Friday, August 28, 2020

My Best Writing Ritual of All

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 24, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So into my mouth I popped one.

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 15, 2020

A Book-Shaped Hole in My Heart

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


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

Now I miss that hour a day of bliss. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 7, 2020

Dealing with Drudgery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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