Sunday, December 31, 2017

Keeping a Promise I Made to Myself

It is now the last day of 2017.

On the first day of 2017 I made a commitment to myself: to submit something somewhere every single month. I worked out some rules. It had to be something new - I couldn't just submit the same manuscript twelve times to twelve different places. But it didn't have to be something completely new: it could be a significantly revised and resubmitted version of a previous manuscript. The project specified nothing about having any of these submissions accepted. I was giving myself a grade on effort, not results. But I wouldn't count something as a submission unless I thought it had at least a chance of being accepted. I couldn't just scrawl a four-line ditty and send it off to The New Yorker.

Here is my report on the first eleven months of the year.

JANUARY: sent a grant proposal to the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota Libraries for travel funds to spend a week in Minneapolis doing research on Maud Hart Lovelace, author of my beloved Betsy-Tacy books  - VERDICT: I got it! And spent a most happy and productive week there in May.

FEBRUARY: revised an old and never-submitted philosophy paper, "Artistic Integrity," my last-hurrah as a now-retired philosophy professor, and sent it off, without much hope, to the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism - VERDICT - accepted (!!!!) conditional on major edits.

MARCH: revised and resubmitted my paper on Pinky Pye and Ginger Pye of Eleanor Estes to the Children's Literature Association Quarterly - VERDICT: accepted and now in press.

APRIL: spent the month writing poetry and sent one poem, for children, to Highlights Magazine - VERDICT: after a wait of many months, rejected.

MAY: revised a children's literature paper I had delivered at the Children's Literature Association conference a few years ago and sent it to Children's Literature - VERDICT:  revise-and-resubmit, which I plan to do.

JUNE: short article ("The Most Underrated Line in Your Book") to the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators Bulletin - VERDICT: accepted and published, to some nice responses.

JULY: did the "major edits" on the "Artistic Integrity" paper and sent it back to the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism - VERDICT: accepted and now in press.

AUGUST: sent a story pitch to an educational publisher that had approached me as a possible contributor - VERDICT: rejected.

SEPTEMBER: sent my 15,000-word chapter book (already under contract) to my editor Margaret Ferguson at Holiday House - VERDICT: she pronounced it "darling" but of course has lots of revisions for me to undertake in the new year.

OCTOBER: sent in my proposal for a paper (on child poet Hilda Conkling) to be delivered on a panel at next year's Children's Literature Association conference in San Antonio in June - VERDICT: still waiting to hear, but this one is practically guaranteed to be accepted, as the other panelists are all academic super-stars.

NOVEMBER: sent another story pitch to the educational publisher, and then, with their encouragement, sent the full story - VERDICT: rejected - WAH! - but with a generous "kill fee" of $1000.

Then came December.

I was tired of submitting things. I was discouraged by the last rejection. My heart was heavy with family woes and stressed by Christmas preparations. I had hoped to have the energy to revise-and-resubmit the children's literature paper (May submission) sent back by Children's Literature, but couldn't face the additional research needed. Maybe it was enough to have done this submission project for eleven months? After all, as a result of it, I had already gotten my grant to go to Minnesota, published my article for SCBWI, and had both a major philosophy paper and major children's literature paper accepted in good journals - plus wrote an entire children's chapter book. Wasn't that enough?

No, it wasn't. I had made a promise to myself in the bright new morning of a fresh new year. Now I had to keep that promise.

So yesterday, with just 48 hours to spare, I unearthed some of the poems for grownups I had written back in April. I liked them! I researched places I might send them, by looking at places that had published work by poet friends who also wrote "accessible" poems drawing on their own life experiences. I picked one journal, looked at its submission requirements (maximum of three poems sent in one MS Word file), chose my three best poems, and sent them off. I have little hope for this one - but I also had little hope for my last-hurrah philosophy paper.

It feels SO GOOD to keep a promise to myself. I sometimes think that I owe any success I've had in my long career to one thing only: the ability to follow through. In the waning hours of 2017, I followed through on this January commitment, dear readers, and I'm so grateful to myself that I did.

Now I have to decide: what commitment to myself will I make in 2018?

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Solstice Celebration: Sewing on a Button

Today is the Winter Solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year. Tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that, little by little, minute by minute, light will return to our part of the world.

I've been in my own season of darkness for the past two months, for reasons I'm not ready to share in this public forum. But I made my own small Solstice celebration.

I sewed on a button lost from one of my sweaters.

It fell off several weeks ago, and every day since I've been meaning to do this, but not getting around to it, instead sitting alone in my sad state, endlessly playing Sudoku on my I-pad (the addiction I invariably return to when times are hard) and endlessly scrolling through Facebook on my I-phone (addiction number two).

But today, in honor of the Solstice, I put away the I-pad and I-phone. I was lucky enough to find a spool of lavender thread in my sewing box, just the right shade to match the stitching on the other buttons. I luxuriated in gratitude that my sweater, a yard-sale find, had a spare button tucked into an inner seam: how fortunate! First I reinforced all the other buttons. Then I sewed on the missing one.

Buoyed by this success, I called a repairman to come fix the garage door that would no longer open; he came and replaced the motor, and now the garage door works again. I made cinnamon rolls from my mother's recipe for us to have on Christmas morning, a family tradition made more poignant by the fact that Christmas was also my mother's birthday. I read an engrossing book for my judging of the Children's Literature Phoenix Award.

Christmas is coming in four more days. My little granddaughters will be with us from the 23rd until New Year's. My younger son, Gregory, will be home from Chicago. We'll attend two worship services on Christmas Eve: at the morning service, my older son, Christopher, will play the beloved carols on the piano; at the evening service, our church singing group, The AnthemAires, will sing the hauntingly beautiful "Fall on Your Knees" by Pepper Choplin.

Anne Lamott quotes a friend of hers who says, "It gets darker and darker, and then Jesus is born."

Today was dark, snowy, and bitter cold. And then I sewed on a button.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Seasonal Joy/Seasonal Stress

Why is it invariably true that the more we give of ourselves to the world, the more the world gives back to us? 

