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.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Creative Joy at Big Sur in the Rockies

I had the great pleasure this past weekend to serve as a faculty member for the Big Sur in the Rockies Children's Writing Workshop hosted by the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. The workshops were created (originally in Big Sur, California, and also held in Cape Cod, Massachusetts) to give aspiring children's book authors a chance to have their work critiqued both by professional authors and by agents and editors, in an intensive but intimate setting - and a setting of striking natural beauty as well.

Andrea Brown claims that "miracles" happen at Big Sur, as attendees revise their work from the first critique session to the second session on the day following. From my experience this past weekend I would say: she is right.

The Big Sur in the Rockies workshop is held at Chautauqua in Boulder, with its stunning views of the Flatirons.
Faculty were each given their own tiny rustic cabin for the weekend, so I had the treat of having what felt like a vacation while only having to drive three miles to get there.
Each cabin contained a small living room, bedroom, kitchen, and bath, as well as an inviting screen porch. The two different critique groups each faculty member facilitated (with two meetings for each group) were held in our cramped but extremely cozy living rooms.

Here's the charming bedroom of mine.
Of course, as soon as I saw it, all I wanted was to climb into bed and WRITE. And I did have plenty of time to do that over the course of the weekend, despite ten hours spent in the four critique sessions, shared meals, and other events that brought us together as a writing community.

I loved the four women writers who were in each of my workshops. They loved me, too, and loved one another, even as we posed tough questions about the manuscripts and sent everybody scurrying away to revise. And for those who submitted revisions, yes, miracles DID occur, with the rest of us sighing with pleasure at hearing the new and vastly improved version.

Each morning (Saturday and Sunday), I did have a good hour to write in my bed - hooray! On Saturday afternoon, while the workshop attendees were off frantically revising, I had free time to write some more. But the best writing I did all weekend - the hour of creative joy I'll long cherish in memory - was writing side by side, on the afternoon I arrived,with my next-door neighbor, fellow faculty member Melanie Crowder, who is as brilliant a writer as you'll find anywhere on this earth.

It was raining hard - a torrential downpour, complete with hail. We sat on her screened porch, safe and dry, as Melanie prepared for a writing retreat she's leading soon in Oregon, and I wrote part of Chapter 9 of my current work-in-progress ( the book where the kids are all writing their own comic books).

This was my favorite hour of creative joy since I starting keeping track of creatively joyous hours back in January. I now know that there is nothing more creative and joyous than to write with Melanie Crowder, on the screened porch of a small Chautauqua cabin, in the rain.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Should I Cut Corners on Creative Joy?

As readers of this blog may know, my main resolution for 2018 has been to have more creative joy in my life: to be precise, at least 10 hours a month of creative joy, where I have strict rules for exactly what counts toward the total. It can't be just an hour of ordinary joy in doing my ordinary creative work: I have to make some special effort to add joy to the process. This means I can't just write on my couch with my usual hot chocolate; I have to write in a cafe with a friend, or at the Denver Botanic Gardens, or with a special food treat (preferably Pepperidge Farm apple turnovers), or even just with Cool Whip in my hot chocolate or a scented candle burning on my desk. (The  only exception: writing poetry gives me SO much creative joy that no additional infusion of joy is necessary).

Oh, and final rule: I have to have 10 hours every single month. I can't stockpile extra hours in an earlier month to make up for fewer hours in a later one.

Thus far this year, I've met each month's creative joy quota with room to spare:

January: 14 hours
February: 14 hours
March: 15 hours
April: 22 hours - TA-DAH!

But now it's halfway through May, and as of two days ago I had zero hours of creative joy recorded in my little logbook: zero! I had plenty of joy when my granddaughters were here for their ten-day visit, but it wasn't creative joy. And I've done plenty of creative work this month, working on my chapter-book-in-progress (the one set in an after-school comic-book camp), and I experienced plenty of joy in doing it, but I didn't make any extra effort to enhance the joy, so these hours don't count toward my fixed monthly goal.

