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!