Each Christmas I'm reminded of this, as I take on various holiday tasks for my church and my family, stressed by each one and silently vowing, "Never again!" Then each task turns out to be so rewarding that I remember, "Oh. That's why I do this." And so I sign up to do these things again the following year, and the exact same scenario (anxiety, despair, relief, gratitude) plays itself out in the exact same way.

The task that stresses me most is organizing Christmas caroling for our small congregation, where we try to visit all of our members who are no longer able to come to us for Sunday worship but value being remembered at this special time of year. It's a daunting jigsaw puzzle of geographical logistics, with various retirement communities and care centers spread out over several nearby towns, and temporal logistics, with the need to accommodate residents' mealtimes, nap times, and other constraints imposed by each facility. Worst: I never know who from our congregation is going to be able to show up to sing with me. It's a busy time of year for everyone, with competing commitments for all. What if I promise to come a-caroling, and I'm the the sole caroler, stumbling through each tune by my pitiful lonesome with my thin, quavery soprano? 

At church this year, one friend, impatient with my all-too-familiar morning-of-caroling desperation, snapped at me, "Claudia, you worry about this every single year! And it always turns out just fine!" Okay, but what if THIS is the year that it doesn't? 

But this year was perhaps the loveliest yet. The first person we visited had lost her beloved husband three Christmases ago and was so touched to have us come to her. Our second stop was to our church's honorary Jewish member, next-door-neighbor to the parsonage, who has befriended so many of our pastors over the years, and who happens to love Christmas music (and knows more of the words to the songs than we do). We sang to her outside on her deck, in the balmy December sunshine, as passers-by turned to smile at us. 

Our third stop was an actual "performance" at the nearby Meridian retirement community, where my son Christopher played the piano for a full half hour of a rousing sing-along of every beloved carol. Here we were joined by a few adorable members of a local Girl Scout troop. Our final stop might have been the sweetest of all. The resident we were visiting had made a flyer inviting others to come join us, so Christopher played for a good-sized group here as well. One attendee replied to every single song with a heartfelt sigh of appreciation: "Oh, that was beautiful!" "Oh, that one was REALLY good!" "Oh, that one was the BEST!"

I have to find some way to have faith that each year the Christmas obligations WILL work out, some way to skip the needless stress and just go directly to the joy that always follows. But maybe the stress has its own role to play. This year it was because I was so stressed that I made special efforts to recruit singers and took pains to schedule a very-welcome five-minute grace period between each visit so I wouldn't have the terror of running late. Maybe holiday stress can be a salutary kind of stage fright that is energizing rather than depleting.

Or maybe I just need to trust the Holy Spirit a little more. My favorite verse of all Christmas carols is the third stanza of "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear": 

O ye, beneath life's crushing load, whose forms are bending low
Who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow
Look now for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing
O rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing.

The glad and golden hours come each Christmas. And each Christmas, despite all those painful steps along the weary road, I hear the angels sing.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

How to Get Readers to Invest in Your Characters

Our thriving local community of children's book writers has frequent "Boulder Connect" gatherings under the auspices of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. They are a chance for us to hear craft-focused talks by our members, share our writing goals and dreams, and socialize with people who share our passion for writing for children.

This past Saturday I was the speaker at one of these get-togethers. My topic: "Getting Readers to Invest in Your Characters." As always, I signed up to do this before I had a clear vision in mind of what I would actually say about the topic. It was a chance for me to explore this question, thoughtfully and mindfully, for myself. How DO writers get readers to invest in our characters? Especially given that our characters have to be flawed in some way, so there is room for them to grow and change in the course of the story? How can we make our characters initially flawed in a way that isn't a turn-off for readers, so that we root for them on their journey rather than being impatient with them for having to be on that journey in the first place?

Luckily for me, I could pose this question to the attendees and learn as much from them as they would learn from me. We started by talking about what draws us to people in real life. When we meet someone new, what makes us think we want to pursue a friendship with this person? (And note that few of us want to pursue friendships with people who are perfect, so a wide range of flaws are not deal-breakers here).

Here are some of the answers we shared.
We want to be be friends with people:
1. who are funny, interesting, and kind - preferably all three
2. who have some point of connection with us, large or small
3. who share themselves honestly with us, unmasking even "the ugly parts"
4. who may be at different stages of life experiences from us, so that we can learn from them.

We don't want to be friends with people:
1. who are jerks to others
2. who are arrogant or selfish
3. who are pessimists with negative energy (oh, but what about Eeyore? we decided that negative energy is okay if it comes in small doses, redeemed with humor)
4. whose deepest moral and political values are opposed to ours
5. who drive nice cars and brag about them!

Those seemed like pretty good lists to me.

We then looked at opening pages of a whole bunch of books I had brought with me to study how their authors created characters who immediately appeared as funny, interesting, and kind - and established some point of connection with us - and revealed themselves to us with refreshing candor - and gave us the hope that going along on their journey would illuminate some truths about the human experience that might be valuable to us as well.

My favorite was Jeannie Mobley's brand-new middle-grade novel, Bobby Lee Claremont and the Criminal Element, where we fall in love with Bobby Lee even as he announces his plan to move to Chicago to get a good start on his planned life of crime. How does she do this? By giving Bobby Lee a fresh, funny voice - and a startling goal we hadn't expected - and showing his vulnerability as an orphan who has just buried his mother - and even letting us share his impatience at being behind someone in line who is taking forever to count out change to buy her railway ticket, as the clock is ticking down for the departure of Bobby Lee's train.

Thanks to the brilliant and beautiful Kim Tomsic for hosting us, and to everyone who joined in the discussion, and to Jeannie Mobley for writing such a terrific book, from which we could learn so much.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Biography Tea - Ten Years Later

Ten years ago I published a chapter book called Being Teddy Roosevelt.
In the book, Riley summons the can-do spirit of Teddy Roosevelt to pursue his own dreams when he is assigned the 26th president of the United States as his subject for his classroom's "biography tea." As Riley writes his report on Teddy and impersonates him at a fancy tea party (along with classmates taking on the roles of Helen Keller, Queen Elizabeth I, and Mahatma Gandhi), he figures out how to get a saxophone and convince his mother to allow him to sign up for instrumental music.

