Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Proud Day

On this past Sunday afternoon my younger son, Gregory, had his senior recital as a saxophone performance major at CU. He's closing in on a double degree: a bachelor of science degree in computer science in the College of Engineering and a bachelor of music degree in jazz studies in the College of Music. Sunday was the culminating event of his undergraduate years as music student. He played three of his own original compositions - "Light the Way," "Morning Dew," and "Valencia" - as well as "If I Should Lose You" by Ralph Rainger, "26-2" by John Coltrane, "Very Early" by Bill Evans, and "Dat Dere," by Bobby Timmons, accompanied by a wonderfully talented band of fellow students on piano, bass, drums, and trumpet.

The small chamber music hall at the Imig Music Building was filled with our family, his classmates, his first piano teacher (who has forgiven him for falling in love with saxophone instead), and friends of mine from my writing group, the philosophy department, and our church. A reception followed where I provided a spread of fancy cheeses and crackers, a beautiful veggie tray, and my signature ginger snap cookies and cream cheese brownies, as requested by the star of the program.

As a parent it's impossible not to remember those crucial life-shaping moments where it all began. Gregory's father took both boys to the end-of-year jazz band concert at Fairview High School when Gregory was in third grade and Christopher was in sixth grade. As soon as Fairview's stellar top jazz band, Jazz I, took the stage, and Gregory heard that first saxophone solo, that was it for him.

I rented him a saxophone, found him a teacher, and took him to his first lesson. There I watched him learn how to assemble his instrument and play his first notes. I asked his teacher, Dave Camp, how much he wanted Gregory to practice. Dave shrugged. "As much as he wants." Then he told Gregory, "But the one who practices the most wins."

So much practicing. So much time in the car driving to lessons up in Lafayette (where I would sit at my favorite coffee shop writing lists of my goals and dreams in my special little notebook while I waited for the lesson to finish). So much time in the car driving down to practices and performances for the Colorado Conservatory for the Jazz Arts at the Lamont School of Music at the University of Denver and at the jazz club Dazzle. So many middle school and high school jazz band concerts. Hearing Gregory play his own saxophone solos once he joined Fairview's Jazz I as a sophomore. Then jazz combo and jazz ensemble concerts at CU.

And then, watching him come out on stage Sunday afternoon, still looking to me hardly different from the little boy he was at that first lesson, but now so poised, so professional, so accomplished in doing what he loves.

May it always be so.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Mid Semester

It's the midpoint of the semester now, or slightly past. I'm having a happy time in both of my courses, and I hope my students are, too. I know my first goal as a professor should be that my students learn as much as possible, and I do care about that, I really do. But even more, I confess, I hope that I can create an enchanted world for them to inhabit three times a week. I want the three hours a week they spend with me to be little shimmering islands of joy.

Here's the joy on offer this week.

My 11:00 class is Children's Literature, taught as a "topics course" in "genre studies" in the English department. The chair of the department told me that I could include a creative component in the course as well as the usual literary analysis, so right now we're in the middle of a creative unit on picture books. We first read a selection of picture book texts from The 20th Century Children's Book Treasury, analyzing how the pictures and text work together to create a satisfying whole and examining how various stories construct the idea of "family" for young readers, as well as convey intended or unintended social/political commentary. Then I spent two classes talking about picture book structure, using some of my own picture books, in "before" and "after" versions, as examples of the way that structure can be imposed on a story through judicious revision and editing. Now the students are working on their own picture book manuscripts.

Our class yesterday was a dummy-making workshop. I came to class prepared with a 32-page blank dummy for each student, as well as assorted pairs of scissors, rolls of tape, and colored pencils and markers. The students then set to work cutting up their manuscripts into little bits of text to tape onto the pages, so they could see if they had enough material to fill an entire book, with appropriate pacing and exciting page turns.

I loved hearing their questions as I wandered around the room to help as they were busily cutting, pasting, and coloring.

"I just realized that my story has a problem. The problem is that it doesn't have a problem!"
"Do we really need to fill up the whole book? I just have enough for eight pages!"

Some students stared down in dismay at the one huge long paragraph they had written, realizing that it now needed to be cut up into many many little paragraphs, a visceral way of realizing exactly how picture books are paced and presented.

My 1:00 class is my signature class on the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (we all just call him Jean-Jacques). We're almost through his massive novel, Julie: or The New Heloise, the now-forgotten (except by Rousseau scholars) tome that was once the best-selling novel of the 18th century. One graduate student confessed to tearing up as he read Wednesday's huge chunk of text, in which Julie's passionate lover, St. Preux, sees Julie for the first time as a married woman, now wed to the cold-but-magnanimous Wolmar, surrounded by the children of this new union. Rousseau's overwrought prose conveys not only the doomed-but-redeemed love of Julie and St. Preux, but his vision of an idyllic political community working together in blissful unity. (Rousseau disliked harmony in music; he wanted only melodies sung in unison.) Coming up on Friday: the famous scene of the grape harvest at Clarens.


