Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Button Tea

Today has had, thus far, two perfect episodes of happiness in it.

The strange thing is that they are complete opposites of each other.

The first was the happiness of spending time with little girls. The second is the happiness of not spending time with little girls.

My four-year-old granddaughter, Kat, got up early this morning (5:45, far earlier than I would have liked), but there is something magical about sharing early morning time with her while the rest of the family, and the rest of the world, is asleep. We read library books (my favorite from the stack this time is Ella and Penguin: A Perfect Match by the team of author Megan Maynor and illustrator Rosalinde Bonnet, a book I wish I had written). And then we had a tea party with button tea.

I love buttons, so I pounced on a huge stash of them for a pittance at the church yard sale last summer. There is no better way to spend a pre-dawn hour than sipping button tea with Kataleya.

The second episode of happiness began when the terrific nanny I hired for three hours, Brooke from Superior Nannies, transferred the car seats into her car and whisked Kat and Madi off for fun adventures elsewhere. I'm not even sure where exactly they are going. Perhaps the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), which has a most inviting child-friendly museum in a stunning setting. Perhaps the main branch of the Boulder Public Library. Perhaps meeting up with Kat's best friend, Danielle; Brooke has worked for their family, too.

So here I sit at my desk, sipping not button tea but Twining's strawberry tea, brought back to me from England by my friend Rowan. I'm burning the hot-apple-pie candle made by my high school friend Patricia. I've caught up on email. I'm writing this blog post. Shortly I'll curl up on my couch to read the papers for the Young Philosophers Symposium I'm attending at DePauw University in Indiana next week. There is no better way to spend a few afternoon hours than doing work that I love, completely undisturbed.

It's been a hard-won victory for me to learn how to love being with little girls when I'm with little girls, and to love being by myself when I'm by myself. But today the balance is perfect. Today (well, except for one stressful hour of little-girl meltdowns right before Brooke arrived to rescue us), I'm (mostly) managing to love what is, while it is.

Hooray for that.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Creative Joy in Hard Times

My main goal for the year, as I've announced here, was to have ten hours of creative joy each month, where I'd record these hours in a lovely little Moleskine logbook, with the rule that a log-worthy creative-joy hour had to have something extra: not just ordinary joyous creative work, but work made even more joyful by conscious enhancement of the joy - writing somewhere special, writing with a friend, even lighting a candle at my desk in the dark of the early morning.

Until September I met and exceeded this goal every single month, except for one, when I fell short only by half an hour. Not bad!

But then in September my life fell apart. And it turns out that you lose interest in strategizing how best to increase creative joy when your life lies in flaming ruins around you.

And yet . . . and yet . . .

The first half of September was a joy-devoid nightmare. But then came the SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) conference for which I had to: 1) provide five insightful critiques of manuscripts submitted by attendees; 2) deliver an hour-long break-out session on writing the transitional chapter book; and 3) give a closing keynote address on how to live a joyous creative life. I had no choice but do these things, which meant I had no choice but to work for at least ten hours preparing to do them, and then actually doing them. And guess what? It was SO joyous to be working again at all, at work that I love with my all my heart, that I decided I could write those hours down in the logbook, even if I didn't light a candle while doing them.

The first half of October wasn't nightmarish, but it was definitely slothful, as I gave myself credit for merely getting through each day with a modicum of grace and cheer. But then my wonderful editor, Margaret Ferguson, sent me not only the proofs of NIXIE NESS, COOKING STAR (the first book in my forthcoming After-School Superstars chapter book series), but the edited manuscript for VERA VANCE, COMICS STAR (book two in the series). Hooray! More work that I actually had to do! And work I would love doing!

So for the past ten days, I've lit my candle each morning and worked through the proofreader's queries on NIXIE and Margaret's editorial suggestions for VERA. Even better, the candles I've been lighting are made by a high school friend of mine who now makes the world's most aromatic and beautiful candles and sells them in an Etsy shop: SoyCandlesbyPatricia. I lit her Full Moon candle on the days leading up to October's full moon and followed Patricia's instructions to set my "positive intentions for the coming month" and "make a wish during the light of the full moon."

I'm burning her Hot Apple Pie candle right now - ahhh!

My creative joy total for October now stands at 11 1/2 hours.
I think my October full moon wish is going to come true because all I wished for was to keep creative joy in my life, even in hard times.

In fact, it's come true already.

Monday, October 22, 2018

The Challenge of Not Resenting Happy People

Many of you know that my current life project, in a season of intense dread and despair, is to be a role model . . . to myself. I am trying to show myself how to survive terror and tragedy with courage, grace, and even a measure of good humor.

This plan was particularly helpful lately, when I decided that Role Model Claudia had to help Desperately Suffering Claudia face one of her biggest challenges: how not to resent people whose lives are vastly easier than mine right now. Of course, just because someone's life LOOKS easier doesn't mean that it IS. But, actually, I have extremely good evidence that many of these people do have spouses in excellent health, grown children who have brilliant successes and their own flourishing families, all of them close, loving, and by all accounts as happy as happy can be.

It's hard not to hate these people sometimes.

Or at least: it's tempting to try to avoid spending any time in their company. I find myself wanting to spend time only with other broken people, other hurting people, other people who are stumbling right now in their own dark wood - not people who are gaily scampering through sunlit, flower-strewn meadows.

But then Role Model Claudia decided that she had to show Desperately Suffering Claudia how to resist this temptation. I have MANY happy friends. I can't give up ALL of them. And you know what? I love these friends, I really do. And even more important right now, they love me. I can't shut them out of my life. I have to let myself love them, and let them love me.

I don't want to turn myself into an embittered person who begrudges joy to others, consumed with envy at their good fortune. That really would be a guaranteed way to create a life that is pinched and shrunken, feeding only upon its own misery.

So I've been accepting invitations from happy friends, rather than making up excuses for why now isn't a good time to meet. We've had wonderful, heartfelt conversations about the joys in their lives and the sorrows, too - and the sorrows and joys in mine, as well. I don't NEED to resent other people's joy because - guess what? - I HAVE A JOYFUL LIFE, TOO.

I have good health, apple crisp, books to write, books to read, candy corn, walks on crisp October mornings, friends I love, and friends who love me: sad friends, happy friends, sad-and-happy friends.

 Just like me.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Overwhelmed with Work Projects? Try a Work Smorgasbord!

Lately my to-do list has been long, and my energy for tackling it has been low. All of the tasks on the list need to be done, but few of them have a clearly defined deadline, especially one that shrieks out, "DO ME TODAY!" So it's easy to procrastinate, postpone, and otherwise put off any work on these projects, instead filling my days with the soul-sucking alternative of endless Sudoku (my besetting vice), Facebook scrolling, and (worst of all) self-Googling to see if maybe I won some prize somewhere in the last ten minutes I wouldn't otherwise be aware of.

Although this may be a by-product of depression, it's also a guaranteed cause of depression, and battling it is, for me, a guaranteed cure (or at least alleviator) of depression.

My favorite strategy for defeating this kind of wretched stuckedness is to create a work smorgasbord for myself. It goes like this.

I make a long, full list of all the things I need to get done. Here's what I have on the list for today:

1. Read the proofs for Nixie Ness, Cooking Star.
2. Decide which books I'm going to order for my online course for Hollins University in the spring (this means figuring out the basic structure of the entire course - scary!).
3. Order the books.
4. Write my Learning Committee report for the church council.
5. Read a friend's book manuscript to give her the critique I promised a month ago.
6. Read the ARC (Advanced Reading Copy) of a book for which I've promised to give a cover blurb.
7. Start a new book! I have to start one sooner or later, or I won't have a next one!
8. Send in the application for the Denver Festival of Stories to be held next March.
9. Read five chapters of Homer's Odyssey for a study group I'm in.
10. Write a blog post.

I'm sure there are more things I should be doing, but if I did any of these ten tasks, I'd be better off than I was with NONE of them even faced, let alone finished.

Once the list is made, I pick any one of these - any one will do! - and spend one hour doing it. Or part of one hour doing that task, and the other part of the hour doing another one. Any work whatsoever on any goal whatsoever is good enough - is indeed splendid and amazing and totally to be celebrated.

