Monday, January 27, 2014

Old Life to New Life

On Friday I had the happiest possible day of my old life.

On Saturday I had the happiest possible day of my new life.

Both were given to me as gifts from dear friends, one old and one new.

Friday was the day of the University of Colorado Philosophy Department symposium, "Children's Literature and Philosophical Wondering," organized in my honor by my extravagantly kind colleague Mitzi Lee. The two featured speakers - adored former graduate student Sara Goering, who is now a tenured professor of philosophy at the University of Washington, and Jana Mohr Lone, a passionate pioneer in the philosophy-for-children movement - each gave talks on the magic they work in classrooms around the country, getting children to develop their philosophical selves by engaging them with provocative texts of children's literature. The room was packed with my colleagues and friends. Both talks were terrific. At the end Sara and Jana gave a demonstration of philosophy for children, using the adults in the audience as the subjects. We asked if we were supposed to pretend to be children. No, Sara and Jana said. We just had to be "our own wondering selves."

The text they used for the demonstration was a selection from my own middle-grade novel Standing Up to Mr. O, about a seventh grader who refuses to dissect animals in her biology class, which made this afternoon of tribute even more sweet. After reading a page or two from my book aloud, Jana placed us in small groups to come up with our own philosophical questions about the text. I couldn't believe how many questions poured out of everyone, questions I hadn't even realized the text might pose.We then voted on which question to pursue, generating a wonderful discussion about whether it's bad in itself for someone to take pleasure in doing a wrong thing, or just bad because of bad results that might ensue from that character trait.

I left feeling so glad and grateful that I had spent the last twenty years of my life in my career as a professor of philosophy in this place with these people.

Then I spent Saturday at a writing retreat organized by my new writer friend, Jeannie Mobley, who beat me out for the Colorado Book Award last year with her beautiful book Katerina's Wish. Jeannie decided to invite a few writer friends over to her house in Longmont for the weekend to do nothing but write, write, write, talk about writing, eat wonderful food to replenish our writing energies, and to write some more. What a wonderful gift she gave the six of us who came! I came away from the retreat with THREE new chapters written of the second book in my Nora Notebooks series, an entire three-hundred-page book read (Wonder, by R. J. Palacio), and half a dozen new writer friends.

I left feeling so glad and grateful that I'm going to spend the next stage of my life as a full-time children's book writer.

Thank you, Mitzi. Thank you, Jeannie. Thanks to both of you for letting me know that I love where I've been, and I love where I'm going.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Children's Literature and Philosophical Wondering

I have spent most of my professional life pursuing two different careers: as a children's book author and as a professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado. These didn't run on entirely parallel lines in that there were occasional points of intersection.

I've brought philosophical issues into some of my children's books, such as Standing Up to Mr. O where my protagonist takes a moral stand against dissecting animals in her seventh-grade biology class, and Dinah Forever, where Dinah is plunged into an existential crisis upon learning that the sun is going to burn out in a mere five billion years. I've brought children's literature into some of my philosophy classes: I start my Intro to Ethics course each year by reading the chapter from Stuart Little where Stuart is a substitute teacher interrogating his students on what is "important"; I close the semester by having my students write their final exam on the moral dilemma faced by Marty in Phyllis Naylor's Newbery-winning novel Shiloh.

In the past couple of years, the two careers have increasingly converged. As a visiting professor at DePauw I taught children's literature in the English department, for the first time in my professional life, as well as my usual repertoire of courses for Philosophy. There I also organized a symposium on Ethics and Children's Literature, with three keynote speakers: one a philosopher, one a children's lit scholar, and one a children's book author (my own three hats). I'm editing some of the papers from that symposium into a book forthcoming from Ashgate Press.

And this coming Friday, my own CU Philosophy Department is hosting a symposium in honor of my retirement, organized by my most kind and amazingly wonderful colleague, Prof. Mitzi Lee. The symposium is called "Children's Literature and Philosophical Wondering." It's going to be a moment of surpassing sweetness for me to have the two great loves that have structured my professional life brought together in this event attended by my colleagues and friends from the past twenty years.

If you're anywhere near Boulder, come! It's free and open to the public.

