Monday, May 21, 2018

Creative Joy at Big Sur in the Rockies

I had the great pleasure this past weekend to serve as a faculty member for the Big Sur in the Rockies Children's Writing Workshop hosted by the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. The workshops were created (originally in Big Sur, California, and also held in Cape Cod, Massachusetts) to give aspiring children's book authors a chance to have their work critiqued both by professional authors and by agents and editors, in an intensive but intimate setting - and a setting of striking natural beauty as well.

Andrea Brown claims that "miracles" happen at Big Sur, as attendees revise their work from the first critique session to the second session on the day following. From my experience this past weekend I would say: she is right.

The Big Sur in the Rockies workshop is held at Chautauqua in Boulder, with its stunning views of the Flatirons.
Faculty were each given their own tiny rustic cabin for the weekend, so I had the treat of having what felt like a vacation while only having to drive three miles to get there.
Each cabin contained a small living room, bedroom, kitchen, and bath, as well as an inviting screen porch. The two different critique groups each faculty member facilitated (with two meetings for each group) were held in our cramped but extremely cozy living rooms.

Here's the charming bedroom of mine.
Of course, as soon as I saw it, all I wanted was to climb into bed and WRITE. And I did have plenty of time to do that over the course of the weekend, despite ten hours spent in the four critique sessions, shared meals, and other events that brought us together as a writing community.

I loved the four women writers who were in each of my workshops. They loved me, too, and loved one another, even as we posed tough questions about the manuscripts and sent everybody scurrying away to revise. And for those who submitted revisions, yes, miracles DID occur, with the rest of us sighing with pleasure at hearing the new and vastly improved version.

Each morning (Saturday and Sunday), I did have a good hour to write in my bed - hooray! On Saturday afternoon, while the workshop attendees were off frantically revising, I had free time to write some more. But the best writing I did all weekend - the hour of creative joy I'll long cherish in memory - was writing side by side, on the afternoon I arrived,with my next-door neighbor, fellow faculty member Melanie Crowder, who is as brilliant a writer as you'll find anywhere on this earth.

It was raining hard - a torrential downpour, complete with hail. We sat on her screened porch, safe and dry, as Melanie prepared for a writing retreat she's leading soon in Oregon, and I wrote part of Chapter 9 of my current work-in-progress ( the book where the kids are all writing their own comic books).

This was my favorite hour of creative joy since I starting keeping track of creatively joyous hours back in January. I now know that there is nothing more creative and joyous than to write with Melanie Crowder, on the screened porch of a small Chautauqua cabin, in the rain.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Should I Cut Corners on Creative Joy?

As readers of this blog may know, my main resolution for 2018 has been to have more creative joy in my life: to be precise, at least 10 hours a month of creative joy, where I have strict rules for exactly what counts toward the total. It can't be just an hour of ordinary joy in doing my ordinary creative work: I have to make some special effort to add joy to the process. This means I can't just write on my couch with my usual hot chocolate; I have to write in a cafe with a friend, or at the Denver Botanic Gardens, or with a special food treat (preferably Pepperidge Farm apple turnovers), or even just with Cool Whip in my hot chocolate or a scented candle burning on my desk. (The  only exception: writing poetry gives me SO much creative joy that no additional infusion of joy is necessary).

Oh, and final rule: I have to have 10 hours every single month. I can't stockpile extra hours in an earlier month to make up for fewer hours in a later one.

Thus far this year, I've met each month's creative joy quota with room to spare:

January: 14 hours
February: 14 hours
March: 15 hours
April: 22 hours - TA-DAH!

But now it's halfway through May, and as of two days ago I had zero hours of creative joy recorded in my little logbook: zero! I had plenty of joy when my granddaughters were here for their ten-day visit, but it wasn't creative joy. And I've done plenty of creative work this month, working on my chapter-book-in-progress (the one set in an after-school comic-book camp), and I experienced plenty of joy in doing it, but I didn't make any extra effort to enhance the joy, so these hours don't count toward my fixed monthly goal.

I found myself tempted to relax the goal a bit. After all, why NOT allow stockpiling of joy in lush months to allow me to take a little break from joy in skimpier months? Why ISN'T plain old Swiss Miss hot chocolate joyous enough? Who makes and enforces these dumb rules, anyway? (Of course I know the answer to that one.)

But then I got a grip on myself: AM I TOTALLY CRAZY??!! WHY ON EARTH WOULD I WANT TO GIVE MYSELF PERMISSION TO SKIMP ON JOY?

So I lit a candle for my hour of writing yesterday. I bought myself Cool Whip; a good dollop of it during my writing time gave me another hour of creative joy for the logbook today. I have a writing date with a friend tomorrow. At the end of this week I'll have a weekend absolutely bursting with creative joy as I'll be staying in a charming cottage at Chautauqua as a faculty member for the Big Sur in the Rockies Children's Book Writing Workshop, which has a good amount of free writing time built into the schedule. I have my heart set once again on meeting or exceeding my creative joy target for May.

