Monday, December 28, 2015

Why I Procrastinate - and How I'm Going to Stop

 Recently I've been waking up at 2:30 a.m., writhing in bed consumed with anxiety and dread over course preparation for my upcoming spring semester at DePauw. I'm set to teach three courses, two of which I've never taught before, and one of which is particularly stressful for me to prepare, as it's a subject I think is so important but about which I currently know relatively little: ethical issues involving immigration policy. I've had months to prepare this course, but I've put it off, and put it off, and put it off. And put it off some more. Finally, three days ago, I sat down and just started to DO the darned thing.

Oh, the bliss, the joy and rapture, when a dreaded task is actually DONE.

So why on earth would anyone live for MONTHS in the dark, tormented space of dread rather than spend a few short DAYS chugging along to make some actual progress on moving the dreaded task forward?

I think I've come up with one answer, or at least an answer that explains why I procrastinated so mightily on designing this immigration course.

For some tasks - many tasks - most tasks? - there are two ways to do them:
1) a careful, thorough, detailed, thoughtful, conscientious, and extremely labor-intensive way
2) a quick, slapdash, corner-cutting, but in the end, remarkably adequate way.

I always feel I should do the former: the long, hard way. But what I really want to do is the latter: the quick, easy way. Down deep, I think the task will turn out perfectly well if I go with speed and ease. But guilt still draws me toward slow, laborious toil. And so I put off the task until the last possible minute to make sure that all I have time for is the option I secretly preferred all along.

In designing the immigration course, I could have spent months reading widely in all the available philosophical and public policy literature to search for the best possible readings. I could have watched dozens of immigration -themed films to select the one or two most worth sharing with my students. I could have made myself into a true expert on immigration - not a bad thing to be, for a professor about to teach a course on the subject.

Of course, if I had taken that route, I wouldn't have also worked on the proposal for a new children's book series for my publisher, or written my article on children's author Eleanor Estes, advised SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) mentees, read intensely for my judging of the Children's Literature Association's Phoenix Award, or sent out so many Christmas cards or baked so many Christmas cookies.

Or I could have taken the route I actually did. I emailed a few former graduate students who wrote dissertations on immigration and are now professors at various universities around the country, asking if they had taught immigration policy and had a syllabus they could share. Two did. Others offered terrific suggestions for readings. I found almost all the readings - journal articles, chiefly - by sitting at my computer searching the CU library catalog; I skimmed them to see which ones would be most engaging and accessible to sophomore-level students. I put out a call on Facebook for film ideas and got a dozen fabulous ones. I'll show in class the one or two with most Facebook votes and give students the choice of watching one or two of the others. I emailed several DePauw colleagues with expertise on immigration to see if they'd come to give a guest lecture and got affirmative replies.

Three days later, the course is put together, and I must say it looks terrific. How lovely not to wake up at 2:30 this morning with that knot of horror and loathing in my stomach! But how glad I am I didn't spend all of the past autumn lost in this one potentially all-consuming project.

Advice to self: Next time, just do the quick, easy route first. You know you're going to take it anyway. You know it's a perfectly good route to take. You don't need the sanction of desperation to go in that direction.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.
Take the easier, quicker, simpler one.
And go ahead and just take it NOW

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Time Tips for Short Days

Yesterday was the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, but lately it's feeling that all my days are far too short.

There's the coming of Christmas, of course, which stresses most of us. I've just finished organizing our church's Mitten Tree for the homeless and caroling to neighboring retirement communities; I decided to send Christmas cards for the first time in a few years; holiday baking has begun. But I'm also facing yet another relocation to Indiana for the spring semester. I start driving on January 2. I'll be teaching three courses, two of which I've never taught before. Ordinarily I'd devote January to getting the courses prepared. But this year I'll be spending January teaching a study abroad course called "Enchanted Spaces: Children's Literature Sites in London, Oxford, and Paris" - how thrilling is that? But it means that I have no time for course prep in January. Course prep needs to be done now, in these short, short days.

I like mixing up my time management strategies, so they don't lose their efficacy. My most recent one involves focusing not on my time-tested unit of the hour, but the even more manageable and less threatening unit of the half hour. (I own both an hour glass and a half-hour glass to use for timing). For the past week, I've told myself each morning upon waking that I needed to do four half hours of work, on four different tasks. The tasks on the menu were a mix of hard and easy, challenging and comforting. I could choose which four to do. And then I had to pick one of those four tasks and give it a follow-up hour, capitalizing on the first half hour's momentum.

So a typical day went like this:
1/2 hour handwriting messages on Christmas cards (easy, but tedious, as the messages begin to get repetitious, so half an hour is plenty - usually I can get five cards done in that span)
1/2 hour reading books for my judging of the Children's Literature Phoenix Award (it's criminal to use a prime half hour of the day for a task like reading, which is perfect for curling up in bed in the evening, but desperate times call for desperate measures)
1/2 hour working on the sermon I'm giving on December 27: my son Christopher and I always lead the worship service on the Sunday after Christmas - I adore writing sermons! Working on it only for half an hour a day allowed ideas to percolate for the other 23 1/2 hours, giving it greater richness and depth
1/2 hour working on reviewing an article on "The Ethics and Politics of Child Naming" for a philosophy journal. I meant to say no when they asked me, but the topic was so cool I couldn't refuse.

Little by little, through the week, I finished and mailed the Christmas cards; I then substituted that half hour for wrapping presents; when all the presents were wrapped, I (sadly) turned to course prep in that slot. Little by little, I finished my sermon, finished my review, read a friend's manuscript, and made solid progress on two of the three courses, with only (naturally) the most heinously difficult one awaiting (I always go first for low-hanging fruit to keep myself encouraged).

It's all getting done! It really is! Now all that is left, alas, are the two biggest tasks on my list: finishing a book proposal for my publisher and tackling that third course for DePauw. I'll need a different strategy for those two, as the half hour system has played itself out on this go-round. But I'm ready to think of one now. And to start baking cookies!

Friday, December 11, 2015

Post Office Lines

Twice in the past couple of weeks I've gotten stuck in long lines in our local post office.

Twice, I had a wonderful time  standing there.

It's definitely disheartening to see a line snaking out the door from the post office proper into the cramped lobby, with perhaps twenty people waiting, each one clutching half a dozen packages to weigh, price, and ship, with one - yes, ONE - window open. I debate leaving and coming back another time - but what guarantee do I have that another time will be better? And I have my heart set on crossing off this postal errand today. I debate driving to another, larger post office on the outskirts of town, where lines are reputed to be shorter, but it's a ten-to-fifteen-minute drive each way, so how much time would I save, really?

I was having these thoughts in line two weeks ago when I noticed the person in front of me was someone I had worked with in the University of Colorado Philosophy Department's Center for Values and Social Policy when I arrived in Boulder back in the 1990s; I hadn't seen her in years. "Jackie!" I exclaimed. "Claudia!" she replied. We talked long and hard and fast and joyously for the entire 25-minute wait.

Then as I was preparing to depart, errand accomplished, I heard another voice: "Claudia?" A woman who looked vaguely familiar had just joined the end of the still-long line. "Barb?" It was someone else who had worked with Jackie and me in the philosophy department all those years ago. Barb had moved to Utah many years before; I had no idea she had recently moved back to Boulder. We all fell into each others' arms. And, to complete this tale of postal serendipity, why was Barb there in line at the post office? Because she was mailing off a special card to Sara, who had also worked with us, and is now a professor in the philosophy department at University of Washington. Jackie and I scribbled our greetings to her on the back of the envelope.

So last week, when I saw an even longer line at the post office, I didn't despair. First, I remembered my oft-broken commitment to myself to stand on one foot for two minutes a day - two minutes for each foot, or four minutes total. Spending four minutes a day in this way is supposed to make a huge difference in maintaining balance and avoiding falls as we age. It's probably the single most important thing I can do for myself at this time in my life, given a family history of falls. But it's such a boring thing to do! I mean to do it every morning as I heat up the water for my Swiss Miss hot chocolate in the microwave, but I almost never do, as I'd rather tackle something more visibly productive, like unloading the dishwasher. I could do it when I watch TV, but I almost never watch TV, and if I do, I'd rather be curled up on the couch with a cat or dog on my lap. But it's the absolutely perfect thing to do while standing in line.