That's it:  the whole entire work smorgasbord plan. It's as simple as simple can be. But for me, it's magical. I don't worry about picking the most urgent or important task, or the one I'm dreading most. I just pick one, period. Usually I pick the smallest one, or the easiest one - or just the one with the most appeal right this minute. That's not cheating. It's totally allowed. Or so says me, to me.

Then I turn over my hourglass and get to work.
When the hour is done, I feel so pleased with myself, sometimes I even do - gasp - a second hour!

In fact, this afternoon, I accomplished a first reading of the Nixie proofs AND wrote the church council report (only one paragraph, but hey, that's all it needed to be, and now it's done, done, DONE), and in a few minutes this blog post will be done, too. Tomorrow I'll return to the task list and see what I choose for another dedicated hour. Before I know it, I'll have nibbled my way through the whole list.


Monday, October 8, 2018

Five Episodes of Happiness a Day

Now that the exhilaration of the SCBWI conference and the Boston excursion are behind me, all that lies ahead is . . . real life. Ordinary everyday life. And ordinary everyday life that is extra-hard for me right now because of family challenges. I'm struggling with what the children in Noel Streatfeild's wonderful novels (Ballet Shoes, Skating Shoes, Dancing Shoes) often call the "Nothing-nice-will-ever-happen-again" feeling.

So it is time for me to return to some of my past tried-and-true tips for day-to-day survival.

One that worked well for me in years gone by is planning for every day to have in it five episodes of happiness. These can be big or small. There is nothing wrong with small! They can be sources of happiness deliberately added to my day, or things that would have transpired anyway, but now observed and appreciated more fully and mindfully.

Usually I have three episodes of happiness already guaranteed:

1. Lying in bed for an extra ten minutes in the morning, feeling the cool breeze from the open window, snuggling more deeply under my warm covers, allowing my body to awaken, expressing gratitude for its functionality, and anticipating the cup of hot chocolate I'm going to have once I depart from bed.

2. A walk with dog and friend in any weather, with constant expressions of appreciation for how beautiful the mountains are in sun, mist, clouds, rain, snow.

3. Reading a good book before bedtime. It might be a title selected for a book group, or something I need for an academic project, or a new book by an author friend. If I'm especially sad and stressed, it might be a book I've read a dozen times before, where every line is dear and familiar to me. Last night it was The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare.

The other two episodes of happiness require some additional effort on my part: doing some work I especially enjoy (writing!), lunch with a friend, decluttering a drawer (ooh!), a phone call to someone I haven't talked to for a while. For today, I have three special things planned: lunch with my beloved church friend Skippy at her elegant retirement-community dining room; baking apple crisp (yum!); and a meeting of my New Voices book group tonight, where we read books from other cultures and countries (tonight: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by India's Arundhati Roy).

So that makes six episodes of happiness for today, though really just five, because I have to admit I forgot to do the extra bed-snuggling this morning, though I COULD leap back into bed and do it right now. But five is a good number.

A day that contains five episodes of happiness is a good day, even if it's a sad day.

It's certainly a better day than it would have been otherwise.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Brief Boston Bliss

My older son, Christopher, is our family's expert on extravagant celebration.

When he was about to turn 21, he decided that the perfect place to have his first legal drink would be the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, seated next to Cole Porter's piano. I thought this was an excellent plan. So I cancelled class for that day (my students pronounced this the best-reason-ever to cancel a class), and off we flew to New York to accomplish this mission.

This month Christopher turned 30. He decided that the perfect way to commemorate this momentous milestone would be to see his beloved Boston Red Sox play their most hated foe, the New York Yankees, at historic Fenway Park. I thought this was an excellent plan, too. So off we flew to Boston this week, met there by my younger son, Gregory, who now lives in Chicago, to explore this storied city together.

It was all ridiculously decadent and expensive. And it was all worth every penny.

I spent my college years in Boston, so it's a city I love dearly. We walked 25,000 steps (10 miles) the first day, from the famed Citgo sign by Fenway Park all the way to the Bunker Hill Monument, focusing on the Freedom Trail that includes Paul Revere's house, Old South Church ("One if by land, two if by sea"), Old Ironsides, and more. Of course, as a children's book author I had to make a pilgrimage to see the Public Gardens' duck statues in honor of Robert McCloskey's Make Way for Ducklings.
The second day was rainy: the perfect day to visit the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. There I paid homage to Renoir's "Le Bal a Bougival"; a poster of it hung in my Wellesley dorm room through my four years there.
We toured the Winnie-the-Pooh exhibit, where we could walk right into Ernest Shepherd's sketches for his brilliant illustrations.

I sat on the stair from the poem "Halfway Down":

Halfway down the stairs
Is a stair
Where I sit.
There isn't any 
Other stair
Quite like
Finally, we spent all day Saturday touring Fenway park, meeting one of the players (Blake Swihart), and watching the Red Sox lose to the Yankees (WAHHHHH!). But nothing could spoil the pleasure of the three of us being able to share that day together.
The picture makes me smile in part because I am so NOT a sports fan. This was the first time in my life I ever wore spirit wear for any team (the T-shirt borrowed from Christopher for the occasion); I had never heard of a single player on the Red Sox team and knew no lore about the team whatsoever (except for the Curse of the Bambino, of course). But it didn't matter. I was there with my boys, and we were having fun.

That's all I want any more: just to have little bits of joy, and appreciate them as fully and fiercely as I can while I have them. And that's what I did this week, for three sweet days in Boston.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

A Bone Marrow Transplant of JOY

Last weekend was the 42nd annual conference of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators), held at the lovely Denver Marriott West hotel in nearby Golden.

It was one of the happiest weekends of my life. It was also the most healing. At first I thought it was like getting a massive blood transfusion after the hemorrhage of my recent life. But then I decided it was more like getting a bone marrow transplant of pure unadulterated joy: joy implanted into the very core of who I am.

Our co-regional advisers, Kim Tomsic and Jerilyn Patterson, gave me the great gift of inviting me to present not only a break-out session ("Structure and Sparkle: Writing the Transitional Chapter Book") but also the closing keynote address ("How to Have a Wonderful Creative Career in an Hour a Day"). It was bliss to turn from my troubles to talk about what I love best in the world: how to write my favorite kind of book for young readers, and how to live the richest, fullest, happiest creative life.

I've given lots of talks in the course of my long career, including lots of inspirational talks, or at least talks I hoped would inspire their audience. But this closing keynote was the one most ripped from my own heart, and so I think it touched the hearts of those present in a different way from anything I've ever done before, or could do again. It was one of those unrepeatable life moments that I will treasure always.

My talk, in outline, was pretty simple: 11 tips for a happier creative life. I'll list them here, and they look quite skimpy in their bare-bones formulation, but each one was embroidered with honest confessions, funny anecdotes, and brilliant insights from many other published writers.

Here they are:
1. Little things add up to big things. I shared my hour-a-day writing system and displayed my three hand-crafted wooden hourglasses: one hourglass, one half-hourglass, and one eight-minute hourglass-shaped timer. I quoted Anthony Trollope, as I so often do: "Nothing surely is so potent as a law that may not be disobeyed. It has the force of the water drop that hollows the stone. A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules."

2. Follow through. Keep the promises you make to yourself. I quoted this ditty I learned as a child:
"Bite off more than you can chew, and chew it. Plan for more than you can do, and do it. Hitch your wagon to a star, keep your seat . . . and there you are!" I owe everything I've ever achieved in my life to this one, to my ability to keep on cheerfully trudging.

3. Set DELICIOUS goals for yourself: not just goals that are SMART (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant, and Time-Bound), but goals that will give you a tingle of happiness just thinking about them. I gave as examples my goal for 2017 of submitting something somewhere every single month, and my 2018 goal of having ten hours of creative joy each month. I warned against cutting corners on these goals that matter so much: how could I have let myself be tempted this past summer to cut corners on JOY?

4. Instead, lower your standards for things that don't matter. Here, I confessed how little I care about personal appearance (e.g., I never use a hair dryer: my hair, worn in the same style I've had since high school, can just dry on my head) and housekeeping, plus offered a bunch of practical tips for streamlining tasks at the day job.

5. Even when it comes to things that do matter, our own creative work, don't make it harder than it has to be. I railed against America's culture of overwork, with its constant complaints of busyness that are really just disguised bragging, offering some pointed examples from personal experience. Don't compete for the hard work prize!