The biography tea in the book was modeled on the wonderful program created by my older son's award-winning teacher at Mesa Elementary in Boulder: Devira Chartrand. And, yes, he chose to dress up that year as Teddy Roosevelt. I dedicated the book to her, with my deepest gratitude.

Now, ten years later, I am writing this from Fredericksburg, Virginia, where I am here to attend the tenth-anniversary biography tea at Tree of Life Christian Preparatory School. Their award-winning teacher, Rebecca Durichek, was inspired by my book to create an even more extensive biography tea with every child from kindergarten to eighth grade participating each year.

When I walked into the school, I was greeted by a display representing my early morning writing ritual:
A poster of my book flanked a bulletin board of all the famous people, past and present, who would be "attending" this year's tea - with my own photo there at the very bottom.
Tonight is the gala event of the tea itself. The students, in their costumes, will parade in on a red carpet laid down for the occasion, in the order of the historical timeline, with me in the slot for 1954. I hope I can hold back the tears. Oh, Mrs. Chartrand, what a gift you gave me as a parent and as an author, and now this gift is making magic in Fredericksburg, Virginia, a decade later. And Mrs. Durichek, what an amazing event you have made of what was begun ten years ago so far away.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

A Story of Two Best Friends

I'm back from my "Grand European Tour," a fourteen-day Viking River Cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest, with a two-day extension in Amsterdam first. I traveled with my best friend Rachel, who has been the dearest of friends since we worked together at the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland in the early 1980s. We then went our separate ways: Rachel moved to Roanoke, Virginia, with her husband, to become an award-winning high school theater teacher; I finished my Ph.D. in philosophy and moved to Boulder to become a professor in the philosophy department at the University of  Colorado. But through it all, we stayed best friends, first writing long handwritten or typed letters to each other, then emails, and phone calls for those times we needed each other most. When I got married to my husband, our wedding was very small, with just parents, siblings, and one friend each. Rachel was my "one friend."

She had planned to go on this Viking River Cruise with her husband to celebrate her retirement after 30 years in the classroom, but he died, unexpectedly, two years ago. I offered to go with her instead. Hey, it's not too painful a duty of friendship to embark on a tour along the world's most scenic rivers past the world's most picturesque towns.

Here we are, on board the Viking Lif together.
We turned out to be ridiculously compatible, both of us loving to go to bed early (so forgoing the ship's late-night festivities) and to get up early, chatting and reading companionably in our two little beds.
I took too many pictures to share, but for a few glimpses. . .

One of the dozens of castles we passed while cruising on the Middle Rhine:
One of the dozens of churches we passed while cruising on the Danube:
And one of the dozens of charming byways we wandered together on shore:
Our final day was spent in Budapest, where we arrived at sunrise:
We had a walking tour in the morning, Rachel and I choosing (for both Vienna and Budapest) the option of the "Up Close" walking tour where we walked in a smaller group, led by a local guide, taking public transportation instead of being herded on a tour bus. We chose to spend our free afternoon in one of Budapest's famed thermal baths. 

At the very start of our friendship, we knew we would be friends forever and that we would grow old together. And sadly, we knew that our husbands might not be in the picture, because of age (mine was ten years older) or disability (hers had health challenges, and now mine does, too). But we had a prophetic vision of us being side by side in a pool, standing in the shallow end, two older ladies cheerfully splashing water up onto our veiny thighs.

We just didn't know it would be at the Gellert baths in Budapest. . . 
But it was!

Monday, October 2, 2017

Off on "The Grand European Tour"

I leave in a few hours to get the bus to the airport, to fly to Minneapolis, and then on to Amsterdam, for my first-ever Viking River Cruise with my beloved friend Rachel: fourteen days on the Rhine and the Danube, from Amsterdam to Budapest, passing some of the most scenic castles and cathedrals on this earth.

It should be fun! 

But it all feels a bit strange, too. Rachel and I planned this trip a year ago, as a celebration for her upcoming retirement from thirty years of being a high school drama teacher. We wanted to have a whole twelve months to look forward to these two glorious weeks together, which would also be a celebration of our thirty-five years of friendship; we met when we worked together at the University of Maryland in the early 1980s. 

Between then and now, though, a lot of painful family changes have taken place, so that it's hard for me to think of abandoning those who need me, following on the heels of my six weeks teaching at Hollins University in Roanoke this past summer, and an upcoming teaching stint in January for DePauw University: a reprise of the study-abroad class my friend Tiffany and I taught two years ago, "Enchanted Spaces: Children's Literature Sites in London and Paris." 

I'm still going to go, and not berate myself for going - but after these travel commitments, I've pledged to my family not to sign up for any jaunts, paid or unpaid, that will take me away from home for longer than a week - at least for now, when I'm so needed here.

My challenge for myself: If I'm going to go on this trip - TODAY! - which I am, I should try to relinquish guilt and go with my whole heart, with radical openness to the beauty that awaits me, to savor as fully as I can every moment shared with Rachel - every stunning vista that unfolds before me - every tasty morsel I can swallow. I'm not going to try to get work done on the trip - just to write a poem or two - or ten - and scribble faithfully in my trip journal - and welcome joy.

My mantra will be this line from E. B. White: "All that I hope to say in books, all that I can hope to say, is that I love the world."

Off to love this new-to-me stretch of the world as hard as I can.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Not What I Planned

This week I had planned to: write my paper submission (on child poet Hilda Conkling) for next year's Children's Literature Association conference (due October 1 to my panel organizer); read the most recent installment of my Hollins graduate student's creative thesis (a novel in verse); and generate nonstop fun for my visiting granddaughters.

I did none of these things.

Instead I went to the emergency room at 4:30 a.m. on Tuesday with excruciating lower back pain and constant vomiting, discovered I had a kidney stone large enough to require surgery, and spent the next 36-plus hours lying in a hospital bed awaiting my turn in the operating room. I came home yesterday afternoon without a kidney stone - yay! - but also without much of my usual perkiness and pep.

Some things I learned:

1. Just about anything you have to do can be canceled, and the world will still keep on turning.

2. There are worse ways to spend a day than lying in a comfortable hospital bed, drowsy, dopey, and drugged, cared for by someone else.

