Tuesday, May 28, 2013

How Productive Do You Want to Be?

I recently came across a fascinating blog post, subsequently turned into a more fully developed e-book, from author Rachel Aaron, entitled "How I Went from Writing 2,000 Words a Day to 10,000 Words a Day." She attributes her leap in writing productivity to three things:

1. Knowledge - "Know what you're writing before you write it."
2. Time - Monitor your writing output to find the times when you are most productive (in her case, afternoons, writing at a cafe without WiFi).
3. Enthusiasm - Those boring scenes you can hardly bear to make yourself write? Skip them! If you can't stand to write them, the reader probably can't stand to read them.

These are all excellent pieces of advice. I, too, find that I write much more quickly and effectively: 1) when I'm later along in a book, so that I have a much better sense of what is going to happen next; 2) first thing in the day before I get sidelined with other distractions; and 3) when I'm writing something I love.

But my idea of a productive day is not a day spent writing 10,000 words, or even one spent writing 2,000 words. On a productive day I write 1,000 words. That's it.  Usually I write considerably less. My self-imposed minimum is a handwritten page a day, and as my handwriting is extremely tiny and cramped, this usually translates into two typewritten pages a day, or about 500 words. These days, I'm on a writing roll, so I'm getting through a five or six page chapter every day. And of course, I only write for an hour a day (see this blog's title!), so if I wrote for a full day and could sustain this pace (which I greatly doubt), I'd write a lot more.  But even if I wrote 1,000 words an hour, for eight straight hours a day (never gonna happen), I'd still only top out at 8,000 words, 2,000 short of Rachel Aaron's average.

Yet I can't make myself feel bad about this, not at all.  At my current pace, this month I have written SEVENTEEN chapters of my novel-in-progress (the time travel cookie jar book).  How much more than that do I want to write?  At 1,000 words a day I can write a first draft of a 50,000 word manuscript (once I get some momentum) in less than two months. But none of my books for young readers are that long. My forthcoming Zero Tolerance, my longest book, came out to 44,000 words.  My chapter books for third graders (like Kelsey Green, Reading Queen) are more like 15,000 words.  This means that if I wrote as fast as Rachel Aaron I would finish an entire draft of a chapter book in A DAY AND A HALF!

That does seem awful fast, doesn't it?!

I want to live in the world of a book that I'm writing more fully than that. I want to inhabit the lives of my characters over a longer stretch of time. I want to have that wonderful experience of finding so many of the things that happen in the rest of my life making their way in some form into my story.

So I think Rachel Aaron's writing advice is brilliant, especially her third point about harnessing our own writing enthusiasm and giving ourselves permission to write only scenes that we love.  But every writer is different, and I'm never going to write 10K words a day. Not even close.

And that's perfectly fine with me.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Extravagant Oodles of Free Time

Now that school is out for the summer, with almost a month to go before I head back to the life I left behind in Colorado, I have huge expanses of time to do whatever I want to do.  No classes to teach, no papers to grade, no meetings to attend, no school visits, nothing but free time, long-awaited extravagant oodles of free time, all day long, seven days a week.

Alas, I am finding that I don't do well with extravagant oodles of free time.

I've noticed this before. My teaching schedule has always allowed me to alternate busy days at the university crammed full of teaching with quiet days at home crammed full of writing - except, as it turned out,  NOT crammed full of writing because, as the name of this blog indicates, my writing process involves writing for only an hour a day.  So the days at home would have an hour of writing, and then some little piddly Loathsome Tasks that were satisfying to cross off my to-do list, and then what? Extravagant oodles of free time, which too often turned into extravagant oodles of self-Googling, incessant email checking, and other pursuits toxic to one's soul.

So how should I structure my remaining time in Indiana to avoid these time-squandering pitfalls? For Henry David Thoreau reminds us that we cannot kill time without injuring eternity.

Right now my plan is to write for an hour a day, type up my handwritten pages for another hour, and edit chapters for my collection on ethics and children's literature for a third hour.  But at that point it's not yet noon and the whole rest of the day stretches ahead.  Walking is good, if it's not too hot, which it very well might be in Indiana in May and June. Spending time with friends is fabulous, except that many of my DePauw colleagues have already flown the coop to take up summer residence elsewhere.  Reading, definitely, but what to read? I like reading so much better if I don't read at random but have a reading project.  One summer I read Thomas Hardy - that was the best summer ever.  The summer before last I read Very Long Novels and fell in love with one I had long resisted, Middlemarch.

