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.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

The Perfect Book for a Pandemic

A couple of days ago, desperate for something cheery to read, I plucked from my shelf a book I had read a number of years ago, when I was writing a paper on Betty MacDonald for a children's literature journal.
I had known MacDonald only as the author of the hilarious Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books I loved as a child. But during her lifetime her greatest fame rested on her equally hilarious memoirs for adults. Her first book, The Egg and I, about her comic calamities as the wife of a would-be chicken farmer, was the number one title on the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list for 43 weeks in the late 1940s, selling a million copies during its first year and at one point, according to her biographer Paula Becker, selling at the rate of one book every twenty-two seconds.

It was her second memoir, The Plague and I, that I chose for my light-hearted pandemic reading: MacDonald's account of her eight-month stay in the Firland Sanatorium in Seattle after she was diagnosed with tuberculosis in September 1938, as the single mother of two daughters, ages nine and ten. At that time, the chief cure for this dreaded disease was absolute, fanatically enforced rest for the lungs, which meant lying motionless in bed for month after month, forbidden to read, to write, to laugh, even to cough ("Coughs can be controlled," the stern nurses would insist). Rooms were kept frigid, with windows flung wide open in the most relentlessly cold and rainy weather, so residents felt perpetually half-frozen.

But MacDonald makes her record of life at The Pines (as she calls it in her memoir) so funny that few readers would be able to obey the no-laughing rule while reading it.

The book begins with her statement, "Getting tuberculosis in the middle of your life is like starting downtown to do a lot of urgent errands and being hit by a bus." She goes on to say, "By background and disposition some people are better suited to being hit by a bus than others." For example, her co-worker Doris: Doris's "mother had a little tumor, her father had a 'bad leg,' Doris had a great deal of 'female trouble,' and they all were hoping that Granny had cancer." (Yes, MacDonald's humor rests largely on unflinching, downright scathing observation of human foibles, including her own.) She writes, "To Doris and her family tuberculosis would have been anti-climactic but a definite asset. So of course it was not Doris but I who got tuberculosis." And in Betty's family it was considered a character flaw to be sick, and even worse, to be a self-pitying "saddo" about it.

It's all I can do not to type in paragraph after paragraph of Betty's commentary on her fellow patients at the Pines. I did call my younger son, in Chicago, and ask him if I could read him some of it over the phone, and after an uncomfortable pause, he graciously said, "Well, okay. I mean, sure." I won't do that to you here. Well, maybe just one more line... oh, which one should I choose? All right: here the glamorous new roommate balks at having her long beautiful hair cut off, as the institution rules require. The Charge Nurse chides her: "I think that you are being unfair to your wardmates. You say that your hair cut will make you look like an ugly old hag yet Mrs. Bard [Betty went by her maiden name, despite her failed first marriage to the gentleman chicken farmer] and Miss Sanbo both have had their hair cut and I don't think they look like hags." Eileen then looks at her two roommates: "Well, it didn't improve 'em any." Ha!

So for the past few days I read, and read, and read, and howled with laughter at how funny a plague could be. I closed the book grateful that during my enforced coronavirus isolation I can still walk to the bathroom! And sit up for more than fifteen minutes a day! And sleep at night under heaps of blankets, unlike the shivering residents of the sanitorium! And right this minute I'm in no danger of dying, and even if I were, I wouldn't be leaving two young daughters motherless.

I discovered from Paula Becker's delightful 2016 book, Looking for Betty MacDonald (part biography and part account of her own personal journey to walk in MacDonald's footsteps, visiting all the many homes in which she had resided), that Betty was born right here in Boulder, where I live. A couple of years ago I made a pilgrimage to her birthplace at 723 Spruce Avenue.

Now I've chosen her for my companion during our current plague.

I'm going to do my best not to be a "saddo."

And if I ever need a good hearty laugh during the coming weeks under stay-in-place restrictions (or months? or years? some of the patients at the Pines were there for a decade or more), I'll open The Plague and I to any random page and start in reading.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Birth Announcement for Vera Vance, Comics Star

Oh, it's hard these days to remember what ordinary life used to be like.

But despite coronavirus, today is the pub date of my newest book. This one is especially dear to me, so I write this post to celebrate her birth and welcome her into this world so fraught with uncertainties. Here she is: Vera Vance, Comics Star.