6. Don't compete for the misery prize, either. Because here, when you win, you lose. I contrasted two writers with memorable advice for aspiring authors: Annie Dillard (The Writing Life) and Brenda Ueland (If You Want to Write). Annie says writers should be like Seminole alligator wrestlers, grappling with our prey half-naked, risking life and limb, citing the case of one drowned, half-eaten wrestler: "It took the Indians a week to find the man's remains." !!!!!  In contrast, Brenda says, "you should feel when writing  . . . like a child stringing beads in kindergarten - happy, absorbed, and quietly putting one bead on after another." I choose to take Brenda Ueland for my writing role model, not Annie Dillard.

7. Speaking of competing, use envy as inspiration. My mantra: don't envy, emulate. I don't envy others' achievements (well, of course I do, but I try not to); these may have been purchased at a price I'm not willing to pay. Instead, I keep a list of people whose whole lives are worthy of my envy: lives lived every day with creative joy. If we compete to have the happiest, healthiest, sanest, most joy-filled life, and we win (or even just benefit from the striving), that's a prize worth having.

8. Document and celebrate achievements. I showed my beloved little notebook, where I keep a list of each month's "Nice Things and Accomplishments."

9. Be careful what stories you tell yourself. Some examples of favorite stories I tell myself, about myself, are "I'm never sick" and "My planes are always on time" (both true - except when they aren't). I shared other pages from the beloved little notebook where I face my problems head on, scribbling thoughts to myself on the page, usually discovering that things really are going to be all right, or at least reasonably okay. I'm a master of avoiding wallowing through stern - but loving - self-talk.

10. Give yourself permission to be happy - and to admit that you are. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, "There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy. By being happy we sow anonymous benefits upon the world." He is also the one who wrote, "The world is so full of a number of things/ I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings." AND: being happy does NOT mean having a life that is easy or pain-free. I quoted the beautiful ending of The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson, when Trotter tells Gilly, "Life ain't supposed to be nothing, 'cept maybe tough," and Gilly says, "If life is so bad, how come you're so happy?" Trotter replies, "Did I say bad? I said it was tough." Yes, yes, yes, yes, YES!

11. Finally, give generously and receive gratefully. I've never not responded to someone who sought my advice on how to write a children's book, and I've met so many wonderful people as a result. Only once did I blow someone off, ten years ago, when I gave another, similar SCBWI talk and someone contacted me afterward to ask if I would be her mentor. My life was in flaming ruins at that time as well, so I just couldn't take on another thing. But she persevered, emailing me a second time, and this time it was easier just to meet with her than to think of a reason to say no. So I did, and - of course! - she became one of my life's dearest friends, who is now serving as my "raft buddy" (her words) as we both try to stay afloat on our current stormy seas. Giving IS receiving. They are one and the same. And SCBWI itself is a model of how much we all gain from fostering a thriving writing community together.

That was my talk. I gave it from my heart, and the ballroom full of attendees gave me a standing ovation in return. I can die happy now, except that I'd rather go on living, even if life ain't nothing but tough.

As I reminded myself last weekend, a tough life can still be a joyful one.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Survival Secrets

It's been a week since I made the decision to face the saddest, scariest season of my life by trying to be a role model. . . to myself. I made a commitment to showing myself how to endure the unendurable with grace, courage, kindness, and even some good humor, too. I liked this plan!

But now I have to report that so far I've been only a minimally adequate role model, if that. There's too much pain. There's too much fear. It's hard to eat, to sleep, to remember the things in life that used to make me happy. Oh, role model, where are you?

Somebody is going to have to step up her game, and preferably sooner rather than later.

Where I've most failed is in accepting help offered by loving friends. I don't know why I can't seem to do this. I've accepted love, and emotional support, and prayers - oodles of prayers - but I can't seem to make myself accept concrete offers of specific, tangible assistance. Three different beloved friends have offered to bring meals, and meals are actually what I need most, as I hate to cook, am a terrible cook, and find even the thought of cooking right now beyond what I can fathom. Yet instead of saying, "Oh, would you? could you? that would mean so much to me!" I said, "Oh, we're fine." I think I just felt it was too pathetic to admit that I can't even fix a meal right now. But the truth is that I can't.

I've also failed at avoiding apocalyptic thinking. When friends try to offer reassurance that someday, in some way, all will be well, I find myself compelled to rebut their comfort by showing them all the ways in which NOTHING WILL EVER BE ALL RIGHT EVER AGAIN.

This is not helpful.

So far, here's what's helped most.

Several friends sent me "thinking of you" cards in the mail, which I cherish. One friend's husband is coming today to install grab bars in both bathrooms to help make my little house more handicap-accessible (I didn't have any problem admitting I could never install a grab bar myself in a million years). A church friend sent home with me on Sunday the gorgeous roses in full bloom she had provided for the altar.
Some friend who didn't identify herself left a bright yellow chrysanthemum outside my front door.
Every time I inhale the scent of the roses, and see the cheery blossoms on the mums, I feel surrounded by love- and maybe even some hope, too.

Yet what helped me most this past week might be something I did for myself. I took off the full day Friday from pain and grief and did nothing all day - nothing at all - but luxuriate in re-reading Jane Eyre, a book I last read in college. I read five hundred pages in a single day, read till my eyeballs burned, then crawled into bed exhausted only to get up a few hours later and return to the couch to finish it. It's so good! So romantic, and lurid, and melodramatic, and brilliantly observed. I didn't read it for illuminating truths about the human condition, but simply to escape into the world of Jane and Mr. Rochester, to be utterly lost in an all-consuming story.

Yay for friends - and for flowers - and for books. On Friday, for that one day, I was an excellent role model for myself. I have to give myself - and Charlotte Bronte - credit where credit is due.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Becoming a Role Model. . . to Myself

I am in the midst of what might be the saddest season of my life so far, dealing with crises of staggering proportions for two family members, with new daily terrors facing me as the one who is charged with Figuring Everything Out: choosing lawyers, choosing rehab facilities, finding the extravagant sums of money needed to pay for it all.

I've been tempted to wallow - indeed, I've felt downright entitled to wallow. Ecclesiastes tells us, "To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven." Right now my time to weep and time to mourn seems also an excellent time for wallowing.

Except that while I do need to weep and I do need to mourn, wallowing really doesn't seem to be the world's most satisfying activity. So instead I decided to give myself a project (oh, how I love projects). What if I try to face these challenges with as much grace, dignity, kindness, and good humor as possible? What if I set myself the task of becoming a role model - not to others, I don't have the hubris to attempt that - but to . . . myself?

I want to amaze myself by having a good, rich, full happy life anyway. I want to be able to look at myself and say, "Wow! I can't believe Claudia can be so wise and kind and funny and productive given all she is going through!" I'm lost in the dark wood. I want to be the one to show myself the path out of the forest.

So of course I made some lists.

1. Breathe. This has already proven so helpful!
2. Keep on walking 10,000 steps a day - ditto!
3. Be kind to everyone involved.
4. Give yourself as much help as you can: medication, therapy, love and support from friends. If anyone offers any assistance whatsoever, say, "Yes, thank you!"
5. Avoid apocalyptic thinking. Do NOT assume your life is over. Do not assume your family can never recover from this. Remember that you know NOTHING of what is going to happen, because, to quote a famous physicist, "Prediction is difficult, especially about the future." Repeat these words hourly: "You know nothing. Anything can happen. You know nothing. Anything can happen." ALL I know is that it's going be hard, but I'm good at doing hard things. I've had plenty of experience.
6. Get some actual work done this month, too. Philosopher/theologian Miguel de Unamuno has told us, "Work is the only practical consolation for having been born." I'm going to try to do a stunning, rabble-rousing job as a closing keynote speaker at this month's Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators conference - where my subject is (ironically? appropriately?): living a creative life of joy.
7. Listen as needed to this recording of the gospel song "I Still Have Joy."
8. Pray. Pray some more.

That's the plan. There have already been a few wobbles along the way. But it's a good plan. I hope Claudia can help Claudia out of this mess. I'm rooting for her, and for me, and for all of us.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Do. Or Do Not. There Is No Dither.