The reading project I've just chosen for this summer is to read as many books I can of fellow authors on the Smack Dab in the Middle blog of middle-grade authors on which I post once a month. There are 24 authors on the blog (according to my count), so reading a book by each one of them should fill up the time until I leave for Colorado quite nicely. Thrilled by this plan, I trotted off to the Putnam County Public Library two days ago and came home with a pleasing stack. So far I've read The Marble Queen by Stephanie Blake, and now I'm halfway through Sparrow Road by Sheila O'Connor, which I'll finish tonight.  Next up: Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage.

No injuring of eternity for me!

Monday, May 20, 2013

Another Reason I Love My Job

This is what appeared in my DePauw University email inbox this morning, from our university president, Brian Casey:

Dear Colleagues,

As we look back on a warm and successful commencement weekend, I write to express my deep gratitude for all that you have done for our students, and this University, throughout this academic year.

To show my appreciation I would like to ask that all offices close today at 2:00 p.m. if possible.  We will be showing the movie “Hoosiers” in Kresge Auditorium at that time and I would like to offer you all a chance to relax, recover and enjoy an afternoon away from our regular responsibilities.  We will have popcorn and other refreshments.

I know that some offices might not be able to adjust schedules, but I do hope that as many of you as possible can join us.  Also, please know that family members are more than welcome to come.

I hope to see you today at 2:00 for the movie.


Well, of course I skedaddled out of my Prindle Institute office at 1:45 and trotted down to campus with my friend Linda. We waited in the short line for free popcorn, drinks, and movie candies. I chose Raisinets. 

I had never seen the film before, though it's been on my loving-Indiana to-do list. It was the perfect valentine to my adopted state, with its landscape of weathered barns and stubbled fields, as well as the perfect summation to a year in which our DePauw women's basketball team won the national Division III championship (with me cheering in the stands for many of the games). Even though I knew how the story ended, I squirmed and writhed during every losing game in the first half of the filmOh, please, please, please, let them win!  And then they DID win, with seconds to spare, and the movie was over, and we all burst into applause. I finished the last kernels of popcorn and the last delicious candies in the very large box of Raisinets. 

This was not at all a bad way to spend a Monday afternoon on the day after commencement.  

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Flushing Triggers

Last week I had a dermatology laser treatment for a facial skin condition. The week after classes end is a good time to get some of these pesky life-maintenance tasks taken care of, things that take up too much time and energy to do during the busy semester. But one thing I didn't consider was the ways in which the commencement season is the worst possible time for a laser treatment. For during the recovery period of five days or so, I'm supposed to avoid any "flushing triggers" such as sun, alcohol, and emotional reactions that cause skin reddening.

Sun: what was I to do about sitting in the hot sun for three hours during the commencement ceremony this morning?

Alcohol: what was I to do about DePauw under the Stars last night, when the campus is transformed into a fairyland of tiny twinkling lights and Japanese lanterns and the champagne is free flowing?

Worst of all, tears: what was I going to do about every minute, just about, of this intense week of saying farewell to so many students I've come to care about so deeply?

I did all right with sun, thanks to extra-protection sunblock and a partially overcast sky. I avoided the temptation of the champagne last night for the non-flush-triggering cupcakes on offer instead.

But I haven't been able to avoid tears: when I thanked with a framed picture of one of my beloved Indiana covered bridges at the philosophy department graduation reception, when I heard President Casey's moving speech to the class of 2013 at the Baccalaureate service, and when I processed into the commencement ceremony this morning with my regalia-clad colleagues. DePauw has the lovely tradition that as first year students arrive in August, they are welcomed with a Convocation ceremony where faculty line up in two rows to applaud them as they enter. At commencement, with beautiful symmetry, the staging is reversed. The faculty enter between two rows of applauding seniors, thanking us for four years under our tutelage.

So as I came through the line, there they were, the students I love so much - Sara, Katie, Nora, Alex, Mohammed, J.R., and so many others - there in their caps and gowns, clapping for me as I was soon to clap for them. No one could have been dry-eyed during such a gauntlet of appreciation, and certainly I was not.

Oh, well. I did avoid sun and alcohol. But the one thing I couldn't avoid was grateful tears.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Finals Week

Finals week is upon us at DePauw, one of my favorite weeks of the year, a week in which I no longer have the adrenaline-fueled stress of teaching and don't yet have the laborious slog of grading, a week in-between to catch my breath and make progress on various work/life tasks deferred as the semester intensified in busyness.