3. Nurses are the kindest people in the world, except for church friends, who are even kinder, and kindest of all? Church friends who are nurses. On the second day of waiting, I was lying in the dreary little pre-op room waiting for the surgical procedure that had been postponed a day, and was now delayed again. It was 5 p.m., and I was hungry, with no food or drink since midnight and almost no food the day before; I was bored, tired, restless, and scared. Then Louise from my church, a retired nurse, appeared as a welcome surprise to sit with me: cheering, consoling, a visiting angel.

4. It's better to focus on all the ways in which you are lucky than on all the ways you're not. I was unlucky to lose half a week of my life to this medical ordeal (though it's hardly an uncommon one). But, oh, I was lucky that this wasn't the week of my upcoming Viking River Cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest with my beloved friend Rachel - and that the hospital could fit me into the surgical schedule, however late in the day my slot fell - and that I was even able to arrange the appointment to remove my temporary stent for next week, before I head off for a quick jaunt to Indiana. I continue to be what I call "a lucky unlucky person."

5. Drink water! Lots of it! Every day! Always!

I'm home now, feeling grateful more than anything: to the wonderful medical staff of the Boulder Community Hospital Foothills campus (a beautiful new facility); to my St. Paul's UMC pastor and church family for their unfailing support (and other friends who offered child care, food, rides, company); to the son who took off work to drive me to the ER hours before dawn, losing a day of work (and pay) for my sake; and to the hundreds of Facebook friends, some of whom I've never met in "real life," who answered my anguished cry for help in the middle of a long night of pain with advice, shared stories, insight, and compassion.

So I'm not really a "lucky unlucky person." Just a lucky one. And lucky enough to know it, too.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

"Nothing Surely Is So Potent as a Law that May Not Be Disobeyed"

This is what my hero, Victoria novelist Anthony Trollope, wrote in his inspirational autobiography. He was talking about his practice of writing for a short, fixed span of time early every morning, and thereby producing dozens of sprawling novels while working full-time for the British Post Office.

For me this year, my law that may not be disobeyed is my commitment to myself to submit something somewhere every single month: creative or scholarly, long or short, old or new. The only rule is that twelve different things have to be submitted, one per month. That's all. Submitted, not accepted. Period.

It's now September. I've met this goal for nine months so far, and I'm track to meet it for the rest of the year. Each time I send something off into the universe, on this schedule, I get that lovely tingly feeling of anticipation that something nice could happen. And quite a few nice things have.

Here is my record of submissions/verdicts so far. (Here, too, I borrow from Trollope, who included in his autobiography a record of every pound and shilling earned on every book.)

January - grant proposal to the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota to do archival research on Maud Hart Lovelace

February - submission of a philosophy paper, "Artistic Integrity" to the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, my swan song as a professional philosopher

March - submission of a children's literature paper on Ginger Pye and Pinky Pye by Eleanor Estes to the Children's Literature Association Quarterly, a revised and resubmitted version of a paper sent there last year

April - submission of a poem to the children's magazine Highlights

May - submission of a children's literature paper titled "Trying to Be Good (with Bad Results): The Wouldbegoods, Betsy, Tacy, and Tib, and Ivy and Bean: Bound to Be Bad" to Children's Literature
VERDICT (JUST ARRIVED  YESTERDAY): "Revise and resubmit"

June - short article to the SCBWI newsletter, Kite Tales, called "The Most Underrated Line of Your Book"

July - re-submission of the massively edited "Artistic Integrity" paper (enough changed to count as a new submission according to my self-imposed rule)

August - story ideas sent to an educational publisher interested in working with me, and one full-fledged story pitch

September - my new chapter book, tentatively titled Cooking All-Stars, to my editor at Holiday House

Plan for October: submit my paper abstract for the June 2018 Children's Literature Association conference in San Antonio

Plan for November: submit another idea or two to the educational publisher

Plan for December: revise and resubmit my "Trying to Be Good (with Bad Results)" paper

And then that will be a full year of faithful obedience to this law I have given myself.

For 2018 I'm already planning to try something completely different, to impose some other not-yet-determined-but-unbreakable law upon myself, and wait for what I expect to be dazzling results. For, nothing surely IS more potent than a law that may not be disobeyed.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Worries: Short Term, Medium Term, Long Term

I have a lot of worries these days, so I've been thinking a lot about how best to do my worrying. Of course, the very best way to worry is not to worry at all, as worry itself - as opposed to concerted, strategic planning - is one of the most pointless activities on earth. The Gospel of Matthew quotes Jesus as asking, "Can any of you add a single hour to your life by worrying?" Mark Twain quipped,"I've had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened." And yet, most of us are addicted to worry. We just can't stop doing it.

So I sat down recently and sorted my worries into the categories of short term, medium term, and long term. Here's what I figured out.

In the very short term - such as, right this minute - all is actually well with my life. I have a roof over my head, good health, money to pay my immediate bills, work I adore, and loved ones safe and cared for. This actual minute - actually, all of today - is pretty good. I do have stuff to do today: get an oil change for my car, see a dentist for a second opinion regarding the three pricey crowns I've been told I need, write for an hour on my chapter-book-in-progress, read a friend's manuscript, and work with my son to make a dent in the overwhelming volume of paperwork for his impending, very sad divorce. But I can get all of that done. Today is okay!!

In the long term, say, more than a year or two away from now, all bets are off. I have no idea what will happen to me, because anything could: a terrible medical diagnosis, tragedy befalling my family and friends, evaporation of my writing career. Five hundred hideous things could happen. Or not. I have no way of knowing. So here, instead of worrying, I need to focus my energies on maintaining resources that will stand me in good stead whatever happens. I call these the five dimensions of health: physical, mental, emotional, financial, and spiritual. There is no downside to keeping myself fit on all those five dimensions. For me this means walking 10,000 steps a day and watching my weight, keeping intellectually alive through challenging creative and scholarly work, fostering a network of close friends, spending less than I earn, and being an active member of my faith community.

