Sunday, December 29, 2019

Mixed Results for My Goal for 2019

For the last several years, I've organized my new year's resolutions not as a grab-bag of random, uninspiring, dutiful items (e.g., lose weight, floss more, eat more veggies), but as a single, unified year-long project selected for its sheer deliciousness.

My goal for 2017 was to submit something somewhere every month: book proposal, completed book, academic article, article revisions, essay, poem. The goal was not acceptance, but mere submission: that wonderful tingly feeling you get when you have something Out There In The Universe with at least some chance that any day - any moment! - the universe may give you a favorable response. I ended up with about a 50-50 rate of acceptance to rejection, but I was happy all year long pursuing this objective.

My goal for 2018 was creative joy: to log at least ten hours a month of creative joy in a special small notebook, with stringent requirements for what could be counted here. It wasn't enough just to get joy in my ordinary creative efforts; I had to ADD an infusion of joy by trying some new creative activity, or doing my usual one (writing) in some new place, or with a friend, or even just with Cool Whip on my usual Swiss Miss hot chocolate. I was happy every single month with this one, too.

My goal for 2019 (the year I turned 65, and so officially became a senior citizen) was to embrace the new, to celebrate "newness" in lots of ways in my creative life.  I picked six new things to do: write a book on a topic on which I previously knew nothing; teach my first online course; make my first serious effort to promote my books; write a verse novel; write a picture book with a very spare text (under 500 words); and make an effort to publish my poetry.

I did the first three items on the list:

One: I wrote Lucy Lopez, Coding Star, and so had to learn about computer programming, which was a wonderful challenge. Here I am with the eleven-year-old tutor I hired, Lorelei Held.

Two: I taught an online course for the graduate program in children's literature at Hollins University on the figure of the female author from Little Women to The Poet X. To my great surprise and delight, I loved it.

Three: Here I am in my chef's costume to promote Nixie Ness,Cooking Star.

But then mid-year my project petered out. I didn't have time to work on the verse novel because instead I was researching and writing Boogie Bass, Sign Language Star (with sign language another topic totally new to me, so at least in the spirit of the year's goal). And I found I simply didn't feel like writing a picture book or submitting my poems. I had put those items on the list just because a list of three items seemed too skimpy.

So: I did some new things - and loved doing them - but this goal didn't sustain my motivation throughout the year. It lacked the right kind of structure: "do x every month" is an excellent structure. "Do these six things, where you don't even really want to do three of them" isn't.

I also think I needed to branch out from newness-in-my-professional-life to newness-in-all-aspects-of-my-life. My writer friend Tara Dairman, another person who loves goal-setting, designed a year of newness for herself that was a lot more fun. She wrote down twelve things she wanted to do but was scared to do and plucked one from her "newness jar" each month. That would have had a lot more appeal for me, in hindsight.

I've just - today! - worked out my plan for 2020. It, too, has a sub-par structure, alas, but I'm excited about it nonetheless. It gives me the requisite tingle of joy when I think about it. So watch this space for details when the new decade dawns!

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Waiting for a Plot Twist in My Life

I was recently alerted to the fact that this month is not only the last month of the year, but the last month of the DECADE. My husband always thought it was silly to make a fuss about this kind of milestone, with people either celebrating or agonizing over turning 30, 40, 50. . . He said this was just our cultural fetish for base 10 math. But I enjoy using such milestones as an occasion for reflection.

One post I saw about the impending end of the year/decade was particularly striking to me: "May the last month of your 2019 be the plot twist you have been waiting for."


Instantly I decided to take this not as a friendly wish, but as an actual prediction. My plot twist is coming! My plot twist is coming! What will it be? When will it be? I started checking my email even more obsessively than I usually do, thinking that perhaps email would be the mechanism by which the universe would notify me of my plot twist. I returned to my old vice of Sudoku on my I-pad to pass the dull, dreary time until the plot twist would upend my entire life in some spectacular way.

But then I had two sobering realizations.

First, most plot twists don't happen as the heroine of the story is lying on the couch doing Sudoku puzzles or frantically checking her email every two or three minutes. (It's a sign of the unreality of contemporary fiction that characters are NOT shown spending three or four or five hours a day staring at their devices.) Plot twists happen, not as she is passively waiting with her hands folded, but when she is out and about engaged in the ongoing business of LIVING.

Second, and more disturbing, I'm not just a CHARACTER in the story of my own life; I'm also its AUTHOR. If there's going to be a plot twist in my story, it may be up to me to make this happen. And of course, I haven't even factored in the consideration that not all plot twists are good ones, moving the story to a happy ending.


So I now have half a month left in this year, and this decade. If I'm going to have a plot twist between now and New Year's Eve, I have to think hard about what I want it to be and then think hard about what I'd have to do to cause it to be. (Though I would appreciate some cooperation on the part of the universe here. Come on, universe! Let's work together on this one!)

In any case, I'm wishing for this last month of 2019 to bring the plot twist you've been hoping for, too.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Which Is More Fun: First Draft or Revision?

Well, I did it. I now have a fully revised draft of Boogie Bass, Sign Language Star completed and off to writer friends for their review, which will give me guidance for the next round of revision.

Most of my writer friends say that revision is their favorite stage of the process: they force themselves through the first draft, page by dreary page, knowing that the bliss of revision awaits them if they can only get that darned first draft done.

Unlike them, I've loved best the creation of the initial draft. The blank page didn't hold any terrors for me; it was an enticing invitation. I write my first drafts by hand, so I can work anywhere, without any need to find a pesky electric outlet. With revisions, in contrast, I'm tied to my computer.
Best of all, the standards for a first draft are so low! Author Jane Smiley is quoted as saying, "Every first draft is perfect, because all a first draft has to do is exist." Whereas the point of revisions is to make the book better - even, if possible, to make it GOOD. That is a much more daunting task.

With this book, though, I've crossed over into the camp of revision enthusiasts. This time the first draft did feel like a slog, even if I helped the process along by slogging in some beautiful places. I wasn't quite sure where the story was going, so I became afraid it wasn't going anywhere. I was fully two-thirds of the way through the draft before I finally started to fall in love with what I was writing.

But, oh, this time I GLORIED in my revisions. Now that I had at last discovered where I was going, I could lay out a purposeful-but-scenic path for getting there. Every change I made improved the draft so dramatically that I had to lift my hands from the computer keys to give myself rapturous hugs. I adored seeing the book improve so much with every new scene and every tweaked line.

One writer friend has already read this revised draft and yesterday delivered a most-welcome, extra-positive verdict. This book that I found so hard to write may actually have turned out better than the books I wrote with greater ease.

I'm relieved by this, of course, but also a bit uncomfortable. I refuse to subscribe to the "no pain/no gain" mantra for writing. In fact, I've staunchly insisted that joy is absolutely key: if the writer has to force herself to write, the reader is going to have to force herself to read. If there is no pleasure for the writer, there is no pleasure for the reader. And yet. . . this time, I think I benefited from my time of floundering and occasional episodes of despair.

I'm not yet ready to abandon my commitment to joy. I think my experience with Boogie's story just shows that the process of writing can vary from book to book. And I DID get abundant joy from this one; I just got it at a later stage in the process.

In any case, today I'm feeling . . . joyful.  And, hooray, hooray, more revisions lie ahead!

Sunday, November 24, 2019

The Writing Journey: From Slogging to Bliss!

Well, I did it.

Once again, I slogged, and slogged, and slogged, and slogged - and also trudged, and plodded, and dragged, and moped - my way through the middle section of my work-in-progress, and then THE MAGIC HAPPENED. The story came together, it did, it did, and I found myself no longer slogging, but sprinting! - dashing! - racing! - panting! - toward the finish line.


I now have, by my estimate, one more hand-written page (the equivalent of two more typed pages) to go before I can write THE END. You might think I'd just go ahead and finish the darned thing and THEN write this celebratory blog post. But I want to take a long, deep breath right now and savor the closing moments of writing this book (that is to say, this VERY rough and VERY flawed draft of this book). I want to pause to reflect on how the magic ALWAYS happens if I just sit myself down for an hour every day and keep moving my hand across the page.