I began to balance on my right foot. To make conversation with my line-mates, I explained what I was doing. As we started to chat, one of them squinted at me and said, "Do you teach philosophy?" Why, yes, I do. "I took your class!" she said. As we talked, I began to remember her, from perhaps a dozen years ago, as she told me that she still had the paper she wrote for me on Plato, presenting her argument in the form of a Platonic dialogue, and how I had pronounced it "charming." She's now a professor at CU herself, teaching in the humanities program in the College of Engineering, with a master's degree in piano performance and a doctorate in musicology, as well as a three-year-daughter and another child on the way (the reason she declined to do the one-foot-balancing as she waited). The 45-minute wait flew by.

Later today I'm off to the post office again. I no longer dread long lines. I can balance on one foot as I wait and increase my chances of a long and happy life. And odds are that I'll meet up with someone fascinating as I shift my weight from one foot to the other. After all, right now I'm two for two.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015


So here's something I never in my life thought I'd be doing: walking around the poshest mall in Dallas with six grown nieces and nephews I barely knew, all decked out in the most garish Christmas sweaters we could find, stopping strangers to ask them to judge us in an "ugly sweater contest." But that's exactly what I did this past weekend.

One of the judges was so pleased with her task that she posted a picture of her moment of glory on Facebook:

My sister and I never knew one of our half-brothers, my father's younger son from his first marriage, and we never knew his six children. The brother died many years ago, but one of his sons, discovering that we happened to live near each other in Colorado, contacted me a few years ago to see if I wanted to get together for breakfast. I did. And as soon as we met, truly from the first moment I saw him waiting outside the restaurant for my arrival, I felt a deep connection with this man who is my father's grandson.

Little by little I got to know the rest of the huge-hearted Mills family clan, and this year they invited my sister and me to join them in Texas for what they were calling "Thanksmas." We celebrated Thanksgiving on Thursday, sharing a huge feast served upon a groaning table, with sixteen of us present (including two neighbors who carried over a table needed at the last minute, and were invited to sit down to dine with us). Friday was devoted to a "National Lampoon Christmas Vacation" shopping trip, with all of us wearing the  aforementioned holiday sweaters. Saturday counted as Christmas, where we exchanged the gifts we had purchased on the marathon shopping day for names we had drawn the day before.

What a strange thing family is. I've never wanted to fetishize genetic connection; I've been puzzled by adopted friends who spent years searching for their birth parents; I've always believed that what makes a family is shared history, lived history, not the mere, almost accidental facts of biology. And yet I love these people I just met, whose only tie to me, before our meeting, was the fact that we are related. (Of course, it helps that they themselves are the most loving people I've ever encountered.) I loved being part of this big clan dazzling the upscale Galleria mall in our loud, proud sweaters. I loved belonging to them and having them belong to me.

When my sister and I returned to our nearby motel on "Christmas" evening, to pack for our crack-of-dawn departure the next day, my niece Rene, the one who hosted Thanksmas at her home, texted me that she had forgotten something and was on her way to the motel to give it to us. Could we meet her in the lobby in a few minutes? We did. And what had she forgotten? To give us a full-fledged hug; the one she had given earlier, she had decided, only counted as half a hug.

There is nothing sweeter than a heart-hug from a newly discovered niece at the close of my first-ever Thanksmas.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Writer's Block, Part Two

A week or so ago, I took myself to Union Station in Denver and spent a blissful morning curled up on a cozy couch in front of a friendly elf, sipping a vanilla steamer and getting unblocked on a new project. I wrote the first page of chapter one! I wrote the second page of chapter one! I wrote the whole darned chapter! The book was begun, and begun is everything in writing!

Well, not quite everything.

The next day I read over what I had written, eager to preserve my newfound momentum.

I didn't like what I had written.

I didn't like it at all.

My main character was whiny and victimized; she opened the chapter with a sigh, sighed twice more on the first page, and ended the chapter with a sigh huge enough to eclipse the previous three. Her mother was an overbearing cliche; it was unpleasant for a reader to have to be in her company. My poor character has no choice, it's her mom; but readers DO have a choice. So why wouldn't they make a choice to close this book and open one that is funny and fun? Did I have anything at all in this first chapter that was funny and fun? Nope. Nothing. Nada. Zip.

I didn't write for the next few days, because why throw good pages after bad? Why keep going on a project that is doomed from the get-go?

But then I re-read Elizabeth Gilbert's beautiful new book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. She recommends the following strategy to take regarding writing, or any other creative activity: "My ultimate choice . . . is always to approach my work from a place of stubborn gladness." She said that she's held on to her "stubborn gladness" when her work is going badly, and when it's going well. She said she's learned to trust that inspiration "is sitting there right beside me, and it is trying. . . . Inspiration is always trying to work with me. So I sit there and I work, too. That's the deal. I trust it; it trusts me."

So yesterday, I got into bed with a mug of hot chocolate made more festive with two outsized dollops of leftover Cool Whip on top (I had to do something with it now that the pumpkin pie was all eaten). I sat there for hours scribbling notes about how to fix my fatally flawed chapter one - or, rather, how to put it aside, richer from all I learned in writing it, and write a completely different chapter one that will have fewer sighs, a more three-dimensional mom, and at least something in it that is funny and fun. I haven't written that chapter yet - it's number one on my to-do list for tomorrow-  but Elizabeth Gilbert reassures me that inspiration will be sitting beside me when I do.

I'm going to trust inspiration and be grateful that it trusts me. If this new chapter is still unusable, I'll write another one, and I have a hunch that one will be pretty darned good, or at least pretty darned okay. If I need more Cool Whip, I'll buy more. And I'll keep on writing.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

One Way to Cure Writer's Block

When I do author visits at elementary schools and it's time for Q & A, some of the more sophisticated kids like to ask me, "What do you do when you get writer's block?" My stock answer has always been: "I don't GET writer's block, because I write for a short, fixed amount of time every day, first thing when I get up. It's not an intimidating task to write one puny little page. And writing it first thing in the morning means that I don't even have time to arouse my resistance. My page is written before I'm even fully awake!"

But then this year, I got writer's block. Previously I had secretly doubted that any such thing existed. Now I actually had it. I hadn't written a page since my heroic revisions on two books last August, if you don't count the equally heroic work I did earlier this month revising my scholarly paper on Eleanor Estes's 1943 children's book Rufus M. And I don't count work that isn't creative work. So for the past three months, the queen of the hour-a-day writing system has written precisely nothing.

I think the biggest part of my block has to do with, not jealousy exactly, but awareness that a number of my writer friends have been getting extraordinary critical attention for their recent books: four starred reviews for one, an unheard-of five starred reviews for another. I want four starred reviews! I want five! I want six! And in order to get six starred reviews, I knew I had to write a different kind of book from the sweet little chapter books I've been writing. If you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always gotten. I needed to write a big book, a deep book, an important book. But I had no ideas for anything big, deep, or important. So instead I was writing nothing at all.

This had to change. Because if I don't write, I won't be a writer. And I love being a writer.

I started curing my writer's block by re-reading the scene in Maud Hart Lovelace's Heaven to Betsy, where Betsy has lost the freshman essay contest because she spent her winter in a doomed crush on Tony plus lots of parties with the Crowd where great quantities of fudge were made and consumed, rather than on essay preparation:

She looked back over the crowded winter. She did not regret it. But she should not have let its fun, its troubles, its excitement squeeze her writing out. 'If I treat my writing like that,' she told herself, 'it may go away entirely.' The thought appalled her. What would life be like without writing? Writing filled her life with beauty and mystery, gave it it purpose. . . and promise...

Then I made a plan, an excellent plan, if I do say so myself.

Yesterday I took myself on the bus to Denver, planning to spend the morning writing on a cozy couch at the legendary Tattered Cover bookstore, just steps away from Union Station. But when I got to Union Station, its cozy couches beckoned so powerfully that I ended up staying right there, on this couch in front of this holiday elf, which I decided must be a writing elf.

