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!

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Next Up: Comic Books!

My editor finally approved my fifth round of revisions on NIXIE NESS, COOKING STAR (admittedly, the changes requested for the last two rounds were just tweaking of individual sentences to avoid repeated words and other infelicities of expression). So now I'm turning to the second title in the series, VERA EVERETT, COMIC BOOK STAR, where the kids in the After School Super Stars program will have said farewell to cooking camp and now be immersed in a camp focused on the making of comic books and graphic novels.

This means that I need to start learning something about comic books and graphic novels.

I started with the place that most research these days begins for me: Facebook. Two days ago I posted this query: "Parent friends, teacher friends, librarian friends, what are your kids' favorite comic books?" Within hours I had dozens of titles for my list. Those with multiple mentions include the Dogman series by Dav Pilkey of Captain Underpants fame, Zeta the Spacegirl, Phoebe and Her Unicorn, Big Nate, Babymouse, Bone, and anything by Raina Telgemeier (such as Smile). Yesterday I trotted off to the gorgeous main branch of the Boulder Public Library to confer in person with the librarian there and came home with as many graphic novels as I could stuff in my totebag.

With a small bit of Googling I found online syllabi for classes on making comic books,You Tube videos on how to draw cartoon characters and do the lettering for dialogue and thought bubbles, and Pinterest posts on fun drawing activities for third graders. (I can't have the kids in my book do nothing but sit still and draw for the whole month of the camp - I need lively, active, FUN art-related stuff for them to do! Stuff that will be funny! And relevatory of character! And able to advance a plot!) A friend told me about a comic book camp taking place right now at her child's elementary school right here in Boulder; I'll call them later this morning to see if I can come visit for one afternoon.

The most important part of the whole process, however, will be thinking of Vera herself, now that I've come to know her a bit from meeting her in Nixie's book. What does Vera want or need that the comic book camp will help her get? What obstacles lie in the way of her getting it? And how can all of this happen in 15,000 words (around 70 typed pages)?

Comic book camp, here I come!

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Change of Plans

My two little granddaughters, who come to us for ten days a month, were supposed to go back to their mommy on Sunday morning. Their mother lives a four-hour drive away, in distant Craig, Colorado. Our point of exchange, halfway for each of us, is in Kremling. To get there, I have to drive through the Eisenhower Tunnel (elevation 11,000 feet); to get there, she has to drive over Rabbit Ears Pass (elevation 9400 feet). It can be sunny and warm in Boulder or Craig on a day when there is driving snow and "traction" laws (chains for trucks, snow tires for cars) in force at the tunnel or pass.

Saturday night at bedtime I saw a winter storm warning for the Colorado high country, so we switched the meeting time from Sunday to Monday. On Monday morning, there were still traction laws in effect at high elevations, so after much dithering and indecision, we decided to wait till my son, with better tires and better driving skills, was finished with his work and could make the drive in my stead; but then mid-morning the weather reports were favorable, so I loaded up Kat and Madi for a drive that ended up taking most of a day that was supposed to be spent meeting work obligations.

Oh, it's so hard to keep changing plans over and over again! I love when the girls come, but I also start to yearn for time to myself, or rather, time to do all the other kinds of work I need to do that I can't do when I'm a full-time caregiver for a two-year-old and a four-year-old: grope toward ideas for the next title in my forthcoming chapter book series for Holiday House, read installments of works-in-progress from my Hollins University graduate students and SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) mentees, even answer email - or write a blog post.

But that's what life is. We make plans.  Plans change. "Man proposes, God disposes." "The best laid schemes o' mice an' men/ gang aft a-gley." "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." Indeed.

I didn't plan for a winter storm last weekend. As far as that goes, I didn't plan for my son and his wife to get divorced. I didn't plan to be a ten-days-a-month caregiver for the two little girls I love more than anything in the world just as I took early retirement from being a philosophy professor at CU so I could devote myself full time to my writing. I didn't plan for any of this.

This month I'm doing the poem-a-day challenge again. Here's my favorite of April-so-far: a poem about the dog I didn't plan to have either.

Walking with Tanky-the-Dog

The only good thing about my son's divorce
was supposed to be that she would take 
the dog, but somehow – how did this happen? – 
here he is. We walk every day, the two of us.

