Friday, October 23, 2020

It's All Right Just to Be the Same Old (Adequately Wonderful) Person That You Are

This weekend I'm speaking at a children's book writers' conference jointly hosted by the Mid-Atlantic chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and the Graduate Programs in Children's Literature at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia, where I am a faculty member. I'm giving a keynote address on my favorite topic - "How to Have a Joyous Creative Career in an Hour a Day" - and an afternoon breakout session on my other favorite topic - "Structure and Sparkle: Writing the Transitional Chapter Book."

I love to speak at conferences, and I've given both of these talks before to appreciative audiences, but this time the conference is via ZOOM. It feels very different to sit all alone at your desk speaking to your computer screen than to stand up in front of a live audience in a chandelier-hung ballroom. And nowadays everybody - as in EVERYBODY - has a PowerPoint to go along with their presentations, and: 1) I barely know how to make a PowerPoint (I did all my decades of teaching via chalk and chalkboard); 2) technology makes me tense and jittery; and 3) I'm already tense and jittery enough presenting via the weird ZOOM format with tight time constraints for each session.

So my dilemma was this. Should I accept that audiences nowadays (especially ZOOM audiences) expect to have some appealing visuals and not just my big round head talking on their screen? Should I face the fact that it is time for me (quite belatedly) to join the 21st century and start making PowerPoints like the rest of the world? Or should I just stick with being my old-fashioned, tried-and-true, Claudia self? Put another way: Would it be good for this old dog to rise to the challenge of learning some new tricks? Or should I just do what I've always done, in the way I've always done it? 

I was bravely leaning toward the first option, but feeling knots in my stomach about the whole thing: not just figuring how to make the PowerPoint, but fiddling with the technology during the presentation itself, struggling to share my screen, having the slides not advance... oh, so many horrors to foresee! But somehow everyone else manages to do it (though not without a good number of snafus). Perhaps the time had come for me leap into these turbulent modern-day waters and hope I would somehow, miraculously, transform from desperate dog paddler to Olympic champion swimmer?

I asked my brilliant and wise friend Lisa, one of the conference organizers, what she thought I should do. Within minutes she emailed back what I was hoping, in my heart of hearts, to hear: "Be your tried and true Claudia Self. There is no question about it." 


So now, instead of spending today churning my innards with dread about tomorrow's terrors, I can be pleasurably excited, with just the usual rush of energizing adrenaline.

 I can just BE WHO I AM, which is, I've decided, adequately wonderful.

Maybe one of these days I'll have a surge of courage and try out a PowerPoint presentation in a lower-stakes setting, one more suitable for trial-and-error. 

But tomorrow, I'll just be my Claudia Self. 

After all, that's who the conference organizers invited. It might as well be who they get. 

Monday, October 5, 2020

Packing My Bags for Children's Literature Adventures in Sweden

At the start of 2020, I knew the year would be a challenging one for me because of family woes, so I decided I needed not just a bunch of little treats along the way, but at least one HUGE treat. So I submitted a paper to a conference on "Conceptions of Girlhood Now and Then: 'Girls' Literature' and Beyond," to be held at Linnaeus University in Sweden on October 6th-8th. What a wonderful jaunt this would be!

Well, it's still going to be a wonderful jaunt, but now of course, thanks to COVID, the conference is taking place via ZOOM. WAHHH! But also HOORAY, because this makes it even easier for children's literature scholars all over the world to attend. Although many of the presenters are from Sweden, with the USA a distant second, by my count a total of 19 countries are represented. Joining the Swedish and American scholars are scholars from Spain, the U.K., Thailand, Canada, Ireland, Belgium, Croatia, Poland, Finland, Australia, Norway, the Netherlands, Austria, Slovakia, Greece, Denmark, and Italy. 

The papers look wonderful. I want to hear them all, but here are a few I've starred on the program: "Black Girls and Their Nineteenth-Century Autograph Albums," "What about the Fat Girl in Fiction?", "Emotional Socialization in Swedish Post-War Literature for Girls," "Meaning of 'Girlhood' in Slovak Children's Literature of Communism," and "Anglophone Constructions of Chinese Girlhood in the Late 19th and Early 20th Century." An intellectual FEAST!!

There is only one small challenge re attending this global conference from the comfort of my home in Boulder, Colorado. The schedule is on Central European time, eight hours later (or is it earlier? I'm never sure how to make sense of these time zones!) than U.S. Mountain Time. This means that the panel I'm on, which is taking place from 9:15-11:45 a.m. Wednesday morning on Swedish time, is taking place at 1:15-3:45 a.m. for me. I am a morning person. I adore getting up early. But 1:15 a.m. is VERY VERY early even for me!

I've decided to consider this a thrilling part of the adventure. So on Tuesday night I'll go to bed at 7:00, just as it's starting to get dark, and set my alarm for midnight. Then - ooh! - I'll wake up when the new day is barely beginning, and be ready to present an hour later. Most of the other panels and talks throughout the conference are at a more civilized time for me: the 1:00 p.m. in Sweden panels will be at 5 a.m. for me, and the 3 p.m. in Sweden panels will be at a most mellow 7 a.m. 

To add to the fun, the conference includes a Pippi Party one evening (well, one late morning for me):  Pippi Longstocking is one of Sweden's national treasures, and one of the the most remarkable girl characters in all of children's literature. The organizers even sent us Pippi candies mailed all the way from Sweden.

So today I'm clearing my desk the way I always do before a big trip. Time to cross off all those pesky little chores so I can set forth on my travel with nothing but eager anticipation of the joys that await me. Because tomorrow morning - VERY early! - I'll be arriving in Sweden!

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Keeping the Promises We Make to Ourselves

 I am writing this blog post today for one reason only.

Today is September 30th, and I promised myself I'd write four blog posts this month, and so far I've only written three. So today is the day I have to write blog post number four.

That is to say, I'm writing this blog post in order to keep a promise to myself.

Philosophers debate whether promises to oneself are actually binding. Some philosophers point out that if I make a promise to you, I don't have to keep it if you release me from it. If you say, "Claudia, I've decided that it's fine with me if you don't do that," then, Poof! I no longer have to do that. The promise no longer binds me. So if I make a promise with myself, why can't Claudia say to Claudia, "Dear Claudia, I, Claudia, have decided that it's fine with me if you don't do that." Why isn't this a parallel Poof! moment? No court of law is going to enforce a contract made between me, myself, and I. 

But other philosophers reply that a promise is a promise, and the entire point of promises is to bind. If promises MATTER, why don't promises I make to myself matter, too?

I'm here to say that for me, they do. I don't have a well-worked-out philosophical argument for this conclusion. Mine is more of a pragmatic claim: keeping the promises I make to myself has made a huge difference in my life. 

Now, these are small promises. Or, rather, promises to do small things. The two main promises I've made and (mostly) kept are: 1) write for an hour a day; 2) walk for an hour a day. Yes, I break these promises frequently, but I keep them more often than I break them, and I'm able to keep them precisely because they require only two hours out of twenty-four. But small things done faithfully produce astonishing results.

My literary hero, Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope, completed dozens of huge, sprawling novels by keeping the promise he made to himself to write a fixed number of words every morning. In a line I  have engraved upon my heart, he explained, "Nothing surely is so potent as a law that may not be disobeyed. It has the force of the water-drop that hollows the stone." Of course, he was the one who gave himself the law that required his daily writing stint. And I'm the one who has given me the law that requires mine. But obeying these laws produced 60 published books for me and made him one of the greatest figures of English literature. 

Keeping my small-but-mighty promises to myself has freed me to do a better job of keeping the promises I make to others. Somehow life has given me a considerable load of caregiving responsibilities for other people, and I'm not someone who is temperamentally suited to caregiving. (I joke that after dumping me, all the old boyfriends married nurses.) I would start to feel bitter about caregiving, and do it with an even more grudging heart, if I didn't keep these inviolable promises I've made to myself. But once I have kept my promises to me, I can be cheerfully generous for the rest of the day to others.

So here is my fourth blogpost for the month, dear friends. And now I can cross it off the month's to-do list with my trusty red pen and a relieved "Ta-dah!"

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Starting Over Again on the Autumnal Equinox

Many of my friends know that I like to start a new life on the first day of each month. A new commitment to fitness! To frugality! To astonishing work productivity! To using my leisure time to read heaps of wonderful books! The new life usually peters out after a few days, but I truly think I owe everything I've ever achieved to those few days of each month's glorious new life.