I found myself tempted to relax the goal a bit. After all, why NOT allow stockpiling of joy in lush months to allow me to take a little break from joy in skimpier months? Why ISN'T plain old Swiss Miss hot chocolate joyous enough? Who makes and enforces these dumb rules, anyway? (Of course I know the answer to that one.)


So I lit a candle for my hour of writing yesterday. I bought myself Cool Whip; a good dollop of it during my writing time gave me another hour of creative joy for the logbook today. I have a writing date with a friend tomorrow. At the end of this week I'll have a weekend absolutely bursting with creative joy as I'll be staying in a charming cottage at Chautauqua as a faculty member for the Big Sur in the Rockies Children's Book Writing Workshop, which has a good amount of free writing time built into the schedule. I have my heart set once again on meeting or exceeding my creative joy target for May.

No, I should NOT cut corners on creative joy, and neither should you. Nobody should try to rationalize the reducing of joy in their lives. It's fine to cut corners on tedium, drudgery, dreary toil. But when it comes to joy, I'm going to throw my whole heart into every minute of it.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Bookstore to the Rescue!

Yesterday I was scheduled to give a keynote talk at an awards program celebrating the young readers and writers of Jefferson County, hosted by the Educational Nonprofit Corporation, in downtown Golden. Because Golden is so delightful, I arranged to have lunch there first with a children's literature graduate student who lives in Denver; we'd eat on the porch of a restaurant overlooking Clear Creek. Then I'd put finishing touches on my talk at the Golden Public Library, and perhaps write on my work-in-progress a little bit (creative joy!). The keynote address would be at four.

Great was my consternation, however, when I reached the library, stuffed full of yummy lunch and ready to ponder my inspirational remarks, and opened my totebag only to find that I had grabbed the wrong book to read from. I had planned to share a couple of the love poems I wrote in seventh grade (1966), one of which made its way into my middle-grade novel Write This Down, which was published exactly 50 years later (2016). I wanted to encourage these young writers to save their writing - and to see the joy that writers feel in taking their own heartbreak (that boy who spurned my love!) and turning it into art that could be shared with others, even half a century later.

But the book in my totebag wasn't Write This Down. It was Zero Tolerance. Both have red spines. It was easy for a careless person to get confused.

Now what was I supposed to do? Wait! I was in a public library. Maybe they had a copy of my book I could check out? I didn't see one on the shelf, though, and when I checked the catalog, they had Write This Down only as an e-book.

Well, an e-book might work; I already had Write This Down with me, as an e-book, on my phone (I have all the files for all my recent books in my Dropbox). I could read the crucial passage from the book aloud from my phone.

But oh, that is lame, lame, lame! I didn't want to read my book aloud from my phone. I wanted to read it aloud from the book.

Should I drive back to Boulder to retrieve the book from home? That felt like such a defeat.

Wait. . . I pulled out my phone and called Second Star to the Right, my favorite children's bookstore. It wasn't that far away. Might they have a copy on hand of Write This Down by Claudia Mills? Yes, they said. Would I like paperback or hardcover?

Hooray! I leaped into my car, put the address for the store into my phone, and 20 minutes later I had a copy of the book clutched close to my heart.

The talk went well: the love poems were a huge hit, first read aloud from the little notebook where I inscribed them back in 1966, then read aloud from a real, actual copy of the published book fifty years later.

I'm so glad I had my phone with me for calling the bookstore and navigating there.

But I'm even more glad I have a favorite bookstore that could sell me a copy of an actual, wonderful, beautiful, old-fashioned BOOK.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Pleasure of Contrasting Days

Yesterday my two little granddaughters finished their monthly ten-day visit to us - a period of exhilarating, exhausting non-stop activity with a four-year-old and a two-year-old, with me as their primary caregiver. Today begins the monthly twenty-day span of time without them, when I can immerse myself fully in my own work with uncluttered space and unhurried time.

I love both, and I love that right now I have a life that contains both. One of things I loved best about my quarter-century of teaching in the philosophy department at the University of Colorado was having a work life that alternated between time on campus and time at home. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I'd be on campus all day teaching my classes, mentoring graduate students, attending meetings (yes, even that could be pleasant once I learned how to keep my mouth shut and stay out of the fray of academic politics). On Tuesday and Thursday I tried very hard to arrange my schedule so that I could work at home - writing, preparing for class, grading (yes, even grading could be fun with enough tasty treats to energize me).