Can't you tell just from looking at her, in the cover illustration by the brilliant Grace Zong, that Vera is herself no stranger to worry, but someone who finds joy in creating, anyway? 

The anxious, perfectionist only child of an anxious, perfectionist widowed mother, Vera has a passion for drawing, so she is thrilled to be attending a month-long comic-book camp in her school's after-school program. This entire book series, of which Vera's story is book two, is set in an after-school program called After-School Superstars, where each month - and each book - is devoted to a different themed camp. First up: Nixie Ness, Cooking Star, out last year. Next up after Vera, Lucy Lopez, Coding Star, out this fall. I just finished final revisions on Boogie Bass, Sign Language Star, out next spring. But Vera's mother (like my own mother) disdains comic books, setting up a dilemma for Vera, who secretly loves them herself but also craves her mother's constant approval.

Writing this book was bliss for me. One of my favorite themes as a writer is how characters can take what they learn in the world and draw from it greater understanding of their own lives. So in my book Being Teddy Roosevelt, as Riley reads a biography of TR for his school's biography tea, he is able to channel that president's can-do spirit to pursue his dream of being able to play the saxophone in instrumental music. In my book The Totally Made-Up Civil War Diary of Amanda MacLeish, as Amanda completes a school assignment on the Civil War, writing a fictional diary in the person of Polly Mason, who has one brother fighting for the North and one for the South, she finds a way to manage her divided loyalties to both of her divorcing parents. Now, in creating a comic about the heroic exploits of Little Spoon, who rebels against over-protective Big Spoon, Vera finds a way to embark on a hero's journey of her own.

At this frightening moment for our nation and our world, we're all embarking on a weird hero's journey just to continue muddling through with our lives somehow despite the unprecedented upheavals of coronavirus. I'm hoping I can get inspiration from my own sweet little Vera to keep on doing this: to create with joy despite constant worry and fear. I hope you can, too.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Homesick for Ordinary Life

A decade ago, when I was having one of life's challenging seasons, I remember telling myself that however bad things were now, it would take so little - just one phone call with some kind of unspeakably horrible news - for me to wish I had my current life back again, in every single detail.

That's how I feel right now.

I imagine it's how many of you feel, too.

In recent weeks, I've been complaining a bit about my return, for the first time in five years, to teaching philosophy courses at the University of Colorado. I felt awkward and foolish standing in front of the lecture hall, trying to pretend I was my younger, cooler self, working too desperately to get them to like me. In addition to my Intro to Ethics course at noon, I've been subbing in the Major Social Theories course for an instructor during his six weeks of paternity leave. I enjoyed his students greatly, but I'm not a late-afternoon person. How nice it would be when I didn't have to hang out in my office for hours waiting for that 3:00-4:15 teaching slot!

Now, like every university in the country, we've switched to online teaching for the entire rest of the semester; I'm struggling to figure out how to record lectures, how to post them on CU's online platform, how to structure conversations on "discussion boards." I would give anything to be going into campus on the Skip tomorrow and teaching my beloved students face-to-face. How I adored being with them, talking in a lively, animated, face-to-face way about John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, and John Rawls.

In recent weeks I've also whined a bit about my daily visits to my husband in the care home where he now lives, completely incapacitated from advanced Parkinson's. I didn't have to go see him every day, but I had made a commitment to myself to do this, a commitment I typically honored five days out of seven. Oh, but it was a tedious drive across town with all those traffic lights! (Especially since twice in the last year I was rear-ended at one of these lights). He loved when I brought him meals, but that was more work and expense. And no one can say that nursing homes are not dreary places to visit, however kind and caring the staff.

Now, like every nursing home in the country, after first imposing strict limits on visitation, Manor Care is ceasing all in-person visits whatsoever as of tomorrow. I'm about to make my last visit to him - for weeks? for months? - in a couple of hours. I would give anything to continue seeing him every day to charge his cellphone, tidy his bedside table, wipe drips from his face and crumbs from his shirt, and watch something silly on TV together (the game show "Cash Cab" was my favorite). How I loved that sweet time we spent together!

I could go on and on with this list. I know you could go on and on with yours, too.

In the final act of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, Emily, after dying young in childbirth, is given the chance to live again one ordinary day in her small town of Grover's Corners. With painful yearning for every instant of what she has left behind, she cries out, "Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for any one to realize you!" and asks plaintively, "Do any human beings ever realize life as they live it - every, every minute?"

We don't. We can't.

