And if I did force myself out of the covers, I was more drawn to prepare for my 10:30 children's literature class, the first of five classes we'll be spending on picture books.  It's hard to make yourself write when you have class preparation hanging over your head.

So I lay there for a few minutes, and then I said to myself, honey, this is the moment to decide.  If you decide to go back to sleep for another hour, and then take your time fussing over what you're going to do in class today, you will get no writing done today, and then tomorrow, you'll start to think, oh, well, October didn't work out, but hey, there's still November.  I knew that if I could just get up today and inaugurate my new month by writing a good page on Izzy Barr, it would be that much easier to do it again tomorrow.  Whereas if I didn't get up to write this morning, it would be that much harder to do it tomorrow. To quote my favorite Arnold Bennett, from How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day: "You may fancy that the water will be warmer next week. It won't. It will be colder."

I did it.  I got out of bed.  Well, only to make my Swiss Miss hot chocolate, and then I got back into bed, but I got back into bed to write, and I did write, and even wrote a page I like quite a bit.  Each one of my handwritten pages, scribbled in my tiny scrawl, types up to be two pages, so all I have to do is repeat this procedure every day this month and I will have 60 typed pages, or pretty close to a full first draft of this 14,000 word chapter book.

The moment to decide came, and I decided, and I'm so glad I did.