Never has earth seen raptures to rival
Tanky's writhing with joy at the sight 
of the leash. He trots beside me, 
small legs churning, so pleased, so proud.

I'm surprised when other people stop
to tell me how cute my dog is. My dog?
Oh, that's right: they must mean Tanky.
If other dogs growl, he is sublimely indifferent. 

But if they don't, he does the obligatory
growling. After all, someone has to do 
whatever it is that needs to be done. And 
sometimes that someone turns out to be you.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Day before April

By popular request (well, my own request to myself), I'm re-posting my annual "Day before April" musings....

My mother was an elementary school teacher as well as a writer of a few published stories for children. Her love of reading and writing is where I get my love of reading and writing. My sister and I were raised on poetry. One of our favorite collections was Silver Pennies, edited by Blanche Jennings Thompson ("A Collection of Modern Poems for Boys and Girls" - modern, meaning at that time, published in 1925). The preface to the book begins with the lines:

You must have a silver penny
To get into Fairyland.

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

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

The Day Before April

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

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

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

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

Today is the day before April. I'm going to buy some flowers - daff0dils, probably. My mother is no longer with us; she left this world in May 2010. I think of her constantly, but especially on every March 31. The daffodils I'll buy todaywill be in memory of her.

Happy day before April, everybody.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The Strangest Thing about Revising a Book

Here's, for me, the strangest thing about revising a book.

It always has to be done.

Or at least, I always have to do it. Whenever I'm the the one writing a book, I'm also going to be the one revising it, and revising it, and revising it yet again.

The reason this feels so strange to me is that I've written so many books now: 58 published ones, and at least a dozen that never got themelves revised into a form worthy of publication. I've been doing this professionally, as both a career and the work of my heart, for close to 40 years. Wouldn't you think that by this point I would have gotten somewhat good at it? Wouldn't I have learned a thing or two or three that would eliminate the need, if not for revsion altogether, at least for so MANY rounds of revision?

Apparently the answer here is: no.

My brilliant editor at my new publisher, Holiday House, just sent my chapter-book-in-progress back for a third rewrite. I thought I had done a bang-up job on the first rewrite, back in January, returning it to her with a confident "Ta-dah!" Then back it came to me again, with a letter thanking me for the revisions, but going on to say, "but I'm afraid I think this needs more work than you do." Ouch! WAHHH!! Because of course I wouldn't have sent it back to her if I had thought it needed one speck more of work at all.

Not only did it need more work, in her view, but the chief problem requiring further attention was one  I would have callled a "beginner's error." My protagonist needed more of a character arc: she does change and grow by the end of the book, but not until the very end; her development needed to be paced more gradually. In other words, my editor was telling me exactly the kind of thing I tell beginning writers whom I'm teaching, advising, or mentoring. Double ouch! Double WAHHH!

At first I was irritated by the comments. This time she was just plain wrong; the book was perfect as it was; hadn't Margaret herself pronounced it "darling" upon a first reading? But, as I sat down to rewrite, I had a total about-face. Margaret is an editorial genius and is truly never wrong. As I began to revise, at first with nothing more than grudging trust in Margaret's infallible judgment, I came to share her assessment so completely that I felt ashamed that I could ever have thought my book was fine the way it was. How could I - veteran author of so many books written and published over so many years - have written something so blatantly, egregiously flawed?

But this is just what it is to be a writer. A book can be darling AND flawed. And seldom can an author see these flaws herself. This is the whole reason editors - and critique groups and "beta readers" - exist: to see the flaws authors inevitably miss in our own work, however perceptive we may be at discerning these in the work of others. We never outgrow our need for editors. We just forget how lucky we are to have them.

My protagonist Nixie now has a lovely character arc. I'm thrilled with the changes I made in round two. Margaret told me the revisions were "great," and she was right. She now wants just a bit more tweaking in round three, and she's right about that, too.  So today I'm happily tweaking away, hugging myself with happiness over every small improvement made.

In the end, the strangest thing about revising a book is not that I still have to do it, even after all these years. The strangest thing is that I even found this strange in the first place.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Joy of Decluttering the Garage

When my little granddaughters leave from their monthly ten-day visit, I send them back to their mommy with a pang of sorrow but also - I might as well admit it - with some relief that I can now regain control of my own time and my own space.