But coronavirus has made me want to try harder to do this. The writer Colette is quoted as saying, "What a wonderful life I've had! I only wish I'd realized it sooner."

Me, too, Colette.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Making an Allowance for Ourselves

When I had my first baby (31 years ago), I was utterly flummoxed by the entire experience. I couldn't function at ALL because it seemed that ALL he did was cry and eat - and eat - and eat - and eat. I remember keeping a desperate little chart of how often he ate - was it REALLY every hour? or more? or was this just my crazed imagination? And nursing did NOT come easily to me. NONE of it came easily to me, in fact, because what I adore is productivity, moving forward on my life goals, getting stuff DONE, and as a new mother with a new baby, I was getting NOTHING done except trying to keep him calm and fed. I spent all day doing things I was bad at doing, and nary a minute doing anything I was actually good at doing.

Other people took such good care of me during that time. One friend would invite me over to her house for a couple of hours while her husband would entertain my baby and she and I would have gin and tonics. I will remember her kindness till the day that I die.

But as the months and years went by, I never got very good at the being-a-mom thing. I always felt I was struggling to function in the world because it was so difficult functioning at home. Well, I could make an allowance for myself: I was a new mom! (Except that I wasn't all that new any more.) And then I'd see other people with brand-new infants who were hosting dinner parties! And bringing home-made treats to office potlucks! And taking their babies to work and actually working when they got there!


Now, decades later, I've been having trouble functioning because of truly tragic family woes, where once again, I'm cutting myself a lot of slack (who COULD function, struggling under my load?) and making huge allowances for myself (oh, you POOR THING!). And yet, I can't help being aware that other people - maybe most other people? - are also struggling under their own crippling loads - loads every bit as heavy as mine - and seem to be doing just fine.


Right now, the worst of my current family stresses are reaching a (sad, but bearable) resolution. Difficult decisions have been made. These difficult decisions will have to be lived with forever. Can I still keep on making allowances for myself, or is it time to suck it up, buttercup, and get with the program?

Here's my tentative answer: YES, it's fine to keep on making allowances for myself! And guess what? It's fine for YOU to keep on making allowances for yourself, too. Life is hard. Why do we want to make it harder for ourselves? And who makes this "program" that we pressure ourselves to "get with"? Why don't we change the program so that it's more humane and forgiving for all of us?

Now, by this I DON'T mean not doing our fair share of whatever it is that has to be done. But it does mean questioning what does indeed "have" to be done. One semester, when I was teaching full-time in the philosophy department, one colleague tallied up the number of talks (job talks, colloquium talks, work-in-progress talks, etc.) we were expected to attend during that fifteen-week period: 65!! Why did we do this to ourselves? Why don't we start resisting some of the extravagant demands we permit the world to place upon us?

Also, "fair" shares have some flexibility. In my little church, I feel I can contribute best by doing the things I love and am good at: writing, speaking (I give a lot of guest sermons), and teaching - also running meetings - and organizing things. I feel no need to volunteer for the things I'm TERRIBLE at, such as counting up the offering after worship and ringing handbells in the bell choir. Although I do take my turn at serving fellowship time snacks, I don't bring amazing home-baked goodies, but present a perfectly acceptable spread of store-brought snacks.

Finally, those other people who seem to perform so amazingly under astronomical stress may fall apart plenty behind the scenes. After all, I look pretty darned functional and productive to the rest of the world most of the time, too. Or they may be people who deal best with stress by keeping themselves constantly busy. One of my closest friends deals with her ongoing heartbreak by walking every day, swimming every day, AND hiking every day. That's her drug of choice. My drug of choice is writing blog posts, reading library books, and mega-sleeping. It's all good.

So, dear ones, let's make allowances for one another, and for ourselves. And if you have a new baby you want me to entertain for an hour while we both sip gin and tonics, just let me know. . . .

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

What to Do When You've Lost All Interest in Your New Year's Goals and Wonder Why You Ever Made Them

It's mid-February now, and I'm here to report that I've pretty much lost all interest in the complicated set of goals I formulated for 2020. Part of the reason is that the goals were SO complicated: to improve my health in half a dozen ways on each of eight dimensions. I mean, what was I thinking?

In the past I've had greatest success with goals that are simple: submit something somewhere every month (my goal for 2017) and log ten hours of creative joy each month (my goal for 2018). My 2019 goal of embracing the new was pretty much a bust after the first few months of the year. (It turns out that embracing the new gets old after a while.) And now this health-related grab-bag of goals has petered out after just a month and a half.