I searched through the delightful little book Walking on Alligators: A Book of Meditations for Writers by Susan Shaughnessy and found this line I was looking for. Shaughnessy quotes writer Gail Godwin, who is quoting artist Philip Guston: "I go to my studio every day, because one day I may go and the angel will be there. What if I don't go and the angel came?"

When I was in Tucson for my friend's wedding, I cajoled myself into writing by searching out inviting writing spots in the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and the Tucson Botanical Gardens. Now no cajoling is needed. I wrote one page of Chapter 10 (the final chapter) while sitting in the waiting room of my therapist's office. I wrote another page of Chapter 10 in the car while my son drove me up to the mountains yesterday to pick up our little girls for Thanksgiving week. I can write the very last page of Chapter 10 absolutely anywhere - just give me a pen!

Oh, there is so much left to do on this book as I turn to revisions, but guess what? I love that right now I KNOW what I need to do. In fact, I know EXACTLY what I need to do. Now that I see how the story comes together at the end, I know how I have to change the opening chapter - and certain key scenes in the middle of the book - so that this ending flows inevitably from what has come before. I so love HAVING A PLAN! Archimedes is famed for having said, "Give me a place to stand, and a lever long enough, and I will move the world." I say: "Give me a clear enough plan, and I will revise any book!"

Dear ones, just keep on slogging. Show up every day. Move that pen across the page, or tap away at those computer keys, however little you feel like doing it. The angel is coming. I promise you: the angel is coming.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Writing Advice: How to Make Slogging Less Sloggy

I'm back from a glorious few days in Tucson at my friend Lisa's wedding, which I also turned into a mini-writing retreat for myself.

I was bound and determined to trudge and slog my way into finding the magic at the heart of my new work-in-progress.

And I did!

Here is what I learned about making trudging less trudgy, drudgery less drudgy, and slogging less sloggy.

Well, the first thing I already knew, but knowing doesn't always lead to doing

1) Toil is less toilsome if you do it somewhere beautiful and inspiring - indeed, in lots of different beautiful and inspiring places. In Tucson I sought, and found, new writing spots every day: a most pleasant mission.

I wrote in the Crave Coffee Bar, where Lisa's writing group meets.

I wrote in the downtown main branch of the Pima County Public Library.
The next two places were extra-special, super-duper spots for writing.

I wrote at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum.

And I wrote at the Tucson Botanical Gardens:

This made me so happy, so happy!

The other thing I learned about de-sloggifying a writing slog was something I should have known but didn't, or at least didn't fully appreciate.

2) Sometimes you feel like you're slogging forward, but what you're really doing is slogging in place, just spinning your wheels and going nowhere. This tends to be because what you need is NOT to keep on writing in the desperate hope of making eventual progress, but to sit yourself down and figure out where your story needs to be going. You need a PLAN. If you already have a plan (which I did in this case), you need a BETTER PLAN.

I spent a lot of my writing time in Tucson making a better plan for the rest of the book - a plan I actually feel excited about, a plan that makes me look forward to my next writing stints with anticipation rather than trepidation.

In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard has this to say:

When you are stuck in a book; when you are well into writing it, and know what comes next, and yet cannot go on; when every morning for a week or a month you enter its room and turn your back on it; then the trouble is either of two things. Either the structure has forked, so the narrative, or the logic, has developed a hairline fracture that will shortly split it up the middle - or you are approaching a fatal mistake. What you had planned will not do.

Now, Annie Dillard, who prides herself on making the writing life sound as painful as possible, says that "you cannot do nothing" (true) and that "of course it will mean starting again" (false). What it means is just FIXING what you have: NOT throwing it away and starting all over again (as I see too many of my writing students all too willing to do), but simply figuring out the problem with the story (this story, not a completely new story) and SOLVING it.

In Tucson I figured out a lot of things that need to be handled differently in Boogie Bass, Sign Language Star: hooray! I figured them out while writing in some truly beautiful places and also had the privilege of seeing a dear friend marry the love of her life.

I would call this a trip worth taking.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

In Praise of Slogging and Trudging

I'm now partway through writing the fourth book in my After-School Superstars series for Holiday House. This is the series set in an after-school program where every month is a different themed camp. So far I've written Nixie Ness, Cooking Star (cooking camp), Vera Vance, Comics Star (comic book camp), and Lucy Lopez, Coding Star (computer coding camp). Camp number four will star Boogie Bass, in sign language camp.

I was thrilled when the editorial team at Holiday House encouraged me to do a sign-language book. Ooh! And Boogie is probably my favorite character in the previous books: as his name suggests, so funny and dear. Yet so far I'm still in the slogging and trudging stage of the writing process. This is the stage where I don't quite know where the book is going (this despite having a decent outline, of sorts), the stage where the story still hasn't yet come fully alive for me, the stage where I simply write one sentence, and then another sentence, and then another. And then another.

I would feel worried about this book if I didn't know this has been my process for all my books. I always start out this way, with my hand moving across the page for an hour a day, in the hopes that sooner or later the magic will happen. Until that point, there is a certain amount of sheer drudgery, which brings to mind a comment made to me by a former Philosophy Department chair: he asked me to serve on some particularly dreary committee, and I replied, "It just sounds like so much drudgery." And he said, "But you're so good at drudgery!"

And I am.

But I'm starting to get itchy: what if this time the magic DOESN'T come? Oh, but it has to! It just has to!

One problem for me right now is that although I've done a fair amount of the requisite slogging and trudging, I can't say I've done it every day. Mine has been intermittent slogging and sporadic trudging. Faithful drudgery, I'm sad to say, yields much better results than drudgery every-once-in-a-while. I need to put my nose to that good ol' grindstone and keep it there!

Luckily, tomorrow I'm heading off to Tucson for a dear friend's wedding. The actual ceremony will take place on Saturday, but I decided to go a couple of days earlier to make this a little writing retreat and general escape-from-real-life. I will be slogging amidst the saguaro cacti! I will trudging in a charming cafe near the university! I will raise my eyes from the drudgery of the page and feast upon a desert landscape!

I feel the magic on its way to me right now, if I just slog and trudge a little bit longer...

Friday, November 1, 2019

When Even Your Best Survival Strategies Are No Longer Working

Confession time: my blog has been boring lately, even to me. I've been reduced to writing about my defunct furnace and snow-day activities because I can't bear to write any more posts about the really sad, scary, and unbearably stressful things in my life. Plus, writing about them would be boring, too. I have discovered what few people talk about: the sheer tedium of massive life problems that DO NOT GO AWAY AND ARE NOT GOING TO GO AWAY ANY TIME SOON. How many times can I say: My life is hard! My life is hard! My life is hard! Even I get sick of the sound of myself wailing this over and over again.

So today's topic: what DO you do when even your best survival strategies for getting through Hard Stuff aren't working any more? When you are totally and utterly and irredeemably stuck in the La Brea Tar Pits of your life, how the heck do you get (at least partially) unstuck?

I'm quite interested to see how I'm going to answer this one!


1. First of all, make sure that you really ARE employing your usual survival strategies, rather than just thinking that you're doing this. My "four pillars of happiness" have always been: writing, reading, walking, and spending time with friends. Those are my fail-proof paths to happiness. But they aren't working any more. WAHHH! Oh, but wait.... during this past week of snowstorms and freezing temps, I actually didn't take any walks. None at all. Hmmm. And, despite putting FINISH CHAPTER FOUR of my new book in all caps on each day's to-do list, somehow that final page still isn't written. Hmmm. A friend dropped off a tantalizing new book for me to read, and somehow I haven't opened it yet. Hmmm. And I am blessed with having friends galore who would be most happy to while away a few hours with me, and yet I haven't summoned them. Hmmm.. . .

So: before you give up on your usual strategies, make sure you're giving them a fair chance.

