Sunday, October 30, 2016

"Still Two More Days"

Many of my friends know that I love the beginning of each new month, for its promise and potential. In fact, I always start an entire new life on the first day of a month: a life in which I'll be frugal, fit, and astonishingly productive. I make specific goals for each month. As often as not, I fail to achieve them. But I generally come closer to attaining them than I would have if I hadn't made them a new-life priority.

This past month I shared my goals with one of my friends who is also a new-life-celebrator. I had five:

1) Writing and submitting a book proposal for a new chapter book series;
2) Revising and submitting a scholarly article on Ginger Pye and Pinky Pye by Eleanor Estes;
3) Doing a good job as a mentor/adviser to several people;
4) Losing two pounds;
5) Figuring out "this work/family/life balance thing.

A few days ago, as I saw the end of October looming, I had this progress report to give myself:

Goal #1: Not done!
Goal #2: Not done!
Goal #3: Accomplished - made easier by the fact that I actually HAD to do it;
Goal #4: Not done! In fact, the opposite was done: I GAINED two pounds;
Goal #5: Not really the kind of goal that could ever be done, but maybe some progress had been made.

This was not a glowing report card to give myself.

I was ready to tell myself, as I so often do at the end of the month: Oh, well, I guess this month's new life didn't work out, but a new month is about to begin, and everything will be different next time, everything!

But then I remembered the therapist/life coach whom I used to see many years ago when I lived in Maryland. One month I went to report to her on the morning of the 30th day of a 31-day month, to confess my month's total failure. And she said words I've never forgotten: "There're still two more days."

This month, after tabulating my disappointing balance sheet of successes and failures a couple of days ago, I remembered those magic words from Judy Alexander: "There're still two more days." And in my case this time: FOUR more days!

I'm proud to report that ten minutes ago I crossed off Goal #1: I finished and sent off a book proposal for a new chapter book series to my editor. I think it's good. I think they might take it. And if they don't, they'll give me feedback that will get me that much closer next time.

So even though Goal #2 was a total bust, and Goal #4 was a total bust squared, and Goal #5 was un-doable, I accomplished Goal #3, which mattered to me, and then, with hours to spare, I pulled off Goal #1, which is probably the single most important goal for my long-term future right now.

Advice to self (and to you, if you want to use it): Don't give up prematurely on a month (or a day, or a week, or a year, or a lifetime). Don't write off October on October 28th, or October 29th, or October 30th. Or even on Halloween morning. It's possible to achieve a major life goal even as the finish line looms.

There're still two more days.

Thank you, Judy Alexander.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Launch Party!

When I first became a published children's book author several decades ago, there was no such thing as a "launch party" for a book, or at least I had never heard of one. Books entered the world on a certain official "pub date," but I never knew or cared what the date actually was. A carton of my personal author copies would arrive at the house, and that's how I knew the book had come to exist as a tangible, physical object.

Now all my author friends host launch parties for their new books, at a local bookstore or library, and we all go to each other's parties. It's a wonderful opportunity both  to support fellow authors and to get together to socialize. It's rare in life that we get the chance to celebrate our achievements, or rather, that we take the chance and make the time and effort to do so. But why not celebrate whenever we have something worth celebrating? I just read this line from the inimitable Oprah Winfrey: "The more you celebrate your life, the more there is in life to celebrate."

Last night the Boulder Bookstore, our community's treasured independent bookstore, hosted the celebration for my most recent book, Write This Down.
It was a magical evening for me in every way. The small presentation space was crammed full to overflowing; my assistant for the evening (provided by the store) counted some 64 people in attendance.

Who were these people who joined me in this joyous christening of my newest book child?

My fellow authors: members of my "old" writing group, members of my "new" writing group, and authors I've met at various "write-ins" at each other's houses and, of course, at each other's launch parties.

My beloved church family: St. Paul's United Methodist Church turned out in force!

My nephew Terry, who must have brought ten other family members, neighbors, co-workers, and friends.

Former philosophy department colleagues and graduate students.

Neighbors and friends both old and new.

Even some strangers! The store managed to get me some terrific publicity in both the Boulder Daily Camera and the Denver Post.

I think my talk went well. Heck, why should I be so modest? My talk was one of my minor triumphs. The heroine of my book, Autumn, is an aspiring seventh-grade writer who scribbles love poems for her secret crush, Cameron. Fifty years ago (!) I was an aspiring seventh-grade writer who scribbled love poems for multiple crushes. I saved them all and was able to share some of the most extravagant ones last night. My best advice to young writers: save everything you write! you will be glad you did!

I even had book-themed snacks. Autumn adores Nutella, so my daughter-in-law, Ashley, found me a recipe for Nutella brownies on Pinterest, and I must say they were extremely delicious. (I have a huge quantity left over if you want to stop by my house today for brownies and more seventh-grade love poems.)

Thank you, Boulder Bookstore, for hosting me so well and so warmly. Thank you, beloved friends, for showing up en masse to fete the arrival into the world of this newest book. Thank you to all those who would have come if they could and who sent congratulatory emails and texts.

Yesterday all I felt like doing was preparing for this celebration. Today all I feel like doing is thanking anyone and everyone who was a part of it.

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Perils of Having Too Much Time

When October began, it stretched before me as a landscape of unrivaled bliss. Or to quote John Keats:

SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness!
  Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
  With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run. . .