Friday, October 18, 2013

An Hour Every Single Day

I have built my entire writing career, with my 50th book (Annika Riz, Math Whiz) due out this coming spring, on one principle, and one principle only: that if you write for just an hour a day, writing one pitiful, pathetic, puny page during that hour, you can complete an enormous amount of pages by the end of a year: 365, to be precise, 366 during leap year. Each day's accomplishment seems so tiny, but the cumulative total is so large. I have been cheered by the thought that the great Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope followed a similar method, writing for a fixed time period each morning before heading off to his full-time job as a high-ranking official for the British Post Office.

Trollope wrote in his wonderful autobiography, "Nothing surely is so potent as a law that may not be disobeyed. It has the force of the water drop that hollows the stone. A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules."


But here's the problem. Lately I've been disobeying my own law. It's so easy, when I look at the clock by my bed that reads 5:00 a.m., to say, oh, why not sleep just a little bit longer? And then it's so easy, when I finally wake up, to check email and see what witty things friends have posted on Facebook. And then it does feel extremely urgent to turn to the many, many tasks awaiting me from my job, for unlike Mr. Trollope, professors take their work home with them, and some Loathsome Task is always hanging over my head. Wouldn't it feel so good to be able to cross off from my ever-lengthening to-do list those graduate student recommendation letters I need to write? Or the manuscript review I promised a journal? Or those books reviews for Children's Literature?  Or to make a dent in that pile of student papers? So I do a couple of those things, and it does feel good, it really does, but at the end of the day, I haven't done my hour, and I haven't written my page.

I now have a real and looming deadline for my writing. I was lucky enough to get a three-book contract from Knopf/Random House for a companion series to my Mason Dixon series, this time starring Mason's friend Nora, a serious, scientific girl who devotes herself to advancing the frontiers of science by doing experiments on her ant farm. Each book is to be 25,000 words, or about 125 pages. The first is due December 15; all three are to be completed by June of next year.

Now this is doable. It's not easy, but it's doable. After all, friends who participate in National Novel Writing Month every November commit to writing a full 50,000 words during those thirty days, double the length of each of my Nora books in a single month, and many of them meet this goal. If they can, I can.

But I can do it only if I give an hour to my writing every single day. Every SINGLE day. And that means, yes, that means today. TODAY!!!

Grading can wait. Class prep can wait. Revisions on a philosophy paper can wait.

Off to write!

Monday, October 7, 2013

School Visit Season

I've been doing a lot of author visits to various elementary schools lately. Last week I was at Eugene Field Elementary School in Maryville, Missouri; this week I'm off to Fairfax County, Virginia, to speak at several schools there; next month I have a gig in La Junta, Colorado, on the eastern plains.
School visits are an extremely wonderful opportunity for authors in just about every way.

1. We make money. Many children's book authors earn more in a year from speaking at schools than we do from our writing.

2. We sell books. Schools typically give students a chance to buy our books and have us sign them, so we increase our sales in addition to broadening our fan base for future releases.

3. We get material for future books. Now that I no longer have school-aged children living in my house bringing home delicious stories daily, it's crucial that I spend time in actual schools with actual kids, wandering the halls to see what kinds of assignments they're working on, spotting possible future characters in my audience. My favorite moment: when the kids are coming in to the library for one of my assemblies, and the teacher monitors where they sit: "No. You two are NOT sitting together." There's a story there, for sure!

4. Finally, we have fun. We get to be a celebrity for a day, with kids pointing at us as we walk into the office: "Is that her? Is that Claudia Mills?" We make new friends of teachers and librarians, sometimes friendships that endure for life.

The only negative about school visits is that it can become wearisome to spend all day talking about the same subject over and over and over again: me, me, me, ME! How I came to be an author, how I write my books, my writing process. Like many authors, I have a standard author speech and give it, word for word the same, four times in a day, knowing exactly where the students will laugh, or gasp, or groan.

Sometimes I've considered changing things up a bit, but I have to say that when I go to hear an author talk, I do want to hear the author talk about herself. I've heard authors who are trying to be less egotistical and more generous to their fellow authors, and so they read aloud from other people's books and talk about other people's stories. I come away disappointed: "But I came to hear YOU. What about YOU?" And if I vary my talk just to keep myself from being bored, that means that some group gets my second- or third-tier stories instead of the ones I know from past experience that kids love best. That doesn't seem fair.

So tomorrow, in Virginia, I'll tell the kids about the autobiographical book I wrote in eighth grade, T Is for Tarzan (my nickname that year was Tarzan). I'll tell them that if they remember they can ask me at the very end of the presentation why my nickname was Tarzan, and I'll tell them, but that I hope they forget, because it's embarrassing. (They never forget, ever.). I'll tell them my first attempt at a published book, a picture book called Campbell the Tomato, and how I submitted it to the publishing house where I was working at the time, Scholastic in NYC, and had to type my own rejection letter. I'll vary things a tiny bit by talking about how I got the ideas for my most recent books: that is the one part of my speech that does change from year to year. I'll show them my favorite pen: a Pilot Razor Point fine-tipped black marker pen. I'll tell them how I love to drink Swiss Miss hot chocolate while I write.

I'll say these things four times in a row on Tuesday, and then again on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.

And the kids will come up to me afterward to give me hugs, and ask me to autograph their hands or foreheads (I refuse, invoking my standing policy against signing any body parts); later they'll write me letters saying how much they loved Campbull the Tomatoe.

Yay for school visits!