The first thing I do is move all the toys from the living room (actually, from every available stretch of floor) to their bedroom, organizing as I go (all the toy tools back in the toy toolkit, all the toy medical instruments back in the toy doctor kit. etc.). Stray socks are dispatched to the laundry hamper, stray shoes to the shoe shelf.

This time, once started, I couldn't stop. I cast my gaze upon my home studio/office/writing space and saw much scope for improvement. I don't mind stacks of books on the floor if they are library books recruited for a project. But I don't want standing stacks of books lacking a permanent home. So I identified some that could go to someone who might love them, not more than I do, but with more active, ardent attention. Say, those books from my college days in German, a language of which I can no longer read more than two or three words. Duplicate copies of books by friends, bought to be doubly supportive of their careers. I managed to cull 45 books from my collection, grateful that now they have the chance of actually being read, which is what every book longs for most of all.

My files were next. Did I really need all my writing correspondence from 2005? Photocopies of articles used to research scholarly papers which are easily available now on the internet? I filled the recycling can to overflowing.

On my way to the recycling can, I couldn't help but notice . . . .the garage. I hadn't parked in it for years as, for some reason I can't quite remember, other family members park their vehicles there while I park outside and cheerfully scrape ice off my windshield every winter morning.

The night before I was to tackle the garage, I couldn't sleep, too excited at the prospect of all the decluttering I could do, which I might add, was mainly decluttering of OTHER PEOPLE'S STUFF. Advance notice had been given to the affected parties. They had promised to assist with the task after church that day. But on that 25-degree morning, I found myself out there in my threadbare nightgown, no coat, no gloves, starting to drag down duffel bags that hadn't been opened for a decade to see what I might find . . .

It was bliss.

Even greater bliss: sorting, washing, organizing, sweeping, and taking a few dozen trash bags, filled with items no longer needed or wanted here but potentially useful to others, to Goodwill.

My current favorite poet, Kay Ryan, who writes spare, exquisitely crafted verse, has a marvelous short poem on decluttering, "That Will to Divest," which begins: "Action creates a taste for itself." (Go right this minute and buy her Pulitzer-Prize-winning collection The Best of It).

Now that I'm done with the garage project, I'm thrilled with the results but also strangely sorrowful. Alexander the Great is said to have wept because he had no more worlds to conquer. I'm weeping because I have no more garages to declutter.

I guess I could offer to come declutter yours, but it wouldn't be the same. (Though actually, it does tempt me quite a bit . . . .). As Kay Ryan writes, once decluttering has begun:

it gets harder
not to also 
simplify the larder

not to mention - the garage.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Creative Joy: Travel Journaling

As part of my new year's goal for 2018 of providing myself with ten hours a month of creative joy, I signed up with my creative-joy-buddy Kate for a class at the Art Students League of Denver on "Travel Journaling," taught by Judith Cassel-Mamet. Kate had taken a class with Judith before and told me how wonderful it was. So off I went to Denver yesterday for a massive dose of creative joy.

I woke up joyous even at the thought of taking the bus to Denver - oh, I do love traveling by bus! During the morning rush hour buses run from Boulder to Denver every five or ten minutes. I didn't even have to check a schedule; I just presented myself at the Park-and-Ride and hopped on the first Denver-bound bus that came along. Then I gave myself the treat of a nice long-ish walk from the Civic Center to the old school that houses the Art Students League.
After being happy for every minute of my trip into the city, I was then happy from the minute I walked past classrooms of painters in front of their easels and found our studio, where Judith welcomed us and got us ready for the morning's artistic explorations. I loved her whole approach to travel journaling. For Judith, travel is just "mindful movement," so that "even a mundane activity can be an adventure," if approached with anticipation and openness: "What is this hour is going to bring?" Indeed, she opened the class by asking us all to share some memorable moment from our trip to the class today. Mine was seeing a middle-school student skipping along - literally skipping - violin in hand.