I have repurposed Yoda's famous words for myself because I truly think I waste more time with dithering than with anything else. I am the queen of dithering: of hesitating, wavering, faltering, vacillating. Never do I dither because I truly don't know what to do. I dither because I know exactly what I'm going to do but can't quite own up to the fact that I've already made my decision.

Here's the most recent case in point. I finished up July ("The Week of Fixing Everything") with completing a full draft of a third-grade-level chapter book for my publisher, Holiday House. I then sent it to three writer friends for their comments, so I could get it in the best possible shape before sending it off to my editor in New York. I received their comments within a week, so all I had to do was sit down and make the needed revisions.

But I didn't.

Instead I dithered.

Two of the friends basically loved the book and offered only a few, narrowly focused suggestions. There was too much backstory in Chapter One (note: the opening chapter "info dump" is the most classic of all beginner's errors, here made by me in what will be my 59th published book!). One scene felt obviously dropped into the book as a setup for a subsequent more crucial scene: could I find a way to layer in the setup more naturally? Alterations in the logistics of one story line would make for a simpler narrative, with more dramatic tension to boot. It would be a piece of cake to fix all of these.

The third friend, however, basically didn't love the book. She wanted higher stakes from the start and a much bigger payoff at the finish, with maybe an entirely different problem for the main character, Vera, to be wrestling with throughout. Now, I knew I wasn't going to change my book so radically. I just wasn't going to do it. I LOVE writing books with low stakes (but which feel so important to the children facing them); I LOVE writing books that end with one small step taken forward, one tiny moment of growth. This, I would say, is the very hallmark of what I consider a "Claudia Mills book." So I could have just ignored this set of comments and moved on.

Instead I dithered.

COULD I raise the stakes? SHOULD the story have a bigger, bolder resolution? Should I tear it up and write a different book altogether? Remember: I already knew I was going to answer each of these questions with a no. But I felt guilty about ignoring comments from a writer (and dear friend) I do respect, who had given considerable time and energy to critiquing my book.

Finally two days ago, with the end-of-the-month looming, a month quite devoid of things to add to my monthly list of "Accomplishments and Nice Things," I declared an end to the dithering and did exactly what I knew I would do all along. I trotted off to the computer, revised the book (in three hours!) from the first two sets of comments, and (not without a pang) largely ignored the third (though making a few small but significant changes because of it). I emailed the book to my editor yesterday morning and added "revised and sent off the Vera book" to August's "Accomplishments and Nice Things" list.

Maybe some dithering is a necessary part of the writing process - and of the living process, too. But here two days of dithering would have been adequate. Two weeks of dithering bordered on ridiculous.

Oh, Yoda, I should have listened to you sooner: "Do. Or Do Not."  There is no dither!

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

I Turn 64 Today

Today is my birthday. All year long my high school friends have been turning 64 and posting links to the Beatles singing, "Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm 64?"

This morning I remembered the poem I wrote the day before my tenth birthday:
For those who can no longer read cursive (and I can't believe how beautifully I could write it all those years ago!), here's what I wrote on August 20, 1964.


There is much magic in the age
Of ten, that year as rich as gold.
Like freedom from the tiny cage
That years of childhood hold.

When one is ten he starts to bear
The fruits that seeds of patience grew.
And when one's ten he starts to care
Of what is false and what is true.

When you're ten, wait and see,
You'll lead a life of mystery.

Well, I don't remember bearing any fruits that seeds of patience grew. I do remember caring of what is false and what is true: that was the year I felt betrayed by someone I thought was my best friend who - gasp! - turned out to like another friend more than she liked me.

What is most true is that I did end up leading a life of mystery. So many things happened in my life that I could never have predicted. In two ways my life turned out exactly as I expected: I knew I would be a writer, and a writer I became; I knew friendship would be extremely important throughout my life, and it has proved my life's greatest joy.

But I didn't know that I'd ever get married (another poem of this era begins, "I hate boys/ I'll say it twice /I don't think boys/Are very nice"). I didn't know that I'd become the mother of two boys and move to Colorado to live at the foothills of the Rockies. I didn't know how hard marriage and motherhood would be for me. I didn't know how many mistakes I'd make (I should have planted more seeds of patience!). I didn't know how much life would demand of me that I wasn't ready to give.

But here I am. I'm going to have breakfast with my dear friend Rowan this morning, and then work on revisions for an academic children's literature article and for a third-grade-level chapter book. Tonight I'll attend a friend's book launch at the Boulder Bookstore and go out to celebrate both her book and my birthday afterward.

If I ever write a memoir, I think the title might be Despite Everything. That's the main thing I didn't know: how much hard stuff there would be - and how good my life would be, anyway.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Literary Pilgrimage: Betty MacDonald

I grew up loving the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books of the irrepressible Betty MacDonald, where in each chapter Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle has a magical cure for some child's comically bad behavior: "The Slow-Eater-Tiny-Bite-Taker Cure," "The Thought-You-Saiders Cure," "The Answer-Backer Cure," "The Fighter-Quarrelers Cure," etc. I published a scholarly paper on the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books almost twenty years ago: "'Powders and Pills to Help Cure Children's Bad Habits': The Medicalization of Misbehavior in Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle," Children's Literature Association Quarterly, vol. 26, no. 4 (Winter 2001-2002). In the course of writing that paper I had occasion to read her four memoirs including The Egg and I (1945), which sold a million copies in its first year of publication.

I had read somewhere that Betty MacDonald was born in Boulder, but I never got around to hunting for her birthplace. Then this month I read Paula Becker's Looking for Betty MacDonald, both a biography of MacDonald and a memoir of Becker's personal journey to discover the woman behind the books - and the many homes she inhabited, with a helpful list provided of all the addresses. The house Betty was born in was 723 Spruce Street (formerly 725 but subsequently renumbered).

So off I went yesterday to find it, and there it was!

This is the house where Betty made her way into the world on March 26, 1907. Her grandmother, Gammy, summoned a neighboring vet to help but (quoting Becker), Betty's mother "sent the vet home" and "cut and tied the umbilical cord herself." It was of this house that Betty later wrote, "When I was a few months old, Mother received the following wire from Daddy [a mining engineer]: 'Leaving for Mexico City for two years Thursday - be ready if you want to come along.'" And her mother was, so off went baby to Mexico, ending her residence in Colorado.

I was a bit worried that the house doesn't look at all like the period photo in Becker's book, so I went to the Carnegie Library for Local History website and found a "building inventory" of the site which noted that "the exterior has been significantly altered." The Carnegie Library website gives as the "statement of significance" for the building that it is "associated with Professor J. Alden Smith," a prominent geologist and metallurgist. But - but - what about Betty MacDonald?!!!! A prominent children's book author and humorist?! Who is surely a hundred times more noteworthy, at least for me, than Prof. J. Alden Smith!

Part of me wants to contact the Carnegie Library for Local History to protest this oversight. But I'm not one for protesting things, generally, and it's fine if pilgrimage requires a bit of camaraderie on the part of the pilgrims. Paula Becker found Betty, and then she helped me find Betty, and now, fellow Boulderites or visitors to Boulder, I'm helping you. And if you don't know Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, now is a wonderful time to check these books out of the library and curl up for a treat.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Resigning Myself to Revision

Most of my writer friends say revision is their favorite part of the writing process. What they dread is that initial, terrifying blank page/screen. Once they force themselves to finish a first draft, then the fun part of writing can begin.

Not for me. 

I LOVE the blank page, with its pure possibility. I love how low the stakes are for a first draft because, hey, all of this can be changed! all of these problems can be fixed! After all, as author Jane Smiley says, "Every first draft is perfect, because all a first draft has to do is exist." I love the physical act of writing the first draft: for my creative work, I write my drafts longhand, lying on the couch, with a favorite pen on a favorite pad of paper on a favorite clipboard. I love writing a page every day and having such clear, tangible evidence of what I've accomplished. There it is, one more page, written by me.

When it comes to revision, now I really have to work on a computer. And a revision has to do more than merely exist: ideally, it should be better than the first draft. (One of my bugaboos as a writing mentor is when my mentees do revisions - against my advice - that make their books worse.) There has to be progress, and it's hard to see the progress; it's not easily measurable in terms of word count or growing stack of pages. Now I don't have have the luxury of turning off my editor brain and silencing my inner critic. Indeed, now I have outer critics: writer friends, or double-blind reviewers from academic journals, or editors at my publishers, who have given me a most distressingly thorough list of things they want fixed. So many things! Some of which are so hard to fix!