I'm back to the very uninspiring goal of sheer survival, which is especially discouraging as I realize more and more each day that the problems in my life that are most horrific ARE NOT GOING TO GO AWAY. They may be permanent features of my reality for the rest of my days.

Now what, oh self-proclaimed queen of goal setting?


First of all, even though my goals peter out ALL THE TIME, and the "new life" I proclaim for myself on the first day of each month slips back into the same old life with alarming rapidity, I owe everything I've ever accomplished in my life to goal-setting. It's better to be frugal and fit and creative and productive for five days a month than for no days at all.

In my burst of health-enthusiasm during the first weeks of the year, I did accomplish these things:
1. To improve my financial health, I re-did my estate planning. I met with financial planners for both my retirement accounts and consolidated and simplified my investments (such as they are) in pleasing ways. I had a buy-nothing week that probably saved me $300. Three hundred dollars is nothing to sneeze at!

2. To improve my spiritual health (and with the aid of Facebook responses to this blog), I discovered the Insight Timer meditation app. Admittedly, that, too, petered out for me after a few sessions, but I've retained ways of calming and centering myself from its instruction that I continue to use. Hooray for that!

3. To improve my emotional health, I deleted the Twitter app from my phone, the best use of ten seconds ever spent. I continue to reap benefits from this every day.

4. To improve my social health, I reached out to a few friends and had some highly enjoyable get-togethers that wouldn't have happened otherwise.

This is not such a shabby total.

In this challenging season of my life, I've decided that it's fine to focus on itty-bitty goals instead of huge, sweeping ones, or even to give up goals altogether (though NOTHING makes me as happy as productivity - it is my drug of choice). One of my favorite small goals is to plan for five episodes of happiness every day. The goal is small, and often the episodes themselves are teeny-weensy, but they make each day just a little bit happier.

Here are the five episodes of happiness I scheduled for yesterday:
1 Luxuriate in bed for ten extra minutes in the morning, savoring the feel of the warm covers and the sleeping little dog beside me.
2. Walk for a sunny half hour on a springlike morning with this same little dog.
3. Eat four clementines and a peanut butter and jam sandwich on a cinnamon-raisin English muffin, brought from home to my university office for lunch. Pleasures of frugality AND taste.
4. Put my nightgown on as soon as I return home (five p.m.) and eat leftover Chinese eggplant and brown rice from a restaurant outing over the weekend.
5. Curl up with a blanket and spend an hour in Paris with Eloisa James's delicious memoir Paris in Love.

Both of my classes that I taught at the university yesterday - one on Kant and one on Rawls - were also episodes of happiness, as was my meeting with my two TA's for the Intro to Ethics class to grade some sample Aristotle papers together. But they weren't on my happiness list for the day, as teaching and meetings are never GUARANTEED to be episodes of happiness - they may be joyous, or they may be horrendous. I have to be able to COUNT on my episodes of happiness. Snuggling with a little dog is something I can count on.

So: I'm celebrating what I DID accomplish in my new year's frenzy of goal-setting, forgiving myself for not accomplishing more, and allowing myself right now, in a hard time of my life, to make VERY small (but very sweet) goals for each day.

Not such a terrible plan, after all.

Friday, January 31, 2020

My Buy-Nothing Week

One of my goals for 2020 is to improve my financial health. With this in view, I decided to have a "buy nothing week" each month. 

Some people who take a "buy nothing" pledge for some fixed period of time exempt a narrow class of expenditures: groceries, gas for basic transportation, and other non-frivolous budget items. I decided it would be more fun to make mine a true "buy nothing" week, by filling my tank with gas and stocking up on groceries ahead of time. As I needed the cooperation of a certain family member, who has been using my credit card while he is (as they say) "between jobs," a more challenging buying ban would amp up the excitement of this adventure in frugality.

So last week, day after day went by when both of us charged nothing on credit cards. How lovely to check my balance online and NOT seeing it growing by leaps and bounds! 

The most fun for me was using up food in the pantry and fridge that I had long forgotten: a large container of yogurt left over from company who had stayed with me back in November (still perfectly good); dried fruit I unearthed on a shelf that was VERY dried out now, but still tasty. Yum! Oh, and that huge bag of potatoes I had purchased even though I only needed two potatoes, but it's SO much cheaper to buy five pounds at a time. I do love me a baked potato dripping with butter! Here I had the joy not only of frugality but of responsible environmental stewardship, since food waste in prosperous countries is a leading cause of global climate change. 