I'm in need of a new life right now, but it's hard for me to start one on some random day, despite familiar sayings that remind us that EVERY day can be "the first day of the rest of your life." But today is the autumnal equinox, which is a PERFECT day to start a new life. Autumn has always been my favorite season; perhaps it's yours, too. I adore the energy of back-to-school (even if back-to-school was so much less energizing this year, thanks to the pandemic). I envy Jewish friends who get to celebrate the start of a new calendar year with Rosh Hashanah in September. I welcome the briskness of cool mornings, so excellent for equally brisk walks.

But if autumn can feel like the season of new purpose, it's also the season of harvesting the fruits of spring's planting and summer's cultivation, and the season of preparation for winter's bare trees and blustery skies. I've recently seen quoted the sentiment that with its brilliant foliage, "Autumn shows us how beautiful it is to let things go." 

I'm in the processing of harvesting the fruits of spring's blissful writing of my first verse novel, which is now in copy-editing at my publisher, Holiday House, headed for fall 2021 publication. I'm launching my hour-a-day-of bliss on writing a second verse novel. My writing group has read the first twenty pages of the new project, and so far they like it even better than the last one, which early readers have declared to be my best book ever. So hooray for both of these things!

But I'm also letting go of a lot of hopes for how this year was going to turn out. It's been one of the hardest years of my personal/family life, and I'm now facing all the ways in which not only the coming years, but decades, will not be what I dreamed of for my loved ones, and so for me. And don't get me started on THE WORLD!!! I have yet to find a single person who thinks 2020 has been a good year for the world. But it's the year we've been given. As Tolkien wrote:

“I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo.

"So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

This is the time that has been given us.

So let us welcome autumn, which is, according to Keats, "the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness." It's the season of purpose, as I'm declaring it to be for me today, but also the season of harvest (sweet and bitter), and above all, the season of learning to let go. 

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Book Revisions: From "Impossible!" to "Done!" in a Week

A week ago I was sitting on my friend Leslie's deck, literally sobbing because I knew there was no way I could possibly salvage anything whatsoever from my beloved verse-novel-in-progress after reading the VERY long, VERY detailed, and VERY daunting list of comments from my VERY trustworthy editor. 

Given that the entire storyline was unmotivated, and central characters were too unlikable, and crucial scenes were implausible (plus several hundred other details were inconsistent, confusing, or downright annoying), if I were even to attempt revisions on this scale, there would truly be nothing left of the book as I had originally written it. Nothing at all. And this was the book I had written with the greatest joy and for which I had the highest hopes. Now joy had become misery! Now all hopes were cruelly dashed!

Well, after I sobbed for a while, I started to get some ideas for how I could make a few small-but-significant changes that would fix just about all of the problems my editor had identified. She and I talked on the phone the next day, and when I returned to my desk, I was not only encouraged, but exhilarated. 

I didn't quite LEAP into revision. My revision method is a very bad one, but it's the one that works for me. Ideally, one would fix the BIG things first, and then the middle-sized things, and then deal with the teensy-weensy things last. As I read somewhere, why would you spend a lot of time decorating a wall that is just going to be knocked down? It only makes sense to deal with major structural issues first, right?

My method, however, is the opposite. I have to do the easy things first just so that I can feel less hopeless about the whole project. For this book, my editor had flagged my overuse of several words: "back" (as in "back when we were still friends," "still" (as in, ditto), and "totally." To this I added "really." I did a global search for the overused words and eliminated a huge quantity. Progress was being made!

On I went, to more challenging queries, and then, once the work was 90 percent done, to the biggest story problems - which actually were fixed with just a few judicious cuts and additions. I typed up a four-page single-spaced memo explaining all the FABULOUSLY WONDERFUL changes I had made, and how I had fixed ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING! I attached manuscript, memo, and book calendar to my email, and then pressed SEND. 

From "Impossible!" to "Done!" in a week.

Oh, why do I make things so hard on myself? When this book (as yet untitled) is published, it will be my 62nd book for young readers. Wouldn't you think that by now I'd be used to the many rounds of revision that are necessary to produce a published book? Why can't I just skip over the dark night of the soul and trot straight to my computer and plop myself down to work? 

Well, maybe the dark night of the soul is just part of the process, too - maybe it's a necessary step that can't be omitted. When I write a book, the events in the story seem so real to me, as if this is "how it actually happened." Readjustment of this vision is bound to be . . . jarring. 

But still, here are some things I'm going to work harder at remembering:

1. When an editor (or journal reviewer) asks you to revise something, they really, truly want you to revise THIS, as opposed to ripping it up and starting all over again with something completely new. You are revising THIS book, or THIS article. If they wanted you to throw it away and start all over again, they would have said so. 

2. Editors (and journal reviewers) are on your side. You both want the exact same thing: the best possible book, or the best possible article. 

3. Just as books are written one page at a time, so revisions can be made one problem at a time. Just fix one thing, then another thing, and then another thing. And then twenty or thirty more. And you will be done! (Or at least, done for now.)

4. There is no one way to revise any more than there is one way to write. Find what works for YOU. Once in a while, it's permissible to rethink or refine, but for the most part, if you have a tried-and-true system, rely on it to work its miracle for you this time, too. 

5. Let yourself feel not only the joy, but the wonder, of watching small alterations produce huge effects. Savor the malleability of the clay of your words in your hands. Enjoy the kneading of the dough; marvel at its rising.

6. And when you finally press SEND, give yourself a treat. 

I see some peach pound cake in my future...


Thursday, September 3, 2020

Some Days (and Weeks, and Months, and Years) Are Just Very Hard

As the child character says in the opening line of Sara Pennypacker's delightful book Clementine, "I have had not so good of a week."

An excruciatingly painful legal case my family has been involved with for the past three years reached its conclusion. I thought this would bring me the relief of closure, but instead it made me all too aware of consequences we will all be living with for the rest of our days.

Then, on an extra-bad morning, my editor emailed me another round of revision notes for my forthcoming verse novel. I had already done two extensive rounds of revision, so I expected the suggested changes to be minor tweaks. But as I read her very long and detailed memo, it seemed as if every single aspect of the story remained problematic: the entire engine driving the plot was sputtering, crucial scenes were implausible, major characters were unlikable. There was NOTHING here that was salvageable at all. The problems in the book that I had written with such joy were simply un-fixable. 

To quote another delightful children's book: like Judith Viorst's Alexander, I was having "a terrible, horrible, no-good very bad day."

I started an email to my editor saying that I wanted to withdraw the book from publication, but instead sent her an email asking if we could set up a time to talk through the comments. "Of course!" she said. And when we did talk the next morning, I realized that all of the problems she raised were not only fixable, but could be fixed in fairly simple ways that will make the book I love that much stronger and more compelling. So hooray for that.

But I'm still sad. I'm sad about my family's heartaches. I'm sad about the state of the world right now (who isn't?). Too sad to work, I've been spending endless hours scrolling through Facebook posts. This is not a good activity for someone who is already depressed (oh, those poor teachers, parents, and students trying to figure out how to educate anybody in the middle of a pandemic!). So I retrieved the I-pad I had banished to the garage and started spending endless hours doing online Sudoku puzzles. This, unsurprisingly, did not improve my mood, either. 

Reading good books helped: Ann Patchett's The Dutch House and Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, and watching episodes of the French detective series Maigret, with English subtitles (I now have a huge crush on lead actor Bruno Cremer). So did walks with the dog, and phone calls and ZOOM chats with friends.

It may just be, however, that nothing will help all that much. My family situation is very sad. The state of the world right now is horrific. We're ALL sad. Sadness is appropriate and justified.

Still, I know the one thing that would lift my spirits is doing the work that I love, which is writing. Even though I feel too sad to write, I know with great certainty that if I could force myself to work on these verse novel revisions for just HALF AN HOUR, it would add a tiny bit of joy to this hard week. Writing this blog post is already giving me an itty-bitty surge of satisfaction: at least I'm doing this. 

So I'm going to try. After I publish this post, I'm going to take a shower, put in a load of laundry (another spirit-booster), pull up my manuscript on the screen, turn over my half-hour glass (the one I use when a full hour is too daunting), and begin fixing the most easily fixable things.

Some days (and weeks, and months, and years) are just very hard. But we might as well do what we can to make them a little bit better. 

Friday, August 28, 2020

My Best Writing Ritual of All

Most writers I know love rituals that summon the muses for the act of creation.

