Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Creative Joy in Hard Times

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

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

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

And yet . . . and yet . . .

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

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

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

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

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

In fact, it's come true already.

Monday, October 22, 2018

The Challenge of Not Resenting Happy People

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

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

It's hard not to hate these people sometimes.

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

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

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

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

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

 Just like me.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Overwhelmed with Work Projects? Try a Work Smorgasbord!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, October 8, 2018

Five Episodes of Happiness a Day

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

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

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

Usually I have three episodes of happiness already guaranteed:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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