It's the medium term that's the problem. This is where I'm consumed with fears about all of these divorce decisions and paperwork - plus two trips abroad that I committed myself to before my family's need for me intensified so greatly - plus a book to finish, a paper to write for an upcoming conference, and a bunch of other life challenges ranging from pesky to profound. But here what I really need is not to spend my time on worry, but instead to spend it on work - actually getting done what I need to do - and getting it done day by day by day.

That is to say, the medium term is just made up of a bunch of short terms. Each day I need to wake up, express gratitude for the basic okay-ness of my life right now, and take small, regular, manageable steps to do what I need to do. Instead of agonizing about all of my middle-term worries, I'm going to focus on short-term gratitude and small concrete accomplishments, and long-term maintenance of my health on all dimensions.

Worry, begone!

Monday, August 21, 2017

Total Eclipse Birthday

When your birthday happens to fall on the date of a total eclipse of the sun, and your younger son has given you eclipse glasses on the previous Christmas, you really have no choice but to make a special pilgrimage to celebrate the coincidence of natality and totality.

So I decided to head to Red Cloud, Nebraska, home of Willa Cather, on the theory that if the weather gods refused to cooperate and the eclipse itself was a total bust, a sojourn in the landscape so beloved of one of America's most brilliant writers would, in itself, make the trip worthwhile.

We drove all day yesterday, almost four hundred miles, most of it on Highway #34, which runs across the bottom edge of Nebraska, parallel to Highway #36, running along the top edge of Kansas, which I used to take back and forth to and from Indiana. I don't like to view America's Heartland from the Interstate, the auotomotive equivalent of a fly-over. I want to pass through its little towns, eat at its hometown cafes, wave close-up at its sunflowers.

We're not only staying in the town made famous as Black Hawk in Willa Cather's pioneer novels, we are staying in her parents' one-time house, the Cather Second Home, now operated as a bed-and-breakfast by the Willa Cather Foundation.
Our room is the one right above the front door in this picture. Although it's the smallest, it's the one Willa herself stayed in when she came to visit once she was all grown up and living in New York City.

Down the street is her childhood home:
Just outside of town is a stretch of virgin prairie, preserved in her name:
Red Cloud isn't in the actual totality zone, so this morning we drove 40 miles north to Hastings. On the ride we listened to a selection of sun-themed classical music pieces courtesy of Nebraska Educational Radio. My favorite: a baroque rendition of George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun."

The weather gods did indeed bless us so we could view the eclipse from a pleasant park, with a few dozen other spectators.
And it all happened EXACTLY as it was supposed to, with the sun gradually eaten away by the moon, until at precisely 12:58 p.m., it was gone altogether, for two minutes of mid-day darkness.

The thing I hadn't expected was how bright the world remained up until the moment of totality. Even when the sun was ALMOST totally eclipsed, the shadows upon the sunlit grass were sharp; it was still clearly daytime, even with only the merest fingernail paring of sun on view through my eclipse glasses.

Moral: even the tiniest bit of sun is enough to hold off the darkness. A good thing for me to remember from this birthday I'll never forget.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Perfect Writing Day

Every once in a while the universe delivers to each of us one perfect day. Yesterday was one of mine.

My writer friend Sarah organized a "write-out" yesterday at the Denver Botanic Gardens: a "write-out" is just like a "write-in" except that we gather together to write outdoors instead of in. Only two of us were able to accept Sarah's invitation, but there we were at 9 o'clock yesterday, when the gardens opened, wandering through gorgeous late-summer plantings to this enchanted structure:
Inside are four little tables, one for each of us, plus one for any other wanderer of the morning. Here I sit at mine:
Then, for the next few hours, we wrote. That's all we did: sit at our own little tables, and write. But not only did I write, I wrote the final chapter of my chapter-book-in-progress, where I could scrawl a huge THE END when I put down my pen - even though I know it's only THE END, for now.

While Sarah continued writing, Jean and I walked through the gardens talking about some challenges in creating character conflict in her novel-in-progress. Then we returned to the gazebo (is it a gazebo? or is there some other name for this magical spot?), collected Sarah, and had lunch together at the cafe by the Monet Water Lilies pond.
The sandwiches were yummy, and we talked, and we talked, and we talked some more.

And that was my day. And it was perfect. Thank you, Sarah and Jean, for sharing it with me. Thank you, universe, for giving it to me.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Strategies for Banishing Self-Doubt

One of my beloved former creative writing students just emailed me with the plaintive question: "So how do I get rid of this self-doubt stuff?"

Here is some of what I told her - and what I constantly try to tell myself.

First of all, it's really really REALLY worth trying to do this. The poet Kay Ryan wrote these haunting lines about doubt:

A chick has just so much time
to chip its way out, just so much
egg energy to apply to the weakest spot
or whatever spot it started at.
It can't afford doubt. Who can?
Doubt uses albumen 
at twice the rate of work.

I know that when I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation, which I finally finished TWELVE YEARS after dropping out of grad school to work in publishing in NYC, at least eleven of those twelve years were wasted on self-doubt. Indeed, I think the actual writing of the dissertation, once time spent on self-doubt was subtracted, probably amounted to six months total.

So: how do we banish self-doubt? How do I do it now?

Here are four of my go-to methods.

1. I keep a monthly list of my "nice things and accomplishments." When I find myself wailing, "I've done nothing this summer, nothing at all!", I go back to the list and see that this just isn't true. Already, for August, I can see from my list that I wrote three short chapters of my current work-in- progress, gave my visiting granddaughters a magical week for all of us, presented comments on a fascinating paper by the brilliant Rifka Weinberg at the University of Colorado's Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress, and wrote a tenure review for a professor at the University of Oklahoma. That isn't nothing! But I know this only because I took the time to document it.

2. When I decide that my current work-in-progress is horrible - formulaic, predictable, boring - I remind myself that my job is just to write it, just to get it down on paper. Then others can tell me whether it works for them as readers, or not, and when they do - guess what? - I can go back and fix it. I recently read this excellent statement from novelist Jane Smiley: "Every first draft is perfect because all the first draft has to do is exist. It's perfect in its existence. The only way it could be imperfect would be to NOT exist."

