Friday, March 31, 2017

The Day Before April 2017

Today is the day before April, the day for me to reprint my now-traditional day-before-April post. 

My mother was an elementary school teacher as well as a writer of a few published stories for children. Her love of reading and writing is where I get my love of reading and writing. My sister and I were raised on poetry. One of our favorite collections was Silver Pennies, edited by Blanche Jennings Thompson ("A Collection of Modern Poems for Boys and Girls" - modern, meaning at that time, published in 1959). The preface to the book begins with the lines:

You must have a silver penny
To get into Fairyland.

The premise of the book was that poems themselves are these silver pennies.

Of all the silver pennies in the book, this poem was the one we loved best, by Mary Carolyn Davies:

The Day Before April

The day before April
Alone, alone,
I walked in the woods
And sat on a stone.

I sat on a broad stone
And sang to the birds.
The tune was God's making
But I made the words.

My mother, my sister, and I have long celebrated "the day before April" as a holiday, a Mills family holiday. Some years ago I hosted a "day before April" party, with my mother and my boys (who did think it was a somewhat strange party) as the only guests. I usually gave my mother flowers on that day.

I've dreamed of writing a book with the title The Day Before April. Maybe someday I will.

In honor of the day, I'm going to go buy some flowers - daffodils, probably. Seven years ago, when I first wrote this post, I took daffodils to my mother, who was in a rehabilitation center after a fall that broke her hip and arm; she died two months later. My daffodils today are in memory of her.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Every Day Is "The Last Time Ever"

I'm back from my annual trip to the Children's Literature Festival sponsored by the University of Central Missouri, in Warrensburg. This was the 49th year of the festival, and I believe it was my 20th year of attending. Held during the university's spring break, the festival takes over the entire campus, bringing in dozens of authors to talk to thousands of children/parents/teachers bused in from all over western Missouri and eastern Kansas.

The festival now has a new, young, energetic director, with ideas galore for moving forward into the festival's next half-century. Already change was in the air: lots of fabulous new authors participating this year, and correspondingly fewer returnees - maybe half-and-half old-and-new.

We still observed beloved traditions.

The ardent walkers in the group had our Sunday morning "walk to see the cows":
After a busy day of talking to young readers on Monday, we headed off to Brown's Shoe Fit, the old-timey downtown shoe store, for our shoe-buying spree:
And, of course, we adored having the chance to talk with so many kids who love reading books as much as we love writing them.Here, two members of the group who wore the best T-shirts I saw at the festival:
But I did have a sense of prophetic melancholy. This time many of my dearest festival friends weren't there: some no longer living, some no longer traveling, some not invited back this time. Next year, that could be me.

Savoring a twinge of sadness, I exclaimed to two author friends, as we stood in the lobby of the university's beautiful library: "This may be the last time the three of ever stand in this exact same spot talking together!"

One of them said: "Um, Claudia? This is actually the FIRST time the three of us have ever stood in this exact same spot talking together." And she was right.

EVERY moment is the first-ever moment just like itself, and the last-ever, too. It's true that those Warrensburg cows do look awfully familiar, year after year. But each time I've walked to greet them with a different assortment of companions, and even the same friends have new stories to share as we catch up on the year that has passed since the previous cow pilgrimage.

So there isn't any point in grieving over the inevitable fleetingness of each moment's pleasures. EVERY moment will pass and never come again. I might as well savor EVERY moment for itself, as I'm living it.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

"Write Out" at the Denver Botanic Gardens

I have a group of children's book author friends, living all over the Denver/Boulder metropolitan area, who love to do "write-ins" at each others' houses. Today one of them hosted, instead, a "write-out." Five of us met at the Denver Botanic Gardens for a day of writing together - well, writing, and talking, and walking, and eating.

We arrived as the gardens opened at 9 and set ourselves up in the indoor cafe.
I used my writing time brainstorming ideas for a brand-new book. I have a long way to go before I can pen the first line, but today I got as far as tentatively deciding that the book will be "the best, truest portrait of a friendship ever." I even have an idea of the theme - and the characters - so all I need is a plot: that is to say, every detail of the actual story itself. Still, I was pleased with myself by the time we set out for a walk through the gardens at 11:30.

Spring was much in evidence:

But even if the weather hadn't been balmy, we could have restored flagging spirits in the tropical conservatory.
One of the most magical parts of the day, for me, was that I found my way to the gardens via bus - actually, three different buses. First I took the local Skip bus from my house in Boulder down to the connection point for the Flatirons Flyer express bus to Denver, and from Union Station in Denver I walked just two blocks to get the #10 bus which delivered me just two blocks from my destination. I felt so plucky! So light and unencumbered! I do love navigating the world without a car.

On the way home, I got off the #10 bus at the Civic Center and continued on the free Sixteenth Street Mall Shuttle. There a rapper dude on the bus struck up a conversation with me. He and another rider wanted to know the day's date; when I told them, he said to me, "You look like an author." !!!! Which is exactly what I am! He said that there was something about the way I enunciated my words that gave me away. He proceeded to recite one of his own rap compositions to me. I thought it was terrific. 