This may be the single most important thing I'm telling myself today.

2. But what if you aren't using your usual strategies because you simply can't make yourself do it? The worst thing about depression is how it stops us from doing the very things that would make us less depressed. So what do we do then? Huh? Huh?

Well, when you do have a flicker of energy (I'm having a flicker of energy right now), take steps to make certain activities more likely. Call a friend and make a date for a walk (two of my survival strategies in one!) - or in my case, call a friend and make a writing date (ditto).

It also helps if I remove all competing temptations: the I-pad for Sudoku, the phone for social media. If I take away literally everything else, I find myself thinking, oh, well, I guess I might as well write the final page of that chapter after all.

3. You could also try not just maintaining your usual strategies but intensifying them. Instead of taking a walk, go on a hike with some elevation gain, or try running (though frankly I can't see myself doing either of these). Instead of assigning yourself one page a day to write, assign yourself two. Cram your days filled with projects and play dates.

4. Consider some dazzling new strategies. In my case, it would be flying to Paris for a long weekend to be all by myself in a cozy hotel near a cozy cafe where I would sip hot chocolate and nibble on croissants and write poetry. I COULD DO THIS. I'd have to cancel a bunch of stuff, but at this point my mental health might be a legitimate reason for a few days of "sick leave." It would cost a bunch of money, but one of the good things about my current woes is that money is hemorrhaging out of my life at such a hideous rate (attorney bills, nursing home bills) that all of it is going to be gone soon anyway. I can truly go to Paris for a week on less that what I pay for a single day of our lawyer's time. Even depressed as I am, I do feel a little tingle of tingly-ness at the thought of doing this.

So these are my thoughts today. Now my challenge: take this advice I am giving myself. Writing this blog post was a first step in the right direction.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Snow Day Blues and Bliss

It snowed last week here in Boulder: a full six inches a full week before Halloween.

But pre-Halloween snow is not unusual in Colorado, and it gave me another reason to be grateful that my furnace was repaired before the first flakes fell. Besides, it was 70 degrees the next day, and every speck of snow melted. All the beauty of snow, with none of the inconvenience.

But then it snowed again yesterday, and it's supposed to snow again today, and tomorrow, and the day after that. This snow is less pretty, and there are heaps of it, and right now it's 18 degrees out there.

This is not what my father liked to call "October's bright blue weather."

Yesterday I was supposed to give a talk at an SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) gathering in Colorado Springs, 90 miles south of here. I had been looking forward to this for months, but I bailed on it that morning, too wimpy to risk driving that far in dubious road conditions. I totaled a car two years ago on a sunny but slushy road, and it has disinclined me to repeat that experience.

But it broke my heart to cancel this commitment, and then the snow wasn't even coming down THAT hard during the day. Could I have made the drive if I weren't such a pitiful, pathetic wimp at snow driving?

In the evening I had a ticket for a church outing to the Boulder Dinner Theater to see Mamma Mia; I had spent the previous week happily humming "Waterloo" and "Dancing Queen." Shamed by my earlier timidity, I decided to try to undertake the merely five-mile local drive. But after losing control of my car (traveling a mere ten miles an hour) and careening into the curb, I turned back. The Dancing Queen would have to dance without me. 


But now for the bliss of snow days.

Back home again, I put on my warm nightgown, robe, and fuzzy slippers, heated up a can of Progresso tomato-basil soup, and fixed myself an English muffin with melted Swiss cheese on top (just like Heidi). I curled up to re-read the funny, clever, touching novel Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher, a novel written entirely in recommendation letters penned by a curmudgeonly creative writing professor. It was a lovely evening.

Now I've decided that I'm going nowhere for the next three days unless my stalwart son Christopher, who is a professional driver with a sturdy four-wheel-drive vehicle, is willing to serve as my chauffeur. I'm going to make this a three-day writing retreat, planning to make stunning progress on the first draft of Boogie Bass, Sign Language Star, as well as an overdue book review and other pleasant writing tasks. I'm well stocked with soup, English muffins, Swiss cheese, and MANY MANY jars of jam. 

Snow days are a gift from the gods, so I'm not going to squander mine on my vices of Sudoku and mindless scrolling through social media sites. I'm going to savor every sip of hot chocolate and every page of scribbled book progress.

Let it snow!

Monday, October 21, 2019

The Good of An Extremely Irritating Inconvenience

My furnace stopped working on Friday morning.

The good news: The repair guy did come that morning - hooray, hooray - and diagnosed the problem as a failed  motor - a mere $800 repair instead of the cost of a full furnace replacement.

The bad news: The motor has to be ordered from Somewhere Else. It may arrive this week. Or next. It all depends on Someone Else. And then when it does come, the dispatcher will have to put me on the Schedule. Other people may be ahead of me on the Schedule. But it should all be done in seven-to-ten business days - or is it that the new motor should arrive in seven-to-ten business days? To be honest, I was too crabby to process all these details. But just to be clear, ten business days means a possible full TWO WEEKS WITHOUT HEAT.

Right now it's 53 degrees in my house.

And it's supposed to snow on Wednesday, with a high of 38. And snow again on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday.


In the scheme of things, this is merely an inconvenience.

An extremely irritating inconvenience.

But  here is the good of an extremely irritating inconvenience.

When my heat comes back on again, I will be so happy! However grave my real problems are - and they are grave indeed - I'd much rather have my real problems PLUS nice warm cozy heat in my house than have my real problems with NO heat and predicted snow.

Wouldn't it be lovely to be typing this whiny complaint with fingers that weren't stiff from cold? Oh, it would, it would! And this problem, unlike my real problems, can actually be solved - and will actually be solved, even if it takes seven-to-ten (freezing) business days to solve it.

In the meantime, I can huddle under heaps of blankets with a faithful (and warm!) little dog curled up beside me. Last night I re-read The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder, glad that I'm not experiencing endless blizzards on the bleak Dakota Territory prairie for seven months with temps of 40 below zero and having to heat my house by burning sticks of twisted hay.

It could be so much worse.

And in seven-to-ten business days it will be so much better.

And I can worry about my real problems in comfort once again.

A mere hour after I posted this, the repair place called and said the part was indeed on its way, and that if it arrived on time, I could get on the schedule for TODAY! And it did, and I did, and I have heat again! I think they tell you the seven-to-ten business day thing just to be on the safe side. And to help you exercise your gratitude muscles when your heat is restored after a mere four regular days.

So here are a few further lessons I've gleaned from my four days in a cold house:

1) Sometimes things do turn out to be less terrible than you think. Not always! But sometimes.

2) It pays to be pleasantly persistent. I did keep on calling the repair place, verging on being annoying but managing to express appreciation for every glimmer of hope offered to me. Usually I have only two modes in life: complete doormat docility or raging inferno. Calm assertiveness served me better this time.

3) It's really not the repair place's fault if a part has to be ordered from somewhere else. It's really not the job of the universe to keep everything I will ever need in stock for my convenience.

4) Small blessings are lovely! That comforting sound of the furnace fan coming on, and the waves of warmth radiating from the vents! Hooray for small blessings!

Monday, September 30, 2019

In Praise of Scheduled Wallowing

I seldom listen to music while driving; I just obsessively think my own thoughts. My son never drives without listening to music. So it happened that, driving with him a week ago, I heard on one of his Sirius stations a song from the first Mamma Mia movie: Colin Firth singing, "I can still recall . . . our last summer . .  I still see it all. . . "

Suddenly I was in tears.

The song pierced its way into my heart - this recalling of "our last summer" - where it's clear that this isn't "last" in the sense of "most recent," but in the sense of "last ever" - the poignant loss of something never to be reclaimed.

For the next few days I couldn't stop listening to the song over and over again, crying each time, recalling certain "last summers" in my own life: the last summer my husband still lived at home with me before moving to a skilled nursing facility, the last summer he was actually able to travel with me, to see the total solar eclipse on my birthday, in Red Cloud, Nebraska, childhood home of Willa Cather. . .  And might this past summer turn out to be my last summer with my two little granddaughters, pending the outcome of a looming and terrifying court case? Friends' tragic losses haunted me, too.