I bought myself a vanilla steamer and an unusually excellent muffin at a station coffee shop.

And then I wrote for two hours. I plunged right in, scribbling down the first page of a new book, which grew into the first chapter of a new book, not, I must say, a big, deep, important book, but one of my usual sweet little chapter books, in other words, the kind of book I love best to write.

So: if you have writer's block:

1. Give yourself Betsy's pep talk. Don't regret any of the things that have kept you from writing, but remind yourself that if you squeeze writing out of your life, you'll have a life without writing in it. Maybe that's okay for you. But if it isn't, you need to write.

2. Take yourself on some lovely writing adventure. Go someplace special, either with a writer friend or by yourself. For me, the place has to have couches and creamy hot beverages.

3. Then, well, write. You don't have to write a book that will get five starred reviews, or four, or any at all, or that will ever get published, or read by anyone else in the world. All you have to do is curl up, sip on your creamy hot beverage, take nibbles of a tasty muffin, and write something that you want to write. Remember, you like to write. You really do.

That's all. And if you can do it in front of the Christmas tree in Union Station, Denver, all the better.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015


Last weekend I was lucky enough to be one of nine authors invited to take part in the first ever EpicFest, a "literary festival for kids of all ages" held at ImaginOn, an astonishing structure in downtown Charlotte, NC, which contains an enormous children's branch of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library plus two beautifully appointed performance spaces for the Children's Theatre of Charlotte.
Each author did two school visits on Friday. I had a lovely time at River Oaks Academy and Chantilly Montessori. On Saturday, the day of EpicFest itself, each author gave a talk, sold and signed a lot of books, and had the chance to hear some talks from our fellow presenters. If we had wanted to, we could also have built Lego creations, made all kinds of  crafts, and dipped apples in white chocolate and then covered them with sprinkles. My biggest regret of the festival: not finding time to dip that apple!

Here is the "book house" I saw at one branch of the library during my lunch break on Friday:

Here I am with new friend Sheila Turnage, whose debut novel, Three Times Lucky, was named a Newbery Honor Book. (Also pictured: Pete the Cat.)
And here is the "book mobile" made by my old friend Mark West, professor of children's literature at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. It hangs on the front porch of his home, books swinging gently in the Carolina breeze.

I came away from the festival thinking: I love being part of this world, the world of people who write books, read books, teach about books, love books. I want to be part of it in every way, forever.

Guess I'd better start writing my next book soon...

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Simon Ellis, Spelling Bee Champ

Today is the pub day of my newest book child, Simon Ellis, Spelling Bee Champ, the fourth title in the Franklin School Friends chapter book series.
Simon appears as Kelsey's reading contest rival in Kelsey Green, Reading Queen; he's Annika's Sudoku contest rival in Annika Riz, Math Whiz; and he is a competitive racer in Izzy Barr, Running Star. When it was Simon's turn to star in his own book, I asked myself: "What problem could a kid have who is good at everything?" And the answer was immediately clear: "That he's good at everything."

Simon is a very bright kid who has a wide range of intellectual and creative interests. He genuinely loves to read, and adores math, and savors playing the violin. And he shines as a speller because of his love affair with words, the longer and harder the better. But his best friend, Jackson, is getting tired of losing at everything to Simon - and when Simon tries letting Jackson win, Jackson gets even madder. Other kids start calling Simon "Super Simon" and then "Super Duper Pooper Simon." What is poor Simon to do? Hide his talents from his classmates? Pretend not to care about all the things that are dear to his heart?

His story ended up being very dear to my own heart. I wrote it during the blissful summer of 2014 when I taught at Hollins, sharing it with the students in my graduate chapter-book writing class. My son Gregory helped me come up the "longest-word-in-the-world" that Simon exults in spelling, and Gregory also served as the only ghost-writer I've ever employed, providing some language for the video gaming action in two scenes; the book is dedicated to him. And Simon is just so sweet, so eager to learn and perplexed that others don't share his affinity for the life of the mind.

So I send him out into the world with an extra-protective hug today.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

"I Want Your Life!"

Yesterday I taught a writing workshop for young authors, hosted by the Education Nonprofit Corporation and held at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden. Mine was the two-and-a-half hour class for eighteen bright, motivated third, fourth, fifth, and sixth graders. They were a delight.

One of the sweetest moments in this sweet day came when one of the other presenters there stopped me to say that she still remembered a motivational talk I gave for a Society of Children's Book Writers conference well over a decade ago. In that talk I shared how I juggle being a professor of philosophy with being a prolific author of children's books,  with my beloved hourglass as a prop to demonstrate my "hour a day" writing system.

As this person heard my talk, she told herself, "I want this woman's life!" And then she proceeded to go out and get it. She went back to graduate school, earned an advanced degree, teaches classes at CU-Denver, and has published her poetry.

I was touched and thrilled. For I so identify with her desire to change her life on the model of another life she found herself coveting. I do this myself all the time. I even "collect" lives in my little notebook, so I'll have touchstones at the ready for the kind of life I want to live. My motto has long been "Don't envy, emulate."

When I look at the people I most want to be, one commonality is that they all fill their lives with creative joy. In fact, the person I envy most is a fellow writer who has published very little, as she works full-time as a teacher, has a young child, and is pursuing extremely ambitious and complex writing projects. What I envy her for is that she teaches with out-of-the-box originality, mothers with dazzling creative energy, and prioritizes her writing even if she doesn't prioritize seeking publication. I look at her and think, "I want that person's life!" And then I make lists of things I can do to try to come closer to my ideal.

So I'm grateful I got to be a life role model for someone else, as so many other creative souls have been life role models for me.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Walking the Dog, Walking with God

My church here in Boulder, St. Paul's United Methodist Church, has this as its mission statement: To openly share creative opportunities to grow in Christ's love through worship, fellowship, service, and learning. The word "creative" is important to us. Our church is filled with people who love using their creativity to get closer to God and to one another. One of the most creative is my pew mate, Rebecca Glancy. (Church members are NOT creative about where we sit: we all sit in the same spots every single week, and my chosen spot is with Rebecca and her family.)

Rebecca writes and directs original Christmas programs for our youth each year. She preaches inspirational guest sermons for our congregation and at twice-a-month services held at the nearby Meridian retirement community. She and I both wrote many puppet scripts for several years for a children's program called "Where the Wild Things Worship." And she also writes delightful devotions which she shares on her blog.

Her current meditation series is called "Walking the Dog, Walking with God," daily reflections on what she's learned about faith, and about herself, from walking her family dog, Lexi. Here's one of my favorites (I always love when people find seemingly contradictory passages of Scripture and probe them to find a deeper underlying truth):

Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road.” –Luke 10:4
I follow Jesus’s advice when I walk Lexi: we don’t greet anyone on the road. (I don’t take a purse or bag, either, but I do wear sandals in the summertime.) Lexi’s greeting is so enthusiastic as to be perilous. She jumps and writhes around and is likely to knock someone down or tangle him in her leash. Also, she can’t control her bladder when she’s excited. Very few people want to be greeted like that; most neighbors just want to pat a calm, friendly dog on the head as they pass by. So Lexi and I stand aside or cross the street when we see people coming. Jesus tells a story about a priest and a Levite who cross over to the other side of the road (Luke 10:30-35). They are criticized for being unneighborly. Perhaps my neighbors think I’m unneighborly, too. Is Jesus saying contradictory things in Luke 10? I don’t think so. When we walk with God, we’re supposed to focus on him. We’re not supposed to get distracted. Stopping to chat along the road was a distraction for Jesus’s disciples (for Lexi, too). However, we’re not supposed to be so focused on our religious practice (like the priest and the Levite, who feared becoming ceremonially unclean) that we fail to love our neighbors. Walking with God means knowing when to cross over and when to stop.
Dear God, Show me when to cross the road and when to stop when I’m walking with you. Amen
Today Rebecca invited me to contribute a guest meditation, as she knows I'm a fellow faithful walker of our family's little dog Tank. So here it is. And if you ever want a pew to sit in on a Sunday morning in Boulder, St. Paul's is at the corner of Grinnell and Gillaspie, and some creative people will be eager to welcome you.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Fun + Fun = More Fun

I've been trying to make it a priority to maximize creative joy in my life, and actually, just to maximize FUN in any form. I learned this from a student at Hollins University when I taught there summer before last. You can either meet with a student to talk about her chapter-book-in-progress (fun in its own right) in your bare little office, OR over ice cream at the sweet place up the road, sitting outside on a bench under a tree on a perfect summer afternoon. Which should you pick?