Both of my main work projects for the month of August are revisions: 1) revisions of my chapter-book-set-in-an-after-school-comic-book-camp (from comments from five different writer friends), and 2) revisions of my article "Trying to Be Good (with Bad Results): The Wouldbegoods, Betsy-Tacy and Tib, and Ivy and Bean: Bound to Be Bad" for a children's literature journal (from comments from two different, but equally critical, reviewers). If I know anything about being a writer and scholar, it's that revisions are: 1) absolutely inevitable, unavoidable,and  inescapable;  and 2) exceedingly unlikely to get done unless I actually sit down and do them. (Where are the revision elves to come in the night, when we need them?)

I'm going to tackle the article revisions first, as those are woefully overdue (the book isn't due to my editor until some time in September, and I might as well wait until I have the comments from the last two reviewers). I sat down and read the article again and loved it, which was encouraging. Then I sat down and read the reviewers' comments again and was discouraged all over again. But much as I'd like to wallow in discouragement, that isn't helpful at this point.

So I made a plan. Hooray for plans! I made a list of twelve things I'm going to try to do. The list includes:

1. Acknowledge the broader context within which my discussion is situated. (NOTE: don't write a whole new paper about this broader context! Just write a short paragraph acknowledging that it exists!). 

2. Account for the lengthy chronological gap between the earliest texts I discuss and the most recent ones. (Again, this involves mainly acknowledging the gap and venturing an explanation for why it exists).

3. Identify the thesis of the paper more fully and carefully. (Oh, but what IS the thesis? JUST DO THE BEST YOU CAN.)

4. Motivate the selection of these three texts more fully (i.e., show that they are not just three books I happen to have read and liked, which of course they are).

5. Tap into the larger conversation set forward in a certain scholarly book (which I did buy, and read, and ponder).

6. Don't position citations from others as conclusions; offer more far-reaching conclusions in my own voice. (Oh, but I'm so shy! So timid! JUST DO THE BEST YOU CAN.)

7. Cite several more scholarly articles from the secondary literature suggested by the reviewers (note to self: but don't position citations from these as conclusions!). 

And five MORE things too complicated to distill here. 

Oh, can I do this? What if I can't? HELP! HELP! HELP!

All I can do is try. If I were a betting woman, I would say there is a 70 percent likelihood of my improving this paper enough to get a grudging blessing from the reviewers, and a 30 percent chance of failure. Those are fairly decent odds. In the past, I've been equally discouraged and ended up with a published article; in fact, only once in my entire double career as philosophy scholar and children's literature scholar have I failed to please the reviewers after making my best effort at revision. And if I don't do these revisions, I have ZERO chance of acceptance. 

Wish me luck, dear friends!


Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Some Things Are Easier to Fix than Others

I have now completed The Week of Fixing Everything. Here - ta-dah! - are the results.

1. Carseat straps that needed adjusted: DONE! It took ten minutes total including the time to nag my son to do it.

2. Dog hair in the car: GONE! This might have taken five minutes total. Now I can invite friends to ride in my car without shame.

3. Shabby clothes: TWO NEW DRESSES PURCHASED ONLINE; one has been dropped off for alteration at a friend's seamstress. I also did the easiest and most cost-effective shopping of all: shopping in my own closet. It turns out I do have plenty of non-shabby clothes; I just prefer to wear the same shabby ones over and over again. So I'm planning to force myself to branch out.

4. Inadequate will: ESTATE PLANNING CONSULTATION SESSION ACCOMPLISHED! The new documents will be ready for my signature next week.

5. Family member in need of medical checkup: HEARTFELT PLEAS FINALLY WORKED! APPOINTMENT HAS TRANSPIRED! But many future appointments are going to be needed. Still, I can't tell you how extremely relieved I am that this is happening.

6. Children's literature article revisions overdue: HARDLY ANY PROGRESS MADE (insert frowny face emoticon here). I did re-read my article and fell in love with it all over again; then I re-read the reviewers' comments and felt despair all over again. But I'm ready to accept that I can't possibly do everything they want me to do, so I'll make a list of ten things I'm willing and able to do, do them, and hope for the best. I can't do this until later in August.

7. Revisions on a children's book manuscript desperately needed before I can even show it to other writer friends for their review: AN HOUR A DAY (well, two hours on some days) DID THE TRICK! I emailed the vastly improved draft off to five writer friends ten minutes ago.

8. Guilt for not composting: CONTAINER IS ON COUNTER! COMPOSTABLE BAGS HAVE BEEN PURCHASED! I AM COMPOSTING MOST MERRILY - but newly aware of, and newly appalled by, how much food we waste. But now we can start doing better.

9. Desire to lose two pounds: FAILURE! Oh, well.

10. Awful meals: THREE NEW RECIPES TRIED. Unfortunately, it appears that no one but me will eat anything I cook, so I ended up eating their portions, too - thus, the failure for goal #9 above. More pondering is needed here....

11. Frazzled time with grandchildren: TEN-YEAR-OLD MOTHER'S HELPER HIRED FOR ONE DAY NEXT WEEK, with backup sitters in view.

12. Chaotic pantry: MY HUGEST TRIUMPH! In two hours, it was sooooooo much tidier, cleaner, and better organized. The photo doesn't do justice to its splendor, but note how you can actually walk into it without tripping over boxes of Cheeze-Its.

So here's what I've learned from The Week of Fixing Everything:

1. It was a wonderful idea that led overall to wonderful results. Each thing fixed built momentum to fix other things. I was a crazed woman on a mission! This was a happy and satisfying week for me.

2. The easiest things to fix are the "one and done" items (or, at least, "one and done for now"): little pesky chores that take hardly any time and, once done, stay done for a reasonable length of time. This should have been obvious to me, I suppose, and yet I procrastinated disgracefully on these piddly tasks until I decided to tackle them en masse this week.

3. The other particularly satisfying category of fix-it items are the "just take the first step" items: in my case, make the estate planning appointment, make the family member's medical appointment, start household composting. For composting, the important thing was to overcome groundless resistance and to develop what I'm sure will be a self-sustaining habit. For estate planning and medical appointments, the important thing was to face things that are depressing to face - one's own mortality, a family member's declining health - but will be much worse if not faced.

4. The hardest things to fix are things that need constant vigilance. Even if I had lost those two pounds, I could easily have regained them with the purchase and consumption (in a 24-hour period, as is my usual wont) of a single bag of Keebler Fudge Sticks. Re the wardrobe woes, I will have to force myself continually to wear the less familiar and comfy non-shabby clothes. And even if I had had a successful experience making three decent meals, I wouldn't be able to rest on those meal-making laurels forever. I have to keep on making meals week after week after week. Sigh...

5. The biggest casualty of the week was energy diverted from my writing projects to fixing everything else in my life. Writing is hard, period. Any easier task can beckon me away from it, especially if the easier task yields instantaneous rapture (e.g., MY PANTRY!!!). This is why I can't make every single week of my life The Week of Fixing Everything. That said, there was really no way I could finish book revisions AND article revisions in a single week, and in the end I think I made more progress on the book revisions spurred on by fix-everything mania.

Bottom line conclusion: As a once-in-a-while undertaking (perhaps quarterly?), I highly recommend giving yourself the gift of A Week of Fixing Everything.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

The Week of Fixing Everything

Here's my hard-won boast: I am extremely good at accepting what I cannot change. "Oh, well," I say with a sigh and a rueful grin. This is my standard response to the long list of things that are sub-par in my existence.

But of late I've been struck by this new meme I'm encountering: "I'm tired of accepting what I cannot change. I'm going to start changing what I cannot accept."

Ooh! Maybe there are some troubling aspects of my life that I CAN change? And if so, maybe I should actually change them?

This prospect, though, is somewhat daunting. So, of course, I sat down and made a list of all the problems in my life, large and small, and how I might possibly do something to solve them. And then I decided to try to SOLVE THEM ALL IN ONE WEEK! Why not just face what has to be faced and  take care of them all in one fell swoop? So this last week in July, starting TODAY, is going to be the week of fixing everything.