I have to confess that my final grading isn't even going to be all that sloggy. In an upper-division course such as my Rawls course, I have the students write two 8-10 page papers during the course of the semester, and then for their final paper, they are to take one of those papers and revise and expand it into a more ambitious 15-page paper, drawing on the extensive comments I provided them on the initial paper. Less stress for them, as they are building on work already in progress. Less stress for me, as I have already read a good portion of the final paper and thought carefully through its arguments.

While I am waiting for these new, improved papers to make their way into my in-box, I'm reviewing children's books for the online review service Children's Literature, editing papers for the ethics and children's literature collection I'm assembling from papers presented at my big conference last fall, and trying to write a (short) chapter a day on my time-travel book about an enchanted cookie jar (the kids travel back in time by baking period cookies and putting them into the jar; they return to their own time by eating the cookie).

There's also time for walks in the nature park, lunches with friends, a few last end-of-term celebrations, including English department graduation reception this coming Thursday night, Philosophy department graduation reception this coming Saturday afternoon (teaching in two departments this year means double the end-of-term fun), creative writing senior seminar readings, a church picnic, DePauw Under the Stars on Saturday night (with the campus magically transformed with little twinkling lights on every tree), all culminating in commencement on Sunday.

I know my poor, dear students are stressed, and I feel for them as I see them sprawled over every available surface out here at the peaceful Prindle Institute, cramming away for grueling exams to come. But for me, finals week is the merriest week of the merry month of May.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Another end of term party

Readers of this blog know that I love to provide my students with memorable end-of-term parties. For my Rousseau course, we feasted upon the foods mentioned by Rousseau in his Confessions: crusty baguettes, Swiss and French cheeses, cherries (if in season)- hearty peasant fare for Rousseau to carry with him on his solitary promenades.  In my Feminism and the Family course, where we had spent considerable time talking about child-rearing practices, I solicited from the students a list of their favorite childhood foods: juice boxes, little chocolate puddings, Kit-Kats.  Last semester in my children's literature course I outdid myself with a banquet table laden with themed foods from every book we read together during the semester, from a gingerbread house for Hansel and Gretel, to foamy milk served in tin pails (!) for The Secret Garden, to candy sticks tucked in long stockings for Little House on the Prairie.

This semester I taught an upper-division "single philosopher" course on 20th-century political philosopher John Rawls. Let me begin by saying that Rawls is by all accounts the greatest political philosopher of the twentieth century. He revived a moribund field of academic inquiry that had offered little new since the writings of John Stuart Mill; it is no exaggeration to say that everything written since the publication of his groundbreaking book A Theory of Justice in 1971 followed by his almost as influential book Political Liberalism in 1993 has in one way or another been written in response to Rawls. He's been criticized from the left and from the right, by communitarians and libertarians, by feminists and critical race theorists. He created the very language in which political philosophy is conducted, with terms such as "the original position," "the veil of ignorance," "the difference principle," "an overlapping consensus of comprehensive doctrines," and "public reason." He is a figure of indisputable greatness.

He is also a prose stylist of staggering dullness.

What to do for a Rawls-themed party? All I could think of was to provide a pizza that we could distribute among the members of the class according to principles of justice we would choose behind a veil of ignorance which shielded us from knowledge of our own socially situated identities.  Lame!

Then, by a stroke of luck, I stumbled upon a musical (!) adapted from A Theory of Justice created this past year by Oxford University Students.  A Theory of Justice: The Musical!  I had a plan for my party!

So yesterday in class we ate popcorn and movie-theater candy like Dots (yum!) and Raisinets (even yummier!) and watched the (amateurishly filmed) video I downloaded from Vimeo. A young John Rawls journeys through 2500 years of political philosophy in search of a beautiful student named Fairness who has inspired him to craft his own new theory of justice. Socrates appears as a toga-clad ventriloquist's dummy sitting on Plato's knee; Hobbes and Locke duke it out in a state-of-nature rap number; Rousseau sweet-talks Fairness with sexy talk about "ze general will"; utilitarians form a dapper barbershop quartet; Rawls's philosophical rival Robert Nozick does a tango with fellow libertarian Ayn Rand to the tune, "A Selfish Kind of Love." Oh, and Kant appears as a golden-gowned fairy godmother-in-drag.

For my graduating senior philosophy majors the musical was a great chance to show how many philosophical in-jokes they could now understand.  For those with a less extensive philosophical background it was a chance to have a novel introduction to most of the major figures of western philosophical thought. All of us got to hear some catchy tunes and to munch on popcorn and candy.

Another end-of-year party success!

Saturday, May 4, 2013

"But not yet. . . "

Saint Augustine is frequently quoted as offering God the prayer, in his early wild days, "Give me chastity and continence, but not yet." Lately I hear all too many echoes of Augustine's plea in my own life.  There are so many things I want to do to change my life for the better, things I am really truly planning on doing SOON - but not quite yet.