My life strategy now is to pick the option that involves ice cream.

So when I received a grant to do research on the manuscripts of Eleanor Estes at the University of Connecticut (fun in its own right), I asked myself: how can I make this fun thing even more fun?

Answer: time the trip so that I could head down from Storrs to NYC afterward on the very weekend that a friend's play was being produced there. My friend Sandy Asher, whom I see every year at the children's literature festival sponsored by the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, had her one-act, one-actor play, Walking to America, selected for performance in this year's Solo Festival. Her goal was to sell out the theater so she could obtain a second night: she ended up with SIX. And I was there for one of them.

I took myself to the city from Hartford via Peter Pan bus. I stayed two nights with another writer friend, whom I first met at the poetry writing retreat I attended for many years, in her adorable, tiny book-and-teapot-filled apartment on York Avenue and 64th Street. We attended Sandy's fabulous play together, as well as wandering all around Central Park where I paid a visit to Hans Christian Andersen.

For extra fun, I reconnected with a former CU student whose brilliant creative writing thesis I advised over a decade ago; we spent hours at two different vegan cafes talking, talking, talking. I had lunch with my editor, Margaret Ferguson at FSG, and iced chocolate with my agent, Steve Fraser (meeting him under the clock at Grand Central Station, something I've always wanted to do). I spent one night with my dear grade-school friend Kim at her cozy home in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. And I took myself to the 150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland exhibit at the Morgan Library on Madison Avenue.

I even watched the lunar eclipse on an esplanade overlooking the East River. I really can't take credit for what the moon chooses to do, or not to do, but I watched it with eyes ready to feast on any fun that comes their way. Because fun plus fun equals more fun.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Buried Treasures: Archival Research on Eleanor Estes

In my career as a children's literature scholar, I have published several articles on the work of mid-twentieth century children's author Eleanor Estes, who received three Newbery Honor awards (for The Middle Moffat, Rufus M., and The Hundred Dresses) and the 1952 Newbery Medal for Ginger Pye. In fact, it is fair to say that I am the world's foremost living Eleanor Estes scholar - simply because hardly anybody else is doing any work nowadays on Eleanor Estes at all.

But you can't call yourself the world's foremost living Eleanor Estes scholar unless you've done archival work on Eleanor Estes, poring over her manuscripts and her editorial correspondence for insights into her creative process. So I needed to do that. And the last golden week of September, I did.

Many of Estes's papers are housed at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut; Estes was a native of West Haven, Connecticut, which became the fictionalized Cranbury of the Moffat and Pye books. My friend Lisa Rowe Fraustino, who always has excellent ideas, told me to apply for one of their travel grants for visiting scholars. I did, and received one, thanks to two scholar friends who wrote generous letters in support of my application.

So off I flew to Connecticut for a delicious, delightful, delectable week of doing nothing but reading box after box after box of Eleanor Estes materials in the lovely, peaceful reading room at the Dodd Research Center.

Every day I would arrive precisely at 9:00 and enter the reading room, taking with me only my pad of paper, paper, and cell phone (for taking photos of certain documents): no pens allowed!

The special collections librarians would bring one box at a time to my little table:
And I'd sit there hour after hour, taking notes:
Here, a few snippets:

Letter from Elisabeth Hamilton, Estes's first editor at Harcourt:
"I do agree with you about Disney. .  I've never seen many Disney pictures, but judging from one or two I can't imagine he would do anything nice with The Hundred Dresses."

Western Union telegram from Margaret McElderry, Estes's second editor, August 31, 1950:

Oh, why don't editors send authors Western Union telegrams today to acknowledge a book's arrival?

And, finally, this from one of Estes's speeches:
After showing the manuscript of her first book, The Moffats, to her New York Public Library supervisor, the towering and terrifying Miss Anne Carroll Moore, Estes received this response: "Well, Mrs. Estes, now that you have gotten this book out of your system, go back to being a good children's librarian." !!!

I read, and I read. My notes grew to 25 pages, with dozens of photos taken as well. Whenever I needed a break, I wandered over to the Bookworms Cafe in the UConn Babbidge Library across the plaza and bought myself a raspberry croissant or yogurt parfait. I also had lunch one day with two UConn children's literature faculty, guest-taught my friend Lisa's creative writing course at nearby Eastern Connecticut State, and gave a "University Hour" lecture there. Friday afternoon, my work completed, I celebrated by taking myself to tour the adjoining Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe houses in Hartford:
Alas, there is no Estes house open to the public to visit. If there had been, you can bet I would have been there, clipboard poised, ready to do my duty as the world's foremost (well, just about only) living Eleanor Estes scholar.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Happy Book Birthday to Nora

Today is the pub date for my newest book child, The Trouble with Ants, the first title in my new three-book series from Knopf, The Nora Notebooks.Nora is a serious, scientific girl who is in love with the ants she studies in her ant farm. But she knows that even as she loves her ants, they don't return her love. That isn't what ants do. And it's hard to get her parents and her classmates at school to love her ants. Apparently that isn't what most other human beings do, either.

I've had a lot of book children now. I think Nora is my 52nd child. As families get bigger, the fuss made over each new arrival tends to get smaller. Few people would host a baby shower for their tenth child, not to mention their 52nd.

And yet. . . . each child, each book, is still special and precious.

This is why I was touched and thrilled when my writing group, The Writing Roosters, had a meeting earlier this month that turned out to be . . . a surprise party for Nora!

There were ant-themed snacks.

There was a splendid ant centerpiece.

There were glasses of wine raised to toast ants.

And my heart was filled with love for my writer friends, who do love ants. Or at least love my book about a girl who loves them.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Do You Want a Children's Book Writing Mentor?

One of the most satisfying experiences of my long and varied writing career has been participating in the Michelle Begley Mentor Program of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Editors. Michelle created the program a number of years ago to foster interaction between established and aspiring children's book authors. She died in a tragic car accident last year, and the program now bears her name.

Here's how the program works. It's for serious writers who have already completed a full-length book manuscript and now want to revise it into publishable form with one-on-one guidance from a professional in the field. If accepted, you work for several months closely with your mentor, who reads your work and gives extensive supportive but critical commentary on it, working with you through multiple drafts until it's as good as you can make it right now.

I've lost track of how many people I've worked with over the past four or five years: maybe a dozen? I've loved each one so much. I just spent four hours one day this past week giving extremely detailed comments on fifty pages of the second draft of one's hilarious middle-grade novel, commenting on everything from lack of clarity in the character arc to implausibilities in details of the classroom setting to comma errors - with tons of comments on every page like "Ha!"and "So great!" and "OMG!!"

I don't consider myself to be a great writing teacher. I don't really know how to tell someone how to write a book. But if someone has already written a book, and hands it to me, then I'm on fire to offer all I can, distilled from thirty-five years of experience, to make it better. I feel that I can instantly see what a book needs to move it to that next level of greatness. Well, sometimes instantly. Sometimes I need to ponder for a while. But, oh, the joy of seeing the stronger, clearer structure of the story emerge - to add missing scenes that were needed to give emotional depth - to cut superfluous scenes that were mere distraction - to fix up those commas!!

The application window for this year's program is NOW: September 15-October 15. Information on how to apply is available here. I know most of the other mentors: they're all wonderful.

So if you want a mentor to move forward in your writing, and you're an SCBWI member, apply! (And if you're not an SCBWI member, join and then apply!) Magic can happen.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Falling in Love with Philosophy Again

In a life that has been spent falling in and out of love with philosophy, over and over again (see "Unleaving Philosophy"), I just spent a few days back at DePauw University falling in love once more.