Once we began trying out Judith's journaling techniques, the class was pure play. We made evocative, illustrated maps of our trip into the city. We took half an hour to wander around the Art Students League grounds noting striking images to sketch. It was fine to sketch badly; the point was just to "capture the narrative"and "anchor the experience." I'm a terrible artist. Who cares? Here's my piece from the morning. I'm not in love with it the way I was in love with the poems I wrote last month. But I was just as much in love with the process of creating it.
During the class we worked with little sketching kits Judith had assembled for us, which contained a drawing pencil, Micron extra-fine pen, watercolor set, kneaded rubber eraser, and best of all, a Koi Water Brush (which could squeeze out water a drop at a time). She offered the kits for sale afterward and of course I bought one.
Just looking at it makes me feel more creative.

Now that I have a travel journal kit, I should schedule a magical trip for myself somewhere to use it. Judith is correct, of course, that there is plenty of magic in the everyday if we approach our ordinary surroundings as if we were visitors from a faraway land. But while I'm in a travel-journaling mood, I might as well sign up to go to an actual faraway land. Right? After all, if creative joy is my only new year's goal this year, why not provide myself with all the creative joy that I can?

Friday, March 9, 2018

What You Need Is What You Have to Find a Way to Get

I've just finished an exhilarating and exhausting ten-day visit from my two little granddaughters, Kataleya (who just turned four) and Madilyne (who will be two in May). When they come to us, I'm their primary caregiver while my son (their daddy) is at work, and he leaves for work well before dawn and often works a twelve-hour day. So I am charged with filling that time with all kinds of adventures: outings to the park and library, play dates with friends, baking, play dough, and most of all, voicing stuffed animals and other imaginary friends (the current favorite, for some reason, is Big Foot).

I love it more than anything in the world. And yet . . . . and yet . . . I do need SOME time just for me, especially as my editor returned my most recent draft of my chapter-book-in-progress to me for yet more revisions, which I hadn't expected. After the mandatory period of sulking and pouting over the call for more re-visioning of the story, of course I saw that that her suggestions are brilliant and the book will be a thousand times better once revised. But how could I find time to do it while also impersonating Big Foot during every waking hour for ten days?

I've now learned that I absolutely have to have two hours to myself each day - one to write, and one to walk. That 's all. Just two hours. But they have to be two dedicated hours, two guaranteed hours, hours where I know I won't be interrupted by any little voices summoning me (Kat now wakes up most days at 5:30 a.m. and refuses to nap; by the time she goes to bed at 8 p.m., I'm ready to go to bed myself at 8:05.)

Okay. I need these hours. So how am I going to get them? Because what you need is what you have to find a way to get. And you don't get what you need just by whining about how badly you need it.

I'm still working on this, but here are some ideas to put in place for their next visit.

1) Kat goes to school for four hours on three mornings during the week. During those hours I can find drop-in child care for Madi, or employ a babysitter. Madi sleeps reliably for three hours in the afternoon. During those hours I can find some other organized activity outside the home for busy, active Kat or hire someone to come play with her. This can be done! Or I can team up with other friends who are in the same situation and would like to exchange babysitting time.

2) I can leave the house when my son is home so that I won't have to harden my heart against Kat's entreaties to make Big Foot come and play. If I'm here in my (tiny) house, there is no real refuge. If I go elsewhere for an hour, that hour is mine, mine, mine.

3) For walking, I can line up friends who love to walk as much as I do and don't mind taking turns with me pushing a stroller or holding a dog leash. I can walk early. I can walk late.

This brings me to another point. I need what I need, but I have to make sure I'm not just making every slight preference into a non-negotiable demand on the universe. Yes, I need an hour a day to write and an hour a day to walk, but I may have to be flexible about when those hours come to me (within reason: I can't do any real work in the evening, and that is that!). But it's unreasonable to insist on having my hour be precisely between 5 and 6 a.m., or in my house while I lounge about in my nightgown. I have to be willing to experiment, improvise, and work with second-best - which may turn out to yield its own unexpected rewards and pleasures.

With careful planning, I can have the joy of  playing with little girls for ten days AND write my book AND meet my daily fitness requirements. After all, this is what I need. So it's up to me to make sure I get it.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Dangers of Writing Poetry

I have three more days left in my poem-a-day project for February. I am loving the prompts by the wry and witty Molly Fisk, loving the other poets in this online poetry group, and loving my poems and every minute spent writing them.