I cried. And I cried. And I cried.

It felt so good.

I've been so busy being cheerful despite my heartaches that it's been a long time since I've cried. (One also cries less, in my experience, while on anti-depressants, from which I'm now taking a break.) Apparently I had a huge pent-up need to cry, and kindly Colin Firth helped me do it.

Back in my twenties, when I lived in Takoma Park, Maryland, I was seeing a brilliant therapist named Judy Alexander. I started seeing Judy after one particular boyfriend dumped me. I had been dumped by boyfriends many times before - so many, in fact, that I developed a terrific policy for dealing with a dumping: the day a boyfriend dumped me was the day I went to the travel agent and bought myself a plane ticket to Europe. I went three times on this policy: to England, to Greece, and to Paris/Prague. But this most recent dumping kept on twisting a knife into my heart even after my return from Greece.

Judy told me I should set aside fifteen minutes each day to be sad about the breakup: look at pictures of the two of us together, play sad songs that reminded me of him, just let all the sadness out.

"Why should I be sad?" I demanded. "He's not sad!"

She gently replied with a question of her own: "Why should you let him determine your feelings?"

That was some of the best advice I ever received. I started looking forward all day long to those fifteen minutes when I could luxuriate in grief - downright wallow in it. Oh, the relief - even the joy - that can be found in wallowing!

I may be done with Colin Firth's song for a while now; I'm crying less each time I play it. But I'm not yet done with grieving for all I've lost, and all I may be in the process of losing. I'm going to continue to follow Judy Alexander's wise counsel and set aside small, fixed amounts of time for wallowing in heartbreak. My poor heart, it turns out, longs for periodic sessions of weeping and wailing.

Dear heart, I'm going to give those to you. I'll find more sad songs for you. Suggestions for a wallowing soundtrack, anyone?

Sometimes we all just need to wallow.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Learning from My Own Characters; or Ringing the Bell Choir Blues

There are some things I am (relatively) good at: writing, teaching, giving talks, getting a lot of work done in a little amount of time.

There are other things I am (absolutely) terrible at: math, sports, cooking - and playing musical instruments in front of other people.

A long time ago I played in the church bell choir because ringers are always needed, and I consider myself to be a Helpful Person. I loved the practices - what's not to love about making music with your friends? But I dreaded the performances with a sick desperate terror and barely managed to get through them with paralyzing stage fright.

Here's the thing about bell choir. You are the ONLY one playing your bell, so if you don't play that note (and that note is in the melody line) - or if you play that note at the wrong time - or if you play the sharp of that note instead of the natural, or the natural of that note instead of the sharp - THE WHOLE PIECE IS RUINED, AND IT IS TOTALLY YOUR FAULT, AND YOU ARE THE ONE WHO HAS DISAPPOINTED ALL THE OTHER, MORE CAPABLE BELL RINGERS, AND YOU SHOULD WEAR A PAPER BAG OVER YOUR HEAD FOR THE REST OF YOUR DAYS!

Or at least that's how it seemed to me.

Finally, after a couple of agonizing years, I decided I could be a Helpful Person in other, less stressful ways and quit the bell choir. Luckily, my older son is by all accounts the star of the bell choir, responsible for playing as many as thirteen bells. So I felt our family as a whole was doing its bell-choir share.

But occasionally I'm called back to be a substitute when another ringer is off on vacation or otherwise unavailable.

"Can you find someone else?" I plead.

A search is made.

"I'm so sorry, but there is nobody else who can do it."

I gulp.

Then I say, "Okay."

Thus it happened that this past Sunday I played a D-flat and C-flat bell in "El Shaddai." And guess what? I messed up during the performance, missing several crucial melody notes (foiled by a page turn). I couldn't even make myself return to my pew afterward. Instead I fled sobbing to the parking lot. Yes, I was actually in tears over those missed notes.

Here's what makes my bell-playing trauma even more ridiculous. Fifteen years ago I published a book, Perfectly Chelsea, about a little girl in her church life. In the chapter titled "Make a Joyful Noise," Chelsea is playing in the bell choir, messes up during the performance, and totally falls apart.

Here's the illustration by Jacqueline Rogers where Chelsea looks EXACTLY like I did this past Sunday.
And here's how Chelsea reacts afterward:

"I played horribly!" Chelsea cried. "Every single note was wrong!"

"Oh, Chelsea." Mrs. Phillips led her to a pew and made her sit down. "Do you think God hears your mistakes?"

Well, if He wasn't completely deaf, He did. 

"Do you think God is saying, 'Chelsea Garing was supposed to play a C sharp in measure eighteen, and she played a C natural?"

Chelsea had no idea what God was thinking. Probably He was sitting up in heaven with His hands clapped over His ears.

"God is saying, 'Here's a girl who is trying her best to make beautiful music as a gift to me and to the whole congregation.' God doesn't hear the notes you play out loud; God hears the notes you play in your heart."

Chelsea hoped Mrs. Phillips was right.

Mrs. Phillips went on. "The Bible says, 'Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands.' Sometimes the noise sounds like music, and sometimes it just sounds like - noise. The important thing is the joy."

Okay: the important thing is the joy. That's what Mrs. Phillips says, and I'm the one who created Mrs. Phillips and wrote those words for her to say. So I should know!

Apparently people in church liked the performance; a lot of them said they did. Maybe God liked it, too. Our new pastor, who is dragging us into the 21st century, put up a video of it on You Tube (you can't see me in it, fortunately; I'm in the second row; my son is the one at the end of the front row). I listened to it on my phone earlier today and could barely locate where my mistake was. Then I listened to it again just now on my computer, with fewer distractions, and yes, I heard my mistakes, and heard some other people's mistakes, too.

I also heard music played lovingly for the glory of God.

After Sunday's tears I vowed I'd never play in the bell choir again: never, never, never! But if I hadn't played, given that no other sub was available, 100 percent of my notes would have gone missing. Realistically, I probably just missed half a dozen, max. So I managed to offer up at least 90 percent of my notes as a gift from my heart.

If my characters (with my wise assistance) can learn important life lessons at aged ten, why is it so hard for me to learn them at age sixty-five?


Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Exorcising Fourth Grade Demons in My Silver Sneakers Exercise Class

I did not grow up loving sports. Or liking sports. Or doing any sports at all. This was before Title IX created funding for sports for girls; indeed, it was a time when hardly anyone engaged in any organized physical activities. There was Little League for elementary-school-aged boys, and then football, basketball, and baseball for boys in high school. That was pretty much it.

This was fine with me, as I was terrible at sports, as evidenced by my performance in my loathed P.E. classes. I have a memory that some teacher was worried about how hopeless I was at throwing and catching a ball. She said something to my parents about how physical coordination was important for academic success, so they went out and bought a Wiffle Ball, tossed it to me a few times in the back yard, and (to my great relief) that was the end of that.

The nadir of my non-athleticism, however, came in fourth grade. Our classroom teacher was enamored of a fitness guru named Bonnie Pruden. She would play Bonnie Pruden records every day while we gyrated to their beat. Of course, I gyrated much less proficiently than anyone else. One day - could this really be true? yet this is how I've remembered it for over half a century - she had the rest of the class stop in order to watch my flailing motions: "Look how hard Claudia is trying," she said in what I heard as malicious glee.  "And she still can't do it!"

Needless to say, I never tried to do any physical exercise in my life ever again. I do walk 10,000 steps a day with my beloved Fitbit. Once I tried a free modern dance class at the university, billed as being for absolute beginners, and discovered on the first day that I was as bad at modern dance as I was at Bonnie Pruden. So I went back to being a walker, period.

But now - ta-dah! - I'm a senior citizen. I have Medicare. And a Silver Sneakers card. The South Boulder Rec Center is just a fifteen-minute walk from my house. There is a Silver Sneakers class that meets there at 10:00 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. And my dear friend Rachel loves her silver Sneakers classes.