Hooray for me!

Alas, partway through the week, my son's car wouldn't start. Double-alas, it turned out not to need just a new battery, but some kind of hideous repair that ended up costing $1700. In one fell swoop, all my savings from proudly using up past-sell-date yogurt and rock-hard dried fruit were dwarfed into insignificance. 


Oh, well. If I hadn't done the buy-nothing week, the car repair would still have cost $1700, plus we might have spent $200 - or $300 - or more on who-knows-what: all those pesky little expenses that somehow add up to a whopping total. I'm still glad I used up some potatoes before they sprouted into grotesque formations and enjoyed a nutritious yogurt-and-fruit breakfast every morning. 

I can't say my finances feel appreciably more under control, but at least I did SOMETHING. Doing something, I firmly believe, is almost always better than doing nothing. At least half a dozen famous (and not-so-famous) people are quoted as saying, "Don't do nothing because you can't do everything."

For me, buying nothing counted as doing something. And in February I'll plan another week of buying nothing again. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Don't Make It Harder Than It Has to Be: Rethinking My New Year's Goals

I pride myself on being something of an expert in goal-setting. I get paid to give motivational talks on goal-setting. You might even call me the queen of goal-setting.

But I'm here to confess that my goals for 2020 have been a dismal failure so far. 

It's now halfway through January, and my health-enhancing goals haven't made me appreciably healthier. If anything I'm more worn and weary than I was before. As I wrote in my previous post, my very stress-reducing strategies have been stressing me out.

I had forgotten one of my own cardinal principles: DON'T MAKE IT HARDER THAN IT HAS TO BE! Why did I choose daunting health-enhancing activities when less inimatidating ones are available? And why on earth did I try to do everything at once??

I've quoted before from Arnold Bennett's wonderful little book, first published in 1910, How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day. He speaks to exactly this issue in his usual brisk, no-nonsense style:

Let me principally warn you against your own ardour. . . . Beware of undertaking too much at the start. Be content with quite a little. Allow for accidents. Allow for human nature, especially your own.
A failure or so, in itself, would not matter, if it did not incur a loss of self-esteem and of self-confidence. But just as nothing succeeds like success, so nothing fails like failure. Most people who are ruined are ruined by attempting too much. Therefore, in setting out on the immense enterprise of living fully and comfortably within the narrow limits of twenty-four hours a day, let us avoid at any cost the risk of an early failure. I will not agree that . . . a glorious failure is better than a petty success. I am all for the petty success. A glorious failure leads to nothing; a petty success may lead to a success that is not petty.

Oh, Arnold, how wise you are!

So here are some of my petty successes so far and other potential petty successes I'm going to focus on for now.

My best success took ten seconds and improved my life enormously: deleting the Twitter app on my phone. It has not only freed me from painful self-doubt and despair from the contents of what I was reading, but saved me HOURS of endless, mindless, miserable scrolling. I've read six boks already this year, all from the time gained from this one ten-second life-hack. HUGE IMPROVEMENT IN MY EMOTIONAL HEALTH.

My second-best success came as the result of my last post, after I shared it on Facebook (which is why I can't bring myself to delete my Facebook app). When I bewailed lack of time for meditation, several friends suggested the Insight Timer app, where I can do a five-minute guided meditation right at home while lying on my bed. Those five minutes, or ten minutes, a day have been a huge gift to myself. HUGE IMPROVEMENT IN MY SPIRITUAL HEALTH. 

As my favorite successes are the one-and-done ones, rather the ones I have to force myself to do every single day for the rest of of my life, I arranged to have my carpets cleaned. It's going to happen on Friday. I can't wait! MODERATE IMPROVEMENT IN MY EMOTIONAL HEALTH.I had a consultation with a financial planner, which was sobering, but will allow me to make some further one-and-done decisions that will simplify my finances. MODERATE IMPROVEMENT IN MY FINANCIAL HEALTH.

For my physical health, hmmm. Maybe I'll go to the grocery store and buy some vegetables and fruits, on the theory that I'll eat more of these if I actually have some in the house. Maybe I'll take a kind yoga-teacher friend up on her mega-generous offer to come to my house and show me some yoga exercises that even I can do. 

