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.