Maybe it was time to try to silence the memory of that fourth-grade teacher's voice.

I've gone to four of these Silver Sneakers classes now; I'm just back from the one this morning. I think I'm twenty years younger than most of the other students, but I'm by far the worst at doing the exercise motions (which involve dancing around while holding a small ball, or a stretchy weight band of some kind, or two little hand weights).

It's not that the class is all that difficult physically. The challenge for me is mental. I just can't coordinate my mind and my body, especially if one part of my body is supposed to move one direction while another part is supposed to move in the opposite direction. I can't kick my left foot while pumping my right fist into the air.

I think I did a little bit better today, though. This teacher, unlike the fourth-grade teacher, calls out "Beautiful!" "Nice!" "Yes!" whatever we get right or get wrong. Apparently it's very good for the aging brain - or for any brain - to do this kind of cross-body motion. Maybe that worried kindergarten teacher was right that the brain and the body are not entirely separate entities.

I'm not going to give up this time. I'm going to keep on trying. After all, it's been fifty-five years now since fourth-grade. It feels good to move, to stretch, to bop along to the music (today it was Abba, and the Beatles, and the BeeGees).

So what if I'm the worst in the class?

At least I'm in the class, happily bopping along in my silver sneakers.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Boulder Bookstore Launch for NIXIE NESS

Oh, what a treat it was to have a launch party for Nixie Ness Cooking Star at Boulder Bookstore last night! The older I get (and the whole world knows how excited I am to be an official SENIOR CITIZEN now), the more I think it's important to celebrate our achievements large and small, and to help others celebrate theirs. So I'm grateful to the friends from so many different parts of my life - fellow writers, church family, philosophy department former students and colleagues, neighbors, friends - who gathered at the bookstore to help welcome my new little book into the world.

Here are some photos from the festivities, with the best saved for last.

I shared some stories about how the book came to be, from my decision to branch out from decades of writing school stories to explore writing a series of books set in an after-school program.

 I read from the first chapter, which ends with Nixie in the depths of despair about having to leave her best friend behind, as her mother's new job necessitates Nixie's going off to the After-School Superstars cooking camp, while her best friend, Grace, will now spend afternoons with Elyse, a kitten-owning girl who may just possibly turn out to be a best-friend stealer.

Having a new job was great for Nixie's mother.

Playing with someone else's kitten was apparently okay for Grace,

So the only person this was completely, totally, absolutely terrible for was Nixie. 

(I did share with the audience a message I had recently seen on a framed drawing for sale in a hospital gift shop: "Not to spoil the ending, but everything is going to be okay.")

I signed lots of books - hooray!

People ate lots of my cookies, including my signature ginger snaps - hooray!

And - this was the best part of this whole lovely evening - members of my Roosters writing group came WEARING APRONS!!!

So: I'm glad I made a fuss over Nixie. Even though this is my 58th published book for younger readers, she deserves her own party. Actually, I don't think the first fifty books had any parties at all, as the phenomenon of the "book launch" wasn't yet a "thing" back then.

I want my life - and your lives - and everybody's lives - to have more parties, not fewer.

Life isn't so long that we can pass up a chance for a party.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

It Takes Longer to Ride the Bus than to Drive - So What?

Here are some things I've learned so far in my new commitment to ride the bus almost everywhere I go, using my SENIOR CITIZEN HALF-PRICE BUS TICKETS! - and taking advantage of Boulder's truly excellent network of buses.

Some buses - like the Skip (the bus that fortunately-for-me goes right by my house) or buses to and from Denver during rush hour  - come and go so often you hardly have to check a schedule. Others. . . don't. If you miss one, you may have to wait half an hour for the next one. So when you see one pull away from the stop fifteen seconds before you dash up, panting, it's tempting to gnash your teeth and pull your hair.

Some buses go exactly where you want to go. For others, you may have to walk from the bus stop to your final destination - maybe half a mile, maybe even a bit more. There may be a sidewalk. But you may find yourself walking  - actually, trudging - along on the shoulder of the road as cars whiz by - one of which could have been YOUR car whizzing by, with YOU in it.

I would say it usually takes twice as long to get where I want to go by bus. If I have to change buses and coordinate two different bus schedules, it can even take three or four times as long.

But here are the pluses to bus transport that are still outweighing the minuses for me.

1. All right, I have to check bus schedules now, so I lose some spontaneity in my day. BUT I also have a good reason to get closure on one activity and move on to the next: "Oops! Sorry! Have to go catch my bus!" Plus, I LIKE planning. This is just one more thing I get to plan.

2. On the bus you can do other things. Well, sort of. With the exception of the buses to/from Boulder to Denver, these are not express buses sailing along the highway; they are buses that make a lot of starts and stops. Still, you can read a bit, or make some notes in a notebook, or . . . daydream. As someone who had her last TWO cars totaled in accidents (one of these my own fault), it is sooooo pleasant NOT to have to concentrate on not wrecking my car through careless inattention.

3. The bus ride - and walk to and from the bus stop - is a voyage of discovery. Yesterday, when I got off the 205 to walk the rest of the way to a writers' gathering held at a church half a mile from the bus stop, at first I was dismayed to see the road stretch ahead of me with no sidewalk. I gritted my teeth and said, "Great!" in that sarcastic crabby way the word is so often said. But then. . . then . . . I saw that there was a sidewalk - not by the side of the walk, but tucked away behind some trees - not just a sidewalk, but a BECKONING PATH.
GREAT!!!! Following that beckoning path gave me the day's single biggest jolt of joy.

4. Finally, the bus has OTHER PEOPLE on it. Now, instead of being in your own little metal container hurtling alone through life, there you are, part of THE WORLD. Yesterday, it turns out, was a huge football game: Colorado versus Nebraska, a historic rivalry of great intensity. As I headed to the Boulder Connect writing meeting, the bus sat in traffic as we neared the university. Who cared? I wasn't the one driving, I was sitting happily watching the festivities from the bus! I could see tailgate parties and throngs of fans surging toward the stadium. Then, as I was on my way home from the writing meeting, followed by a visit to my husband at the care home, while I waited for the 205, a guy at the bus stop gave a shout as he glanced down at his phone, though I was the only audience for the shout. CU had been behind thirty points, he told me, but now the game was tied and going into overtime! Then, on the second leg of my two-leg bus journey, as the Skip took me past the university again, with the game now completed, dozens of fans clambered onto the bus, talking intently about the game, which CU ended up winning 34-31. "That was a game for the ages!" said one. "That was the greatest game in a decade!" said another. Even though I have zero interest in football - or thought that I did - now I was part of a happening: I was there in the crowd for the greatest game in a decade! a game for the ages!

All because I rode the bus.

All told, the four bus rides to get to and from my afternoon's activities cost me at least an extra hour I could have spent surfing the internet and idly Googling myself to see if there were any new reviews of my latest book posted on Amazon or Goodreads, and seething if they were four-star reviews instead of five-star reviews.

Instead, I took the beckoning path.

And I'm glad I did.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

A Dearth of Joy Narrowly Avoided!

After writing a blog post where I pledged to prioritize joy in my life, by making a writing date with myself, to go somewhere (anywhere), on the bus (any bus), at least once a week, all week long I kept somehow managing . . .  not to do it.

Somehow I just did  . . .  other things. I barely even remember the other things, except there were a lot of them. I had made sure to keep my calendar 100 percent free on Friday just so I'd have a lovely stretch of time for this joyous bus ride to creative joy. But then the handyman texted to say he could come that afternoon to solve the problem of my two finicky light fixtures. It was hardly worth dashing off for creative joy in the morning, with the handyman appointment looming. And once he had gone on his way, the success of his mission seemed enough for one day. Did I really need to go off and have creative joy so late in the afternoon?

But this morning I realized it was now Saturday, with Sunday already filled with church commitments and theater tickets for a play in Denver. If I was going to keep the promise I made to myself - and how pitiful to break it the very first week! - I had to have my bus ride to joy TODAY.