My main one is writing for an hour a day, timed with my beautiful, hand-crafted, cherrywood hourglass, while drinking Swiss Miss hot chocolate in a mug given to me years ago by a writer friend. Every once in a while, I amp up the ritual by lighting one of the deliciously scented candles that a high school friend sells in her Etsy shop, and plopping a dollop of Cool Whip into my mug of Swiss Miss. This is pretty much the system that has allowed me to write sixty books over the past forty years. It's an excellent system. I recommend it highly!

But writing the VERY FIRST LINE of a new book, in my view, is such a momentous occasion that it calls for something more. So in recent years I've developed the practice of writing the first line of each new book someplace special - not just lying on the little couch in my upstairs study, but at a cafe with a writer friend, or sitting in the lobby of a fancy hotel, or in a friend's sunroom (yes, I'm talking about you, dearest Jeannie!).

For the past few weeks I've been groping toward another verse novel, as I loved the writing of the last one (my first attempt at the form) so much that I'm yearning to try a second one. I have over 20 pages of closely written handwritten notes on every aspect of the story. Groping - and note-taking - and outlining - and planning - only go far, however. Sooner or later comes the fateful moment when I have to start the actual writing itself: facing the first page, which means the first paragraph, which means the very first line.

So this morning I drove myself to the Denver Botanic Gardens, one of my favorite places on earth. It's now reopened from its COVID closure, with timed-entry tickets to be ordered in advance online, masks worn constantly unless eating or drinking, social distancing maintained. Would it still be fun, I asked myself, with all these restrictions? The answer: YES!

The gardens are so beautiful! The weather was cool and sunny after weeks of heat and smoky skies. I found a bench where I'd be undisturbed.

There I pulled out my ancient clipboard-without-a-clip, pad of narrow-ruled white paper, and Pilot P-500 pen.

Then I wrote the title of the first poem. And the first line of the first poem. And the rest of the first poem, and then the whole poem after that.

I won't share these here. They are too new and tender for sharing, and there is no guarantee they will survive all the future rounds of revision to make their way into the final, published book (if there even is a final, published book - one never knows). 

Pleased with my progress, I wandered over to a second bench.

I wrote another few poems, for a few more pages.

Time for lunch! I treated myself to a sandwich and salad at the charming bistro by the Monet's Water Lilies pond (just about all the tables and chairs have been removed for COVID precautions, but it was easy to find a solitary, shaded bench with a good view. I was in the mood for celebrating. 

Even though I've only written a few pages so far, the book is BEGUN. Now I can go back to writing on my couch with my hourglass and mug of Swiss Miss. One by one, pages will accumulate. Characters will surprise me. Storylines will unfold. 

Whenever I look back at that first page, I will remember: I wrote this in the Denver Botanic Gardens on a perfect late-August day.... And that is a memory to cherish. 

Monday, August 24, 2020

Tip for Writers (and Other Humans): You See More If You Look

This past weekend I attended (via ZOOM) a workshop hosted by the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators and presented by local author Ellen Orleans: "Bringing the Outdoors into Children's Books: Interactive Nature Activities for Writers and Illustrators."

The ZOOM session was wonderful, but the best part of the workshop was the homework Ellen assigned us to do in advance. Our task was to take a short walk and complete one of three sets of activities: 1. Make It Fresh with New Discoveries; 2. Make It Alive with Sensory Details; and 3. Make It Specific with Nature Names.

I love homework, anyway, and writing homework is my favorite kind of homework. Ellen's assignment might have been my favorite homework EVER.

Leaving the dog at home for a (pleasant!) change, I strolled around the cluster of townhouses where I live, and where I walk with Tanky three times every single day. But this time I was on a mission, to "note what surprises, astonishes, or is a new discovery for you."

In the past, I had truly never noticed ANYTHING. My walking time is my thinking time, my planning time, my time for making long to-do lists in my head. 

So now, charged with the challenge of noticing, I had a new discovery literally every few steps.

Look! A tiny plant valiantly growing from a crack in a boulder!

Look! Pewter-colored lichen! Rust-colored lichen! Tiny golden leaves as harbingers of autumn!

Then I remembered that ages ago I had downloaded a free nature-identifying app on my phone that I had never bothered to use, called Seek. So I started Seeking. I'd snap a picture of a flower, and now I'd know its name: Dotted Gayflower!

I'd find a berry and wonder if I should try tasting it as part of my new sensory immersion in nature, or if that might occasion a painful death from poisoning. But Seek would assure me this was a Chokecherry. 

So into my mouth I popped one.

At the ZOOM workshop later in the day, one fellow author commented on the sheer power just of the question Ellen had posed for us. Just by being asked, "What astonished you?" Katherine set off on her walk with this expectation: "I am ready to be astonished."

I was ready to be astonished, too, and precisely for this reason I WAS astonished: partly (in a shamefaced way) by all I had missed on my daily walks for the past ten years, but also by how thrilling it was to be able to name even a tiny weed growing in oblivion at the edge of a sidewalk - and in seeking for its name, truly SEEING it for the first time. 

Will I make use of the nature workshop in my writing? I doubt I'll ever have one of my characters exclaim  over a "dotted gayflower" in any scene in one of my books. But I can see how my new knowledge of the difference between a spruce and a pine (I truly knew nothing at all about the natural world before!!) might add specificity to some future description. 

Most of all I just learned - what I guess I already knew, but constantly need to make myself remember - that I am vastly more likely to SEE if I take the trouble to LOOK. LOOKING at the world with an attentive, expectant gaze vastly increases my chance of making small, but wonderful, discoveries. 

Thank you, Ellen Orleans, and thank you, SCBWI organizers, and thank you, beautiful, glorious, astonishing world.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

A Book-Shaped Hole in My Heart

Life progress report: I finished a full draft of my verse novel. I completed a round of extensive revisions from brilliant writing-group comments. I saw a career record broken in the speed with which it was read by my agent, sent on to my editor, and accepted for publication. It's now on my editor's desk awaiting her unfailingly mega-brilliant comments. 


Or rather. . . hooray? I loved writing that book more than I've ever loved writing anything. Every single hour I spent working on it was an hour of bliss, bliss that permeated the other twenty-three hours of each day, casting a soft radiance over months of COVID isolation and online-teaching frustration.

Now I miss that hour a day of bliss. 

Now I have a book-shaped hole in my heart.

I do have plenty of other projects I can do, of course.  Reviewer comments have arrived on my desk for a children's lit article I submitted back in April. Reviewer Number Two, in particular, suggested plenty for me to do. Here is just ONE ACTUAL REPRESENTATIVE QUOTE from the review, in case any other scholars out there have ever felt discouraged by a reviewer's response to their work: "One of the key issues the author should address in revision is the essay's overall lack of purpose and cohesion" (!!!!!!). 

For some reason, these comments are not giving me a blissful feeling. 

I have two other academic assignments in the works, and an idea for a picture book biography about somebody I adore, but whom six-year-old readers are exceedingly unlikely to care about. I should also do a bunch of pesky promotional stuff to support my two poor little books that are coming out this year in the middle of a pandemic.

These projects have their appeal, but even the picture book biography (where the text would be only a thousand words max) isn't really going to fill a book-shaped hole in my heart. In fact, I'm coming to realize that this hole in my heart has an oddly specific shape: it's not only a book-shaped hole, it's a verse-novel-shaped hole.

It's well known that a hole in one's heart can't just be stuffed full with any old thing. A hole in your heart caused by an absence of love can't be filled by more gin-and-tonics. A hole in your heart caused by a dearth of meaning in your life can't be filled by more Pepperidge Farm apple turnovers. (Even though gin-and-topics and apple turnovers are both highly excellent things.) I don't think there is any hole in anybody's heart that has ever been filled by wrestling with comments from Reviewer Number Two!

So, sad but true, I guess I'm going to have to fill this verse-novel-shaped hole in my heart by groping toward, yes, another verse novel. 

Or actually, not sad but true, but happy and true.

Sometimes, after all, a true thing can be a happy thing, too.

Friday, August 7, 2020

Dealing with Drudgery

Years ago, the chair of the Philosophy Department asked me to serve on a particularly dreary committee. I hesitated: "It sounds like so much drudgery!" Eager to have me - or anyone, actually - take on this chore, he hastened to assure me, "But you're so good at drudgery!"

Indeed, once upon a time I was "good at drudgery" - by which I mean "dispatching distasteful tasks with brisk efficiency." But lately I've become . . . not so good. Each morning I dutifully set down various Loathsome Tasks (LT's) onto the day's to-do list. But at nightfall, those LTs remain undone, and with a sigh, I copy them onto the to-do list for tomorrow.