The most urgent one right now has to do with my financial life. I have my heart set on transitioning away from two decades of juggling dual careers as philosophy professor and children's book author to a professional path focused on my writing. To do this I need to save money. More precisely, I need to save a lot of money. Fortunately, I know exactly how to do this from reading a blog that I (and tens of thousands of other readers) adore: Mr. Money Mustache. Mr. Money Mustache, who himself retired at age thirty (!), dispenses volumes of pithily worded advice on how to achieve a rich, full, joyous, environmentally sustainable life through measures such as reducing reliance on cars, "in-sourcing" home repairs, cooking rather than eating out, and much, much more. He delivers "face punches" to "complainypants" people who moan about why they absolutely have to maintain their bloated lifestyle even as they wail bitterly about how many more years they have to toil at jobs they hate to earn the money to pay for it.  How I want to follow all the wise exhortations of Mr. Money Mustache!

But not quite yet.

I keep telling myself that after I come home from my two years in Indiana, I'll start following the Mr. Money Mustache path. But I just spent almost $300 to fly back to Colorado for the weekend, when I'll be home for good in only a few more weeks. On my way home I had my favorite indulgence of a glass of wine and nice chopped salad at an airport bar - I do so love sitting in airport bars! That cost $20 with tip. Last night I spent $92 taking my family out to dinner. I have two more non-necessary (but sure to be fabulously fun) short trips coming up in the next few weeks, one to see my sister in New Jersey and one to see a dear friend from high school who lives in Ohio. Total tab for airfare for both trips: over $500. 

I'm not at all sorry I came home for the weekend or that I'm going on these next two trips. Family and friends are important. It's even hard to regret that pleasant hour in the airport bar. I do regret the $92 dinner, as I could have made a dinner at home that would have been equally enjoyable for a fifth of the price. But even the things I don't regret come at a price, the price of delaying other dreams. And I want those other dreams, I really truly do. And I want them before I'm too old to enjoy them. 

So when I come home to Colorado for good in late June, things are going to be different. No more restaurant meals! No more airport bars! No more trips? Well, not for a while, at least. I'm going to follow the Mr. Money Mustache path. I am!

But not quite yet....

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The (Responsibly, Sustainably, Productively) Merrie Month of May

It's May first today, and so of course I'm beginning a new life. It's also the penultimate month of my two blissful years in Indiana. As I think about leaving Indiana toward the end of June, I'm wild to cram this new month's new life as full as I can of Indiana joys, and I already have an impressive list planned, including all the pleasures associated with commencement at DePauw, and attending the 37th annual Spirit of Vincennes Rendezvous, a Revolutionary War reenactment in the former territorial capital of Vincennes, Indiana's oldest continuous European settlement (dating from 1732), not to mention evening walks with a friend and her darling little dogs, and a round of farewell breakfasts, lunches, and dinners with friends who will be heading elsewhere for the summer.

But for me a new life can never be built entirely around fun and games. I want to "be intent on the perfection of the present day" (William Law), but it has to be the productive perfection of the present day, or else I'll be consumed with guilt and stress. I need to finish writing my current book project (a middle-grade time travel story set in Indiana - what sweeter place to write it than here?) and to proceed with the editing of my Ethics and Children's Literature volume now that revised submissions from the last round of editing are coming in.  

And of course I don't want to spend inordinate amounts of money or gain inordinate amounts of weight during my productively perfect days, either. I want to have frugal, healthful, productively perfect days.

Luckily, all of those things go together.  I'm happiest when I'm making progress on work I love; I'm happiest when I'm walking everywhere rather than driving anywhere; my happiest non-work activities tend to be those that cost little. E.g., I'm staying with a dear high school friend for the Vincennes Rendezvous; a pre-purchased ticket for the daytime activities is $7; the candlelight evening tour of the historic sites is free.

So right now I'm going to eat a leftover Jimmy John's cinnamon stick waiting for me in the Prindle Institute fridge (free; calories already pre-burned by walking 45 minutes to work in the early morning along Nature Park trails); then I'll scribble for a bit on my book-in-progress. At 4:15, I'll attend the final monthly advisory board meeting for the Prindle Instiute.  Oh, and it's Wednesday, which means half-priced flavored martinis at the Swizzle Stick (a great bargain), and this evening there is an open-to-the-public, end-of-term reading by DePauw creative writing faculty, which should be wonderful. 

Sounds like a productively perfect day to me.