It was to be a month in which I had no looming deadlines, no accumulated store of Loathsome Tasks to dispatch, no trips to prepare for or recover from. It would be a month in which I would have three days a week, 8:30-2:30, when my adored two-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter would be off at her adorable preschool to play with her sweet new friends. Time to write a proposal for a new chapter book series for my publisher! Time to revise and expand my scholarly paper on Ginger Pye and Pinky Pye by Eleanor Estes. Time to research an idea I have for a picture book biography! Time for everything!

Alas, a week into the month, I must confess that my vines have been been loaded and blessed with a most paltry amount of fruit. Here's why.

I wake up each morning at 5, as I am wont to do. But instead of hopping out of bed to make myself a mug of Swiss Miss hot chocolate and settle down to write, I think, "Oh, but I have all day! I'll have SIX WHOLE HOURS to get work done." And so I snuggle back down under the covers and doze a little bit longer. Or I do wake up but instead of writing I do some email or read one of the huge stack of books I have from the library for my judging of the Children's Literature Association's Phoenix Award. After all, those tasks have to be done, too, right? And I'll still have SIX WHOLE HOURS to get real work done later.

But when later comes, when those six beautifully empty hours finally begin, I find I've somehow lost all desire to work. It feels to me that today is already as good as over, and oh well, it didn't work out as planned. But not to worry! The month is still young, and so much time awaits!

And then this same scenario repeats itself. And repeats itself again.

This shouldn't surprise me. I've had decades now to learn this basic truth about how I work. If I don't give my first, best hour of the day to the work I think is most important - in my case, writing - I'm not going to get the writing done at all. Period. I've been getting more work done on my time-pinched days than on my time-luxuriant days, because on those rushed days, I've followed my tested routine: get up early, drink hot chocolate, write for an hour, walk for an hour. Then I hug myself with joy for the rest of the day - and end up accomplishing all kinds of other little things as well, with all that momentum to carry me forward.

Why do I have to keep reminding myself of this over and over again? I know that early hours work for me, and nothing else does. I know, in fact, that ONE glorious early hour is all I need to have a happy, productive life. 

So tomorrow I will leap from bed - or straggle from bed - or crawl from bed - at 5 a.m. I will write from 5:05-6:05 while sipping hot chocolate. I will do it! I will! I will! If I do, the rest of my life will be wonderful. If there is anything I know for certain, this is it. 

Monday, October 3, 2016

Happiness as an Environmental Design Challenge

My sister and I both adore the self-help books of the wise, witty, and wonderful Barbara Sher. We've practically memorized whole stretches of her first book, Wishcraft, published in 1979. What makes Barbara Sher such a brilliant life coach is that she doesn't encourage readers to try to change themselves: "All I'm going to tell you right now is that you won't have to change yourself because, one, it can't be done, and two, you're fine the way you are." Instead, she offers practical advice for how to create an environment in which somebody like you can thrive on her own terms.

That is to say, our task is one of environmental design: what do I need to be the best version of myself? Once we answer this question, the rest is all just logistics.

Lately I've been doing a lot of detective work to sleuth out the parameters of an environment in which I survive and flourish. I already knew that I require, on a daily basis, what I call my "four pillars of happiness": writing, reading, walking, and friends. The beauty of these four pillars is that engaging with them is something almost entirely within my control: I can choose to spend my time this way, or not. They cost me nothing, at least in terms of money; they do take time, but it's time spent doing what I love best. So whenever I sense my life drifting off course, I remind myself of these four elements that for me are the foundation of everything.

I also need at least one hour a day to work undisturbed. Lately that's been hard to find, so my environmental design challenge has been to find that time. I wrote about this in a post back in June. Since then I've located a near-perfect solution, as my adorable but distracting resident two-and-a-half year-old now attends the world's sweetest little preschool on MWF 8:30-2:30. It doesn't give me an hour a day, exactly, but it certainly gives me an abundance of just-me time every week.

Now I'm coming to realize that I also need a few days a month when I'm elsewhere altogether. Not too many: I was desperately homesick for the first five months of this year when I was a thousand miles away from home, teaching in Indiana. But three days away from home a month is bliss. Or two, or four, or five. Six starts to feel a bit too long - but only a bit.

So now I have my new environmental design challenge: to find a way to absent myself from home for a short stay each month. The challenge comes with these conditions: The trip can't cost very much. Ideally it would cost nothing. Ideally I would not PAY to do it, but GET PAID  to do it. Added bonus: I'd get paid to do it in a way that would advance my writing/scholarly career AND be fun AND involve seeing old friends AND take me to some place beautiful. My trip last month to South Carolina met all of those criteria.

I do have a trip lined up for November, to give some talks at Carleton College in Minnesota. In December I have a family gathering to which I'll travel in a nephew's car and stay at a niece's house, so a low-cost getaway. I have two work-related trips in February, one to D.C. and one to Missouri, and another one to Missouri in March. One I have to pay to go to (tax-deductible); for the other two I get paid - hooray! Now I need to put on my thinking cap - or rather, my environmental engineer's hard hat - and figure out delectable outings for October, January, April, May, and for every month for the rest of my life after that.

Luckily, inspired by Barbara Sher, I love environmental design challenges. Bring 'em on! What better use of what's left of my brain power than to create a life in which I can be the happiest me that I can be?