Now I'm loving the alternating rhythms of ten-days-with-little-girls followed by twenty-days-just-for-me. I value each one more because I know it's finite, although of course everything in this life, for all of us, is fast fleeting. The current arrangement with the girls won't last forever. Once Kataleya begins kindergarten in the fall of 2019, everything will change. I have no idea whatsoever what the shape of my days will be then. So I might as well savor what I have right now even more intensely.

In fact, savoring whatever one has, in the moment when one has it, is a pretty good plan for living a pretty good life.

Here, a few glimpses of springtime in Colorado with little girls in tow.

Touching a "cloud" at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR)

The view from behind NCAR

At Clear Creek in Golden

Mistress of all she surveys

Monday, April 30, 2018

Saying Yes to Fun

When I took part in the gala Festival of Stories back in March, one of the additional joys of the festival was the chance to be interviewed by Kristen Olsen for her radio program "Tunes and Tales" on station 88.9 KRFC. Kristen is a delightful conversationalist, so it was easy to forget I was being taped for a future radio broadcast and just enjoy chatting. In fact, it was easy to forget about the future radio broadcast altogether.

Then two days ago I got an email from Kristen saying that my segment was going to air on Sunday evening at 6:30, paired with a presentation by a group of elementary students who were coming to the studio to give a ten-minute book talk on my title Cody Harmon, King of Pets.
She added: "I know this is very late in the game, but would you be interested in showing up at the station as a surprise after they talk about your book on air? Maybe we could all get ice cream?"

It took me about 30 seconds to decide to say yes. I mean, going to a radio station? Ooh! As a surprise for children who had actually read and loved my book? Followed by ice cream?! This in a year where my chief goal for myself is creative joy and all the fun that attends being part of the world of children's book writing? When I agreed, I hadn't thought to ask where the radio station was. I just assumed it was in Denver, the site of the Festival of Stories (30 miles from Boulder). Instead it turned out to be in Fort Collins (65 miles from Boulder). Oh, well. Kids! At a radio station! Followed by ice cream! How could I not say yes?

I'm so glad I did.

I arrived in Fort Collins ridiculously early, but found the Alley Cat Cafe ("Always open") right near the radio station, where I sipped delicious ginger tea and outlined the next seven or eight chapters of Vera Everett, Comic Book Star. (I get serious about outlining a book once I have the first few chapters drafted, in this case, the first three). 

Then: time to go to the studio and meet my young readers: four second graders.They were already in the recording room with head phones on (so glamorous!). They hadn't known I was coming and all gave gratifying OMG reactions of happy surprise. We chatted among ourselves, with Kristen's encouragement, as the taped interview played, and then the children gave their report on the book, including what they had liked best.

Simon liked how the principal had an M&M dispenser in his office and how one of the characters shared his name "Simon."

Joie liked when the girls came over to Cody's house and planned costumes for the pet show. She especially liked how the pig was dressed up with a Charlotte's Web theme as she loves that book.

Forrest liked how, when the principal read out the winner for the pet show, he pretended not to be able to read the handwriting on the card that said "Mr. Piggins."

Zoe liked "the rough parts": when Cody's friend Tobit throws a rock at Stubby the Squirrel and upsets Cody, and when Cody and Tobit have a fight and have to go the principal's office.

I told the kids I loved writing all those parts of the book, too.

Here we are in the studio, the kids in their headphones (or other head adornments). 
Afterward, we had popsicles - yum! Mine was raspberry. 

If I'm ever asked again if I want to drive 65 miles to a radio station to hang out with smart, funny, fabulous second graders, I'm not even going to take 30 seconds before I say: YES!