3. When I'm tormented by voices of my imagined critics - or worse, by real ones - I sometimes go to an online review site like Goodreads and look at reviews of authors whose books I most adore. Even they have detractors. One of my favorite books ever written, for example, is Anne Tyler's Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. On Goodreads, its average rating is only a fairly lukewarm 3.81 stars out of a possible 5. "This book was dull and disappointing," wrote one reader. "This book really did not do it for me," wrote another. Moral: there will always be some reader somewhere, and lots of readers everywhere, for whom my book "really did not do it." But there will be others for whom it did.

4. Finally, I try to make the writing itself as much fun as possible, so that, whatever the outcome in terms of the world's response to the work, at least I found some joy in producing it. I drink Swiss Miss hot chocolate when I write; I write in interesting places, like the Denver Botanic Gardens; I write with interesting people, at writing dates with other writers who are defeating their demons as I'm defeating mine. I treat myself to adorable notebooks, or soft blankets to wrap myself in as I write. Fourteen years ago, when I finally gave into my sons' pleading for a cat, it was largely because my younger son painted a picture for me of how cozy it would be to have a purring cat beside me as I write. And it is!

So these are a few strategies I use. They are successful only some of the time. But "some of the time" turns out to be enough.
My best writing companion, Snickers.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Writing Goals: "Pick ONE bird and shoot it"

I'm home from my six-week teaching stint at Hollins and immediately launched into a ten-day grandmothering stint here in Boulder. I have full-time care of Kataleya, aged 3, and Madilyne, aged 14 months, for every day this week while their daddy is off at work. I have all kinds of treats lined up: library story times, splashing in the pool, best-friend reconnection for Kat, outing to the Museum of Nature and Science (with its fabulous new Discovery Zone), and an outing to my favorite place of all, Tiny Town in Morrison (my boys loved it when they were little, and Kat and Madi love it now).

There is only one problem with this: how am I going to get any work done at all, I who adore work, who thrive on crossing items off my to-do list, who can be truly happy only if I have both love and work in my life?

The answer, I already know, is early hours, rising not at 5 but at 4, or even 3:30. Oh, but sometimes, especially after a day of intense family fun, it's hard to get up that early; fatigue accumulates; exhaustion sets in. All I can ever count on is - yes - as the name of this blog attests - an hour a day.

With these new, more stringent time constraints, I have to focus with heightened care on exactly how I use that hour. I remembered this writing advice from Ian Frazier, in his essay in Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir (edited by William Zinsser). He wrote:

I began with the primise that I wanted to get at least one thing right. My analogy comes from hunting. When you're in a field and a whole bunch of quail go up, if you're a beginner, you put your gun to your shoulder and just go BANG. You see all those birds and you shoot at them all and you won't get one. If you want to get a bird, pick one bird and shoot at it. I've seen films of wolves pursuing a herd of caribou. They will pick one out. The wolf will run into a herd of thousands and will chase that one caribou through the herd - and get it.

So this week I'm aiming each morning to accomplish just one thing, asking myself: "What is the one thing that, if I accomplished it, I'd feel good about my work today?"

Yesterday it was writing for one hour on my new chapter-book-in-progress. My focus was so laser-like that in that hour I wrote all five pages of Chapter Six. (It helped that I had brainstormed exactly what to write on the flights home from Roanoke to Denver.) Today my one task was typing up yesterday's chapter, doing lots of revision as I tapped away on the computer keys. Tomorrow my one task is to complete an author questionaire for the forthcoming paperback edition of Write This Down.

With one fabulously focused hour of work behind me, I can feel good about myself as a writer, and then spend the rest of the day, most happily, on this:

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Counting My Life Away

I finish up my summer teaching stint at Hollins University in Roanoke to head back to my home in Boulder in five more more days. I know exactly how many days I have left because I started counting them on the day I arrived, five weeks ago today: 40 days then, 5 days now, 9 more meals left on my meal plan, 2 more classes to teach, 1 more time to do laundry in my friend Elizabeth's apartment. I recite these dwindling numbers as a litany each night before I go to bed and the first thing when I wake up in the morning.

Part of me wonders why I do this. After all, Hollins is paradise, my weeks here are filled with nonstop bliss, and I'm as contented here as I've ever been anywhere. I will return home to many more cares and responsibilites. So why on earth am I counting down these happy days, one by one, in this obsessive fashion? To borrow a phrase from J. Alfred Prufrock, aren't I "measur[ing] out my life with coffee spoons"? Isn't there something downright depressing about counting my life away?

I've decided my answer here is no. I love counting things. My counting of days doesn't mean I'm not squeezing every bit of joy out of each one. In fact, I keep the countdown in my trusty little notebook, with each day listed, from 40 to 1, with that day's blessings recorded next to it. So I'm not really crossing off the days with a big red X. I'm filling in each day with its quota of delight: a class well taught, lunch with a favorite student, a cozy hour writing in the library with good progress on my chapter book. Crosing off days becomes another method of journaling, a record not of days to be endured but of days well spent.

I've always counted things, all kinds of things. When I fold laundry, I count out the first five items folded, then the next five, and the five after that. When I drive a familiar route, I count out the next five traffic lights. When I read, my fingers count out the next five pages. I set myself five goals every day. Okay, so this does sound a bit OCD, I have to admit, given that I not only love counting but love counting in mulitples of five. But all of this counting is just a way for me to impose a teensy bit of structure on the otherwise sprawling chaotic mess that we call life.

So: writing this blog post is one of the five things I have to do today, and now it's done, and I feel happier than if I had never put it on a to-do-list at all. Knowing I have five days left at Hollins doesn't mean I'm dreading each one; it just means I'm savoring each morning, noon, and night that much more fully. 

Five more days, then four, then three, then two, then one, then HOME!

Friday, July 14, 2017

My Summer Office

Here at Hollins, the office I've been assigned in Swannanoa Hall (isn't that a wonderful name?) is perfectly adequate, but uninspiring. The suite of rooms I have in the Barbee Guest House are charming, but lack the essential of a desk, table, or any similar writing surface. But I have found for myself the most beautiful office I'll probably ever have on this earth: Hollins's Wyndham Robertson Library.