Back at Union Station, I bought myself a black raspberry ice cream cone before boarding the bus to return home to Boulder. If your project is joy, as mine is these days, you don't pass on the ice cream. You give yourself the gift of writing with friends, wandering past spring flowers, bus rides galore, AND ice cream. 

It was, after all, that kind of day.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Desperate Times Call for Joyful Measures

I've had a few personal and professional setbacks lately: nothing life-threatening, just a series of small heart-hurting personal and professional disappointments.

My new writing group didn't like the time-travel middle-grade book to which I've devoted a good bit of time over the last four years on multiple extensive revisions from the original version of 2013. When pressed to come up with something nice to say about it - anything at all - the best they could do was to congratulate me for being "brave" enough to share such a "rough" draft with them. Ouch!

My brand new book, The Trouble with Babies (book #3 in the Nora Notebooks series), is getting no attention whatsoever, the sad but not atypical fate of a family's third child. I'll post its cover here because I feel so sorry for it.

My house is feeling very small, its 1500 square feet currently occupied by six humans and two animals. Some of the humans and animals get along with each other less well than others. Lately I'm the one who gets along less well with all of them.

I was moping considerably this past weekend, trying to keep from sinking into that "everything in my life is completely hopeless" downward spiral. But then, inveterate planner that I am - ta-dah! - I made a plan! And I love my plan, as I always love my plans.

This plan is to take drastic steps - immediately - to infuse massive, intensive, mega-levels of joy into my life. I have no other choice right now. Joy is no longer an optional extra; it's a sanity-and-happiness preserving requirement.

So I made a list of all kinds of things I can do - pronto - that would bring me joy: joy with my family, joy in my work, and joy just for me.

Here are a few:

1. Bake cookies with my three-year-old granddaughter - ooh! cookies!
2. Do a craft project with this same little person that will involve serious amounts of glitter.
3. Have a picnic lunch with all of them, even if it's only outside on our postage-stamp-sized lawn.

1. Go to the Denver Botanic Gardens this coming Thursday with five other writer friends for a "Write Out" there (this is the same gang who often have write-ins at each other's houses).
2. Take myself on a writing retreat to my favorite bed-and-breakfast in Idaho Springs: Miners Pick.
3. Put a shot of amaretto - occasionally! - in my beloved writing beverage of Swiss Miss hot chocolate.

1. Go to concerts at the university, international film festivals, theater outings, mountain hikes.
2. Read GREAT novels - Dickens, Trollope, Dumas, Hugo - huge books you can inhabit for weeks on end.
3. Stay alert for rock-bottom airfares and fly somewhere else - anywhere else - just for a day.

Desperate times, I've decided, call for joyful measures.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Learning from an Artist

I love being in the presence of phenomenally gifted creative people. I love it most of all when they are gifted in an art form different from my own: gifted filmmakers, composers, actors, painters. Then I can simply bask in awe of them, drawing inspiration from the beauty they create in the world, without having to submit to the inevitable self-denigration that would otherwise follow.

On Sunday afternoon I had the opportunity to hear an "art talk" at the Boulder Public Library by my friend Ina's daughter Zoey Frank, who is, in my view, not only a phenomenally gifted young artist, but an artist of genius. You can give yourself the gift of marveling at her brilliant paintings on her website, which showcases the dazzling evolutions of her style that she shared with us on Sunday.

Zoey began her training in a classical atelier, where she spent, she told us, four years learning "how to paint a single object under a single light source." The entire first year was spent only in drawing, followed by a year of painting only in shades of black and white. It wasn't until the fourth year that color was introduced. Like generations of painters before her, Zoey spent months in the Lourvre copying great masters with astonishing fidelity. This Rembrandt copy looks awfully like an original Rembrandt to me.
She then produced her own works of strikingly original subjects with the same meticulous attention to detail, like this one (my personal favorite) from a series of paintings of white garments hung against a white wall.
If I could paint like this, I'd spend the rest of my life painting nothing but white dresses. What on earth could be lovelier?

Not Zoey. She went on to an MFA program where she learned to paint in a whole new way. A course on "Time in Painting" encouraged her to capture the process of painting itself in her work, leaving remnants of earlier approaches to a subject in the painting itself, as shown in this breathtaking short video, Girl in Striped Shirt.

I tried to take notes as Zoey talked, but it was difficult as I couldn't bear to take my eyes off the images projected on the screen. But here are a few nuggets:

She had to "trick herself" out of her usual hyper-detailed style by choosing subjects impossible to render in the way she had been trained: e.g., still life arrangements that changed every day.

She sometimes sets herself the challenge of "making an interesting painting from something that isn't inherently interesting," like painting an abandoned table in a dimly lit studio basement.

She plays with different angles of approach, now realizing that "straight on and fully frontal" is merely the default angle for a painting: new possibilities emerge if an object is viewed from above, from below.

After spending so many years mastering the technique of exact rendering, it was hard to let herself do something that looks simpler - but isn't.

I came away from Zoey's talk wondering if I can trick myself into deviating from my own usual style, with which I've now had four decades of practice, not four years. Can I write an interesting story about something that isn't inherently interesting? Can I play with different angles of approach to a fictional narrative? Can I let myself do something that looks simpler but isn't?

Here, one more image from Zoey's recent work - oh, the lushness of that melon! Could I ever write a melon that would taste so good?