But here's the rub: I love them so much that once I've written my poem for the day and posted it to the group website, I'm so delighted with my poem that I have to go read it over a few dozen times, occasionally tinkering with it a bit, pruning a word here, adjusting a line break there, but mostly just admiring it on the page. And then I'm so pleased with myself that I find I have absolutely zero desire to accomplish anything else. After all, I WROTE A POEM TODAY! What more could the universe expect from me? Which would be fine except that I do have a class I'm teaching, students I'm advising, writers I'm mentoring, an article I'm supposed to be revising. But - but - but - I WROTE A POEM TODAY! Isn't that enough?

In fact, I even wrote a poem about how amazing it is to write a poem, about how each new poem that comes into being is one new small wondrous thing that now exists in the universe:

What There Is

Here's what's in the universe,
at least the part of it that we can see:
70 billion trillion stars.
And right here, 
in front of me,
these scribbled lines
that didn't exist 
ten minutes ago.
Because of me 
the universe
has something in it 
that wasn't there 
70 billion trillion stars - 
and this poem.

So it's good that the short month of February is coming to an end, and that I'll have to find new ways of generating creative joy for myself in March. But for now, I'll just say: hooray for poetry! And for the chance to write it! Here's one more poem because I can't resist. Prose is in my future. But today, and tomorrow, and two days after that: poetry. . . 

Talent Scouts

It's not that I even want to be a movie
star. I just want to be discovered,

to be in the self-checkout lane at King Soopers,
perplexed by how to find the produce code

for my ginger root, or putting my credit card
the wrong way into the gas pump at Conoco,

or picking up poop in one of the bags I carry
in a canister attached to the end of the dog's leash,

and then, in that moment, someone is there,
saying, "You! That way you wrinkle your

forehead! That slump of your shoulders!
The twist of your lips! The soulfulness radiating

from your haunted eyes! We've searched the
whole world over, but it was you all along

we were seeking. It was you, 
it was you, it was you."

Friday, February 16, 2018

To Be a Player, You Have to Keep on Playing

Last week there were not one but two huge book-related events here in Denver. CCIRA (the Colorado Council of the International Reading Association) had its enormous annual conference down at the Denver Tech Center's Marriott Hotel, and ALA (the American Library Association) had its gigantic mid-winter conference this year at the Denver Convention Center, especially exciting as the ALA conferences move around from city to city.

I attended events at both.

On Friday:
- "speed-dating" with teachers/librarians at CCIRA (a chance for authors and teachers to talk one-on-one in rotating five-minute conversations);
- a cocktail reception at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts hosted by my new publisher, Holiday House, for the librarians attending ALA.

On Saturday:
- another cocktail party jointly hosted by YALSA (the Young Adults Library Services Association of ALA) and SCBWI (the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) held at a bar/restaurant with the adorable name of The Greedy Hamster.

On Sunday: lunch with my brilliant editor, Margaret Ferguson, followed by a blissful couple of hours roaming past the overwhelming amount of publisher booths in the convention exhibit hall.

It was exhilarating and exhausting  (also terrifying because it snowed both Friday and Saturday, and I am the wimpiest of wimpy babies when it comes to driving in snow, after totaling my car on a slushy stretch of road a year ago). But mainly I loved every minute of it. I loved sharing my books with teachers at CCIRA and schmoozing with hilariously funny librarians at the elegant Holiday House reception. I loved connecting with another group of terrific librarians at the Greedy Hamster event. It was magical to have so much time to talk intimately with my editor. And as I wandered up and down the convention center exhibits, all I could think about was how much I love the world of books for young readers, and all the people - authors, illustrators, editors, teachers, librarians - in it.

I also realized that if I'm going to stay in this world - and BELONG in this world - I have to keep on contributing to this world. If I want to be a player in this magical playground, I have to show up to play.

Lately I've been finding myself losing interest not in writing, never in writing, but in publishing what I write. After keeping my commitment to myself for 2017 to submit something somewhere every single month, I'm sort of "over" submitting things. This year I'm loving above all writing poems just for me, or for a few friends, just for the joy of it. It matters less and less to me to see a book in a bookstore with my name on the cover.

But my time at CCIRA and ALA reminded me that if I want to be truly a part of this world I love so much, I have to keep on being willing not only to write, but to share what I've written with editors, teachers, librarians, and most of all, children.

