Wednesday, September 26, 2018

A Bone Marrow Transplant of JOY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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