Here is my list of current woes and what I plan to do about them this week.

1. It's an ordeal getting my granddaughters in and out of their carseats because the straps need adjusting. Fix: ADJUST THEM!

2. There is dog hair all over the front passenger seat of the car from taking Tanky to the vet. Fix: VACUUM IT! PUT AN OLD SHEET IN THE CAR TO AVOID THIS PROBLEM IN THE FUTURE!

3. My clothes, all bought at Goodwill, are getting too shabby even for me. Fix: BUY SOME NEW ONES! When I was teaching in Utah last month, I admired a student's dress and asked if I might inquire where she had purchased it. So now I have a new favorite dress source: Mikarose, a Utah company specializing in "modest" clothes. I know it will cause a sensation in church when I arrive wearing something different from the same half a dozen things I've worn for the past half a dozen years.

4. I wake up in the middle of the night worried that my will is woefully inadequate in a way that would be disastrous for certain family members if I died tomorrow. Fix: MAKE AN APPOINTMENT FOR A FREE 90-MINUTE CONSULTATION WITH AN ESTATE PLANNER!

5. Another family member's health is declining rapidly; this person needs to have a years-overdue doctor's appointment to see what might possibly be done. This one definitely seems to fall in the category of "things I cannot change" because if there is anything in this world that is true, it is that you can't change other people and make them do something they don't want to do. Or IS that true? Fix: TRY HARDER TO COAX AND CAJOLE AND COERCE AND COMPEL!

6. I feel stressed every day about a children's literature academic article which needs to be revised-and-resubmitted from the reviews I received from the journal many months ago. Fix: JUST SIT DOWN AND DO IT!

7. I feel stressed as well about book revisions that feel especially overwhelming. Fix: JUST SIT DOWN AND DO THEM!

8. I am consumed with guilt that everyone else in Boulder except for me composts their food waste, but it just seems so messy and complicated. Fix: GET COMPOSTABLE TRASH BAGS! GET A CONTAINER FOR FOOD SCRAPS TO KEEP ON THE COUNTER! BY THE END OF THE WEEK IT WILL BECOME SECOND NATURE TO DO THIS!

9. I would like to lose two pounds to have my weight below a Certain Number on the scale. FIX: EAT LESS! NO MORE KEEBLER FUDGE STICKS FOR YOU, MISSY!

10. The meals in our house are awful, truly awful - lots of snacking, lots of carryout. FIX: GET OUT MY COOKBOOKS, PICK A FEW RECIPES, AND MAKE THEM!

11. I find myself frazzled at the end of each long day of caring for my granddaughters during their monthly ten-day visit. FIX: HIRE SOME TEN-YEAR-OLD "MOTHER'S HELPERS" TO COME FROM 3-5 EACH DAY!

12. The pantry is a nightmare of disorganization where I can't find anything and end up buying lots of things I already have, thus adding to the chaos. FIX: CLEAN IT!

I do believe it is possible to fix every single one of these things over the course of the next seven days, though maybe I'll have to choose between the article revisions or the book revisions. Still: even if I don't get all of these things done this week, even if I only get half of them done, how much better my life will be. . . .

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Can the Joy of Time Away from Home Inspire Joy upon Returning?

I am spending a blissful week at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia, where I taught in the Graduate Programs in Children's Literature for the six-week term last summer as well as for six weeks in the summer of 2014. I'm not here to teach this time, however. I'm here just because I couldn't bear to stay away. Our beloved founding director, Amanda Cockrell, is retiring after a quarter century in the position. My dear friend Lisa Rowe Fraustino now takes the helm. I wanted to be part of the gala farewells to Amanda and to spend time with colleagues and former students returning for reunion week.

So here I am. I'm writing this while sitting at "my table" in the Hollins library, looking out at a grassy hill rising toward the Blue Ridge Mountains.
It is such a perfect place to work! So far since arriving on Monday evening, I've sat here and typed up minutes for last weekend's Church Council meeting, written a review of a scholarly article on child author Opal Whiteley, written comments to deliver on a philosophy paper on the ethics of using photographs as tools of moral persuasion for the Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress next month, and read part of Perry Nodelman's brilliant book The Hidden Adult that will help me revise and resubmit a children's literature paper of my own. Today I'm turning to creative work - revisions on my current chapter-book-in-progress (the one about the girl attending an after-school comic-book-making camp).

I love work. I always have. And I especially love working at a beautiful table in a beautiful library on a beautiful campus in a beautiful city. Plus walking twice around the permimeter of that campus at sunrise. Plus eating scrumptious cafeteria breakfasts (how I love made-to-order omelettes, and hash-brown potatoes, and biscuits with butter and jam.). Plus attending luncheon talks on craft, and an inspirational talk last night by visiting author Guadalupe Garcia McCall. And a pool party Tuesday night, dinner party tonight, and Francelia Butler Conference all-day Saturday.

I'm so happy here, and so productive here, too. Maybe I'm so happy partly because I'm so productive. And maybe I'm so happy and productive partly because I'm so intellectually and creatively stimulated. So now my question for myself is: can I find a way to be this happy and productive at home?

At home I take a lovely walk each morning at 6 am with a dear friend and a faithful dog. So I already have that. At home I make myself breakfast - maybe I could go to a little extra effort to make a more lavish one? But maybe that's not worth it. At home I have lots of creative and intellectual friends - maybe I should make sure to have regularly scheduled breakfasts and lunches with them, or to find stimulating talks to attend together. Still, I do have all these delightful Hollins-y things already in my life.

The main thing I lack is a place to work that is as inspiring as this table - so quiet, with so much room to spread out my books and papers, in a room so full of light, with a view so serene. I have an acceptable little office at home, with a desk I keep fairly uncluttered, and a view out into a tree where squirrels scamper and play. But . . . it isn't THIS quiet, and THIS beautiful, and THIS sacred a spot consecrated to doing the work of my heart. So I think I should give myself the pleasant challenge of trying to find one.

The one thing I can't find a replacement for at home is the whimsical little children's literature characters, created by Hollins faculty member Ashley Wolff, which are hidden all around campus.

I can stumble upon bread-and-jam-eating Frances and wild thing Max only at Holllins. But a quiet, uncluttered, serene table with a view? I bet I can find that somewhere in Boulder if I set myself to seeking....

Friday, July 13, 2018

Creative Joy Progress Report

As some of you know, my chief goal for 2018 is to have 10 hours of creative joy each month. I have strict standards for what counts as creative joy: it can't just be joy experienced doing something creative - too easy! It has to be joy experienced doing something creative with something EXTRA added: writing somewhere special, writing while eating something special, writing in the company of someone special, even just writing with a lit candle by my side, or a dollop of Cool Whip in my morning Swiss Miss hot chocolate.

So far this year I've totaled: 14 hours of creative joy in January, 14 in February, 15 in March, a whopping 22 in April, 14 in May . . . but only 9 1/4 in June. My average is definitely greater than ten hours a month, but according to my self-imposed rules, I'm not allowed to stockpile creative joy hours in lush months as a safeguard against leaner ones. The goal is to make EVERY month a creatively joyous one.

Those missing three-quarters of an hour of creative joy in June stand as a reproach to me. My hero, Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope, faithfully logged his pages written every day, entering "day by day, the number of pages I have written, so that if at any time I have slipped into idleness for a day or two, the record of that idleness has been there, staring me in the face, and demanding of me increased labour so that the deficiency might be supplied." He confesses that "a week passed with an insufficient number of pages has been a blister to my eye, and a month so disgraced would have been a sorrow to my heart."

So now my little creative joy log stands as "a blister to my eye" and "a sorrow to my heart."

Nor have I logged a single hour of creative joy thus far in July, consumed instead with taking two little girls to Tiny Town, to Sunflower Farm, to the Carousel of Happiness, and to a planetarium show at the Museum of Nature and Science - plus many happy hours at the pool where they bobbed about in their Puddle Jumpers like two buoyant little boats on a sunny sea. (I did, however, get to check off many of these items toward the goal of experiencing thirty different "summer pleasures" -  oh, how I love lists!)