And so I did.

Today, like yesterday, I had another thing I needed to do mid-day, but this time I couldn't allow that to stop me. So I planned a gala morning crammed full of BUS RIDES! I'd take the bus to the farmers' market to stock up on provisions to help me stay the course of my new vegetarianism. Then I'd write for an hour in a nearby cafe. Then I'd take another bus (more buses! hooray!) to visit my husband at the care home and help train him on his new I-phone. Then I'd take two buses to get back home again, glowing with joy!

First stop: farmers' market:
With gorgeous lettuce and fresh-from-the farm tomatoes stashed in my tote bag, I found a cafe and settled in to write, fueled by a vanilla steamer and blueberry crumb cake.
I finished the hour with two good pages of notes for my next book in the After-School Superstars series (to be set in an after school American Sign Language camp).

But as the morning went on, and I set off on the next bus ride to the care home, I started to realize some problems with my plan. The tote bag was now very heavy, and the writing project somewhat squished the gorgeous lettuce and fresh-from-the-farm tomatoes. It was hotter now, too, so as I walked from one bus to another the tote bag felt heavier and heavier. I felt heavier and heavier, too, given that the blueberry crumb cake, which I had scrupulously cut in half so I would NOT eat the whole thing, was now all in my tummy. Alas, instead of feeling light and unencumbered, as one should feel when riding the bus, I felt extra-encumbered and bloated as well.

Still, I was SO happy at the farmer's market. And SO happy writing at the cafe. And SO glad that I had gone on so many errands without relying on a car. And most of all SO glad that I had kept this promise to myself. Really, all I need to do differently next time is to have a small backpack for my writing needs, and a separate small tote bag for my farmer's market bounty. And somehow to keep myself from eating the whole piece of crumb cake. Or if I'm going to end up eating the whole piece of crumb cake, not to ALSO order a vanilla steamer with whipped cream on top.

I'll close by revising Edna St. Millay's hymn to trains to turn it into my own hymn to buses:

My heart is warm with the friends I make,
And better friends I'll not be knowing;
Yet there isn't a bus I wouldn't take,
No matter where it's going. 

PS: I also promised myself I'd write four blog posts this month, and I'm posting this one with six hours to spare!

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Joy Takes Extra Time and Effort - Is It Worth It?

Today is my birthday. Yes, I get to turn 65 on - get this! - National Senior Citizens Day! I didn't know that such a date existed, let alone that I share my birthday with it. But I do.

In planning how to make the coming year the most joyful year ever, I've been especially eager to use my new half-price senior-citizen bus tickets, valid for the first time TODAY.
With these I can ride Boulder's dizzying array of local buses all over the city for a paltry $1.40 for three hours worth of rides. With the regional discount tickets, I can ride the bus all the way to Denver! The Denver Botanic Gardens, the Denver Art Museum, many favorite bookstores, can all be mine for $2.50 each way! Plus, with a regional bus ticket I can ride the bus for half an hour, and three thousand feet of elevation gain, to the mountain town of Nederland to ride the Carousel of Happiness!

Nothing brings me more joy than writing in Other Place and, even better, getting there on the bus (so light! so free! so blissfully unencumbered!) With these little books of discount bus tickets, I can take myself on weekly writing dates all over the greater Denver Metropolitan Area.Visions of bus-transported writing happiness are dancing in my head.

But here's the downside of this plan.

It takes time.

It takes effort.

I could get to all of these places much more quickly and easily by car. It will take several different buses to get to some of these sugar-plummy locations. I might spend an hour - or more - on buses to go the same place I could reach in a half-hour car ride.

As far as that goes, I can write perfectly well right in my own house, where abundant amenities are on offer: adorable teapots that can be filled with tea and covered with adorable tea cozies; fragrant candles to be burned; Pepperidge Farm apple turnovers that can be popped into the oven.

In fact, tea in a mere mug is lovely, and lit candles are unncessary, and I can enjoy a perfectly satisfactory toasted English muffin without heating up my whole entire oven. Indeed, I don't even have to put jam on it from my membership in the Jam-of-the-Month Club given me as a Christmas present by my sister last year.

So: why should I go to all this fuss and bother? Is all this time and effort really worth it, for a few little added jolts of joy in an already quite joyous life?

My answer, as I turn 65, is: YES. I'm not talking about having an extravagantly joyous writing outing every single day of the year. I'm planning this as a once-a-week treat - a once-a-week treat that will THRILL me and make me hug myself with remembered and anticipated happiness for the week's other six days.

I think there is a real danger, as we age  - heck, as we muddle through all the stages of our lives - to cut corners on joy because it's more efficient and convenient - easier all around - to get used to doing without it. It's a slippery slope: I'll start by deciding the bus is too much trouble - and then that even driving myself to a writing date is too much trouble - and the next thing I know I'll be talking myself out of spreading jam on an English muffin and settle instead for plain dry toast.

I'm here to warn my future self against the temptation of choosing ease over joy.

"Don't do it!" I'm calling to her across the years that stretch before us both.

Spread that jam!

Ride that bus!

Heck, buy that plane ticket and take yourself on a writing date to PARIS! (Watch this spot for details to come . . . )

After all, if joy - JOY - isn't worth a little extra bit of time and trouble, what, on this Earth, is?

Friday, August 16, 2019

Are We Allowed to Live Joyful Lives Even If the World Is Filled with Misery?

My ongoing project is to have a joyful life despite everything. I think I'm doing pretty well at it. Even through several years of horrifying health and legal crises for beloved family members, and nonstop hideousness for my country and the world, most of the time I chug along cheerfully. I take daily walks, giggle with friends, sing praise songs at church, write lots of books, articles, and blog posts, and ride with my two little granddaughters on the Carousel of Happiness in the nearby mountain town of Nederland.

But now I'm asking myself: SHOULD I be doing this? Is it permissible for me to whirl around on the Carousel of Happiness when so much of the world is submerged in the Sinkhole of Misery? What RIGHT do I have to be happy? How DARE I be happy?

I'm pretty sure the answer is yes, I'm allowed to be happy, and you are allowed to be happy, too. Indeed, some of the people I know who have the hardest and most heartbreaking lives are also the happiest people. The Declaration of Independence says that we are endowed by our Creator with an unalienable right to at least try to be happy. I believe more rather than fewer of us should dare to exercise this right.

And yet. . . . isn't this callous? and complacent? and unbearably self-centered?

Well, my claim that we're allowed to be happy even in a world filled with misery does NOT mean we are allowed to be indifferent to that misery, or willfully ignorant of it. We should work together to make the world a happier place for everyone.When it comes to our near and dear, those to whom we've made specific and heartfelt commitments of care, we should make heroic efforts to secure their happiness, even at considerable sacrifice to our own self-interest.

Here, however, writer Anne Lamott reminds that "Horribly, [happiness] is an . . . inside job for the few people you love most desperately in the world. We cannot arrange lasting safety or happiness for our most beloved people." We just can't. But, oh, we wish we could! And we do - and should do - our best to make them as happy as we can.

I'm doing my best in this regard right now.

 My husband is in a care home, totally incapacitated from advanced Parkinson's, unable even to squirm around enough in the bed to reach for the phone if it's inconveniently positioned. I visit him every single day, bring him favorite meals, do his laundry, keep him company.

One son is enmeshed in the criminal justice system. I've taken out a Home Equity Line of Credit, secured against my house, to pay the estimated $100,000 of his lawyer fees.

I support organizations that do good in the world: Oxfam America, Physicians without Borders, people working for justice for those imprisoned in cages at our southern border. I'm sure I should be doing much more on all these fronts.

But I don't think I owe my husband, or my son, or anyone ever, a duty to renounce all joy in my own life. Some people may simply be psychologically unable to have joy in such conditions (some days, some weeks, some months, that's totally me), but I don't think they - or I - have an obligation to live joylessly.