My current dilemma regarding how to deal with drudgery is this: 

On the one hand, the most sure-fire way to cross off LTs is to leap into doing them as soon as I wake up. But there is only one first, best hour of the day. If I give it to LTs, I don't give it to the work I really care about, which for me is writing. One might think that the relief of immediately knocking off an LT would generate momentum for accomplishing more pleasurable tasks for the rest of the day. But one would think wrong. Even though I love writing, and proclaim each writing hour to be an Hour of Bliss, writing is nonetheless daunting. Strength must be summoned - strength squandered instead on LTs.

But on the other hand, if I give the first, best hour of the day to writing, I'm already so thrilled with the day's productivity that I feel no need to accomplish anything else. "Drudgery can wait!" I chortle to myself. So drudgery waits. And waits. And waits.

It doesn't work to give myself rewards, either. I'm not very good at delayed gratification. Besides, no additional reward will give me any greater happiness than the reward I'd get simply from crossing one more LT off that darned list.

So here is my new plan. (I love trying out different plans!) 

The first, best hour of the day goes to writing, from 5:00-6:00 a.m.

Then: walk, shower, breakfast, teeth-brushing.

Then RESTART the day: declare that the earlier Hour of Bliss was just a extra credit hour, not part of the work day proper. After all, I didn't HAVE to get up at 5:00. A lot of people don't get up 5:00. Such an early hour, according to proverb, belongs rightly to the early bird, to use as she will. But now, at 8:00, the REAL and OFFICIAL work day is beginning. 

Then: set a timer (or turn over my hourglass) and devote the first, fresh hour of the REAL work day to the most urgent of the many Loathsome Tasks facing me. Ta-dah!

"Only ONE hour?" you scoff. "How much drudging can get drudged in one puny, pathetic, pitiful hour?" 

The answer is: more than you would think. The key to accomplishing ANY task is first to face it. Facing it is truly 90 percent of the battle. And it's easier to face a task if I promise myself I only have to devote one short hour to it. Ah, but once the task is faced, I can usually go longer than an hour - maybe even two! Enough to cross off several LT's, especially as many of the tasks on which I've been procrastinating FOR WEEKS are shamefully tiny - some so tiny that it practically takes as long to write them on the to-do list than it would take simply to do them.

So: one Hour of Bliss before the real day begins, and then an Hour of Drudgery to start the real day. 

And then: the reward of feeling obnoxiously smug and self-satisfied till the day's end.  

Friday, July 24, 2020

Seek and Ye Shall Find (Magic)

Today is the final day of the intensive six-week Advanced Creative Writing Tutorial I've been teaching for the graduate programs in children's literature at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia. I was heartbroken when the entire summer term had to move online this year because of you-know-what. For there is a rare and wondrous magic in being there on the beautiful Hollins campus, surrounded by fabulously creative colleagues and students, all committed to growing in our craft as children's book writers and illustrators.

I pledged to myself (as I shared in an earlier post) that I was going to do all I could to make the Hollins magic happen anyway.

And guess what? It did.

I saw my students blossoming as they produced thick stacks of truly amazing pages on their works-in-progress. I attended talks that were stimulating and inspiring. I took advantage of the brilliance of this summer's writer-in-(virtual)-residence, Anika Denise, to get her insights into a possible idea I have for a picture book biography.

Most of all, I channeled my students' creative productivity and hurled myself into revisions on my own work-in-progress, my first-ever verse novel, tentatively titled The Lost Language. I pretended that I was at "my table" in the Hollins library.
Or tucked up in the reading and writing loft at the top of this beckoning staircase.

And it worked!

I finished my revisions, and I had the strange feeling that there was something . . . special . . . about this book, that I had made some writing magic happen here that I had never made happen before.

I had a writer friend read the revised book. She said, "In my opinion, this is the best book you've ever written. I think it's absolutely beautiful." I sent it my agent that evening, and he replied before breakfast the next morning (something that never ever happens in the world of New York publishing): "Oh my, this is so beautiful."

The magic . . . happened.

But I realized that it only happened because I went in search of the magic. I believed that the magic could happen if I put my whole heart into making it happen.

In other words, my book didn't revise itself. I revised it, trying to make something as beautiful as what my students and colleagues were making. It was my seeking the magic that led me to find it.

I do believe that if we seek, we will find - or at least vastly increase the chances of our finding!

One of my favorite poets, Sara Teasdale, whom I adored as an adolescent, wrote this:

Stars over snow
And in the west a planet
Swinging below a star -
Look for a lovely thing and you will find it,
It is not far.
It never will be far.

To this I will add:

Look for magic and you will find it,
It is not far.
It never will be far.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

When Your Students Are Smarter Than You Are

When I first became a university philosophy professor, almost thirty years ago, by the end of the first week of my first graduate seminar I had realized two things: 1) Some of the students in the class were smarter than I was; and 2) Some of the students in the class knew more stuff about philosophy than I did. 

This was not a situation to inspire a feeling of confidence, let alone competence, in a fledgling professor.

At first I felt that this whole new career had been a terrible mistake. But then I drew comfort from a bumper sticker I had seen: "I may be slow, but I'm ahead of you." There was only one sense in which I was ahead of these smarter and more knowledgeable students, but it was not an unimportant one: I was the teacher and they weren't, simply because I had completed a Ph.D. degree and they hadn't yet.

Being Dr. Claudia didn't mean much in terms of my IQ or store of knowledge, but it did mean that I had jumped through a fairly daunting hoop, so I now knew something about how to be a successful hoop-jumper. I had learned perseverance, and the art of patient plodding, and most of all, I had practice in defeating the demons of self-doubt.

So I think I became a decent enough teacher and also became, if I may say so, an awfully good mentor. My specialty was helping students who were trying to write their dissertations JUST GET THE DARNED THING DONE. It doesn't sound like a lot, but believe me, it is.

Fast forward three decades. I'm now teaching an Advanced Creative Writing Tutorial in children's literature at Hollins University (pictured above because I love the campus so even though the program had to be moved online this COVID summer). I quickly realized that some of my students are better writers than I am, more insightful critics than I am, and (this one is especially sobering) better teachers than I am (I know this because the students are all leading craft workshops).

Once again, I could call on the mantra from that reassuring bumper sticker: "I may be slow, but I'm ahead of you." After all, I've had forty years of publishing experience, with sixty books to my credit. So I can say THAT about myself.

But this time I'm drawing comfort from a different source. My book group recently read The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, but actually written by Douglas Carlton Abrams, who spent a fascinating week with these two deeply spiritual human beings and shared their conversations. In one chapter, Archbishop Tutu says that God uses each of us in our own way: "even if you are not the best one, you may be the one . . . who is there." This leads Abrams to reflect on why, out of all the (many more qualified) journalists in the world, he should be the one conducting the interviews with these two great men. He then decides, "whether I was the best one or not, I was the one who was there."

My current students could each teach their own wonderful creative writing course, and if enrolled in it, I would learn a great deal. But for this particular course, I happen to be the teacher - not because I'm smarter or better or older or wiser-  but just because I'm here: on the Hollins payroll, given the privilege of teaching a class in partnership with these wonderful writers.

Sometimes it's enough just to be the one who's here.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

The Post-Book-Revision Blues

For the past few weeks I've been crazed with revising my work-in-progress verse novel from extensive comments given to me on the earlier draft from my writing group, the Writing Roosters.

I wrote the book during the COVID quarantine in what I called my "Hour of Bliss" every day.
It was such a huge gift that I gave to myself to be in the presence of this story, watching it unfold poem by poem.

The revisions were blissful, too, but in a different way. Now I wasn't lying on my couch (and how I love lying on a couch); instead, I was hunched over my computer. And I wasn't working on this for an hour a day, but for two hours, or even three (which is a HUGE amount of time spent writing for me). I was a writer obsessed.

There is something so addictive for me about revision. I'm able to pace myself in a more leisurely way for the initial creation of a story. But once I have a good, clear plan for revision, with a good, clear sense of EXACTLY what has to be done, all I want is to DO IT, DO IT, DO IT! I stop each day only because revision is such intense work that my poor brain is exhausted.

I also wanted to finish the revisions during this six-week summer term of the graduate programs in children's literature at Hollins University where I'm currently teaching (online this year, alas). Even online, Hollins has an atmosphere of such heightened creativity that it makes me wild to engage in my own creative work.