I flew back to Indiana for the "Young Philosophers Lecture Series," created by Prindle Institute for Ethics director Andy Cullison when he was a faculty member at SUNY-Fredonia. It's a competitive lecture series, with four philosophers in the early years of their careers selected by blind review from a good-sized pool. The winners come to campus to give both an intro-level talk accessible to students and colleagues in other departments, and a research talk aimed at specialists in the field.

Last year when I attended my first Young Philosophers event, I was initially skeptical. I've spent so much of my own career sitting in the back of a room listening to incomprehensible, jargon-filled, needlessly technical, and frankly boring talks, just to be a good citizen of my academic community. I would avoid asking questions during the Q&A period for fear I'd look dumb in front of colleagues who excelled in dazzling thrust-and-parry argumentative sword play. (I did, however, get a lot of sonnets written as I tuned out and thought my own thoughts about other things.)

But Young Philosophers was fun. Tons of fun, actually. So I was pleased when Andy asked me to serve on the reviewers' panel this year: I could pick papers that I'd know in advance were NOT incomprehensible, jargon-filled, needlessly technical, and boring. I'd have an excuse to come back to my beloved DePauw, not that I needed an excuse, but still, it helps to have a reason to come some particular week rather than some other random time. And I could spend two days luxuriating in philosophy.

This year's four speakers were: Nina Emery, Brown University; John Pittard, Yale Divinity School; Jason D'Cruz, SUNY-Albany; and Samuel Kahn, IUPUI. Here are a few titles from the eight talks I heard over a period of two days:

"What's the Big Deal with Lethal Injection?"
"How Is It Possible to Deceive Yourself?"
"Two Very Different Reasons to Believe in Multiple Universes"
"A Scientific Realist's Guide to Objective Chance"

I listened, I learned, I asked questions as good as anybody else's questions, I ate delicious free Prindle Institute food and had wonderful wide-ranging conversations with fascinating visitors and colleagues.

I found myself thinking of the lyrics of my favorite Dolly Parton song, this time sung by me to philosophy: "Here you come again, lookin' better than a body has a right to, and shaking me up so, that I all I really know, is here you come again, and here I go..."

Monday, September 7, 2015

My Hobby: Judging Awards

One of my hobbies is judging awards. Over the past few decades I've judged so many. During my time at the University of Colorado I was a judge of the Graduate Student Teaching Excellence Award, which allowed me to observe classes by stellar nominees in dance, studio art, theater, French (I always tried to be the first judge to sign up so I would get dibs on all the classes that looked most delicious). As a writer, I've judged the Golden Kite Award for fiction from the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (winner my year: The Moorchild by Eloise McGraw), a manuscript-in-progress grant from the Utah Arts Council, and in 2005 (the crowning glory of my judging career), the National Book Award in the category of Literature for Young People (winner: The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall). 

Often the judging involves a huge amount of poorly paid and all but unrecognized work. So why do I love it so much? I just do. I love the power to be somebody's fairy godmother, giving them this lovely boost to help them achieve their dreams. I love visiting all those classes, reading all those books - after all, I loved being a student, sitting in class with my notebook open in front of me, and I love reading books, and having an excuse - nay, an obligation - to read so many. I love turning on the discerning part of my brain. I love it all.

Right now I have one of my most demanding judging gigs ever. I'm serving a three-year elected term as a judge of the Children's Literature Association's Phoenix Award: an award given each year to a children's book published 20 years previously which did not win a major award at the time but is now judged worthy of winning one. Our committee is currently working on the award for 2018, which means that I'm immersed in reading heaps and heaps of books published in 1998.

To make the task more manageable (there is no way we can read every children's or young adult book published in the English language in 1998!), we start by generating a list of contenders from books that received at least some critical acclaim at the time, from end-of -year best books lists to starred reviews. This year we ended up with a list of 170 titles which we now need to cull to a list of 20 or so, which will then receive extremely close reading and discussion. Oh, and we have two months to do this round of culling. Two months! To procure those 170 titles from various libraries (I'm lucky that CU has an excellent children's literature collection, and the Boulder Public Library is also outstanding) - and then to read them - or at least skim them - or otherwise form a basis for judging whether any given title is a contender.

I get up in the morning and read Phoenix books. I read them through the day. I read them before I go to bed at night. I am living my life in 1998. People in these books call each other on land lines (not under that name, of course). They fly on airplanes in a pre-9-11 security climate. But in other ways their world is all too much like ours: in Jacqueline Woodson's If You Come Softly a high-achieving black kid, son of a prominent filmmaker father and novelist mother, is gunned down by police as he is out jogging in the park).

There are other ways I could be spending my time. Writing my own books. Preparing my courses for the fall. Revising and expanding three scholarly articles into publishable form. But I'm a woman obsessed. I just want to read one more Phoenix book - and then another - and then another - and then another.

After all, this IS my hobby.

Sunday, August 23, 2015


Sometimes life brings with it sweet moments where all the different facets of our existence come together in lovely, unexpected ways.

Yesterday afternoon I was babysitting for Kataleya while her parents had a movie date. Addicted as I am to progress, I decided to take Kat with me to the local branch of the public library to pick up a book I had on hold: the YA novel Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. I had wanted to read it, anyway, as I had already read and enjoyed her Eleanor and Park, but now I actually needed to read it, as I've been asked to review an article on girl writers in Fangirl and Little Women, submitted to a children's literature journal. How delightful to have a double reason to spend an hour at the library: play time for Kat and Mimsie, and another item crossed off my long to-do list.

At the library, Kat was busy playing in the children's area, thick stubs of chalk clutched in each hand for scribbling on the chalk table, as I chatted with the parents of another little boy playing there as well. A mother and her two daughters approached us: "Excuse us for interrupting, but are you. . . Claudia Mills?" I spied a copy of my Kelsey Green, Reading Green in the huge batch of books they were preparing to check out.

Why, yes, I am Claudia Mills. And what is nicer than to encounter eager readers of my books? It turns out that Kelsey was being checked out for the younger sister; the older one had already read it, as well as Annika Riz, Math Whiz, and now had Izzy Barr, Running Star on hold for a future library checkout. Her mother recognized me because they read my blog - this blog! She had seen the picture of me by the world's biggest ball of twine. She's the kind of mom who not only takes her girls to the library every week for two bulging shopping bags filled with books, but devours author blogs as well to immerse them fully in the world of children's literature.

I told my young fan about my forthcoming Nora Notebooks series, mentioning the launch title, The Trouble with Ants, which tells of Nora's enthusiasm for her ant farm. "Nora, of the Mason Dixon books? she asked. Yes! I hugged her, overcome with love for someone who had read my books so closely and remembered them so well.

The parents of the first adorable little boy joined in the conversation. That dad is a third grade teacher, who now plans to look for my books to share with his students.

So as I was there at the library to check out Fangirl, I met my own young fangirl, and her wonderful family, and gained an opportunity to connect with yet more kids who might become future fangirls and fanboys. I ask you: What could be more perfect than that?

Friday, August 21, 2015

Act Three, One Year Later

Today is my birthday.

Last year my birthday launched what I've been calling Act III, the last and best act of my life. I saw the birthday, my big 6-0, as a major life milestone. That same year I took early retirement, after 22 years, from my job as a professor in the philosophy department of the University of Colorado, irrevocably surrendering my tenure in a satisfying bridge-burning way. I became a grandmother: my grandmother name is Mimsie, and eighteen-month-old Kataleya and I are each others' most beloved companions. I published my 50th children's book, Annika Riz, Math Whiz. I was clearly at a watershed moment in my life.

Now a year has passed. Act III so far has been lovely, but not what I thought it would be. So, herewith, some birthday reflections.

