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.