I love this world. I love being a part of it. It's true that most of all I just want to have creative joy in my life, but I also love being part of a creative tribe. So I'm going to do what I can to keep my place in mine.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

"New Voices" Book Group

Back in January, when the fervor of ambition for the new year was upon me, I saw on Facebook a link to a list of "11 incredible books by writers from s---hole countries" - that is, countries denigrated by our president as producing immigrants that shouldn't be welcomed here. The writers on the list were all women writers, and all but two writers I had never heard of. Politics aside, wouldn't it be a lovely project to read these books through the course of 2018? And what if I formed a little book group to read them with me?

That day I ordered up as many titles as were available through the Boulder Bookstore, our premiere indie bookseller. Then I put out an invitation on Facebook asking who wanted to join me for this reading adventure. After a day or two, I had a dozen participants here in Boulder/Denver/Longmont, as well as several from around the country who wanted to join in, too. This was really going to happen!

I was a bit nervous before our first meeting, as the only connection among the participants was that they were my Facebook friends, and friends from so many different parts of my life: former philosophy students from CU, fellow children's book authors, a mom whose kids knew mine in their elementary school days, a "pew mate" from church and her Brazilian friend. It all felt a bit - random, I guess. But it turned out to be wonderful. When most of the people in a book group don't know each other, when they share only a commitment to challenge themselves as readers, they come ready to spend 90 minutes actually talking about the book, enriched by their diverse experiences, and eager to fill their lives with more diversity still.

At our first meeting, last night, our chosen title was Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, born in Ghana, but raised and educated in the U.S. Her book is an ambitious interwoven narrative that traces the stories of the descendants of two sisters over half a dozen generations, one side of the family engaged in the slave industry in Ghana, the other enslaved, and then free but burdened by oppression, in America. We talked about whether we found the structure of the book satisfying or constraining, whether we found the stories unbearably depressing or celebratory of resilience in tragedy, and what the book was trying to tell readers about the way that knowledge of our own stories, even the darkest ones, can set us free.

It was exhilarating.

In March we'll be reading Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue of Cameroon. For April we'll switch it up by turning to a slim volume of poetry, Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth by Warsan Shire, a Kenyan-born Somali poet now based in London. Then we'll decide what to read next, perhaps something by Haitian author Edwidge Danticat, some of whose books I read in a reading group at DePauw University during my time there.

My world will be bigger at the end of 2018 than it is now. Hooray for the chance to hear new voices, and to listen to them together with new friends.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

A Poem-a-Day

My chief creative-joy-achieving strategy for February has been joining an online group of poets organized by brilliant, inspirational poet Molly Fisk, who is a specialist in creative joy if anyone is.

The group works like this. You sign up and pay a modest fee to cover administrative costs. Every day Molly posts a prompt (you can find the February prompts on her website, on the February 2018 tab at the bottom on the home page). Then you write a poem on that prompt - or on some other topic of your own choosing - or no poem at all. Then you post your poem on the private group website - or not. You can comment on others' poems if you feel like it - or not. The only rule is not to offer unsolicited critique - just to express appreciation. If you feel like it!

The combination of structure and freedom here - the daily prompts, but the lack of coercion to produce accordingly - has been magical for me. Also, many of my fellow poets in the group are amazing - experienced, well-published poets of astonishing gifts who, like me, just thrive under Molly's gentle guidance.

When I'm writing a poem for Molly, I don't need to add Cool Whip to my Swiss Miss hot chocolate, or sit in a cozy cafe, or do a single solitary thing to make the experience more special, as writing poetry is already as special as anything could be. So: first I get a half hour of joy writing my poem. Then for the rest of the day I get many flashes of joy as I go back and read my poem over and over again, with a mother's proud fondness in her cherished offspring.

Here is my favorite of the poems I've written so far. Thanks for letting me share it here!


Me to four-year-old granddaughter:  “It’s so cold this morning. Don’t you want to wear your slippers?”
Her to me: “NO!”
Me in high squeaky voice while wiggling the slippers at her entreatingly: “Don’t you want to wear us?”
Her to them: “YES!”

It’s always come so naturally to me, the desire
to animate the inanimate. When my boys were little,
I would make their jackets beg to be zipped up,

their lunchboxes plead not to be forgotten.
Finally, when he was twelve or so, my son rebelled
against their tyranny: “No more making voices

for inanimate objects!” Adolescence was hard enough
without having the Eggo waffle imploring to be eaten,
the carrot weeping at being left upon the plate.

