Monday, August 26, 2013

"I'd rather leave while I'm in love"

I just taught the first class of my first course of my last year of teaching at the University of Colorado.

It was wonderful.

I'm teaching my two most beloved courses this semester: children's literature (in the English department) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (in the Philosophy department). I had to pull a lot of strings and call in a lot of favors to be allowed to teach the children's lit class, as I'm a tenured member of Philosophy, not English, and my Ph.D. is in Philosophy, not English. The first day of the course was as delightful as I hoped it would be. All I really did was call the roll and ask each student to tell me the name of his or her favorite children's book, but as each one gave the answer (Harry Potter book seven, Anne of Green Gables, Amelia Bedelia, The Phantom Tollbooth, Junie B. Jones), the other students gave their sighs of shared appreciation and started to offer their own insights into why they had loved these books so much. Hooray! In less than an hour I'll be launching the Rousseau course, reading the fabulous opening pages of Rousseau's groundbreaking Confessions, the first modern autobiography.

Have I made a mistake in accepting an early retirement offer to focus on my career as a children's book writer?

No. If I continued to teach, I might teach children's literature or Rousseau every other year, but that would leave me plenty of other courses to teach that I love less passionately, and also where I've kept up less assiduously with current scholarship, so that I feel vaguely ashamed of myself as I drag out my old lecture notes from fifteen years ago. And I don't love grading - no professor does. And I don't love academic politics (even though it generates some amazing stories - fodder for a future academic novel some day?).

Most of all, as the Carole Bayer Sager song lyric goes, "I'd rather leave while I'm in love." It's not a bad sign that I'm loving this first day of the semester so much. Better to leave while I can still walk out of class aglow with the connection I think I've made with students. If I miss teaching too much, I can get visiting gigs lots of places. There is no shortage of opportunities once I'm no longer tied down to a full-time job with its heavy commitments of teaching, research, and service. Undeterred by this morning's joy, I'm going to go ahead and sign those bridge-burning retirement papers. Even this morning, I had the great fun of tossing into the recycling bin some of those faded course notes from a decade and a half ago. But between now and the middle of next May I'm going to love every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday of teaching with all my heart.

Just as I'm loving this next-to-last first day.

Friday, August 23, 2013


Ever since I made the decision to try to leave my position at the University of Colorado at the end of the coming academic year, in order to concentrate full time on my writing career, all the signs and portents sent to me by the universe have been extremely discouraging.

Negative signs and portents:

1. My spring royalty check (authors are paid royalties on their book sales twice a year, spring and fall) was the smallest I've received in over a decade: only 20 percent (!!!!) of what I'm used to receiving.

2. Reviews of my two June releases, , Kelsey Green, Reading Queen and Zero Tolerance, have been uniformly positive, but I haven't received a starred review on either title, so there is no reason to think that either one will be a breakout book that will launch me into the next level of greatness and glory.

3. I'm at my writing group retreat up in mountains right now, and I found out yesterday that one of my fellow authors, whom I respect enormously, strongly dislikes my cookie jar book. Of course, others in the group had much more appreciative responses, but I can hardly discount such a negative reaction from a brilliant critic to the book on which I've spent the past six months of my writing life.

4. Over the course of the past year I had to spend $22,000 on HOA-mandated repairs on my already well-maintained and attractive townhouse, so I now have $22,000 less to spend toward paying off my mortgage, a cornerstone of my retirement strategy - and all I ended up with for that $22,00 was a house that looked exactly like it did before.

5. I am going to have some new financial obligations coming from my family situation that will further compromise my ability to live off my writing income when I no longer have my teaching income from CU.

Positive signs and portents? None, so far. None at all.

But do you know what?  I still have my heart set on doing this. And maybe in the end, that's the best sign and portent of all: to be willing to forge ahead despite all warnings. I've realized that I'd rather fail doing what I love than succeed at being someone I'm not. I'd rather lead an authentic life, even with financial limitations and lukewarm professional rewards, than live an inauthentic life with greater security and recognition.

And what's the worst-case scenario if I fail as a full-time writer? I sell my expensive house in Boulder, buy a lovely, comfortably run-down house in Indiana for a fraction of the price (and with no overbearing HOA), and move back to my beloved Greencastle, where I spent the two happiest years of my life. How bad is that?