I could try to justify this claim by saying, which is true, that my being happy actually helps me help others more. Cheerful givers are preferable to sullen givers; the cheerfulness is itself another gift. Far from thinking we have a duty to be miserable, Robert Louis Stevenson even said, "There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy. By being happy we sow anonymous benefits upon the world."

In giving ourselves permission to be happy, we thereby give others permission to be happy, too. I hope my example of being happy despite caring for my loved ones will give my children and grandchildren permission to be happy years hence when their turn comes to care for me. Isn't that what all of us want for our loved ones, even if we feel a nagging unease about wanting it for ourselves?

Rides on the Carousel of Happiness used to be $1 per ride. Now they're $2. It's still a huge bargain. The man who hand-carved the carousel's animals was a Vietnam vet who decided, after experiencing the horrors of that war, to spend the rest of his life just making people happy. I imagine that in the process he made himself pretty happy, too.

The motto of the Carousel of Happiness, which you can find on their T-shirts, is "Don't Delay Joy."

So: don't delay it.

It's okay to be happy. The world is a better place, for you, for me, for everyone, if it has more happiness in it.

Truly, it is.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Getting Excited about TURNING SIXTY-FIVE!

Five years ago this month I turned 60. With great jubilation I proclaimed that this was the start of Act III of my life. As everyone knows, Act III is the best act, when all the dramatic questions that have been put into play in the first two acts are answered in the long-awaited climax. As Chekhov famously reminds those engaged in playwriting, if you have a gun hanging over the fireplace in Act I, that gun needs to go off in Act III.


Now, five years later, all I can say is that Act III did not turned out as planned.

What happened instead was . . . life. Two little granddaughters born to parents who would almost immediately divorce with enormous hostility and bitterness. A husband who would be diagnosed with Parkinson's and end up, almost entirely immobile, in a nursing home. A son entangled in the unbelievably cruel and barbaric American criminal "justice" system.

And then me: puttering along writing my little books and giving motivational talks about how to find joy in your life despite everything. (Despite Everything is the working title for my memoir, if I ever write it.)

This month's birthday makes me officially a senior citizen (even if Denny's has already been giving me senior discounts for a decade now). I can officially count myself as a Wise Old Woman. Some women friends my age host "crone" ceremonies for themselves.

Maybe this is the REAL start to Act III of my life?

No. I can't just pretend that the last five years didn't happen. They did. They made me not only older and wiser, and older and sadder, but older and kinder, too.

But this IS the real start to something big and important - actually to lots of big and important things!

1. I can now get half-price tickets to ride on Boulder's fabulous buses. With yet another car wrecked this past week (this time, for the first time, in an accident that was NOT MY FAULT, unlike all the others), my plan is to reduce my amount of driving drastically. I will walk everywhere! I will take the bus when it's too far to walk! I will save money, sanity, and THE PLANET!

2. I have Medicare now, which is not a big deal for me as I already had excellent low-cost insurance through my former employer. But now I get. . . . Silver Sneakers!!! I've never gone to exercise classes, still haunted by the horror of high school P.E. But although I'm a faithful daily walker, my arms are feeble and flabby, and my balance and flexibility are poor. So I'm planning to trot myself into Boulder's fabulous rec centers to work on all of these things FOR FREE!

3. I'm going to become a vegetarian, which I should have done decades ago - actually, which I DID do decades ago but then lapsed, as I hate to be a Picky Eater. I seldom eat any meat even now, but I can't say I'm a vegetarian as I also seldom eat any vegetables. I'm more of an English-muffin-tarian. But I'm going to start finding ways to like eating vegetables - starting with shopping at Boulder's fabulous farmers' market. I bought myself a vegan cookbook and plan, terrible cook though I am, actually to COOK SOMETHING FROM IT!

4. I've become addicted to the Duolingo language-learning app, with the goal of reviving my many years of high-school and college French. Current plan: find myself a cheap airfare to Paris and go there ALL BY MYSELF (the best!) during some gray and gloomy month (my FAVORITE!), and spend a week eating baguettes slathered with butter and jam - and wandering the streets alone - and writing poetry in cafes while sipping hot chocolate. I AM GOING TO DO THIS!

And maybe  .  . . just maybe . . . Act III will start to develop its own strange and lovely momentum.


Saturday, July 27, 2019

Another Adventure in Newness, Coming Right Up

No sooner had I decided to restructure my Year of Newness ("The Year of the New, Halfway Through") than a great big newness challenge dropped conveniently into my waiting lap. I've noticed that enticing things drop into my lap more often when I sit myself down with my skirts spread wide, signaling to the universe my readiness to receive its treasures. The universe sends me more unexpected gifts when put on notice that I'm actively expecting the unexpected.

This past week I finished the edits on Lucy Lopez, Coding Star, the third title in my After-School Superstars chapter-book series, where each story takes place in a different month-long camp.

Book One: Nixie Ness, Cooking Star (cooking camp).

 Book Two: Vera Vance, Comics Star (comic book camp).

Book Three: Lucy Lopez, Coding Star (coding camp): Cover to come!

Now I had to figure out what the camp should be for Book Four.

As I did promotional events for Nixie's book, I solicited camp suggestions from each audience. Two weeks ago I sent the list to my editor, for her to share with her team at Holiday House. This past week I got their verdict, which just happens to coincide with my own secret yearnings.

Book Four will be set in.... drum roll... sign-language camp!

Just as I initially knew nothing - NOTHING AT ALL - about computer coding, I currently know nothing - NOTHING AT ALL - about sign language. But I learned from researching coding for Lucy's book that I actually like learning things. I especially value unearthing nuggets of wisdom from some specific area of study utterly new to me.

As I sat in on coding workshops and listened to coding teachers, I learned, for example, that "There is never just one solution to a problem" - ooh!! - and "If what you're doing isn't working, TRY SOMETHING ELSE" - another huge epiphany moment for me. I also learned that far from coding's being alien to who I am and how I think, it's actually extremely congenial. I love making lists! I love planning my life sequentially! I love trying to be crystal clear in my language about what I want done! Coding totally fits in with all of these things.

So now I'll have the adventure of learning about American Sign Language. I'm eager for any and all suggestions of how to begin. I can't wait to see what nuggets of wisdom it will offer - nuggets that I can then share with my characters - and my readers.

And myself.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

The Year of the New, Halfway Through

My overarching life/career goal for 2019 has been to make this The Year of the New. As I officially become a senior citizen, I wanted to prove to myself that I could still learn new tricks, take on new challenges, and have new adventures.

I settled on six main new things I was going to do, all career-related, as work does bring me such consistent joy:

1. Teaching my first-ever online course;
2. Writing my first book on a topic on which I initially knew absolutely nothing;
3. Making my first serious effort to promote my books;
4. Writing my first verse novel;
5. Making my first real attempt to publish my poetry;
6. Writing and submitting my first shorter-than-500-words picture book.

The year is now half over, so it's time to take stock on my progress-in-newness.

I taught the online course, a graduate course on the figure of the young female author from Little Women to The Poet X, for Hollins University in Roanoke - and I adored it! I had no idea online teaching could be so much fun. Admittedly I had a small class, just five students, and fabulous, brilliant, highly motivated, witty and wise students - but I bet I'd find students like that in future courses as well. So now I plan to do this again - and again!

I researched, wrote, and revised my third-grade-level chapter book set in an after-school coding camp: Lucy Lopez, Coding Star. That was also a joy, and I'm pleased with how the book came out. I still don't love doing coding myself, but I did love learning about it, especially once I hired a patient and encouraging eleven-year-old tutor to sit next to me at the computer.

I made special efforts to promote Nixie Ness, Cooking Star, including purchasing, and wearing, a chef costume. I'll post again the picture of me wearing it, because I need to get as much mileage out of this costume as possible!
Now I'm going to turn my creative efforts toward the verse novel, and I'm extremely excited about that.

But I'm NOT excited about trying to publish my poems, and I'm NOT excited about trying to write and submit a picture book. I'm just not.