Next week will be nonstop creative joy, as I'm traveling to Roanoke to reconnect with colleagues, former students, and dear friends at the Graduate Program in Children's Literature at Hollins University. I'll write in their beautiful library. I'll write curled up in one of the soft blankets thoughtfully provided by the library against air conditioning chills. I'll write in a rocking chair on a veranda. I'll write, and write, and write, and every minute of it will be joyous - and duly logged as such.

But I still wish I had made myself get just 45 more minutes of creative joy in June.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Finding Happiness Closer to Home

I'm back from the Children's Literature Association conference in San Antonio, where I had the usual exhilarating time listening to dozens of scholarly papers over the course of the conference's three days. For just a few:
  • Picture book portrayals of Mrs. Noah in Noah's Ark picture books
  • Patron statistics and written reports on librarian-patron interactions from the children's division of the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library 1907-1910
  • Nineteenth-century child-created cookbooks
  • Food and female community in early 20th century girls' college novels
  • Pioneering children's librarian Anne Carroll Moore's close relationship with (wrongly) convicted murderer Leo Frank
  • Visual representations of the state in picture books about children of incarcerated parents
  • Swimming as an element of progressive girlhood in early 20th century Girl Scout novels
  • Textual changes across numerous editions of Louise May Alcott's Little Women.
And so many more!

My own paper on child poet Hilda Conkling was well received. I caught up with beloved once-a-year conference friends, drank margaritas on the River Walk, scribbled down so many book recommendations, reconnected on such a deep level with a world I love, and even joined in a "Families Belong Together" rally in front of the nearby cathedral. I also walked alone every early morning past the Alamo and found a wonderful bakery/cafe, La Panaderia, where I sipped hot chocolate and nibbled on pineapple empenadas while writing poetry.

But. . . it's so hard on my family when I travel now, given health issues and other ways in which I'm needed and will be needed even more in years to come. As I noted in my previous post, conference travel is extremely expensive, too. Partway through the conference I thought: oh, I love this world too much ever to let it go! But by the end, I started to think: these twenty-five years of attending the conference have been blissful, but my life at home is pretty blissful, too. Anywhere that I can drink hot chocolate and write poetry is a blissful place to be.

My two little granddaughters are here now for their monthly ten-day visit. Today their father and I took them to Tiny Town in Morrison, where I used to take him and his brother when they were small. It's an old-fashioned, somewhat shabby and shopworn, dear sweet little place; the Tiny Town train (which we rode twice this morning) has been carrying children and their families since 1915. Here are the girls in their 4th of July finery:

Today at Tiny Town with them I was just as happy as I was last week, immersed in the world of children's literature scholarship. (Not happier, I have to say - but equally happy.) In an ideal world, I guess I'd have both: travel to fascinating academic gatherings all around the country (and the planet!) AND intense family time at home. But few people live ideal lives in an ideal world. It's enough to have a happy life, in whatever form it needs to take.

On this Independence Day, I'm remembering that, in the end, independence isn't everything. Pursuing happiness isn't as important as appreciating happiness when you already have it.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Is It Time to Hang Up My Spurs?

I'm off on Tuesday to San Antonio for the annual conference of the Children's Literature Association (ChLA), the 800-plus-member organization of children's literature scholars and professors. My paper this year is on child poet Hilda Conkling, part of two back-to-back panels on child artists. I spent the last week toiling mightily on it, even though it's less than 3000 words (barely nine pages). I gave it my best, but I know it isn't my best paper. I hope the attendees for our session will find it informative and engaging; few people seem to have heard of Hilda Conkling, although I found her widely anthologized poems everywhere I turned throughout my childhood years. But I know already that it's not going to be something I can develop into a publishable paper, as two other terrific papers have been published already on Hilda Conkling, saying everything I'm saying, only better.

I'm finding myself wondering, now that I'm supposedly retired as a university professor, whether I should keep on doing this: writing these little papers, to read to a few dozen people at an academic conference, papers that may or may not have any potential ever to be published, and if published may attract half a dozen readers at most.

I sat down and reviewed my past history with ChLA, an organization I love:

I attended my first ChLA conference, in San Diego, in 1990. I became a regular attendee starting in 1994, in Springfield, Missouri. Since then I have missed only three conferences, and I've presented papers at all but two of the conferences I did attend, and for one of those I was giving the presidential address instead, as I was ChLA's president 2012-13. Of the 20 papers I presented, I've published 17 of them - actually, every single one up until 2015. That year's paper is currently waiting for me to revise-and-resubmit it to the journal Children's Literature, which I've pledged to myself to do. The paper from 2016 may not have the potential to be developed into a publishable piece; ditto for 2017. As I said, I already know that this year's paper has no publication prospects.

Now, I do expect 2015's paper to be published. I'm good at revising-and-resubmitting; I do it all the time, and it always has a good a result for me. I may yet find a way of expanding and deepening 2016's paper, and even the one from last year. So maybe it's premature to conclude that my days as a regularly published member of this profession are behind me.

And yet . . .

It's so much work to write these papers! It's VASTLY more work to take a 9-page conference paper and turn it into a rigorously argued, literature-grounded 25-30 page article. And it's GRUELING work to revise an article after receiving two sets of sometimes scathing comments from the "blind" reviewers. It also costs $1000 to attend an academic conference: at least $200 for the conference registration fee, an average of $300 for the plane fare, upwards of $100/night at the conference hotel (this, if I'm lucky enough to have a roommate), meals (and drinks!), and more.

And yet. . . .

Every time I go to ChLA, I walk in the door and see so many dear friends, from decades of conferences past, and I have the same thought every single time: "THIS is my world. THESE are my people." When I look at my c.v. (not that anyone on earth really cares about my c.v. any more except for me), I'm proud to see that long line of articles, from all those years. When I first left my tenured position in the philosophy department at the University of Colorado, I took this as my mantra: "Do not go gentle into that good pasture."

And yet . . . is the pasture beckoning? Or rather, is the work of remaining an active "workhorse" too demanding?

Here's what I'm telling myself: I don't have to make any "forever" decision about any of this. Few decisions are "forever" decisions, anyway. I'll go to ChLA, present my own modest little paper, hear many dazzling papers from scholars I revere and adore, have long wonderful conversations with friends, and at least one margarita on the River Walk.

After all, there are worse ways to spend five days in June.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Inspired (and Humbled): Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers (WIFYR)

I'm back from a grueling and glorious week in Utah, teaching a course called "Getting Ready to Write the First Novel" at the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers workshop (WIFYR), now in its 19th year. I've taught at WIFYR several times before  (I've lost count of how many), and it's always the same: exhausting and exhilarating, where no one leaves without laughing, crying, and growing in our craft as writers.

My class met every day from 8:30-12:30, for the five days of the workshop: a total of 20 hours in the classroom, more than half the hours of a typical semester-long university class. My eight students had submitted 20,000 words (around 80 pages) of their novel-in-progress to me and the rest of the students in advance. Some chose to submit opening chapters and then skipped ahead to climax and resolution; others just chopped off the first 20K-word chunk and gave us a synopsis for the rest. In the weeks before the workshop we sat at home hundreds of miles apart, frantically reading, reading, reading, So when we finally met in person, we already knew each other well, just from dissecting our stories so intently.

I structured the class in this way.

On Monday, we introduced ourselves more formally, each writer sharing the origin of how his or her story came to be. Then we gave rapid-fire fifteen-minute overall responses to each manuscript, devoting half the time to listing the things we loved best and half to raising questions or concerns for further discussion throughout the rest of the week. Even though I knew from experience that reactions would change as we talked together - critique is best when it's interactive - there is value in getting a first reaction to one's work. After all, that is what future readers are going to be giving. Few spend an entire week in close analysis of a literary work before weighing in with an opinion.

On Tuesday, we focused on characterization. For each protagonist (and some books had two equally important main characters), we asked: what does this person WANT at the start of the story? It's often hard, even for the author, to figure this out, but without a clear desire/goal, a character tends to be passive rather than active, and the story fails to pose a central dramatic question that keeps readers turning pages. Then we asked (a question borrowed from the brilliant Kathi Appelt): what is each person's "controlling belief"? - i.e., their guiding principle that will be tested through the course of the story, climaxing in a "crisis of faith." What is their character arc? How does each one change and grow from the first page to the last?