Act III hasn't really turned out to be all that different from Act II. I woke up on my birthday last year, and, well, I was still the same person. Maybe this should have been less of a surprise than it was. But I somehow had envisioned myself now leaping out of bed to exercise with hand weights, standing on one foot for minutes at a time to enhance my sense of balance, writing some new kind of book different from anything I'd ever written before (more, say, the kind of book that would win the National Book Award), and using my newly empty days for what Brenda Ueland calls "moodling" - long, slow reflection that leads to big, deep ideas.

None of those things happened. I did the hand weights for two days and then lost interest. Ditto for standing on one foot, though I know that this is the single most crucial thing I can do to maintain my quality of life as I age. Falls killed my mother, and I've already had several, including one that led to a broken foot with a most irritating period of convalescence. Okay, memo to self: this year I really truly am going to stand on one foot at a time for a full two minutes every single day!

I also found that I'm not much for moodling. What I like is to be busy, busy, busy. Maybe this is a failing in me, a sign that in some subconscious way I need to distract myself continually from meditation on life's woes? Maybe it's fear of tackling the unknown in a way that I would do better to push on through? In any case, I feel restless and blue after days where I don't have anything concrete to show for myself. I want to have pages written (preferably on a book already under contract, with a pressing deadline). I want to advise writing mentees (preferably lots of them), review articles for journals, design courses to teach, even grade papers (giving myself credit for each batch of five graded). I'm addicted to visible, tangible signs of progress. I just am.

So within a month of my Act III-launching birthday, I surprised myself by signing up to teach again, heading back to Indiana for one more sweet semester at DePauw this past spring, and now securing myself a teaching appointment there for this coming spring as well, where I'll be teaching three courses, including two that I've never taught before, and one that nobody has ever taught before, which I invented myself: an honors scholar course on "The Ethics of Story."

I feel my usual guilt at leaving my family for so long to sojourn elsewhere. How Tanky the little dog will miss me, his champion walker! How Kataleya will stand at the gate at the bottom of the stairs and cry for Mimsie! My heart breaks already just thinking about it. And yet. . . I'm just someone who thrives on time away from home, just as I thrive on time here immersed in the heart of my loving family. I like to be here. But I also like to be there. And so I'm trying to arrange a life where I have both.

One year in, Act III has brought some (perhaps rueful) self-recognition. I yam what I yam. And yet. . . I still feel tingly with a sense of possibility, and a twinge of envy, when friends radically upend their entire existence, as when a DePauw librarian friend suddenly moved her entire family permanently (well, permanently for now) to New Zealand, and an author/illustrator friend decided to get an MFA at the University of Edinburgh, selling her house and starting all over again in a foreign land. Something in me can't stop reading websites about retiring in Ecuador or Estonia.

But for now: this is my life, part in Colorado, part in Indiana, part with my family, part by myself a thousand miles away, teaching the courses I like to teach, writing the books I like to write, being who I am in the way that I'm used to being. But I AM going to start standing on one foot for two minutes a day!

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Two Writers on the Road

I'm home from a girlfriend road trip to Branson, Missouri, with my friend Leslie, a trip filled with madcap, picaresque adventures. Well, a trip filled with the madcap, picaresque adventures that Leslie is dreaming up for the characters in her novel-in-progress. For this was a research trip, and I was invited to tag along with her: her story takes place during a girlfriend road trip, and what better girlfriend to share a practice trip than a fellow writer?

I can't reveal the details of Leslie's book, but she planned the whole itinerary with possible plot points in mind. So we needed to spend the night in Cawker City, Kansas, where we saw the world's largest ball of twine.
We were required to attend a comedy hypnosis show (what secret might a character reveal under hypnosis?), as well as other popular Branson shows such as Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede and male quartet Pierce Arrow (which had a truly great standup comic). We made a literary pilgrimage to Laura Ingalls Wilder's farm at Rocky Ridge.
For research purposes we visited some sites off the usual tourist itinerary, such as the local jail and a casino where a key scene may be set. On the way home, we found ourselves 650 feet below ground in a salt mine.
My role in the trip was just to be a companion and fellow brainstormer, so I gave my plotting muscles a great workout, as Leslie is a master plotter and inspired me to new levels of comic complexity.

I was also hoping that along the way I might stumble upon the seed that could grow into my own next book, as currently I'm in that uneasy, stressful time of groping toward The Next Idea.

I didn't find one. At least I don't think I did. But if a future book should call for a scene at the world's largest ball of twine, or involve a character's obsession with Little House on the Prairie, or benefit from familiarity with the mining of salt, I'm ready. I tried to pay extra attention to the children we saw on on the trip, monitoring their moments of joy or discomfort at all they were experiencing.

A new idea will come. It always does, enriched by all the humdrum - and wonderfully bizarre- things we do as we wait for the well to fill up again. This past week mine filled up mightily.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Writing versus Rewriting

Most of my author friends say that revision is by far their favorite part of the writing process. They have to force themselves to confront that initial blank page and write that inevitably bad first draft in order to get to the real joy of writing, which comes in revision. I took an online writing course a few years ago from writing guru Denis Foley. Among his many memorable aphorisms was that the writing process has three stages: 1) think it up; 2) write it up;  3) fix it up. He claimed that the vast majority of a writer's time should be devoted to #1 and #3, with #2 done as quickly as possible.

I'm trying to sort out my own stance toward (initial) writing versus (repeated sessions of ) rewriting. I find the joy that comes in writing to be more simple and direct; rewriting brings more exhilaration, but also more disappointment and exhaustion.

So here is my own personal balance sheet of comparisons:

1. I can write for only an hour a day; I can rewrite for as many hours a day as I can sit at the computer, dragged away only by competing life obligations or mental/physical fatigue. I feel completely satisfied by my hour a day as I create the story for the first time; I need time away to allow what I've written to settle, to allow the creative well to refill. But with revision, at least once I have my plan for revision in place, I just want to do more, more, MORE.

2. With the initial writing, I have a more transparent and unmediated connection with my characters. I feel as if I hear them talking and just write down what they say. Actually, that isn't quite true. That makes it sound as if I hear them talking first and THEN write down what they say. Instead, it's more that they talk through my pen, that as my pen flies across the page I'm giving voice to these characters, discovering what they are doing and how they are reacting to what other people have done. Intellect plays little role. I'm a medium at a seance.

Revision for me is much more intellectual. It involves considerable analysis: this scene isn't working - why? - how can it be fixed? My editor said my main character was unlikeable (ouch!) - what can I do to tone down her unlikeable features and let the reader see her more loveable side? What scene can I add to develop a currently underdeveloped subplot?

3. With the initial writing, I don't see what I'm writing as bad AT ALL. I think it's wonderful. In the act of creation I believe that this truly is going to be my best book EVER. But I revise in the wake of extensive critique from my writing group and editor. So I already know that the book as written is deeply flawed. Of course, I can fix at least some of these flaws. That's where the exhilaration comes in: look how much better it is!! Look!!!! It may not be - what's the word - good - but wow, is it better!

But then the despair haunts me: is better good enough? For my current work-in-progress, the one I spent most of July revising, my editor sent me, two days ago, a four-word assessment over email: "It is much better." Then in the extensive editorial letter that followed, she added a fifth word: "It is much, much better." But when the book is published, readers will not have the opportunity to compare it to its earlier drafts and say, "Wow, can that woman revise!" They'll just read it and give it a three-out-of-five-star review on Goodreads: Ehh.

4) So with revision, a certain fatigue and weariness begin to overcome me. It takes so many drafts to make it "better."And then all you get is . . . "better." For me, first drafts are written in a pre-dawn dream, spurred by hope that THIS will be my best book yet. Revision takes place in the unforgiving light of day. Nope, probably not my best book. Just a better book than it was before. And then, as I send off yet another round of revisions to my wonderful, insightful, demanding, amazing editor, I think, "Well, maybe the NEXT book. . . ." And I begin to yearn to feel my fingers racing across the page again, clutching my beloved Pilot Razor Point fine-tipped black marker pen, making the hope-driven magic take place anew.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Revision: How Many Crititiquers Spoil the Book?