Monday, April 23, 2018

Creative Joy in the Coffee Shop

Years ago, when my boys were young enough that I was the one who had to drive them to their music lessons (piano for Christopher, saxophone for Gregory), both music teachers lived east of Boulder in the town of Lafayette, fifteen minutes away. So I cleverly arranged for both lessons to be at the same time and found a comfy, cozy coffee shop where I could while away a pleasant hour every Wednesday afternoon. It was there at Cannon Mine Coffee that I first started making long lists in my trusty little notebook of everything I wanted my life to be.

Back then, as I remember, there was just one couch and a bunch of tables. It was very important to me to get the couch. One day, en route to a lesson, I told Gregory, "If I get the couch, the rest of my life will be good. If I don't get the couch, the rest of my life will be bad." He said, "Mom, I think you're putting too much significance on the couch." And, yes, I did get the couch that day and the rest of my life did turn out exactly according to my prediction.

Today I had a delightful outing in the early afternoon, talking to a class of third graders at Mackintosh Academy as part of my research on comic books for my work-in-progress. I interviewed the kids for a most productive half hour of their library time, asking them about their favorite comic books and graphic novels, and even better, asking them what comic books they were writing themselves. (I warned them first that some of these ideas might find their way into my book, but that didn't dissuade them from sharing.)

When I had finished the interview, I felt like going somewhere special to do some writing on Chapter Two of the book. After all, my new year's goal is to have 10 hours a month of creative joy, and it's extra joyous to write somewhere out of the ordinary. Then I remembered  . . wait. . . I'm already halfway to Cannon Mine. It must be a decade since I've been there. Oh, I hope the couch is still there! And I hope I get the couch!

It was, and I did.

I had started Chapter 1 at Union Station, and I finished Chapter 1 on my own cozy little couch at home. I started Chapter 2 at the Denver Botanic Gardens, and I finished it today on the couch at Cannon Mine.

Now: where shall I write Chapter 3?

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Writing the First Line of My New Book

Writing the first sentence of a new book is scary.

Even though you know you can change it.

Even though you more than likely will change it.

It just feels so . . . momentous, so significant, so "fraught with fraughtness" as my friend Brenda says.

I've developed a system for making this moment more jolly and joy-filled (extra appropriate for this year I'm devoting to the pursuit of creative joy). I write that first line someplace special, not all alone in my ordinary house, but Somewhere Else, with its own imagination-stirring energy.

Yesterday was the day I planned to start writing the second book in my After School Super Stars chapter book series: book one was set in an after-school cooking camp; book two is set in an after-school comic-book/graphic-novel camp. I've been consumed with intensive comic book research (see previous post). But I love to start writing as soon as possible, as so much happens - really, everything happens - when the characters start to come alive and interact with one another on the page.

I had already planned to take the bus to Denver in the afternoon for the Big Book Bash organized by the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators to celebrate new books out this spring by local members. The Big Book Bash was taking place at the Tattered Cover Bookstore in the LoDo neighborhood of Denver, right by Union Station.

A plan began to form. What if I went in a bit earlier and wrote my first line of the new book sitting in the grand, glorious Great Hall of Union Station, with its many couches, chairs, tables, and other inviting writing spaces, not to mention its abundance of eateries to offer writerly sustenance?


The bus from Boulder to Denver takes just over half an hour; I used the time to read a graphic novel from my research stack (Smile, by Raina Telgememeier, which I loved). At Union Station I bought a luscious muffin and chose the unoccupied corner of a long, comfy couch.

Now was the fateful moment. I took the cap off my trusty Pilot Razor Point fine-tipped black marker pen and wrote what might - or might not - be the first line of Vera Everett, Comic Book Star. I won't share that line here, as it's too new and tender for sharing right now. But words have been written! On the page! By me! To start a new book!

Once the first page was finished (as well as every crumb of the muffin), for extra credit I hopped aboard the free Sixteenth Street shuttle and went further downtown to the Civic Center, where a convention of indie-comic-book-creators was taking place: DINK (Denver Independent Comics & Art Expo). More research for Vera's story! The day's outing finished up with cake to celebrate new books by several dear author friends at the Big Book Bash. This is what I would call a perfect author day.

So if it's scary writing the first page of a new book, go write it Somewhere Else (and eat something Extra Nice while writing it). Take it from me!