Children's Literature and Philosophical Wondering: A Symposium in honor of Claudia Mills
When    Fri, January 24, 3:00pm – 6:30pm
Where    UMC 245 
Children's Literature and Philosophical Wondering: A Symposium in honor of Claudia Mills, invited speakers Sara Goering (UWash. Seattle) and Jana Mohr Lone (U Wash. Seattle) Schedule: 3 Welcome and introduction 3:15-4 First talk: Prof. Sara Goering (University of Washington), “Philosophy for Children: Sparking the Love of Wisdom with Children’s Literature” 4-4:45 Second talk: Prof. Jana Mohr Lone (University of Washington), “Was the Ugly Duckling Ugly? Philosophical Tendencies in Children's Literature” 4:45-5:15 break/refreshments 5:15-6:30 Philosophy for children interactive session and discussion

Monday, January 20, 2014

Facing the New

Even though I adore beginnings – January, Monday, the first day of each month, the deliciousness of the first blank page of a brand new book to write – I find certain projects so daunting that I can’t make myself begin them at all.

I try to break them down into the smallest possible components so that I’ll be less paralyzed with dread and terror. I’ve been known to give myself credit for addressing a single envelope. I know that once I write the address on the envelope, I’m going to have enough momentum – oh, I hope! – to write the note to put in the envelope, and then walk the twenty steps from my front door to the mail box to post the envelope.

But I have to admit: addressing that envelope is hard.

So I now have a new way of making myself launch inhibiting projects, a new way of conceiving of that all-important first step. If I can’t make myself do any part of project x quite yet, I put on my to-do list: “Face x.” That’s all. I don’t have to do it. I just have to face it.

What does facing it involve? Usually it involves dragging out whatever stuff, usually a pile of paper, is associated with this task. I hope that the dragging will be followed by looking: drag it out, then look at it. Usually it is, because a certain amount of looking is involved even in locating the stuff to be dragged, so my eyes are already warmed up. And once I look at it, that’s usually enough to break the ice frozen solid over the unfathomable depths of this project, or at least to make one first tiny, almost imperceptible, crack in the ice.

The beauty here is that facing a task really takes less than a minute. And then, once I force myself to spend that ONE MINUTE, the hardest part is already over.

Okay. Now I’ve talked myself into facing a task I’ve been putting off for over a month. I don’t have to DO it, mind you. I just have to face it. So I’m going to go face it RIGHT NOW. And then, sixty seconds from now, how much better I’m going to feel!

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Last Semester Ever

Today is the first day of my final semester as a tenured professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado. The final semester EVER. The retirement package that I have irrevocably accepted specifies that I am not eligible to teach at CU for the first five years of my "retirement."

Now, after this semester, I'm going to be teaching Maymester, our mini-semester with an entire full-credit course crammed into 13 intense and exhilarating days. This summer I'll be teaching chapter book writing in the graduate program in children's literature at Hollins University in Roanoke, VA. I dream of returning to DePauw to teach another semester there sometime. So I'm not done forever with teaching. But this is my last semester of teaching in the way I've done it for the last twenty years.

I'm teaching three courses:

Intro to Ethics, in a large lecture format with a wonderful TA to do the grading for me. This is one of my "signature" courses. I've taught it so often - one year I taught it FIVE different times - that it's now so deeply embedded in the very fibers of my being that I hardly need to prepare. We start by reading Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych, the story of a life gone wrong. Then we read seven great works from the history of philosophy, advice manuals, as it were, for how to make one's life go right: selections from  Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, the Discourses of Epictetus (my own personal favorite), Kant's Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism, Nietzche's Beyond Good and Evil, Sartre's existentialism, and the neo-Buddhist Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior. On the final day of the semester, I ask the students the following question: if they could give only one of these books to the young Ivan Ilych to change the course of his life, which one would it be? The answers vary from semester to semester in a way that fascinates me.

Ethical Theory. This is a 3000-level, upper-division course primarily for our majors. Here I'll offer an in-depth examination of three dominant ethical theories: consequentialism (Mill), deontology (Kant), and virtue ethics (Aristotle). We'll read contemporary essays as well as classic texts, and close with reading a book by feminist philosopher Margaret Urban Walker called Moral Understandings, which will problematize much of what we did throughout the semester. This class will be fine, but when I teach at the upper division I'm always haunted by the thought that I wish I knew more about my subject. I wish that I myself were a consequentialist or a deontologist, that I myself inhabited one of these theories in a deep and passionate way. I'm not. I don't. I find some powerful appeal in all of them, but I'm not a card-carrying member of any of them. This makes my teaching more fair and even-handed perhaps, but also less energized.