In the end, what do signs and portents matter, when I can follow the compass of my heart?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Happy Birthday to Me

Today is my birthday, the beginning of the final year of a decade that will culminate in my 60th birthday a year from today. So this morning I took stock of the occasion in my special little notebook.

My fifties have definitely been my hardest decade, but they've also been my happiest. The main reason that these years have been so happy, despite or more likely because of the various hardships they've contained, is because I like myself better now than I did ten years ago. I'm wiser, calmer, kinder - I think my family members would agree. I've finally internalized, well, mostly internalized, the Stoic wisdom that there are things that are up to us and thing that are not, and we need to focus our energies on the former, not the latter. And there is so little that is up to us! Really, all we find on that very short list are our own actions, choices, and attitude. Period. All the rest - the weather, the state of the economy, fame and fortune, and other people's actions - are simply not within our power to change very much, one way or another.

Big changes are coming for me in the coming year.  By August 21, 2014:

1. I will be a grandmother! Christopher and his new wife, Ashley, are expecting a baby in March.
2. I will have published my 50th children's book: Annika Riz, Math Whiz.
3. I will have retired from my job as a professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado, accepting an early retirement package at the end of the 2013-14 academic year so that I can focus my professional energies on writing and focus my personal energies on welcoming this new grandchild into my life.

So my plan for the coming year is just to love this last year of my fifties as much as I can. In particular, I'm planning on loving my job at CU as fully and deeply as I can, now that I know it will end after I teach these four last courses, two in the fall and two in the spring. I'm going to immerse myself in all that is wonderful about the university, foster close relationships with students, gobble up as much intellectual stimulation as possible. And then, a year from now, check in with me to hear about the big changes that are going to lead me into the new decade of adventure.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Cookie Jar Bliss

It's done.

I just spent the world's happiest week doing revisions on my cookie jar book - the time travel book where the kids travel back to various exciting moments of Indiana history via the mechanism of an enchanted cookie jar. Earlier in the summer I revised it as best I could myself, printed out six copies to distribute to the six other members of my writing group, and awaited their comments.  I heard back from four of them; I'm still waiting on the other two. I went ahead and launched into the next round of revisions on the strength of the suggestions from the first four critics, knowing that there will be plenty of time for MANY more rounds of revisions as more comments come in.

It's hard to know which is more satisfying: the initial writing or the revising.  I do adore that initial hour-a-day, page-a-day writing of the book from scratch, where I'm the one who actually brings the world of this book into being with my daily toil. I'm the one who makes these characters breathe, talk, quarrel, cry, act. I write not knowing fully what is going to happen. I write in the hopes of finding out. I write with the same joyful anticipation of a reader, to find out what happens next. But initial creation is also scary. There is always the fear - ALWAYS - that I'll sit down to write and the magic won't happen (even though if you sit down faithfully to write, day after day, the magic is absolutely GUARANTEED).

With revision I have the satisfaction of seeing the already written book get so much better, sentence by sentence, page by page, chapter by chapter. The buried potential of the book is brought to the surface. Crucial themes area more fully developed. The characters can be made now to act more fully in character. The beginning of the story can be reshaped to anticipate what comes later (now that I know what comes later). Vivid detail can be added. It's lovely to see improvement, improvement, improvement, every step of the way.

Not that revision isn't daunting, too. Here the fear is that I'll know what I NEED to do, but not be able to do it, not be a good enough writer to make it work. What I do to help myself out here is perhaps backwards. I do all the easy things first. A lot of writers take the opposite approach and do the hard things first. But I like to start with low-hanging fruit to build self-confidence. So first I correct all the typos - how I love doing that! Then I work on awkward sentences flagged by my writing group. And then, and only then, do I work on larger issues of plot logistics, character motivation, adding and subtracting various scenes.

Well, now this round of revisions is done, and I sent the manuscript off yesterday - ta-dah! - to my agent to see what he thinks. This book is a departure for me - not realistic contemporary fiction, not a school story, not a single school scene anywhere in the entire 240 pages. Instead the children foil a robbery by John Dillinger's gang, help a slave escape on the Underground Railroad, get their portrait painted by Hooiser impressionist T. C. Steele, and take refuge during a tornado.