As if every object – all of them – were Puff
waiting for Little Jackie Paper, or Pooh saying goodbye
to Christopher Robin at the Enchanted Place.

My granddaughter left yesterday, back to her mommy.
We see her so seldom now, my son and I, since the divorce.
And now it’s not only me who misses her

but the slippers abandoned in the closet,
the sippy cup lonesome in the cupboard,
the small spoon all by itself in the drawer.

Monday, January 22, 2018

America's Test Kitchen: Author Version

Some of my author friends love doing research for their books so much that they keep on deferring the actual writing so they can linger in the library a bit longer. Not me. I love the actual writing so much that I tend to write the book first and then do the research for it afterward.

This is not always a good idea.

It's not always a bad idea, either, as after all, the story is the most important thing, and if it's right, those pesky little real-world details can be tweaked afterward. But sometimes, the after-the-fact research can prove a bit, shall we say, daunting.

My current work-in-progress is a third-grade-level chapter book set in an after-school program, where each book will feature a different camp: cooking camp, robotics camp, graphic novel camp, etc. Book one takes place in the cooking camp, and at least I know how to cook, right? I mean, I have made meals for my family for decades, and a few of them have turned out all okay. Still, I am not what you would call much of a cook. And this book, as you might expect, involves a great deal of cooking. The kids learn how to prepare healthy lunches; they make their own pet treats; there's a whole week devoted to pumpkin delicacies, and another for bake sale goodies; the camp culminates in a Trip around the World international feast.

In her editorial letter to me containing her suggestions for revision, my editor asked, as her final query, with perhaps just a tad of suspicion: "Have you made the food you are describing?"

Um, that would be a NO.

So last week I got busy. I searched for recipes all over the internet and found a bunch for the Morning Glory Muffins the kids make for their healthy lunch week. I combined, altered, tweaked, and experimented, and they turned out SCRUMPTIOUS!
But the make-your-own dog biscuits were a disaster. The dough would NOT stick together. It refused to be rolled out to a half-inch thickness. It was so tough and leathery you could NOT cut it with bone-shaped cookie cutters, even if I had had a bone-shaped cookie cutter, which I didn't. The first batch looked grotesque. (Yes, Tanky-the-dog did eat one happily, but this is the same dog who had to be stopped from eating out of the cat's litter box, so this sets the bar pretty low.)
I tried again, adding a couple of tablespoons of vegetable oil and using smaller cookie cutters, and this time the results were more aesthetically pleasing:
Next up: the cat cookies with tuna fish mixed into them (ick! but, yes, the dog ate one of these, too), and home-made granola (pretty yummy). Still lying ahead, the greatest challenge of all. Nixie's team is the one that makes the saag paneer for the Trip around the World feast. Luckily, I put out a plaintive plea on Facebook for a simplified recipe, and a brilliant children's book author friend, Varsha Bajaj, sent me one, which I'm planning to try, bravely, this afternoon. Wish me luck!

Here, today, I offer you the Morning Glory Muffin recipe. Enjoy!

Morning Glory Muffins

2 cups whole wheat flour
2 tsp baking soda
2 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp ground ginger
¼ tsp salt
2 cups grated carrot
2 cup grated apple
½ cup coconut flakes
¼ cup sunflower seeds
3 large eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
¼ cup orange juice
1/3 cup honey
½ cup vegetable oil
½ cup seedless raisins

Preheat oven to 375.
Combine dry ingredients in large mixing bowl (flour, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, salt).
Stir in carrots, apples, coconut, walnuts and seeds.
Beat together eggs, vanilla, orange juicy, honey, and oil.
Fold in the raisins.
Spoon into muffin pan (the recipe makes 18 muffins).

Bake for around 18 minutes (a bit less for darker pans).

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Creative Joy Progress Report

I have now had four hours of creative joy in this new year, the two hours I spent writing at BookBar -  the indie bookstore/cafe on Tennyson Street in Denver (see my previous post) - and two more this week.

One of the hours was just spent here at home doing a careful review of my chapter-book-in-progress in preparation for a conversation with my editor. To make the hour extra-special I put Cool Whip on my Swiss Miss hot chocolate, and it was a most satisfying hour indeed.