During the academic year the library may well be overrun with frantically studying students, but in the peaceful summer, I have the choice of so many delicious options for work.

If I need my computer, I have a favorite table on the second floor;
I love this table so much I'll leave my laptop there all day to stake my claim (not that there is any competition) even when I head off for lunch, completely confident that it will be there waiting for me when I return.

Here is the view out the window from my table of a sunlit hillside.
For my actual creative work, however, I prefer writing by hand curled up a couch. Here is the selection of couch options in the Hollins Room on the library's third floor.
Should I feel chilly as I scribble away, why, the library has anticipated my every need:
For a final tempting option I can wend my way up a tiny spiral staircase to the reading loft:
There I can lie upon cushions to read (though my students report that this option can also result in unplanned naps).
On my non-teaching days I spent all day most blissfully at my library "office." Over the past few weeks I revised chapter one of my new work-in-progress (still untitled), and went on to write chapters two and three. I finished revisions on a last-hurrah scholarly philosophy article and wrote comments on a paper that I'll be delivering, as a respondent, at the University of Colorado's Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress in August. I've read and responded to student work. I'm writing this blog post there right now.

My goal when I return to my life in Boulder in two weeks is to see what I might find for a western office-away-from-home, as I'm now so enamoured of the productivity that comes from spending time in such a magical place. But I have to admit that Hollins has set a standard it will be hard for any other place on earth to meet.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Give Your Charater a Controlling Belief

One of the best things about teaching in an MFA program, as I'm doing right now in the graduate program in children's literature at Hollins University, is that the faculty get to learn both from their students and from each other.

Last week I heard a lunchtime talk on characterization from the incomparable Kathi Appelt, our current writer-in-residence. Listening to Kathi's crisp distillation of the process of character creation was the single most productive hour I've spent as a writer in the past year.

Drawing on a course that Kathi (herself a Newbery-honoree and two-time National Book Award finalist) had taken from writing guru Dennis Foley, she told us that we need to know five essential things about our characters. (Have I mentioned on this blog that I have an obsession with the number five? My daily, weekly, and monthly lists all have five items on them. So a list of five essential things to know about our characters is perfect for me!)

Here are the five things on Kathi's list:

1. their occupation (or role) - for a child, this "occupation" might be daughter, sister, friend
2. how well they perform that occupation, or how well they think they do
3. their controlling belief or attitude (doesn't have to be true or logical)
4. their goal (what the character has to achieve, overcome, or acquire)
5. their stakes - what is at stake if the character fails?

The item on the list that struck me most powerfully was #3: the controlling belief. Kathi gave as examples: "I can do anything I set my mind to," "Nothing I do will ever be good enough to please my father"; and (for Romeo and Juliet), "I can't live without you." A well-structured story culminates in a "crisis of faith" when the character comes face to face with the controlling belief, as the belief is challenged in some way and either validated or discarded. The controlling belief needs to be meaningful enough to the character to carry the entire story forward to its climax and resolution.

I've been struggling with my current work-in-progress: the first title of a new third-grade-level chapter book series set in an after-school program. I had written three chapters on it several months ago, but I had a niggling worry at the back of my mind that my chapters were ALL WRONG. I haven't been able to stand the thought of looking at them since, or working on the book at all - which, I might mention, is not a productive way of moving a book forward.

After Kathi's talk, I forced myself to read those three chapters. And yes, they were indeed ALL WRONG. I had idenitifed the wrong occupation for Nixie: I had thought it was daughter (she's upset that her mother has gone back to work), but it's friend (the real reason she's upset is that her best friend isn't going to attend the after-school program with her, but go to the home of a rival friend instead). Although I hadn't thought consciously about her controlling belief, if I had, that belief would have been: "Nothing should ever change." But her real controlling belief, I now can see, is: "You can only have one best friend."

Now that I know these two things I have an actual plan for the book. Nixie's goal is going to be to get her best friend back. Her attempts to implement the plan will backfire, driving her best friend ever further away. It all makes so much sense!

Thank you, dear brilliant Kathi, for giving me this crucial tidbit of writing wisdom.

Now I'm off to rewrite those first three all-wrong chapters, and write new three terrific ones instead.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Little Bits of Enchantment

I'm now finishing up my second week of the six-week term of the Advanced Creative Writing Tutorial I'm teaching at Hollins University in Roanoke. I love my class, I love my students, and I love my colleagues. But most of all I think I just love the magic of this campus in the summertime, with all the creative spirits wandering about in this bucolic space. . . where you never know whom you might meet on a stroll.

Such as. . .

These, and other beloved friends from children's classics old and new, roam the campus, thanks to the efforts of my colleague Ashley Wolff. In addition to Ferdinand (can you see the flowers he's sniffing?), Eloise, Pippi, and Olivia, I've been able to greet Madeline, Frances-the-little-badger, Sal from Blueberries with Sal, Pooh, Piglet, and Eeyore, and more. And who knows? Someday one of my students may create an immortal character who will bring another bit of enchantment to this campus on some distant tomorrow.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

From Paradise to Paradise

I had no sooner arrived at Hollins University for my summer teaching in the graduate programs in children's literature (i.e., paradise), and settled into my adorable rooms in the charming Barbee Guest House on the Hollins campus, when I had to whisk myself off for a whirlwind visit to ChLA - the annual conference of the Children's Literature Association (i.e., paradise), held this year in Tampa.

I was disappointed that my two paradises had a conflict in dates, with the ChLA conference falling during the crucial first week of the six-week Hollins summer term. How could I miss my very first class with my already beloved students? But how could I miss the mandatory all-day meeting of the Phoenix Award Committee, for which I'm in the middle of serving a three-year-term? I decided to try to do both -  dash off from Hollins to ChLA for the Wednesday meeting and one conference session (the 8:00-9:15 a.m. session on Thursday, the first day of the conference proper), where I'd deliver my paper for a panel on the North American Girl's Bildungsroman. Then I'd dash back to Hollins, with a makeup class planned for my students with compensatory love to be lavished upon them.

