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.