Fairy Tale Transformations, a one-credit course that I invented, taught through the Norlin Scholars honors program. This is going to be my little labor of love, something I arranged to do back when I was at DePauw and knew that I couldn't return to business-as-usual in my teaching career but had to make sure I had some sweet small islands of happiness just for me. This course should be tons of fun. We'll not only read shifting versions of Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, and Cinderella, but we'll also attend the CU Opera production of Englebert Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel, screen Disney's Snow White, listen to a guest lecture by fairy tale scholar Donald Haase (visiting campus this semester) on recent film representations of the Grimm Brothers, watch the East German fairy tale film Die Goldene Gans with a guest lecture by a brilliant professor in the German department, pore over recent feminist-inspired fairy tale picture books, and write our own reinvented tales.

And then the semester will be over. It will be a poignant day for me, that last day in each of these three classes. But not a sad day. I have yet to have one second of regret for my career transition decision. I have never in my life been more confident of any choice I have made. But for now, over the next three and a half months, I'm going to love this life as much as can before I embark on the new one.

My plan is to skip merrily and fearlessly across this flower-strewn bridge that I'm shortly to be burning.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Giving and Getting

Halfway into this first month of the new year, I have a lot of fun writing-related activities to look forward to.

Through the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), I've made a six-month mentoring commitment to a fellow children's author who is already a well published and acclaimed picture book writer, but who now wants to develop skills as a writer of chapter books and middle grade novels. I was also asked by a local Boulder children's book writing group if I would serve as their mentor over the same period, meeting with them monthly to review and critique a different novel-in-progress each time.

I have now read manuscripts by all of these mentees and had a moment of panic. They are already so good! What do I have to offer? Is it enough to justify accepting the promised payment for my services?

But then I thought back to my first semester of being a professor at CU, walking into my first ever graduate seminar and realizing that now I was the teacher. Almost immediately it became clear to me that quite a few of the grad students were smarter than I was, or more knowledgeable about philosophy, or both. How on earth was I supposed to teach them?

Somehow I did. After all, I had finished a Ph.D., and they hadn't yet, so I had some useful skills in how to face and navigate such a daunting project. And the seminar was on the subject of my dissertation, so I did know quite a bit about that subject at least. We made it through the semester. I do think my students learned something from me. I learned even more from them.

With my current writing mentees, who are already so talented and accomplished: here, too, I'm going to count on having something to offer. After all, I've published 50 books over 30 years. So I do know how to write books and get them published, I do! My mentees will learn from me, even if 'll probably learn as much or more from them.

I've decided to take the money I'm being paid as a mentor and use it for my own professional development, so I can be an even better mentor, either to these mentees or to mentees yet to come. From the Boulder writing group I learned of a terrific duo of children's book authors who hire themselves out as the "Plot Doctors." Early this morning I spent several hours writing up a detailed summary of my cookie jar book, which I've currently set aside, to send to them so that they can recommend treatment for its ailing plot.They charge $125 for a thorough diagnosis, a most reasonable fee. I can't wait to hear what they will say. I'll have a better book as a result; I'll also know so much more about plotting, knowledge I can turn around and share.

With the rest of my mentoring money, I'm going to attend events sponsored by SCBWI and by the Colorado Authors League (CAL). I'll buy and read new books on writing. Perhaps I'll take myself to a writing conference.

This spring I'm going to be giving all I can to my mentees and getting as much in return, so that in return I can give them even more. Giving and getting, getting and giving. Probably, in the end, that's how it's supposed to be.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Update on Ants

Facebook has a feature where you can generate a "word cloud" of the most used words in your status updates throughout the year, arrayed in a striking graphic display where the very most used words stand out in a large, dramatic font. Other friends did this and their most used words popped out: the names of their children or significant others,words like FRIENDS, VENICE, HAWAII, WEDDING.

I did it, too. The word that dominated my cluster as THE most significant word of my entire year?


I posted a lot about the ant farm that I purchased for research into writing my new book series, The Nora Notebooks, about a serious, scientific girl who studies ants. I posted about how all my ants died. I solicited ideas for ant experiments that Nora could do and received tons of helpful replies, including a suggestion that I read what turned out indeed to be a marvelous book: Journey to the Ants by Bert Holldobler and Edward O. Wilson.

Now the first book in the three-book Nora series is done - well, that is to day, draft one of the book is written. I emailed it to my editor Nancy Hinkel, at Knopf/Random House, two days after Christmas. She emailed me this past Sunday night with an enthusiastic response. Hooray!