So. . . . I'm not going to make myself do those two things.

Now, I do value keeping promises I make to myself. For 2017, I worked very hard to keep my promise to myself to submit something, somewhere, every single month. For 2018, I worked very hard to keep my promise to myself to log ten hours a month of creative joy.

But this year... well, the choice of exactly SIX new career things has started to feel so arbitrary to me. It lacks the simplicity of, say, deciding to do one new thing every single month. And even as I compiled the list back in January, rounding it out with the last two items, I felt no particular yearning to do those things. They felt like . . . chores. And one of my goal-setting rules is that my goals have to be DELICIOUS. I have to feel a tingle of happiness just thinking about them.

Instead I'm going to luxuriate in the writing of the verse novel. I'm going to take my time with it - itself something new for me, who usually trots along diligently at my hour-a-day, page-a-day pace to my destination.

I'm going to write the poems for the verse novel in lots of new places. When I turn 65 next month, I can purchase half-price bus tickets from RTD, so I'll take myself once a week to Denver and find charming cafes there that cry out to have poetry written in them.

Maybe I'll find new pastries to eat while I write! And new kinds of gelato!

I'm still committed to this being the Year of the New, but with the year halfway through, I'm going to try a more loosey-goosey approach to Newness.

And that in itself will be . . . new. 

Friday, July 12, 2019

Valentine to Grand Lake

I'm back from three days in Grand Lake, Colorado, the western gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. I took my boys there every summer when they were growing up, and we always did everything the exact same way.

First stop on the drive there from Boulder: the old-fashioned 5 & 10 in Estes Park to buy some little junky toy. Next stop: the Rainbow Curve overlook in Rocky Mountain National Park to greet (but not feed) the chipmunks. Next stop: the Alpine Visitor Center at the top of the world, in the bleak and beautiful tundra above tree line. Final stop: grilled cheese sandwiches at the Dairy King in Grand Lake. 

For the next few days, we would dig in the sand of the tiny public beach, and browse in shops along the wooden boardwalk in this small town, and eat at the few restaurants (NO chain restaurants at all in Grand Lake), and buy new Beanie Baby friends, as well as outfits that fit Beanie Babies (complete with tail holes!) at a little shop named Bunny and Clyde's, and sit on the porch at Grand Lake Lodge with its stunning views of Grand Lake and Shadow Mountain Lake.

This week I was there again, now with my grown son and my two little granddaughters. We stopped at the 5 & 10 and this time bought junky dress-up shoes. There were no chipmunks at the overlook, but we did see one in Grand Lake (Kataleya named him Alvin). We didn't stop at the Alpine Visitor Center because we had already had a lengthy stop along Trail Ridge Road to marvel at a herd of elk extremely close to the car. And we loved the grilled cheese sandwiches at Dairy King so much that we ate there two days in a row.

We played in the lake, choosing to go there in the early morning when we had the beach to ourselves, and it was so quiet and serene.
We made sand castles.
Beanie Babies are out of fashion now, and Bunny and Clyde's is no more, but we bought rubber duckies at the Quacker Store with hundreds (or at least many dozens) to tempt us. 

And we sat on the porch at Grand Lake Lodge, looking down at Shadow Mountain Lake.
I accepted a few new developments in Grand Lake. There is now a wonderful playground in the town park, a true delight. We stayed at a new inn at the edge of town, where you can sit outside on the lovely deck, making s'mores at a blazing fire right at your table. And of course, now I'm there as a grandmother, with two beloved granddaughters fathered by the man who was once my little boy.

Some change is good. But oh, it's bliss to be in a town with no chain restaurants, where the grillled cheese sandwiches taste EXACTLY the same as they always did, where you can park right next to the one itty-bitty beach, and just dig in the sand to your heart's content. 

Maybe some day I'll go there with my great-grandchildren, too. 

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Your Book Won't Get Revised Unless You Revise It

This post is the sequel to my earlier post, "Your Book Won't Get Written Unless You Write It."

Three weeks ago I finished the full manuscript of my third-grade-level chapter book set in an after-school coding camp: Lucy Lopez, Coding Star. I am pleased to say I finished it by my deadline and promptly sent it off to my brilliant editor and brilliant writing group.

They gave me comments right away. Guess what? Just like every book I have ever written throughout my long career, this one NEEDS MORE WORK!!

The big surprise for me was that the part that is looking good is . . . almost all the bits about coding! The parts I was most worried about were pronounced clear and engaging. Whew!

The parts that aren't looking so good are . . . the character arcs for the protagonist and her sister (it's a sister story), and how they drive the plot. These are not small or inconsequential elements of a book.

At first I panicked. Well, first I sulked, then I panicked. Even though this will be my 60th published book for children, I had suddenly forgotten exactly how one goes about revising a book. The scenes that were already written seemed, well, the way it actually happened. How could I change them so things happened some other way? How on earth would I even begin?

Then it came back back to me. You begin. . . by beginning. As Arnold Bennett writes in his delightful 1910 self-help book, How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day: "Dear sir, you simply begin. There is no magic method of beginning. If a man standing on the edge of a swimming-bath and wanting to jump into the cold water should ask you, 'How do I begin to jump?' you would merely reply, 'Just jump. Take hold of your nerves, and jump.'"

So I took hold of my nerves and went through the page-by-page comments from my editor and writing group friends and inserted them into my master copy of the manuscript, adding them with ALL CAPS so they would stand out. I also added ALL CAPS notes of my own. There were all the things that needed to be addressed in the course of the revision.

Then I made seven handwritten pages of responses to these comments, starting with the question, "What IS Lucy's character arc?" and moving on to "How does the tension BUILD?" and "Other things to do. . . 1) Differentiate Mom and Dad more - how? 2) Foreshadow the end-of-book Coding Expo; 3) Clarify the teachers' role; 4) Simplify the camp logistics...."  and more... and more...

Then. . . I began. I just began. I changed a bunch of things in Chapter 1 that affected the shape of the rest of the story, and then I started to work on the rest of the story. Each time I sit down to work more on the revisions, I read over what I've already revised to gather confidence. Look how much better Chapter 1 is now! Look how much better Chapter 2 is, too! Surely I can find a way to deal with the problems in Chapter 3...

So, just as my book won't get written in the first place unless I write it, it won't get revised unless I revise it.

And the best way to revise it, dear sir, dear madam, dear anybody, is simply to begin.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

More Fun with Book Promotion

As many readers know, I am currently trying harder to promote my books. In fact, I'm trying harder to promote this brand-new sweet little book:
I'm not sure that any of my strategies are paying off, but I'm certainly having fun with them, and there is no downside to having fun.

I did my blog tour - fun!

I ordered bookmarks - fun!

I did an "Instagram takeover" arranged by my publisher, Holiday House, for Nixie's launch day- fun! My own favorite of my posts for the "takeover" was where I shared photos of my first failed attempt at making the homemade dog biscuits the kids make in the book, side by side with photos of the second, much more successful attempt.

I have worn my new CHEF COSTUME several times in public, including at a delightful launch party for the book at the delightful Denver children's bookstore, Second Star to the Right.
I looked mildly ridiculous, but undeniably jolly. I gave out starry prizes for my cooking-themed trivia questions and served extremely delicious cookies, including my signature ginger snaps. (And if you say you don't like ginger snaps, then you have never tasted mine.) So that was VERY FUN.

Finally, I had a chance to do an interview for the podcast Beyond the Trope, and it turns out that doing interviews is fun, too. I sound smarter and better than I thought I would, so I've listened to it several times today, thinking, ooh, this person sounds smarter and better than I thought she would! So here's a link to it, in case you want to hear me talking about the big, deep philosophical questions I explore in Nixie Ness, Cooking Star, and the forthcoming Vera Vance, Comics Star.

It was ALL fun. Maybe I'll sell three more copies of the book through all my efforts. I bet I will!

But in any case, I had fun.

And there is nothing more fun than having fun.