I'm emerging from an intensive round of revisions on my middle-grade-novel-in-progress. I truly don't think I've ever worked harder in my life, though admittedly, as an hour-a-day writer, it doesn't take much for me to exceed my usual self-imposed limits. But for the past several weeks, I've been working five hours a day, frantically, obsessively, wanting nothing more in my life than to FIX THIS BOOK.

This is the third round of revisions on this particular title. I did the first last December in response to extremely thoughtful comments from my new Boulder writing group, who dazzled me in the thoroughness of the amassed comments from the six of them. I sent it to my editor on New Year's Day and received comments from her in April, via a lengthy phone conversation. They were . . . sobering. The thing she liked least about the book was the thing I consider my greatest strength: characterizations. I moped, I sulked, I pouted, and then I sat myself down and revised.

As I was waiting for her response to the new, deeper, richer characterizations, I had two other writer friends read the manuscript; we had formed a little critique group last summer when we taught together in the graduate program in children's literature at Hollins and decided to reconvene in virtual form this summer. They had plenty to say. Plenty. As I was moping, sulking, and pouting again, I heard from my editor. The characterizations were so much better this time! Whew! But . . . the book still wasn't working. The three different story lines didn't connect. It didn't build to one clear climax. Readers wouldn't be able to know what the book was about. In other words, the problem with the book lay with what I consider my greatest strength of all: structure.

In despair, I forwarded her comments to my two Hollins friends and got back MORE critical feedback from them. One of them even told me kindly that she had experienced similar problems in one of her "early books" (this is my 57th!!!).

I considered asking another writer friend to read it. I considered hiring the brilliant Plot Doctors to give me their consultation.

But then I decided: I had already had TOO MUCH CRITICISM.

For better or worse, now I needed to fix the book MYSELF. I poured myself a glass of orange juice, with a generous shot of vodka. I barricaded myself in my bedroom with a pad of paper on my knees, and then and there I made a plan to provide the structure the book currently lacked. As soon as I made the plan, I knew it was a good one. I sent it to my editor, and she agreed.

So all I had to do was toil mightily for weeks to implement the plan. Which I did.

And, oh, the improvement! That is why I was able to work so long and so hard, because I could see before my eyes dazzling improvement in every deleted scene, every added scene, and most of all, every rearranged scene. I was ashamed I had ever let anybody read it in its previous incarnations. I was a writer on fire!!

I sent the book off two days ago, with the conservative estimate that it is now a million times better. In the revisions, I made use of comments from every single critiquer who read it along the way. Each one contributed something of genuine value to the revision.

So: how many critics are too many? How many critics are just the right number? I do believe that every good, smart, thoughtful reader has some insight worth having. And yet. . . .it's so easy for a writer to feel despair at the volume of negative comments on one little book (even, or especially, extremely valid negative comments).

I've tentatively decided, now, after the fact, that the only limit to the number of critiques that is helpful is the mental fortitude of the writer: how much she can stand hearing. In this case, I was done after getting comments from two editors (Margaret and her assistant, Susan, twice), and eight other writers. That was all I could take: stick a fork in me, I'm done!

But I have to admit the book is better for every single one. After all the moping, sulking, and pouting comes gratitude. Thank you, dear critics, for every line of criticism, even if at some point I needed to stuff my ears and move on.

Thank you.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Authors Just Want to Have Fun

I used to decide whether or not to accept an author invitation by asking myself how much this or that appearance or event would advance my career. Well, actually, I mainly said yes to everything. There is a lot to be said for making YES your default setting - for  being what I call "a yay-sayer to the universe." And I still pretty much say yes to everything. But insofar as I pick and choose, my new criterion for picking and choosing is: will this be FUN?

Last weekend I had the most glorious fun ever at Denver's new children's bookstore, Second Star to the Right. Even its name makes me happy. (For those who may not remember: Peter Pan gives his address to Wendy as "second star to the right and straight on till morning.) The warm, friendly introductory email from Dea, the store owner, made me happy. The thought of getting to explore the Tennyson Street art district (which also boasts Denver's new cat cafe, the Denver Cat Company, where you can cuddle cats as you sip your tea) made me happy.

Then the event itself exceeded my happy expectations. The store is adorable. Dea and her husband, Mark, are off-the-charts gracious as hosts. Their assistant, Jordan, who in the rest of her life is a third grade teacher, was my best customer of the day.

Here is how adorable the store is:

Could anything be more adorable? Correct answer: no.

Did I sell a ton of books? No, but I sold some. Did I greet a throng of fans? No, but I had a delightful conversation with some wonderful kids and their parents, and a favorite former grad student surprised me by showing up with his wife and mega-huggable baby. Afterward I visited some kitties and bought myself a glass of sangria at the Book Bar across the street, another most pleasing establishment.

I had a wonderful afternoon of nonstop fun.

So: if anybody need an author to do anything fun, please give me a call!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Healthy Hump Day

Today is my last day at the Prindle Institute for Ethics, my last day at DePauw University, my last day in sweet Greencastle, Indiana. . . for now.

It has been a very happy day. Every day in Indiana is a very happy day for me.

I puttered at my desk in my office at the beautiful Prindle Institute.

There is no place I've ever found to work that is so peaceful, so serene, so perfect for immersion in a creative or scholarly task. Well, maybe this one, the adjacent Bartlett Reflection Center:
I come to the Reflection Center when I want to write, or think about writing, or get inspired to write. But I would never do other work in the Reflection Center. It would be a sacrilege to grade papers there. I do only work that seems to me in some way holy.

But the Prindle is perfect for all other work, from reading for class, to writing an essay, to paying bills.

This summer, Linda Clute, our assistant director, has declared Wednesday of each week to be a "Healthy Hump Day," with the lunch hour dedicated to some activity to bolster physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual health, preceding or following a healthy communal lunch.Today is our fifth Wednesday of the summer. I had to miss the intervening three Wednesdays, off in Boulder with my family and at ChLA in Richmond, but these were the activities so far:

1. Yoga and smoothies (I went to that one: yay and yum!)
2. Walk on a trail in the nature park
3. Guided meditation
4. Discussion of essays from Small Wonder by Barbara Kingsolver
5. TODAY: potluck salad bar and drawing mandelas

Until today I didn't know what mandelas were, exactly. They're defined and presented in various ways. We thought of them as geometric patterns that reflect the relation of the self to the universe, or, in other words, an excuse to get out art supplies and spend a  happy half hour coloring. Colored pencils! Crayons! The smell of Crayola in the air!

Here are mandela creations from the five of us:

Which one do you think was mine? Hint: the busy, happy-looking one in front center, souvenir of this busy, happy day.

Oh, Prindle, how I will miss you! Oh, Indiana, farewell for now . . . .

Monday, June 22, 2015

"The High Stakes and Dark Sides of Children's Literature"

I'm back from four blissful days at the annual Children's Literature Association (ChLA) conference. ChLA is an 800-member organization of children's literature scholars, chiefly English professors who specialize in children's lit, or at least who teach it and write about it every chance they get. This year the conference was hosted by Longwood University and held in Richmond, VA. The theme was the site-appropriate rallying cry of Patrick Henry: "Give me liberty or give me death!", with the subtitle, "The High Stakes and Dark Sides of Children's Literature."

Last year I was president of the organization, which was thrilling but also stressful. This year I was past president, and now I'm not any kind of president at all, as the new ChLA administrative year begins at the conference. (Well, I'm still a past president, and always will be, but that is no longer my official title and slot on the board of directors). So I spent much of the conference reveling in how I was NOT running an all-day board meeting, or presiding over the general membership meeting, or delivering a presidential address, or serving as mistress of ceremonies for the awards banquet. I was just there as a happy, eager scholar in a world of other happy, eager scholars. 

My paper, fortunately, was in the second session of the first day (I love to go first and be done right away). This year my paper was called "The Dark Side of Goodness: The Woodbegoods, Betsy-Tacy and Tib, and Ivy and Bean: Bound to Be Bad." The three texts I look at, published over the span of a full century, all feature children who are trying very hard to be unusually good - and who as a result of their very efforts end up being unusually bad. My project was to try to figure out what it is about "aspirational goodness" that tends to backfire: what misunderstandings about the moral life do these three texts wryly expose?