It made for an intense few days, but also for a magical few days. What is more satisfying than to spend hours and hours talking with four super-smart children's literature scholars about the ten finalists we had chosen together for the Phoenix Award? As the award honors a book published twenty years ago, which didn't receive a major award at the time but is deemed (by us) as worthy of one now, these were all titles published in 1999 - and oh, that year had some amazing books for us to agonize over. We aren't able to reveal our choice yet, but we left the meeting most pleased with ourselves for what we had chosen.

That evening I squeezed in a dinner with three conference friends. We've been meeting together since we first met as roommates at the ChLA conference in Buffalo in 2004 - strangers to each other at that time, who teamed up to save money and ease demand on a limited bank of conference-reserved hotel rooms. That year we had our first "midnight feast" (the term borrowed from a staple scene in classic girl's boarding school books). Our feast, however, doesn't take place at midnight, but after an early dinner. We lie on the beds in one of our hotel rooms and read aloud to each other from favorite children's books while stuffing ourselves full of candy. What better feast could there be?

This morning my three co-panelists and I delivered our papers to a surprisingly large audience for our early time slot. One of them, the panel's bold organizer, Dawn Sardella-Ayres, gifted me with yet more candy to thank me for reading and commenting (earlier this year) on a draft of her now-completed dissertation for her Ph.D. from Cambridge University. The candy was TWO Cadbury chocolate bars of top-quality British Cadbury chocolate, in the largest size of any candy bar I've ever seen. Here is one of the two (alas, there isn't much left of the other one), with two good-sized mugs behind it, for scale,

Then I flew back to Hollins, from one paradise to another, with more candy than one mortal has any right to dream of this side of, well, paradise.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Off to Paradise (i.e., Hollins University)

I leave tomorrow to spend six weeks teaching in the Graduate Program in Children's Literature and Children's Book Illustration at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia. I will be entering the portals of paradise.
I've sojourned at Hollins twice before: as a writer-in-residence in the summer of 2005 and as a faculty member teaching chapter book writing in the summer of 2014. So I know exactly what to expect, which is six weeks of creative joy.

This time I'm teaching one of the three Advanced Creative Writing Tutorials, where students are working on their creative thesis projects, intensely workshopping them in class sessions as well as honing fine points of craft. I will have four students in the class - yes, four - and we'll meet twice a week, Mondays and Wednesdays from 2-5. I've been in email contact with them already to learn what project they are planning to pursue during our time together and to ascertain how I can best assist them in its pursuit. I love them already.

That's what makes the Hollins program such a paradise. Everyone is there for one reason only: love. The students want to write or illustrate children's books more than anything in the world and have waited all year to have these six enchanted weeks in which to immerse themselves in doing this. The faculty leave behind everything else in our lives - all our cares and woes - to spend six weeks teaching what we love best to people who yearn with every fiber of their being to learn it. In most university teaching, if you end class a few minutes early, no wails of lamentation are heard from the students. At Hollins, if you try to end a three-hour class five minutes before the close of the final hour, the students say, "But - we still have five minutes left! Can we just ask you a few more questions?"

The campus itself is lovely, tucked in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern Virginia. Each morning I walk, very early, with two dear friends past horses grazing in green pastures. Evenings are filled with stimulating talks, or long, intense, funny, heartfelt conversations.

As if this weren't enough, my closest friend in the world lives in Roanoke. She is retiring from thirty years of teaching high school theater, and her last day is . . . TODAY. So there will time for playing with Rachel, including a weekend getaway to Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, with two other beloved friends who live in Maryland.

Oh, and I'll have time to do my own writing, too. I've been preoccupied with scholarly, academic projects for the last few months, but I'll return to being my creative self at Hollins. Last time I was there I wrote an entire 15,000-word chapter book: Simon Ellis, Spelling Bee Champ. This time I have two creative projects packed in my suitcase - plus dreams of writing something utterly new of which I haven't yet a glimmer of an idea.
But one may come to me in paradise, don't you think?

Thursday, June 8, 2017

"The Ants Go Marching" Song - New and Improved!!!

In the first book in my Nora Notebooks series, The Trouble with Ants, budding myrmecologist (ant scientist) Nora is irritated by the decidedly unscientific lyrics of the song, "The Ants Go Marching Two by Two" (hurrah, hurrah!). She sniffs:"'The little one stops to suck his thumb.' As if ants had thumbs rather than mandibles! 'The little one stops to tie his shoe.' Tying a shoe? Really?"

Well, yesterday I received an email from Kate Wolff, first grade teacher at the Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning in Denver. Her students had read Nora's story and responded by writing new lyrics for this old song, informed by their own study of ants. The lyrics are brilliant. The lyrics are amazing. The lyrics took my breath away.

Here, with their permission to post, the new and improved version of "The Ants Go Marching Two by Two."

The Ants Go Digging
A scientifically correct version of “The Ants Go Marching” by Kate’s Crew
The ants go digging one by one, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging one by one, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging one by one,
Then one emits a pheromone
And they all follow the smell down, underground
To get into the chamber
The ants go digging two by two, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging two by two, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging two by two,
Their colony is like a crew
And they cooperate
In all they do
The ants go digging three by three, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging three by three, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging three by three
Their feet are called their tarsi
And they use them to climb trees
The ants go digging four by four, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging four by four, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging four by four,
The army ants might go to war
If other colonies attack
The ants go digging five by five, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging five by five, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging five by five
They hide away to stay alive
Avoiding predators (and rain)

The ants go digging six by six, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging six by six, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging six by six
The nurse ants give the larvae licks
To keep them moist and clean
The ants go digging seven by seven, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging seven by seven, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging seven by seven
They have two stomachs in their abdomen
And one is called a crop!
The ants go digging eight by eight, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging eight by eight, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging eight by eight,
In the winter they hibernate
Deep down under the ground
The ants go digging nine by nine, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging nine by nine, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging nine by nine,
They leave the nest in a line
To forage for their food
The ants go digging ten by ten, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging ten by ten, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging ten by ten,
The queen ant lays some eggs again
And the life cycle never ends

Thank you, Kate's Crew! I told them I only wished Nora were a real person, instead of a character I invented, so I could send these lyrics to her directly. How pleased she would be!