I loved writing every single word of it. I loved revising every single word of it. Now all I can do is hope that some editor somewhere loves reading the words I so loved writing. And start dreaming up what book to write next.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

If I Should Die

Over the past few weeks my variation on the classic child's bedtime prayer has been, not "If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take," but "If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord that someone will know that my edited collection on children's literature is SO CLOSE to being ready to send to the publisher and so I pray the Lord that someone will do the necessary tiny final tweaking and assembling to submit it so that those other fourteen authors who have their work in the volume will not have toiled in vain. Amen."

And then I took my tumble and lost a full week of work, and of course I found out that the tiny final tweaking was not as tiny as I had hoped it would be. It might be easy for some of YOU to put fifteen chapters, plus an introduction, into one single file in Microsoft Word without losing the sequencing of the end notes for each chapter, but it wasn't easy for me.  All of the endnotes bunched up together in one huge batch, and inexplicably they became renumbered in roman numerals rather than regular normal people numbers, so I was looking at notes with numbers like cxxxvliii. Or something equally terrible!

Still achy from my fall, I put my laptop in my backpack and trundled off to the university, where Karen, our tech support wizard. sat patiently by my side as I tried to sort it all out. I learned how to create a section break firewall between each chapter; I fixed the endnotes (mostly); I obliterated the hated roman numerals; I finished writing the introduction for the whole book (a vastly easier task than sorting out the endnotes); and yesterday I SENT IT OFF TO THE PUBLISHER. Hooray!

The book has been a labor of many months, beginning with the conference I hosted on ethics and children's literature at DePauw University last September. Since then, essays presented at the conference were selected for inclusion, revised and expanded by their authors, edited by me, revised again; I wrote a chapter of my own, arranged the essays in an order that made sense to me, and wrote an introduction to make visible that sensible structure for the collection. And I fixed the endnotes!

So now my prayer can be just one of gratitude: "If I should die before I wake, thank you, Lord, that the edited collection is safe." Which is even mildly snappy, as prayers go. Next up: peer review, and reviewers' comments that will need to be communicated to chapter authors, and editing, and copy-editing. But all that won't arrive back on my desk for many months. So between now and then, I can rest on my laurels and have less anxious bedtime petitions to the Deity. In fact, "Thank you, thank you, thank you" might suffice.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Vulnerable, After All

As readers of this blog know, I pride myself on never getting sick. I crow about it, ostentatiously taking a seat next to whoever is coughing and sniffling loudest in a room, because I'm immune to all germs and I never get sick. And if I should get a TEENSY bit sick, I get well instantly, after one good night of sleep. I haven't missed a class for sickness in years. I marvel at how inconvenient it must be to be someone who gets sick: how can you make any plans? how can you schedule your days with the specter of sickness constantly lurking?

Alas, I didn't bargain for injuries from a fall.

I took a terrible tumble Sunday night as I walked merrily home from a Colorado Music Festival concert at Chautauqua, the final concert of the six I was attending with my friend Diane, a glorious evening of Brandenburg concertos. A block from Diane's house, I stumbled on some invisible obstacle and down I went, flat onto my face. I broke my glasses and lost a lens. My nose bled all over my clothes. My ribs and chest were badly battered and bruised (though the next day's x-rays showed nothing broken). And oh, my face! Four full days later, my face looks ghastly: puffy, swollen beyond recognition, with a boxer's black eye, or rather crimson-and-purple eye. I've done nothing this week but hobble from bed to couch and back to bed again. All my grand plans have been abandoned. It's the first day of a new month, and instead of beginning a new life, I finally scrambled an egg and loaded the dishwasher and checked my email. Period.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen - literally! And it's hard not to see dreadful inklings of a distant future where falls like this will mean broken hips, and walkers, and care homes, and bed sores, and death! But perhaps these thoughts are a tiny bit premature? I probably still have twenty more good years before I have to face those darker possibilities. But I don't feel as carefree as I did a week ago, nor as glib and superior. Instead, I feel that I'm going to thank God on my knees for every day I can walk without pain and look in the mirror without wincing with horror at the sight.

And now I'm off to put a package of frozen peas against my throbbing eye and cheeks.  And count my blessings one more time that this, too will pass.