So for the past month, I revised, and I revised, thrilled at the huge improvements I was making on every single page!

And then... and then it was done.

I had done all I knew how to do.

The book is now in the hands of another writer friend who will give it a final read before I send it to my agent to see what he thinks.

I should be relieved. And proud. And amazed by all I accomplished.

And I am. Sort of. But mostly I'm feeling . . . . empty. The project that occupied so much of my joyous labor is out in the world in its own right now. I have no new project under way and will need considerable pondering and musing and groping to find one. So instead of three hours of revision bliss a day, I have three hours of catching up on everything I left undone while in my revision vortext.

Also, now comes the most painful part by far of the writing life.

I adore the initial drafting of a book because, according to Jane Smiley, "Every first draft is perfect because all the first draft has to do is exist. It's perfect in its existence. The only way it could be imperfect would be to NOT exist."

I adore revising a book because, according to ME, all a revision has to do is to be better than the previous draft - well, VASTLY better, but believe me, my most recent draft is VASTLY better than the one the Roosters read (precisely because of their Rooster insights).

But at some point, if I want my book to be published, I have to produce a draft that not only exists, and is vastly better than previous drafts, but is actually GOOD. And this is something much harder to achieve. It is something only partially in my control.

Now I have to send my sweet book, the product of so many hours of love and bliss, out into the world, and what the world thinks about it matters now.

This is scary. Or actually, terrifying.

I know the way to deal with this terror. You can probably guess what I'm going to say.

The only way to hold onto the bliss of writing and revising that I experienced with this book is to start writing and revising the next one.

For now, though, I'm going to honor my need to grieve that THESE blissful weeks and months have come to an end.

Oh, little book, how I loved writing you! And revising you!

Oh, little book, I hope the world receives you kindly.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Peaceful, Pleasant, Productive Plodding

I have a long to-do list every day right now. Maybe you do, too.

I'm teaching an intensive Advanced Creative Writing Tutorial for the MFA program in children's literature at Hollins University in Roanoke (which had to switch to an online program this summer for the obvious sad reason). I also had to take over an online children's lit course for the University of Denver when the designated instructor was hospitalized for what turned out not to be COVID. Plus, I'm WILD to be doing revisions on my verse novel. Plus, there is Real Life which make its own demands on me.

So I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed right now.

One strategy I have for feeling less overwhelmed with work and life projects is to break down tasks into their smallest elements, so that each one is less daunting to face. But the flip side of this is that I get a much longer to-do list. Instead of a short list of huge tasks, I now have a huge list of short tasks.

For example, I have six students in my Hollins course. I know, six students doesn't sound like a lot, but they are all producing substantial chunks of their work-in-progress manuscripts each week, and posting critiques on each other's work, and I am trying to read and process all of it. So I have to read five critiques on six different manuscripts, or thirty critiques total, where I want to take notes on each one, so that I'll see patterns and know what to focus on in our twice-a-week ZOOM classes. Thirty of anything is a lot of that thing! Plus some students submit two different projects for the week - a chapter, say, plus a detailed outline; or a new chapter plus a revision of a previous one. The number of tasks on my to-do list continues to mount!

Plus, we have discussion boards to marvel at two chapters a week of editor Cheryl Klein's mega-brilliant (but also overwhelming) book The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults, and I want to comment on everybody's posts there. Plus I am doing a one-on-one ZOOM session with each student each week.

My new way of handling an overwhelming to-do list is what, with my fondness for alliteration, I'm calling Peaceful, Pleasant, Productive Plodding. After all, I do have all day to do the 42 items on today's list. (Admittedly, breakfast, lunch, and dinner are three of them; one long walk and two tiny walks with the dog are another three; putting out the trash and recycling made the list, too, as two separate items as they involve two separate collection processes, though I exercised restraint in NOT making a separate item on the to-do list for putting the cans away afterward). So I just need to do one item after another after another, calmly, steadily, no rushing, no fussing.

Inch by inch, row by row.

Take one step, then another.

First one foot, then the other.

Occasionally I try to organize my day like a math problem. If I have 42 tasks and seven hours, that means six tasks an hour (and, oh, how satisfying it is when some tasks, like sending one short email, take less than a minute). But the math-problem approach can make me feel frantic and frazzled, with my eye constantly on the clock, and so NOT on the task at hand.

In contrast, Peaceful, Pleasant, Productive Plodding generates much less stress. I just do one thing, then another thing, then another thing. And then another thing. And then another thing.

In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard quotes Goethe as saying, "Do not hurry. Do not rest." That is the spirit of my PPPP Plodding.

"Ah," you say, "but what if I do all that PPP Plodding, and my work STILL doesn't get done?"

Well, then, it doesn't get done. Not all items get crossed off all to-do lists every single day. But if PPP Plodding doesn't get them crossed off, a frantic, frazzled frenzy is unlikely to score any better, and it will come with a lot more wear-and-tear on your nervous system,

"But don't I need to rest a LITTLE bit?" you wail.

Clever girl that I am, I build episodes of rest into the list (e.g., breakfast, lunch, and dinner - and time with my Duolingo French app on my phone - and time to sit and luxuriate in my church's summer women's book group).

Oh, plodding, I have become such a fan of you! My day has been so peaceful, pleasant, and productive so far, the best kind of day.

And now I can cross #29 write blog post off the list, too.

Friday, June 19, 2020

The Ultimate Author Betrayal: Falling in Love with a NEW PEN

For as long as I can remember, I have loved Pilot Razor Point Fine-Tipped Black Marker Pens.

I have written almost all of my sixty books with Pilot Razor Point Fine-Tipped Black Marker Pens, on narrow-ruled, white, 8 1/2" paper (no margins!), leaning on the clipboard-missing-a-clip that I've had since college, while drinking Swiss Miss hot chocolate.

In every school visit for decades I would mention my deep and abiding love for these pens as part of my presentation. I'm not sure my young audience really needed to know this, but I wanted to share with them the JOY of writing, and part of the joy for me comes from these creative rituals.

I vowed that I would never ever EVER give my love to another pen.

But then . . .  a year ago, when I started my new little notebook for the year, buying the same brand I had always bought, this time the paper must have been a little bit thinner and cheaper, because, to my horror, my pen LEAKED THROUGH TO THE BACK OF THE PAGE. This would not do. I have to be able to write on both sides of the page - I just have to!

I happened to have in my possession another pen that had somehow come my way, a Pilot 5-500 extra-fine marker pen. Desperate, I gave it a chance to see how it would do at writing my goals and dreams in the new little notebook.

 It did NOT leak through to the back of the page. And its lines were SO thin and and SO fine, SO refined and delicate and elegant, that now the lines of the old pen seemed crude and coarse, garish and vulgar.

And so it happened: I fell in love with a new pen. This is now the pen I crave and cherish.
I feel terrible for my old pens, languishing in their boxes, forgotten. I remember a song my sister learned in kindergarten (which I've never been able to find by Googling), which began: "Dolly's lying on the closet floor / since my new bear came." I can tweak the lyrics to be: "Pilot Razor Point pens are lying in the drawer / since my Pilot P-500s came." This isn't as catchy, but it's just as true.

So I have a new favorite pen now. I just do.

 I was about to say that I've callously moved on, but that isn't right. I've sorrowfully moved on with a heart full of tender memories. I will always remember the old Pilot Razor Point Fine-Tipped Black Marker Pens with deep affection for their faithfulness through all the years we had together. And at the end of my writing days, it will be the Pilot Razor Point Fine-Tipped Black Marker Pens I remember most.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Trying to Make (Teaching and Writing) Magic Happen from Afar

Today, if COVID-19 hadn't happened, I would have been in Roanoke, Virginia, getting ready to start teaching the Advanced Creative Writing Tutorial for the Graduate Programs in Children's Literature at Hollins University for their summer term that begins tomorrow. Instead I'm here in Boulder, Colorado, getting ready to teach the same course online.

After teaching online this past spring for University of Colorado (philosophy) and University of Denver (children's literature), I've made my peace with teaching online. But, oh, giving up the in-person Hollins experience is hard. Teaching at Hollins isn't just about what happens with the students in the classroom. It's about being fully immersed into the life of this truly enchanted place, teaching what you love most in the world to students who want most in the world to learn it. To enter Hollins, I once said, is to "enter the portals of paradise."

This summer there will be no early morning walks past pastures where horses are out to graze.
There will be no writing at "my" table in the beautiful Hollins library.
Or writing in a rocking chair on a veranda.
Or eating divine cafeteria breakfasts with made-to-order omelets. Or walking home from stimulating evening talks past trees festooned with fireflies (we don't have fireflies in Colorado). Or encountering children's book friends hiding in the shrubbery.


But the director of our program, my dear friend Lisa Rowe Fraustino, has urged us to still make as much of the Hollins magic happen as we can, and I'm going to try with all my might to do that.

I'm going to lavish love on my six students, adding individual one-on-one ZOOM meetings each week to our class ZOOMs and Moodle discussion boards. I'm going to "attend" every ZOOMed evening talk and savor every morsel of wisdom. I'm going to immerse myself in revising my verse novel and try to vary and beautify my writing spaces right here in my house. I'm going to walk with my favorite early-morning Hollins walking partner, me in Colorado and her in South Carolina, while chatting on our cell phones. I'm even going to make myself omelets-to-order.

I am committed to making as much magic as I can this summer for my students and for me.

And maybe next summer I'll be there in Roanoke once again, with the fireflies.

Friday, June 12, 2020

The Exhilaration of Brilliant Critique

Ever since the COVID-19 lockdown began, I've been working on a verse novel (currently titled The Lost Language) about two sixth-grade best friends who are trying to save one of the world's hundreds of endangered languages from going extinct. By devoting an hour a day to writing it (what I dubbed my "hour of bliss"), I finished a full first draft in around two months.

The book came pouring out of me with such joy in creation that I had no idea if it was wonderful or terrible, or a mix of both, and in which case, which were the wonderful parts and which were the terrible parts? The only way I've ever known how to answer such questions is by giving the draft to my writing group for their review. So last week I sent what I had of The Lost Language to the Writing Roosters, and awaited their verdict with the usual terror and trepidation.

We met Wednesday night, via ZOOM, and this is what they said:

"I love it!"
"I love it, too!"
"I really do!"
"This is my favorite of your books, and I love all of them!"
"I could totally hear Claudia!" (which would not necessarily be a good feature in all books by all authors, but is probably a good feature in this book by Claudia)

Whew! Did this mean the book was ready to be rushed off to my agent?

Um - that would be a no.

For here is what else they said.

The two main relationships in the book are between my main character (Betsy) and her best friend (Lizard) and between Betsy and her mother. The Roosters had a lot of problems with the relationship between Betsy and Lizard, mainly because they didn't like Lizard and couldn't see why Betsy wanted to be friends with her.

They also had a lot of problems with the relationship between Betsy and her mother, mainly because they didn't like the mother and couldn't see why Betsy's perfectly lovely father ever married her.

They also had a lot of problems with the relationship between Betsy's mother and Lizard, who (unlikable as they both are) also don't like each other.

They liked the idea of two kids trying to save a dying language, but they needed more motivation for these particular two kids to be so invested in the project.

One of the climax scenes turns on a betrayal of Betsy by Lizard; they want that totally overhauled.

There is a story line involving Lizard and her father that didn't work for anybody.

They needed more interiority from Betsy, to see her evolution more clearly from the inside.

They identified some problems with pacing.

They weren't sure about certain aspects of the verse format.

And a whole bunch of other things that are in my SEVEN PAGES of handwritten notes.

Am I discouraged?


I am exhilarated.

For here is the weird and wonderful thing about writing. I wrote a book that four of my fellow writers LOVED despite finding fault with just about every single aspect of it. That seems impossible, but it's completely true.

 And guess what? All these things they want fixed are FIXABLE.


By ME!

So tomorrow morning I'm going to wake up early for the first of many daily hours of bliss spent happily rewriting. Thank you, beloved Roosters!

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Falling in Love with What You Once Hated

It's the well-worn trope of romantic comedy, of course. Boy meets girl, boy and girl hate each other, then boy and girl end up falling in love. One of my middle-grade books from many years ago, Dinah in Love, had this very story line, which netted me the single best line in any review for any book of my long career. Deborah Stevenson wrote, in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, "It's predictable, sure, but so were Tracy and Hepburn."

I'm here to report that this 180-degree change of heart can happen not only in love life, but in work life as well. 

I signed up to teach an online children's literature course this past spring. I hated the course before it even began. At that point I was already hating anything that was online, as the COVID crisis had just erupted. Furthermore, I hadn't realized that for this particular program, all instructors had to teach every course in the exact same way as designed by the course creator. The course, in fact, was in a "container" that couldn't be tampered with by individual instructors. My role was limited to participation in the course's endless discussion boards and grading the course's endless assignments. Worse, I knew that I couldn't have done most of the assignments myself as they required enormous tech expertise that I don't have. The students had to make graphs on the computer and post them on the course website - and attractive, eye-catching posters - and video presentations - and PowerPoints with voice narration. So I was not only a glorified grader, but a grader who couldn't even do the work she was supposed to be grading. 

Here's what I said about the course two weeks in: "I HATE THIS COURSE! WHY OH WHY DID I SAY I'D DO THIS? REMIND ME NEVER EVER TO DO THIS AGAIN!" I said that the one good thing about the whole dismal experience was that I had acquired needed clarity about my career from this point forward because now I knew for SURE that I never wanted to teach ANYWHERE ever AGAIN!

Well, the course ended this past week. I turned in the final grades yesterday. And guess what?

I ended up loving the course.

I learned so much from spending time in that "container" brilliantly constructed by a veteran educator. I managed to add some content of my own by sending out a weekly "Announcement" post to the students (which some of them didn't read but many of them did). The conversations on the discussion boards were amazing, and through them I formed a close relationship with many of the students - all of whom were dazzlingly brilliant. The last week of the course became a total love fest, complete with weepy farewells, which is what I think teaching should be.

Best of all, the course design prioritized the importance of diversity in children's literature. We spent a full week of the ten weeks of the quarter analyzing the sobering statistics on the lack of diversity in children's literature from the Cooperative Center for Children's Books (CCBD) at the University of Wisconsin. We engaged in heart-felt dialogue about why it is so important that books for children be both "mirrors" and "windows," to use the metaphor made famous by Rudine Sims Bishop. The assigned books for the course made up a wonderfully diverse list, from Yasmin the Explorer by Saadia Faruqi to Makoons by Louise Erdrich to the stunning Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds. When the students wrote their final posts about their biggest "take-aways" from the course, over and over they wrote, "We need diverse books! Diversity matters! I am going to read more diverse books myself! I am going to give these books as gifts to children I love! I want the world to change so that all children can see themselves in books!  I want the world to change so that readers can see the humanity of all children in books!"

This was the perfect course for me to be teaching, and for the students to be taking, during this time of protest over the never-to-be-forgotten death of George Floyd. We all felt that reading these diverse books, and talking about them together, was work of supreme importance. I felt so grateful that I could be part of  this work. I can't take credit for designing this course - that credit goes to the incomparable Denise Vega - but I can take credit for teaching it - and, I believe, teaching it well.

So: sometimes you can hate something and then come to love it. My blindingly clear certainty that I WILL NEVER EVER TEACH ANYWHERE EVER AGAIN has been replaced with an openness to teach anywhere, any time. Or just . . . openness, more generally: openness to whatever opportunities come my way to make my own small difference in the world, when and where I can.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The Writing of Any Book Poses Some Insoluble Problem All Its Own

I'm back to loving my verse-novel-in-progress, hugging myself with joy at every new poem added to the growing stack of pages. It isn't that I found a way to solve the chief problem with the book that was giving me those intense pangs of doubt. I just found a way to resign myself to it.

For I've come to believe that every book - at least every book I write - but maybe any book anybody writes - poses some dire problem for its author that simply can't be solved.

Take my book How Oliver Olson Changed the World. On a school visit I saw a bulletin-board display of student work for the following assignment: Give an idea for how YOU would change the world. Ooh, this could be a book! I knew right away that my main character would have to be the kid in the class least likely to change the world, right? I decided to make him an unlikely world changer because of his over-protective "helicopter" parents, from whom he'd have to break free somehow in the process of engaging with this particular assignment.

But here's the insoluble problem: given that the whole story is about a passive, inert, non-world changing kid who FINALLY comes into his own, my main character has to be a passive, inert, non-world changing kid. But a classic weakness in manuscripts is that the main character is passive, not active. We want to read about someone who drives the action of his own story. So from minute one my book had a fatal, unfixable flaw.

All I could do was write the book anyway.

My book Zero Tolerance is about a goody-good girl who has never been in trouble until the day she grabs her mother's lunch bag by mistake, a bag that happens to contain a knife to cut her mother's apple. Dutiful, docile girl that she is, she instantly turns the knife in to the lunchroom lady, only to find herself facing mandatory expulsion under her school's zero tolerance for drugs and weapons. The fatal, unfixable flaw in this one: Sierra is initially self-righteous enough that she doesn't engage the reader's sympathy, but she has to be this way so that she can come to question her previous unthinking acceptance of adult authority.

All I could do was write the book anyway.

In my current work-in-progress, about two sixth graders trying to save one of the world's hundreds of endangered languages, my main character faces two extremely serious crises, both in her family and in her deepest friendship, and now has to find a new language for talking about things she has long avoided talking about. What made me turn against the book was that I dreaded writing a bunch of poems with people talking, talking, talking, especially since the book is first person, so the main character was already doing all this talking, talking, talking. Talking heads - ick! Talking heads that won't stop talking - double ick! Talking heads that won't stop talking about how important it is to talk - triple ick!

But. . . this IS a book about language, after all - about losing languages - about trying to get them back -  about groping toward finding your own language to say what has to be said. It's HAS to have a lot of talking about talking.

So all I can do is write the book anyway.

EVERY book has an insoluble problem. So what?

All we can do as authors is try to add enough compensating wonderfulness that readers will read it - and maybe even love it - anyway.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Defeating the Demons of Doubt

For several weeks now, I have been working on a book I love.

I've been working on it for an hour a day, dubbing this my "Hour of Bliss." To amp up the bliss, I have my beloved hourglass at the ready - and my fail-proof Swiss Miss hot chocolate - and a velvety soft blanket to spread over me as I lie on the couch - and even beautiful flowers to inspire me to greater beauty in my prose.

I posted this picture a few weeks ago, as I was starting to gather my ideas for this book, but I'll post it again here as the "Before" picture of writing bliss.
The book I'm working on is a verse novel, a form I've been yearning to try: a novel told entirely in poetry (though admittedly much of the poetry is on the prosy side).

Its central idea is one I've been drawn to for years: two sixth-grade friends discover that hundreds of languages worldwide are going extinct, and they decide to try to save one: to learn what they can of it, so that, because of them, there will be at least two more speakers of this endangered language on the planet. It's a doomed dream, of course, because having two sixth-grade kids in Colorado learn a few words of a dying language on the other side of the globe is hardly going to bring it back to life again. But I LOVE doomed dreams - who doesn't? And their friendship is also dying - and much of what the protagonist believes about her family turns out not to be true.... The book will be a beautiful metaphor on loss... and on finding the right language to make sense of that loss.

In short, this book, tentatively titled The Lost Language, will be a PROFOUND AND IMPORTANT BOOK FOR THE AGES!! WRITTEN BY ME!!!

For the first two weeks, I was besotted with the book and everything about it. I love writing poems, and when I read my poems, I think they are wonderful. (In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says all poets are like this: "they dearly love their own poems, and are fond of them as though they were their children." Oh, that Aristotle was right about so many things!)

But now, almost a month into the writing, I don't think the book is profound or important.

I cringe at the poems, if you can even call them "poems" at all.

Would two kids really think they could save a language in this way? Would other kids want to read about them trying to do it? Does the deep, dark stuff in the book come out of nowhere? Does it emerge too late in the story and get resolved too easily?

Oh, why couldn't that first burst of bliss go on forever?

Now that the demons of doubt have emerged, I have to find some way to defeat them - or at least to silence them enough to keep on writing.

Here is what I am working hard at telling myself:

1. All writers feel this way at this stage of a project. I have always felt this way at this stage of a project. Why should this time be any different?

2. It's exceedingly unlikely that this book is either as fabulously wonderful as I thought it was last week or as totally worthless as I fear it is now.

2. If this book is like all of my other books, there are probably some lovely things in it and some things that need to be slightly revised, and some things that need to be massively revised, and some things that will have to be jettisoned completely. (But as the reliably gloomy Annie Dillard points out in The Writing Life, sometimes, "The part you must jettison is not only the best-written part; it is also, oddly, that part that was to have been the very point. It is the original key passage, the passage on which the rest was to hang, and from which you yourself drew the courage to begin." Sigh....

3. This is why I found myself a wonderful critique group and wonderful critique partners. After they read my pages, they will be able to tell me when to hold 'em, when to fold 'em, when to walk away, and when to run. When I'm done revising in light of their comments, I'm lucky to have an amazing editor who will do the same.

4. However flawed this book is, its flaws can be identified and remedied only if I keep on writing, that is to say, doggedly, hopelessly, patiently, ploddingly write a few more poems tomorrow, and then the day after that, and the day after that.

While I'm tired (at least right now) of the old chestnut that it's the journey, not the arrival, that matters, it's kind of true. For the fact remains that I had two weeks of writing bliss - BLISS!

Poet Sara Teasdale wrote as the last lines of her poem "Barter": "For a breath of ecstasy, give all you have been or could be." She could have written the same about a breath of bliss - and I had two whole weeks of it.

Let the demons of doubt howl all they want: I had those two weeks of bliss, and that is something even they can never take away.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Why I Like the Last Day of the Month

I have shouted far and wide that I love the first day of the month. On the first day of every month I start a whole NEW LIFE! This is my chance for a new beginning! A fresh start! A do-over on my entire existence!

Then, of course, after a few days of astonishing myself with progress on every conceivable front, I slip back into the old life again. After all, who can sustain a whole new life forever?

So as the end of each month draws near, I can't help but notice a gap between what I thought the month would be and what it turned out being.

Here is where I remember the wisdom of my therapist from many decades ago. One month, say it was April, I had a session with her on, say it was the 28th, where I bemoaned that I was stalled yet again in the LaBrea Tar Pits of my life, with all my month's goals left undone. "So much for April," I said, with a weary sigh.

And then she spoke the words I've never forgotten: "There's still two more days."


The last day of the month is now a day I cherish. It is my last chance to do something to salvage the month that is about to end.

During my teaching years, there would always be some student who had started strong, but then drifted away, who left for spring break and never came back again. He'd slink into my office as finals loomed, distraught at what had become of his semester, and I could never resist saying to him, "Let's see how much of it we can salvage."

Today I'm going to see what I can salvage of April. I know that for many of us this particular April, this April of coronavirus quarantine, has been a month for sheer survival, where nobody has any interest whatsoever in salvaging anything. I get that. But I am still irresistibly drawn to salvaging what I can.

Today I know I can't possibly DO this one academic project that I should have done back in January, but just . . .  didn't. What I CAN do is drag it out and look at it. Just look at it. Then when May's new life begins tomorrow, I'll be that much more ready to leap into tackling it. My sister, who posts a wonderful quote from some famous person each day on Facebook, has shared this one from Joseph Conrad: "Facing it - always facing it - that's the way to get through."

So: on this last day of April, I'm at least going to face that overdue abstract for my contribution to the Cambridge History of Children's Literature in English. How glad I will be tomorrow that I did that today! I'm also going to catch up on the week's work for the online children's lit class I'm teaching for the University of Denver. My future self will thank me for that, too. I'll spend one blissful hour on my verse-novel-in-progress so I can cast an admiring glance on a few more pages. A few more pages is so much better than no more pages.

Today I am going to salvage April, at least a little bit, as best I can.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Some Things Really Can Be Fixed

I have always been terrible at fixing things.

Computer woes, garage door malfunctions, leaky faucets, funny noises made by my car - I can't fix any of them. Instead I get Somebody Else to come do it, occasionally as a favor, usually for a fee.

I've come to notice a certain feature shared by all these people who, unlike me, can fix things.
They take as their starting point the belief that the thing CAN be fixed. This is connected to their belief that if something doesn't work, there is a REASON it doesn't work, and if they can locate that reason, they can address that reason, and then do something about it to improve the situation.

Instead I start from the assumption (to slightly alter the words of the bumper sticker) that "STUFF HAPPENS." It just happens, randomly, inexplicably, through some bizarre quirk of the space-time continuum that comes into play most prominently when I am around. (For example, even other people's computers stop working if I'm in close enough proximity to them.)

Sometimes things work. Other times they don't. Who can understand the innermost secrets of the universe?

But lately the universe's malfunctions have been disturbing enough that I've tried to adopt the stance of the fixers. And let me tell you, it is AMAZING how many things can be fixed when I do.