No, I should NOT cut corners on creative joy, and neither should you. Nobody should try to rationalize the reducing of joy in their lives. It's fine to cut corners on tedium, drudgery, dreary toil. But when it comes to joy, I'm going to throw my whole heart into every minute of it.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Bookstore to the Rescue!

Yesterday I was scheduled to give a keynote talk at an awards program celebrating the young readers and writers of Jefferson County, hosted by the Educational Nonprofit Corporation, in downtown Golden. Because Golden is so delightful, I arranged to have lunch there first with a children's literature graduate student who lives in Denver; we'd eat on the porch of a restaurant overlooking Clear Creek. Then I'd put finishing touches on my talk at the Golden Public Library, and perhaps write on my work-in-progress a little bit (creative joy!). The keynote address would be at four.

Great was my consternation, however, when I reached the library, stuffed full of yummy lunch and ready to ponder my inspirational remarks, and opened my totebag only to find that I had grabbed the wrong book to read from. I had planned to share a couple of the love poems I wrote in seventh grade (1966), one of which made its way into my middle-grade novel Write This Down, which was published exactly 50 years later (2016). I wanted to encourage these young writers to save their writing - and to see the joy that writers feel in taking their own heartbreak (that boy who spurned my love!) and turning it into art that could be shared with others, even half a century later.

But the book in my totebag wasn't Write This Down. It was Zero Tolerance. Both have red spines. It was easy for a careless person to get confused.

Now what was I supposed to do? Wait! I was in a public library. Maybe they had a copy of my book I could check out? I didn't see one on the shelf, though, and when I checked the catalog, they had Write This Down only as an e-book.

Well, an e-book might work; I already had Write This Down with me, as an e-book, on my phone (I have all the files for all my recent books in my Dropbox). I could read the crucial passage from the book aloud from my phone.

But oh, that is lame, lame, lame! I didn't want to read my book aloud from my phone. I wanted to read it aloud from the book.

Should I drive back to Boulder to retrieve the book from home? That felt like such a defeat.

Wait. . . I pulled out my phone and called Second Star to the Right, my favorite children's bookstore. It wasn't that far away. Might they have a copy on hand of Write This Down by Claudia Mills? Yes, they said. Would I like paperback or hardcover?

Hooray! I leaped into my car, put the address for the store into my phone, and 20 minutes later I had a copy of the book clutched close to my heart.

The talk went well: the love poems were a huge hit, first read aloud from the little notebook where I inscribed them back in 1966, then read aloud from a real, actual copy of the published book fifty years later.

I'm so glad I had my phone with me for calling the bookstore and navigating there.

But I'm even more glad I have a favorite bookstore that could sell me a copy of an actual, wonderful, beautiful, old-fashioned BOOK.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Pleasure of Contrasting Days

Yesterday my two little granddaughters finished their monthly ten-day visit to us - a period of exhilarating, exhausting non-stop activity with a four-year-old and a two-year-old, with me as their primary caregiver. Today begins the monthly twenty-day span of time without them, when I can immerse myself fully in my own work with uncluttered space and unhurried time.

I love both, and I love that right now I have a life that contains both. One of things I loved best about my quarter-century of teaching in the philosophy department at the University of Colorado was having a work life that alternated between time on campus and time at home. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I'd be on campus all day teaching my classes, mentoring graduate students, attending meetings (yes, even that could be pleasant once I learned how to keep my mouth shut and stay out of the fray of academic politics). On Tuesday and Thursday I tried very hard to arrange my schedule so that I could work at home - writing, preparing for class, grading (yes, even grading could be fun with enough tasty treats to energize me).

Now I'm loving the alternating rhythms of ten-days-with-little-girls followed by twenty-days-just-for-me. I value each one more because I know it's finite, although of course everything in this life, for all of us, is fast fleeting. The current arrangement with the girls won't last forever. Once Kataleya begins kindergarten in the fall of 2019, everything will change. I have no idea whatsoever what the shape of my days will be then. So I might as well savor what I have right now even more intensely.

In fact, savoring whatever one has, in the moment when one has it, is a pretty good plan for living a pretty good life.

Here, a few glimpses of springtime in Colorado with little girls in tow.

Touching a "cloud" at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR)

The view from behind NCAR

At Clear Creek in Golden

Mistress of all she surveys

Monday, April 30, 2018

Saying Yes to Fun

When I took part in the gala Festival of Stories back in March, one of the additional joys of the festival was the chance to be interviewed by Kristen Olsen for her radio program "Tunes and Tales" on station 88.9 KRFC. Kristen is a delightful conversationalist, so it was easy to forget I was being taped for a future radio broadcast and just enjoy chatting. In fact, it was easy to forget about the future radio broadcast altogether.