For my environmental health, I returned library books today on foot rather than by car. 

For my social health, I'll contact three friends today to set up outings for next week. Ooh!

I'm not going to focus on the whole darned year right now. I'm going to remember another piece of wisdom I cling to, from William Law: "Be intent upon the perfection of the present day." Maybe each day I'll ask myself: "What petty success can I have (on any goal whatsoever) today?" 

Yay for petty success!

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

My Stress-Reduction Strategies Are Stressing Me Out

My new year's goal for 2020 is to improve my health on eight different dimensions to prepare myself to survive the stress of a hideous ordeal that lies before me. With typical new year's zeal, I've leaped into tackling the many health-fostering projects I listed in my previous post.

But now I'm discovering the sad paradox that my very efforts to prepare me against looming stress are themselves stressful!

They cost money (and one of my eight dimensions of health is financial health).

They take time (and time is our most valuable non-renewable resource).

How am I ever going to find that money, and even more dire, find that time?

For example: I've pledged to try some new form of exercise to supplement my faithful hour-a-day of walking with my dog, Tanky. But I don't want to do this in the morning, as that's my prime work time. I don't want to do it in the afternoon, as that's when I go visit my husband in the care home. I don't want to do it in the evening, as that's when I want to put on my nightgown, curl up with a book, and be asleep by eight. So that leaves... well, it leaves no time at all.

Ditto for meditation. Who the heck has time to meditate?

Even reading... I want to read more books, and I just ordered up a big stack from the public library. But how on earth am I going to get all of them read, plus write my own books and articles, teach my classes, advise my mentees, and do everything else I need to do in my life?

I need to figure out how to deal with the inescapable fact that every single thing we do takes time that could be spent doing something else. And every dollar we spend on x is a dollar we can no longer spend on y. Economists call these "opportunity costs."

So, here are my current musings on how to do this.

1. Accept that everyone faces this exact same dilemma, so I might as well get used to it instead of complaining about it. As Arnold Bennett wrote in his splendid 1910 self-help manual How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day: "You wake up in the morning, and lo! your purse is magically filled with twenty-four hours of the unmanufactured tissue of the universe of your life!  . . . Out of it you have to spin health, pleasure, money, content, respect, and the evolution of your immortal soul."

2. Remember that I'M the one who said I want to prioritize my health this year. Prioritizing something means making this a PRIORITY. If I'm going to make good on this new year's plan, I am going to have to commit to the exercise class and the meditation retreat and a bunch of other things on my health to-do list INSTEAD of doing something else.

3. What are some of the other things I'm going to have to give up to do this? Well, by deleting the Twitter app on my phone on New Year's Day (itself the single best thing I could possibly do for my health), I freed at least an additional hour a day. I sleep an extravagant amount: I'm blessed in being able to do this, but really, eight hours should be enough even for someone who loves to luxuriate under the covers as much as I do - nine hours, max! When I visit my husband, what he loves is just my quiet company by his side: I can take some work with me, and do it there. Actually, the main thing I'm going to have to give up is totally aimless time-wasting, and that is hardly a loss.

4.Heed the dictum: if you can't find time to stay healthy, how are you going to find time to be sick? Well, I'm never actually physically sick - another of my blessings - but I do have the occasional total mental/emotional collapse, and THIS IS TO BE AVOIDED. (Along these same lines: there's a book, which I haven't read, with the wonderful title, If You Haven't Got the Time to Do It Right, When Will You Find the Time to Do It Over?) Everyone I know who meditates, exercises, and eats more healthily swears that these things allow them to use the rest of their time more effectively and energetically. In the end, they SAVE more time than they expend.

5. Right now I'm in the groping, experimenting stage of this new health project. I'm spending considerable time researching options and trying them out. These are one-time expenditures of effort to locate resources that will then be in place for me to draw upon. So I shouldn't panic. This current stage of time-crampedness will pass!

6. Finally, it's actually FUN to care about my health for a while. I can't remember the last time I did this. All this fussing and fretting I'm doing is to provide an enormous benefit for ME. What a lovely thing I'm doing for myself! So I should savor every new thing I'm trying - and be glad that I'll have the fun of blogging about it, too.

So, dear ones: we ALL get 24 hours a day: no more, no less. How we decide to spend those hours will determine a lot about what this new year brings for each one of us.