So: thanks to the coronavirus quarantine, now we all live much of our lives online. I bought a new laptop, one that actually has a camera and microphone in it, so I could record lectures for my classes and participate in the non-stop ZOOM sessions that are how we are currently spending our days. But something kept going wrong with ZOOM for me. My face, never my best feature, would be blindingly bright, a white-hot hole in the middle of the screen. Then it would finally go into focus - and then out of focus - and then into focus. Plus, I looked so ghoulish that although I had never spent a minute of my life caring about my appearance before, I wanted to sob after every ZOOM session.

Oh, well, I thought. I guess ZOOM works for everyone else, but it doesn't work for me.

But then, during a ZOOM session, I wailed about my ZOOM despair to one of those People Who Can Fix Things. He mentioned that the problem might be with my computer camera; I might do better if I got a separate webcam (whatever that was). Another friend who was part of this ZOOM session sent me a picture of his webcam. I ordered it. It arrived. My son and I tried to install it, and of course - OF COURSE! - we couldn't make it work. But then we Googled "How do you make this thing work?" and it turns out you have to download software on your computer first. Who knew? Well, now we did.

I LOVE MY NEW LITTLE WEBCAM! I LOVE IT, I LOVE IT, I LOVE IT! Oh, little webcam, I love you so! My face is in focus now! It looks like a normal human face! It even looks (sort of) like a pretty human face!

Dear ones, some things really CAN be fixed. While we all know we have to accept those things we cannot change, some things actually CAN be changed.

I learned this ditty as a child:

For every evil under the sun
There is a remedy or there is none.
If there be one, seek till you find it.
If there be none, never mind it.

In the future I'm going to do at least a little bit of seeking first before I throw up my hands in surrender to the universe. There just might be a new little webcam out there somewhere, waiting for me.

Monday, April 20, 2020

The Only Way I Have Ever Gotten a Book Idea

The most common question authors are asked is: "Where do you get your ideas?"

The most common answer authors give to this question is: "Everywhere!"

If I feel bound to elaborate on this answer, I'll share examples of books of mine inspired by my own childhood memories, or by events that transpired as my boys were growing up, or (as I love to write school stories) by fabulous activities and projects I see on school visits.

But the true answer is that the only way I've ever gotten a book idea has been by sitting down with a pad of paper and a pen, and writing the word IDEAS at the top of the page. Then I start making a list of everything that pops into my head. Nothing - as in, nothing - ever pops into my head of its own accord. All popping happens only when I am staring down at that blank page and clutching that Pilot Razor Point fine-tipped black marker pen.

After a few dogged hour-a-day stints, for some reason one of these ideas will give me a hopeful tingle, and I'll mark it with a star. I'll start scribbling down some companion ideas to go along with it, and then a few more... In this way, a book starts to take shape.

It's been a long time since I've had a book idea. The last few years have been so hard for me and my family. During hard times I'm still able to chug along cheerfully on projects already in progress; a very smart person once said that objects in motion tend to stay in motion. But he also said that it's not an easy task to budge an object at rest.

I decided today was the day to rouse this writer-at-rest and turn her back into a writer-in-motion.

I gathered my writing materials, made myself a cup of tea, settled myself on the couch, and turned over my hourglass. At the top of the blank page on my favorite narrow-ruled pad I wrote IDEAS.

Shyly they began to creep out from the dark places where they had concealed themselves.

I didn't give a star to any of today's ideas, but I know that if I just sit there for enough hourglass-timed hours, sooner rather than later a star-worthy idea will come.

Oh, and the flowers were sent to me by a dear friend to thank me for talking to her students about writing. Aren't they beautiful? And a good reminder that if I'm going to be talking to other people about the joy I find in writing, maybe it's time for me to start finding that joy again.

Monday, April 13, 2020

What My Favorite Philosopher Would Say About How Much I Hate Online Teaching

The coronavirus quarantine is affecting all of us in different ways. That is to say: we all have different things we hate most about it.

Lately what I'm hating most is having to teach online, meet online, do author events online, to do everything in my life online. Why do I hate it so? Not because I cherish face-to-face encounters with other human beings (well, that too!), but because I AM ABSOLUTELY TERRIBLE AT TECHNOLOGY. I AM THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD FOR ANYTHING HAVING TO DO WITH COMPUTERS.

I will skip my LONG list of things I can't do on computers and give just one example (well, maybe two). A librarian asked me to record a short video sharing one of my books with his students. "Sure!" I said. "But if I ever figure out how to record this short video, how on earth will I send it to you? Videos are too big to send over email." "Oh, just send it via Google Drive," he said. "Umm," I said, "what is Google Drive?" "Don't worry," he said, "I'll send you a video that tells you all about it." Fast forward through two weeks of paralyzing despair about even having to look at a video about Google Drive. Then finally I Googled "What is Google Drive and how do I do it?" Thank goodness we can Google to get information about how to do Google! In the end I made and sent the video. But only after a fortnight of excruciating dread and terror.

Then, for the two courses I suddenly found myself teaching online, I also somehow recorded videos of my lectures and managed to post them on the University of Colorado's instructional platform (only losing two of them into cyberspace in the process and having to record them all over again). When I watched my own lectures, I thought they were good. I was charming, in fact! And witty! And wise! All the good things! I posted them on the course website early because I was on a lecture-making roll. I could do this online thing after all! Lectures on Nietzsche! Lectures on Sartre! Then one student sent a timid query about when I was going to post the lectures. "I posted them ages ago!" I shrieked, via email. But apparently what was visible to me wasn't visible to them. There was this itty-bitty, teeny-weeny button I had to click to publish the darned things.

Okay, that is my rant. But now here is what Epictetus-the-Stoic, my most beloved of philosophers, would say in reply.

Epictetus has much advice about how we should behave toward tyrants, all relevant to my current woes. If the tyrant commands me to hold his chamber pot, I can either comply or refuse. If I hold the chamber pot, I will have submitted to his tyranny; if I refuse, I will get a beating and lose my dinner. The choice is mine. It's clear that Epictetus himself would not hold the tyrant's chamber pot, even if it meant being beheaded for his failure to do so. Epictetus didn't think being beheaded was all that terrible. If the tyrant threatened, "I will behead you!" he would be quick with a snappy retort, "Did I ever tell you that I alone had a head that cannot be cut off?" But the choice - to hold the chamber pot or not - is yours.

He gives less extreme examples, too. If you are invited to feast with a boring conversationalist, you have to decide whether you'd rather have a yummy meal while being bored out of your gourd, or skip the tedium and settle for mediocre fare at home: "Further, there are some morose and fastidious people who say, 'I cannot dine with such a fellow, and bear with his daily accounts of how he fought in Mysia: 'I told you, my friend, how I climbed the ridge - I will start again with the siege.' But another says, 'I had rather get a dinner, and hear him prate as much as he pleases.' And it is for you to compare the value of these things, and judge for yourself; but do not do anything as one who is burdened and afflicted and suppose himself to be in a bad way, for no one compels you to that."

Ahh, that's the crux of it. Do it, and get this; or don't do it, and get that. But either way: STOP COMPLAINING! When someone came to Epictetus and moaned, "My nose is running!" (this is an actual example from his Discourses), he replied, "What do you have hands for, but to wipe it with?!" And when the sniffler went on to ask why the world should have such things as mucus in it, Epictetus told him, "How much better it would be for you to wipe it away than complain!"

Okay, so what does this have to do with how much I hate learning about Google Drive? Or struggling with Canvas for my classes?

If I want to continue getting paid to teach in an increasingly online environment (and the current coronavirus crisis is only exacerbating the already ongoing computerization of everything), I'm going to have to get better at doing things on the computer. If I don't want to get better at doing things on the computer, it's time for me to retire. Ditto for making videos to promote my books. If I want to continue being an author in the world-as-it-is in 2020, I'm going to have to learn what Google Drive is. If I don't want to learn about Google Drive (and actually, it did turn out to be the easiest thing in the world), then I can put myself out to pasture.

Either way, it's better for me to wipe my nose than to whine about how terrible it is that my nose is running.

My tentative conclusion for myself is that I am indeed going to call it quits for almost all teaching at the end of this challenging semester and learn to live on less income each month. But I'm also going to work harder to keep up with the technology needed to continue as an author.

For now, I'm going to "Suck it up, buttercup" (which is NOT a quotation from Epictetus, but could have been.) I'm lucky I have a job generating needed income. I'm lucky I have a way of sharing my books via videos with young readers.

I'm lucky I have hands to wipe my runny nose.