But the most creative hour of creative joy was yesterday, when I went with Kate, my partner in the creative joy project, to the Denver Art Museum for the final week of "Her Paris: Women Artists in the Age of Impressionism." Our mission: to look at beautiful paintings and write poems about them, or about anything at all, really. Kate brought along her sketchbook, too, for creating a visual record of our visit.

Here are the three poems I wrote from the "Her Paris" exhibit, paired with the paintings that inspired them, as well as the one I wrote in the small exhibit featuring statues and paintings of the Hindi elephant god Ganesha. The beauty of this kind of creative hour is that the poems don't have to be good. They just have to be written - and in order for me to fulfill my own personal objective, written with joy. I have to have FUN writing them. And I did.
Anna Archer
Young Woman Arranging Flowers
About 1885

We do not know the year
or the month, or the day,
but we know the moment.
You stand erect, even stiff,
in your dress of jade velvet,
golden hair tightly coiled,
absorbed in positioning
yellow and white flowers
in their careless profusion,
lavish, almost lewd, their petals splayed,
drooping beneath the extravagant
weight of their blooming,
alive in this instant,
this instant,
this one.

Louise Abbema, Lunch in the Greenhouse, 1877

Little girl with the sunlit curls,
it is not your pink bow,
as big as you are,
that catches our eye,
but the sagging socks,
gray worsted bunched at the ankles,
as you stand, just barely on tiptoe,
gesturing with outstretched hand,
too busy to tug at knee socks,
the bright sun tangled in your bright hair,
too busy to care.

The Last Days of Childhood
Cecelia Beaux, 1883-85

But how did you know?
We can only say afterward
That this was the last,
And not even then.
Which farewell was the final one?
Which moment the marker
That tells us the when?
I lost a piece of my childhood
Just yesterday.
Then I found it,
And then I lost it again.

Broken Tusk – Poem for Ganesha

My tusk is broken, too.
All of me is, really,
Mainly the parts you cannot see.
Am I an Overcomer of Obstacles like you?
It depends on what is meant by overcoming.
But I guess it’s clear that brokenness
Isn’t a deal breaker here.
Even an elephant with a broken tusk
Can grant prayers.
Even a woman with a broken spirit
Can continue praying.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

New Year's Goal: Creative Joy

Happy new year, everyone!

I've made my main goal for 2018, and I think I'm going to have a lot of fun with it. For that is the goal right there: fun! Or to be more specific, creative joy.

As goals have to be measurable and quantifiable, so I can know whether or not I've achieved them, and also because it's just so much, yes, FUN to have tangible evidence of progress, I've formulated the creative-joy goal in this way: every month I am committed to finding ten hours (give or take) of creative joy, with a year's end total of 120 hours - with one extra hour thrown in, so that I can have a rhyming slogan (borrowing from a South Pacific tune): "121 hours of fun."

I'm still trying to determine exactly how much fun I have to provide for myself in any given hour of creative endeavor for it to count toward my goal, but my tentative thought is that I have to make at least some special effort - it won't be enough just to do my ordinary scribbling while lying on my ordinary couch, or ordinary tapping away at my ordinary computer. Some things that would count: writing with friends, writing at cozy cafes, or art museums, or on park benches, or mountain retreats - and DEFINITELY writing in Paris!

Writing at home can count, too, if I enhance the experience in some way: if I drink tea from a teapot (I have so many pretty ones I never use), or burn a scented candle, or eat a Pepperidge Farm apple turnover, or put a shot of Amaretto in my Swiss Miss hot chocolate - or even, maybe, just a big enough dollop of Cool Whip on top.

I had my first two hours of creative joy yesterday, when my writer friend Kate Simpson and I went together to the BookBar on Tennyson Street in Denver, a charming indie book store with a cafe with an appealing menu of munchables. Kate and I claimed a comfy couch and ordered our treats, all with literary names (I had the Melville Melt). And then we sat there and wrote, and chatted about writing, and shared dreams about writing.
So: two hours of creative fun completed, with eight more to go this month. I might go make myself a pot of tea right now and light my vanilla-scented candle (if only I had a Pepperidge Farm apple turnover to pop into the oven, too. . . .) And then I'll look at my editor's revision notes on my forthcoming chapter book and figure out how to respond to them.

With joy.