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: