Sunday, December 30, 2018

Final Report on My Creative Joy Goal for 2018

This year my major life goal was to have at least ten hours a month of creative joy. I laid down strict guidelines for what was to count as creative joy: it couldn't just be any old creative or productive activity which gave me happiness in doing it; there had to be an infusion of some extra jolt of rapture. So I couldn't just write for a joyous hour in my little upstairs study in my house. I had to write in a cafe, or with friends, or in nature - or, if at home, I had to light a candle, or at the very least add a dollop of Cool Whip to my usual Swiss Miss hot chocolate, or eat (ooh!) a Pepperidge Farm apple turnover. And I had to log ten hours every single month; I couldn't stockpile extra hours one month against a shortfall in another.

This morning I tallied up the results I documented in my faithful little logbook.
I logged a total of 146.75 hours of creative joy this year, for an average of 12 hours a month. One month - April - gave me a record 22 hours of creative joy. Only one month (June, where I had a lot of travel and family responsibilities) fell short, with 9.25 - but still, so close. So I pretty much met the goal I set for myself.

I have to confess, however, that the goal didn't turn out to be as - well - joyous as I thought it would be. Last year's goal of submitting something somewhere every single month actually brought me more joy than this joy-focused goal did. Even though I feel somewhat embarrassed to admit it, I discovered that product matters more to me than process. I ADORE getting stuff done! That is where I find my greatest satisfaction. Often this past year, I just wanted to skip the extra frills and DO MY WORK. And after a while, the frills themselves became rote: I got used to lighting my candle and adding my Cool Whip to my cocoa - those things didn't feel EXTRA any more, just business-as-usual. That said, I learned that the mere lighting of a candle does indeed add joy to any occasion.

And yet . . . when I reviewed my log just now, there were so many hours of creative joy that I remember so fondly. Writing poetry at the Denver Art Museum's show "Her Paris: Women Artists in the Age of Impressionism." Write-ins at Jeannie Mobley's house in Longmont. Taking an amazing class on travel journaling with my creative-joy buddy Kate Simpson. Writing the first page of Vera Vance, Comics Star in Union Station in Denver. Writing on the front porch of Melanie Crowder's cottage, on a rainy afternoon, as we both served as faculty members for the Big Sur in the Rockies writing workshop. Writing at "my table" in the Hollins University library in Roanoke. Writing the first poems for a possible novel-in-verse on the River Walk in San Antonio. Spending a morning at a wonderful coding-for-kids workshop at Stott Elementary School as research for my next book.

So: creative joy is a good thing - yes, indeed it is!I'm grateful I had 146.75 hours of it this year, vastly more than I would have had if I hadn't made a commitment to prioritize joy in my life. I'm burning a candle here at my desk at I'm writing this post in the pre-dawn darkness of this next-to-the-last day of the year.

I already made my goal for 2019 and will share it in my next post. For now: I hope all of you found joy - creative or otherwise - in  2018.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

What Jigsaw Puzzles Taught Me about Writing - and Life

My younger son often gives me a jigsaw puzzle for Christmas. As soon as I open the box, I lose interest in everything else in my entire life. Nothing else matters- NOTHING - as much as sitting hunched over the card table putting those thousand little pieces together.

This year he invited me to open that gift early. So on the day before Christmas Eve, that's just about all the two of us did. I stayed up late to work on the puzzle. I got up early to work on the puzzle. In the hours in between I worked on the puzzle.

Here it is, in all its splendor: Mont St. Michel, which our family visited on a trip to France fourteen years ago.

Now, much as I love jigsaw puzzles, it's hard for someone as addicted to "progress" as I am not to view them as, well, a total waste of time: to spend so many hours assembling something that will be disassembled the very next day! So I made a list of what I've learned about writing - and life - from jigsaw puzzles:

1. Even the most daunting puzzle can, and will, be completed by doggedly putting into place piece after piece after piece: one piece at a time.

2. Every single piece is important. Oh, the heartbreak when one puzzle piece turns out be missing and there is that great gaping hole in the picture! Details matter.

3. More often than not, the missing piece does turn up, albeit in some dark and dusty corner of the floor. Be willing to look in unexpected places.

4. Sometimes pieces that look SO MUCH as if they fit together. . . don't. You may not discover this until quite late in the process. Be prepared to revisit even your most confident assumptions.

5. It's truly helpful to get the border done first (my puzzle-whiz sister disagrees on this one!). Once you have a grasp of the overall size and shape, the overall concept of a project, the other pieces do start to fall into place.

6. If you're stuck on one section of a puzzle, take a break from it and turn to a different section. Or just move your chair to look at the problematic section from a different angle, or in different light.

7. Your eyes become trained to detect the slightest variations in shade and hue. It's exciting how much you can see once you set your eyes to seeing.

8. Puzzles are completed faster - and are more fun to do - when you do them with someone else. Yay for collaboration! (I owe more than I can say to my critique partners and editors).

9. Yes, jigsaw puzzles are an ephemeral accomplishment. But I've written many books that were never published, and most of my published books are now out of print. Life itself is ephemeral. That doesn't mean we shouldn't seize all the joy we can from life while we're here . . . including the joy of working on a Christmas-gift jigsaw puzzle.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Taming To-Do List Terrors

The holiday season is always a time filled with hustle-and-bustle, but this year I'm feeling additionally daunted by the many tasks that loom before me in the year-to-come. The year will begin with the monthly ten-day visit of my little granddaughters, which means I won't even begin serious work until January is a third over. And there is so much to do in January - so much to do!! I have three mentees through the mentoring program sponsored by the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators who are launching their six-month mentorship with me - and my first-ever online course to prepare for the spring semester (for which to date I've done nothing) - and contracts (with deadlines) on two new chapter books - and a verse novel I'm groping toward which is dear to my heart - and even a reading group I'm in on James Joyce's Ulysses (and if you think the reading for that is a breeze, you are greatly mistaken!)

So of course I went to my little notebook where I figure out all my life problems, and here is what Wise Claudia wrote to Terrified Claudia.

CAN I DO IT ALL? Terrified Claudia wrote.

Wise Claudia replied: OF COURSE!

And then, together, Wise Claudia and Terrified Claudia made a Panic Defusion Plan.

1) I reminded myself that it's amazing and wonderful that I still have my own overwhelming to-do list despite two heartbreaking family tragedies I'm embroiled in. All of these items on my to-do list are MY items, things I'm doing for ME. Which means: I still exist!!! How fortunate I am to have so many projects I'm looking forward to - so much work I truly love to do.

2) I have ALWAYS panicked about getting things done and I have always gotten them done (maybe not ALL of them, and maybe not EXACTLY on time, but close enough). As the saying goes: "The best predictor of the future is the past."

3) My phone now has some feature on it that gives me a weekly report of how many hours a day I average in staring at its little screen. The number is sickening. I hate to even admit it here, but I might as well. For one week, the number was - oh, can I bear to confess this? - THREE HOURS A DAY. Chastened, I did all I could the following week not to reach for the phone, and then learned I had reduced my phone-staring by 30 percent - to a still-staggering two hours a day. It will be a blessing to be FORCED to stop doing this!

4) It will also be a blessing to be forced to be productive even when my granddaughters are here. I will now HAVE to hire nannies sometimes - ooh!!! And I will HAVE to use my downtime to get stuff done rather than, yes, staring at the phone in an exhausted daze. I will have to figure out a way to have work-life balance - and that is a GOOD thing, right?

5) MANY MANY people have VASTLY longer to-do-lists than mine, and they get it all done. One of my writer friends teaches, not one course in a semester, but FIVE - and still writes books - and hosts write-ins at her house - and weaves gorgeous blankets on her loom - and is in a book group, too - and takes long weekly bike rides. If she can do all of that, I can do my piddly stuff.

6) Finally, I'm actually happier when I'm busy. I ADORE getting stuff done. When my boys were little, I'd ask them, "What does Mommy like? and they would give the correct answer: "Progress!"

As life coach Martha Beck wrote in a great blog post, "being alive means having things to do."
We might as well stop fretting about them and simply start getting them done.

So now I'm off to read the novel-length manuscript from mentee number three....

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Betsy-Tacy Ornament Exchange

I love the season of Advent, the weeks leading up to Christmas. I love organizing our church's Mitten Tree for the homeless and our caroling to shut-ins; I love listening to Handel's Messiah on my car's CD player, and baking my mother's Christmas cookies, and lighting candles in the sanctuary on the holy night of Christmas Eve. And I ADORE being part of an ornament exchange organized for ardent fans of the Betsy-Tacy books of Maud Hart Lovelace, which happen to be my favorite books of all books ever written.

In Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown, my favorite title in this favorite series, Betsy, Tacy, and Tib invite their friend Winona to join them in their annual Christmas shopping, where they each bring only a single dime to make a single purchase - of a Christmas ornament. "Nothing," Tacy explains, "is so much like Christmas as a Christmas-tree ornament." 

In the Betsy-Tacy ornament exchange, we are each assigned our ornament recipient; then we try to find an ornament that connects in some way with the books and send it to the recipient, but as one of the series characters to another. 

Here are the ornaments I've received in recent years. 
This one was sent from Betsy to Joe, the boy whom she meets at the start of Heaven to Betsy (as he is eating an apple!) and marries in Betsy's Wedding

This next one took my breath away because I could hardly believe such a perfect Betsy-Tacy ornament could exist in the world. In Heaven to Betsy, Betsy's friends Cab, Herbert, and Tony make fried egg sandwiches for her family for "Sunday night lunch." Tony asks, "Do you like your eggs flopped or unflopped? Speak quick." So I was stunned when I opened the package to find this ornament sent by Cab, Herbert, and Tony to Betsy!

Betsy wants to be a writer, and she scribbles her stories on the promotional pads her father brings home to her from his shoe store, with covers that say, "Ray's Shoe Store. Wear Queen Quality Shoes." A beautiful pencil ornament came to Betsy last year with this neatly typed letter from the owner of Queen Quality Shoes, which wins my prize for most creative Betsy-Tacy ornament-letter ever:

Queen Quality Shoes
1371 North South Street West
St. Paul, Minnesota

Dec. 20, 1905

Mr. Bob Ray
Ray’s Shoe Store
157 Front Street
Deep Valley, Minnesota

Dear Mr. Ray:

Allow me to introduce myself. I am Alden Gildersleeve, owner of Queen Quality Shoes. The Queen Quality salesman for the Deep Valley region, Harvey Fangschlyster, tells me your young daughter Betsy intends to be a writer and, to that end, makes use of our promotional notepads.

As a man who enjoys the written word, this pleases me and I would like to encourage her literary endeavors. Harvey also told me your amusing story about the holiday shopping Betsy and her friends do each year. I thought I would add to the fun by sending her a pencil to go with those notepads.

My best regards to her and, of course, to you, one of my best customers. 

With warm wishes for a Merry Christmas and a happy and prosperous new year, I remain,

Yours truly

Alden Gildersleeve


I thought no ornament could equal the perfection of these three, but this year a small package arrived yesterday, sent from Tacy to Betsy in remembrance of their many performances of Rossini's Cat Duet. Here is Lois Lenski's illustration of their debut Cat Duet: 
Here is the fabulously wonderful ornament I received:
It is true that nothing is so much like Christmas as a Christmas-tree ornament - especially an ornament sent from one book lover to another.