But now I need to write books two and three, one due in May and one due in June. May and June are not very far apart. And I'll be teaching a full load, actually an overload, at the University of Colorado during that entire time frame. So it behooves me to begin. It behooves me to begin TODAY.

These two books will be easier, I hope. Ants will be present in them - Nora will never abandon her love for ants! - but they won't be front and center stage. Other new plot lines will take their place as the central structural element of the books. The ants will still go marching two by two, but they'll march at the periphery of the story.

I wrote the first chapter of the first Nora book at my writing group retreat last summer up at the mountains near Lake Dillon. Now I want to write the first chapter of the second Nora book somewhere special with another dear writer friend.

I called my friend Cat. I have many friends who radiate creative energy, but Cat radiates creative energy with every fiber of her being. I told her, "I need to write chapter one somewhere special with someone special. Will you keep me company?" Cat was in. I decided I needed someplace that had a couch, by a fireplace, with some nibbles. Cat and I brainstormed possibilities.

So here is this morning's plan. I meet Cat at Boulder's posh St. Julien Hotel at 8:15 this morning. I called ahead to make sure we could take food from their eaterie out into the elegant, couch-filled lobby; they said, "Of course." I asked if the fireplace would be sure to be on at that hour. They said, "Yes," but then hesitated. Maybe it would, and maybe it wouldn't, but we could ask and one of their "engineers" would turn it on for us. Cat and I, fortified by the hotel breakfast and assisted by the hotel engineers, will write for an hour and a half in the lobby. Then we both have to go off to other activities and commitments.  I should get at least the first page written. Cat has a crucial chapter of her book to focus on as well.

I'm not sure my first page will have ants in it. This is, after all, a new book and a new year. Some other word, as yet undetermined, will dominate my Facebook word cloud. But I suspect that at the end of this year, that hour spent by the St. Julien fireplace with Cat will be one of its highlights.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Under-Appreciated Pleasures

Lately I've been getting up at 4:30 (don't even ask how ridiculously early I go to bed), but this morning I stayed in bed until almost 6, luxuriating in a pleasure I formerly didn't fully appreciate.

Rolling over.

I burrowed deeper under the covers, shifting my position to get more comfortable. I decide to switch from my right side to my left, so I turned over to that side instead. The new position was delicious. To make it even more luxurious, I flipped the pillow over to the fresher, cooler side. In fact, it was so satisfying merely to be able to move around under the covers that I rolled back to my original side, and burrowed still deeper.


I didn't appreciate this particular pleasure until two weeks ago. My sister had shoulder surgery for a torn rotator cuff over Christmas, and during the period of her convalescence she isn't supposed to roll over in bed. In fact, she has been advised against even sleeping in a bed; it's safer just to sleep propped up in a recliner chair. My sister didn't tear her rotator cuff because of a sports injury; it happened just in the course of ordinary everyday living. I engage in ordinary everyday living, too. So a torn rotator cuff could happen to me. I had not one but two bad falls last summer, both for little or no reason at all. Either of those falls could have resulted in my breaking a bone or tearing a ligament. I could be the person told that for a certain time period I can no longer roll over in bed.

But right now I can. And I do. Noticing exactly how pleasurable that is.

A number of years ago I had a bout of vertigo where I was plunged into a terrifying whirling void if I turned my head a certain way, including turning my head to the side in bed. I could ease myself into a different sleeping position, but I couldn't flop around in bed willy-nilly.

Remembering this, in the wee hours of this morning, I flopped more vigorously, just because I could. Flop! Flop! There was nothing stopping me.

Toward the end of my mother's life, when I would visit her in the Kaiser rehab facility, I came to have new appreciation of the ability to walk briskly. I'd realize I had left something I needed back in the car. "I'll run and get it," I'd tell my mother. Sixty seconds later, I was at my car. Sixty seconds after that I was back in her room. The most arduous ordeal of the patients in rehab, placing one foot in front of the other, was easy-peasy for me. I learned to take new joy in easy-peasiness.

It's hard to sustain these new joys. I don't expect to spend every morning for the rest of my life staying in bed for an extra hour just to make sure I notice how deliriously happy I can be rolling over from my left side to my right. But every once in a while it's good to pay attention to these smallest of pleasures, appreciated most fully only when they are taken away: "Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got till it's gone?"

My sister posts a different quote on Facebook every morning from some famous person born on that day. Today it was this from J. R. R. Tolkien: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” I love this line so much. So today, with the time that was given me, I rolled over in bed. And I loved every minute of doing it.