My paper was paired on a panel with two others. Sometimes the conference organizers manage to achieve brilliance in their panel matchmaking; sometimes they end up with a few sessions that are a mixed-up mishmash. Ours was one of the brilliant ones. My paper resonated particularly well with the one immediately preceding it, by Prof. Sarah Winters of Nipissing University in Canada, who spoke on "The Dark Side of the Light: The Conflict between Love and Goodness in The Dark Is Rising and Harry Potter." I now have a new friend for life.

I came away from the conference wild to redesign the children's literature course I'm going to teach at DePauw next spring, wild to revise and publish my two most recent papers on Eleanor Estes (one on Pinky Pye and one on Rufus M.) following the archival research I'm going to do at the University of Connecticut this fall, wild to think of something stunning to offer at next year's conference (to be held in Columbia, hosted by Ohio State) where I've been invited to join in a panel on "the family story" in the 21st century, and wild to read the long list of books I discovered at the conference.

Give me children's literature, or give me death! Well, give me a few sweet days at this particular children's literature conference, and I will have little to complain about in my life for a long, long time.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

"Me Party"

One thing I love about having so many children's book author and children's literature scholar friends is that communications from them are infused with whimsy and delight. Case in point: this coming week is the annual conference of the scholarly Children's Literature Association, held this year in Richmond, Virginia. Emails have been flying back and forth to arrange various get-togethers, including our "midnight feast" where a few of us gather in somebody's hotel room to huddle on the beds, eat candy, and read aloud bits from favorite children's books. One person is bringing her mother, husband, and daughter to the dinner before the midnight feast: "So we'll be a party of four." That prompted another to report that she was just bringing herself, and so would be a "party of one." And then she gave us a link to the song about being a "party of one" - Me Party - from the Muppets movie.

I had never seen this clip before, where the always adorable Amy Adams joins Miss Piggy in singing about the pleasures of having a grand old time all by oneself.

Last night I had a lovely Me Party. Gregory was playing with a little combo at the posh St. Julien Hotel here in Boulder. All of my possible dates canceled on me for various reasons. So I headed out alone, using my beloved Ecopass to ride for free on my beloved Skip bus, and arriving at the hotel's beautiful patio just as the band was beginning to play. I ordered a glass of their house Merlot. I entertained myself with some people watching and then started to read a fabulous proposal for a new handbook on research in children's literature that I'm reviewing for a press. Gregory had an exquisite solo on tenor sax. The wine was delicious. Yay for a Me Party!

Then my friends Gretchen and Doug, who had thought they couldn't come, arrived after all, and my Me Party became a Three Party. They are both avid and excellent swing dancers, so they couldn't resist getting up to twirl each other around for "Fly Me to the Moon" and other jazz standards. I didn't feel left out. I had already been having the time of my life at my Me Party. So I could go back to being Happy Me as they danced. And then be Happy Three when they rejoined me at the table.

The sun set, reddening the Flatirons with its glow. Hotel guests came out on their balconies to take pictures of it with their cellphones, and hear the music, and savor the Colorado evening. Now my Me Party was a big party, with guests galore.

And so the evening continued. How lucky I am to know how fun a Me Party can be, or a Three Party, or any party at all. Thank you, Amy Adams. Thank you, Miss Piggy. 

Saturday, June 6, 2015

How to Revise a Book

I'm in the throes of major revisions on my novel-in-progress for Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, tentatively titled Write This Down. As always happens with me, I've gone from thinking of the revision prospects for this book as hopeless to having the first round of major revisions done - and easily done. So I'm trying to distill my own guidelines for myself in making the revision journey in the hope that these may be helpful for some of you.

These guidelines work only in the situation when you already have feedback from a trusted editor, trusted writing group, or other trusted first reader. For me, feedback from others is absolutely essential. How do I know if what I've written is funny if I don't know if a reader laughs? How do I know if what I've written is touching if I don't know if a reader gets tears in her eyes? The chief issue I'm wrestling with in this book is that my editor thought my protagonist - whom I adored - was "unlikeable." How can I know how others respond to my main character unless I ask them? So this leads to the first step in the list I'm making for myself now.

1. Get feedback from a trusted editor/writing group/reader.

2. Wait to revise until you truly accept that feedback. This may mean letting some time pass. (Luckily, when you are dealing with editorial feedback, you're all but guaranteed that lots of time will have passed). For me, this usually means having additional conversations with my editor/readers to make sure I really get what isn't working for them about the manuscript as it stands. (They themselves may not even have distilled this fully until probed by your thoughtful questions.) Even though I trust my editor completely, I can't revise on blind trust alone. I have to get it myself: get exactly why the book isn't working now.

2. Save the old manuscript in a different file and create a new file for the revised one. This is also key for me. The new file is where I'm merely trying out revision ideas. The old file remains safely preserved should I change my mind and like it better, after all. This has never ever happened for me in my entire career. But knowing that first draft remains untouched allows me more freedom to experiment.

3. Just start. Yes, right now you have no idea how to proceed, but just start anywhere. I have two approaches to this. Sometimes I start with low-hanging fruit: I pick the one problem with the manuscript that I know I can fix easily. This tends to be inefficient, because it may mean fixing small cosmetic things that may not even survive the final revision; it's been likened to "wallpapering a wall that's just going to be knocked down." But I thrive on seeing progress, on gathering any forward momentum. In my current manuscript, my editor (and one writing group friend) disliked the name of Autumn's brother's band. I changed that in five minutes, or less. Yay!

Usually, though, it just means starting in the first chapter and going on from there. Here I had to add two new chapters before the previous first chapter, as it was important to establish Autumn as a writer and show in real time, not offstage as I had it before, the crucial incident with her brother that sets the story in motion. (Yes, I actually had this mentioned only in passing the first time around. Terrible! Horrible! But I couldn't see this until I got outside feedback.)

So: just START.

4. Each revision session, read over the revisions you've made so far before going on. This also allows me to pat myself on the back for what I've already accomplished: "Look how much better it is already!" It also allows me to tinker and wordsmith as I go, which I like at this stage, as I want to feel that each chapter is building a sound foundation for the new structure and shape of the book. But others may disagree on this point and urge you just to keep going, which is good advice, too. Chiefly, though, rereading the first revised portion in this way every day plunges me directly into the altered world of this new draft.

5. When you have enough confidence in how the revisions are going, read through the rest of the entire manuscript on the screen and make notes for yourself about what else needs to be done. I make my notes right on the manuscript all in caps so they are easy to see. ADD NEW SCENE BETWEEN AUTUMN AND HER FATHER HERE. Or: MAKE DAD LESS MEAN. Or: TONE DOWN AUTUMN'S SNARKINESS RE HUNTER. Or: ADD REFERENCE TO KYLEE'S KNITTING. Oh, the bliss of knowing that I have a plan, a real honest-to-goodness plan!

6. Keep going.

7. Keep going.

8. Don't change things that don't need changing! This is the single biggest way that I see writer friends go wrong. In their zeal to overhaul a manuscript, they change stuff that WAS working, stuff the reader liked BEST. Don't do this! In order to avoid doing this, make sure you know ahead of time what readers did like about the book. If it's nothing at all, maybe you should set this aside and write a different book. But if there are a lot of strengths in the story already, don't mess with them. You are NOT writing a new book; you are revising THIS one. I try to revise surgically and fix only what needs to be fixed. This is the single biggest reason why I am faster than most of my writer friends at revising.

9. When you are all the way through with this round of revisions, and you've done all you can do at this point, send the book back to your editor/writing group/reader for their reactions. Hope that they are not assessing this as the "after" to the previous "before," but in its own right. It really doesn't matter if the book is better than it was. What matters is if it's good enough, measured against literary standards that have nothing to do with comparing how it is now to how it was then. But don't agonize any more. Send it off!!! Let others do your agonizing for you. That I am willing to do this is the second biggest reason why I am faster than most of my writer friends at revising.

10. When you get their comments back, repeat this process again (and again, and again) as needed.

See? Revision isn't hard. It really isn't!