On Wednesday and Thursday, we focused on plot structure and gave close a close reading to each manuscript's opening chapter. Was there an "inciting incident" that sets the story in motion? Did the chapter have a strong opening paragraph and a final line where the central dramatic question of the book clicks into place for the reader?

On Friday, our final day, we read some revised (and much improved) beginnings by those who offered them for additional critique. Then we turned to theme and imagery: what were the philosophical issues explored by each book? If there were more than one, which one was most important? Could any imagery be created to make this thematic material more vivid for the reader?

And then we said our teary farewells.

In case all of this wasn't enough, every afternoon there were four more talks and/or workshops to attend, by agents, editors, faculty authors, and other authors coming in to share their expertise. My workshop was "How to Write Morally Charged Stories without Teaching or Preaching." I have to confess that the biggest treat for me was the session by Charlie Holmberg, "Kissing Like You Mean It (Smooching 101)." I doubt I'll ever write a kissing scene, but if I do, now I'll know how to make it a great one! Over lunch and dinner, WIFYR faculty shared hours of intense conversations while sipping root beer floats and gobbling Fat Boy ice cream sandwiches (and meal-type food, too).

I learned so much from my fellow faculty members who gave these talks and conversed so passionately with me. But I learned even more from my students. Some have attended WIFYR over half a dozen times. Some have been rewriting their books for years, while raising families and working at challenging day jobs. Could I work as hard as they do? Could I care as much as they do? Could I give as much of my heart to my books as they do to theirs?

All I know is: I'm going to try to write the best books I can to be worthy of having been their teacher.

I'm going to model their dedication and commitment.

And I'm going to have myself another root beer float, too.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The Funnest Summer Ever?

Summer has always been my least favorite season. When I was younger, summer ranked last among seasons because I loved school and so pined mightily from June till September, even going so far as to hang a calendar on my closet door where I could cross off the days until the school bell rang once more. Nowadays it's mainly summer's weather that I dislike. I want weather that invites me to curl up by a fireplace, beneath a blanket, a mug of hot chocolate by my side, and write. Give me a blizzard any day over blazing sun and temperatures in the 90s.

But the other day, I heard from the mother of granddaughter Kataleya's best friend, Danielle, that Danielle had said, with great joy, "This is going to be the funnest summer ever!" Admittedly, at age four, she doesn't have a wealth of past summers to serve as points of comparison. But still.. . it made me think. . . maybe I should give summer another chance. Could I make this the funnest summer ever for me, too?

So I sat down and made a list of possible summer joys. I came up with 40. Some are possible joys from the five days I'm going to spend in Utah teaching a class for the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers workshop (WIFYR), the five days I'm going to spend in San Antonio at the Children's Literature Association conference, and the six days I'm going to spend in Roanoke reconnecting with colleagues and former students in the graduate program in children's literature at Hollins University. Many are essentially guaranteed to happen, as I've already purchased the relevant tickets. But I still wanted to put them on the list; ditto for a couple that have already happened. After all, the most important part of having a fun summer is noticing how fun it is. The point of this list is not only to make sure I do a bunch of fun stuff, but to note as I do it, hey, this is FUN!

As I love counting things, my charge to myself is cross off at least 30 of these items:


In Utah:
1. Spend some one-on-one time with the incomparably fabulous organizer of WIFYR, Carol Lynch Williams.
2. Make a new friend on the faculty there.
3. Learn something new from one of the faculty talks.
4. Walk on a cool Utah evening in the shadow of the surrounding mountains.

In San Antonio:
5. Have a margarita on the River Walk.
6. Hear at least three wonderful papers.
7. Savor every minute of my last-ever meeting for my concluding three-year term on the Phoenix Award Committee.

In Roanoke:
8. Have breakfast in the Hollins cafeteria - yum, yum, yum!
9. Have a grilled cheese sandwich at Pops in the Grandin neighborhood - yum, yum, yum!
10. Work at my favorite table in the beautiful Hollins library.
11. Read at the Hollins library while wrapped up on one of the blankets thoughtfully provided.
12. Take an early morning walk past horses grazing in a meadow.
13. See fireflies (which we don't have her in Colorado, but which turn every tree into a fairyland in Roanoke).

At home in Colorado:
14. Attend the Colorado Music Festival (and I already have tickets!).
15. Attend the Colorado Shakespeare Festival (I already have tickets for Richard III!).
16. Hike on a new-to-me trail.
17. Attend a free concert in a park.
18. Visit a new-to-me branch of the public library.
19. Take my granddaughters to the zoo (DONE! but it still counts!).
20. Take my granddaughters to the free showcase by the Boulder Ballet (DONE!).
21. Hear my son Christopher and pew-mate Rebecca share special music at a worship service (I forced them to choose a date when I wouldn't be in Utah, Texas, or Virginia).
22. Have either breakfast at the Saturday morning farmer's market or dinner at the Wednesday evening one.
23. Ride the little "train" on Pearl Street with my granddaughters.
24. Hike to Chautauqua and then have breakfast on the veranda of the dining hall there.
25. Have a gin-and-tonic with lime.
26. Dine outdoors in a rooftop restaurant with a view of the mountains.
27. Have a drink on the patio of the posh St. Julien Hotel.
28. Go to a talk or reception for the Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress at CU.
29. Ride the Carousel of Happiness in Nederland.
30. Attend a Rockies game down at Coors Field in Denver.
31. Go to any event at the Second Star to the Right children's bookstore.
32. Go to Tiny Town in Morrison (oh, how I love Tiny Town!).
33. Go to Grand Lake (oh, how I love Grand Lake!).
34. Go to Rocky Mountain National Park.
35. Go to Golden Gate Canyon State Park.
36. Go to Eldorado Canyon State Park.
37. Have a picnic with my granddaughters with picnic basket and red-checked tablecloth.
38. Star gaze.
39. Go on a naturalist-led nature walk.
40. Have an overnight trip to some mountain town (and savor the vastly cooler air at 8000-feet of elevation).

That's the list. I can probably find more things to add. But it's already a pretty swell catalog of possible summer treats. Anyone who experiences at least 30 of these can say - and SHOULD say - should shout it from the rooftops: "This is the funnest summer ever!"

Friday, June 1, 2018

The Pleasures of a Two-Hour Vacation

Yesterday was my day to collect my two granddaughters, Kat and Madi, for their monthly ten-day visit. Alas, for complicated logistical reasons, this time the pickup had to take place, not in our usual meeting place in Kremling (a four-and-a-half hour round trip for me), but in Steamboat Springs (a seven-hour round trip for me). Have I mentioned that driving is not my favorite thing?

I was dreading the long day behind the wheel when an inspiration came to me. What if I turned this from a dreaded chore into a VACATION? What if I left Boulder early so that I'd have two hours to myself in beautiful Steamboat for a just-for-me holiday?


The drive there, although long, is stunningly beautiful. The part past Kremling heads over Rabbit Ears Pass and then opens up into the green valley of the Yampa River.

The first stop on my vacation: a small, charming botanical garden right on the river.

I wandered on beckoning pathways past spring flowers (now past their prime here in Boulder, where spring comes earlier).

Tucked into one shady garden, the shy columbine, Colorado's state flower.

The next vacation sight to see - and what a sight to see it was: Fish Creek Falls, just a little over three miles from downtown Steamboat. It was only a half mile walk from the trailhead to reach the overlook for the falls.

I thought that was probably enough for such a short vacation. But then I couldn't resist the non-taxing hike down to the falls themselves, where I learned that, yes, it's sometimes - maybe almost always? - worth it to make some extra effort to see something truly spectacular.

Last stop: finding Steamboat's indie bookstore, where years ago I had attended a Harry Potter launch party when I was there to give a talk at a writing workshop.

Would I have time to write in its alluring cafe? Could I log a sweet hour of creative joy working on my chapter-book-in-progress (which I had with me in my ever-ready totebag).

Well, no. I would have had time had I not chosen to hike down to the falls, and I couldn't regret that choice. I did sit for a few minutes at one of these tables, however, and scribble a few thoughts about the day in my trusty little notebook (pictured there on the table). 

After all, 120 minutes is an extremely short vacation.

But it also turned out to be 120 minutes crammed full of delight.