Then two days ago I got an email from Kristen saying that my segment was going to air on Sunday evening at 6:30, paired with a presentation by a group of elementary students who were coming to the studio to give a ten-minute book talk on my title Cody Harmon, King of Pets.
She added: "I know this is very late in the game, but would you be interested in showing up at the station as a surprise after they talk about your book on air? Maybe we could all get ice cream?"

It took me about 30 seconds to decide to say yes. I mean, going to a radio station? Ooh! As s surprise for children who had actually read and loved my book? Followed by ice cream?! This in a year where my chief goal for myself is creative joy and all the fun that attends being part of the world of children's book writing? When I agreed, I hadn't thought to ask where the radio station was. I just assumed it was in Denver, the site of the Festival of Stories (30 miles from Boulder). Instead it turned out to be in Fort Collins (65 miles from Boulder). Oh, well. Kids! At a radio station! Followed by ice cream! How could I not say yes?

I'm so glad I did.

I arrived in Fort Collins ridiculously early, but found the Alley Cat Cafe ("Always open") right near the radio station, where I sipped delicious ginger tea and outlined the next seven or eight chapters of Vera Everett, Comic Book Star. (I get serious about outlining a book once I have the first few chapters drafted, in this case, the first three). 

Then: time to go to the studio and meet my young readers: four second graders.They were already in the recording room with head phones on (so glamorous!). They hadn't known I was coming and all gave gratifying OMG reactions of happy surprise. We chatted among ourselves, with Kristen's encouragement, as the taped interview played, and then the children gave their report on the book, including what they had liked best.

Simon liked how the principal had an M&M dispenser in his office and how one of the characters shared his name "Simon."

Joie liked when the girls came over to Cody's house and planned costumes for the pet show. She especially liked how the pig was dressed up with a Charlotte's Web theme as she loves that book.

Forrest liked how, when the principal read out the winner for the pet show, he pretended not to be able to read the handwriting on the card that said "Mr. Piggins."

Zoe liked "the rough parts": when Cody's friend Tobit throws a rock at Stubby the Squirrel and upsets Cody, and when Cody and Tobit have a fight and have to go the principal's office.

I told the kids I loved writing all those parts of the book, too.

Here we are in the studio, the kids in their headphones (or other head adornments). 
Afterward, we had popsicles - yum! Mine was raspberry. 

If I'm ever asked again if I want to drive 65 miles to a radio station to hang out with smart, funny, fabulous second graders, I'm not even going to take 30 seconds before I say: YES!







Monday, April 23, 2018

Creative Joy in the Coffee Shop

Years ago, when my boys were young enough that I was the one who had to drive them to their music lessons (piano for Christopher, saxophone for Gregory), both music teachers lived east of Boulder in the town of Lafayette, fifteen minutes away. So I cleverly arranged for both lessons to be at the same time and found a comfy, cozy coffee shop where I could while away a pleasant hour every Wednesday afternoon. It was there at Cannon Mine Coffee that I first started making long lists in my trusty little notebook of everything I wanted my life to be.

Back then, as I remember, there was just one couch and a bunch of tables. It was very important to me to get the couch. One day, en route to a lesson, I told Gregory, "If I get the couch, the rest of my life will be good. If I don't get the couch, the rest of my life will be bad." He said, "Mom, I think you're putting too much significance on the couch." And, yes, I did get the couch that day and the rest of my life did turn out exactly according to my prediction.


Today I had a delightful outing in the early afternoon, talking to a class of third graders at Mackintosh Academy as part of my research on comic books for my work-in-progress. I interviewed the kids for a most productive half hour of their library time, asking them about their favorite comic books and graphic novels, and even better, asking them what comic books they were writing themselves. (I warned them first that some of these ideas might find their way into my book, but that didn't dissuade them from sharing.)

When I had finished the interview, I felt like going somewhere special to do some writing on Chapter Two of the book. After all, my new year's goal is to have 10 hours a month of creative joy, and it's extra joyous to write somewhere out of the ordinary. Then I remembered  . . wait. . . I'm already halfway to Cannon Mine. It must be a decade since I've been there. Oh, I hope the couch is still there! And I hope I get the couch!

It was, and I did.

I had started Chapter 1 at Union Station, and I finished Chapter 1 on my own cozy little couch at home. I started Chapter 2 at the Denver Botanic Gardens, and I finished it today on the couch at Cannon Mine.

Now: where shall I write Chapter 3?

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Writing the First Line of My New Book

Writing the first sentence of a new book is scary.

Even though you know you can change it.

Even though you more than likely will change it.

It just feels so . . . momentous, so significant, so "fraught with fraughtness" as my friend Brenda says.

I've developed a system for making this moment more jolly and joy-filled (extra appropriate for this year I'm devoting to the pursuit of creative joy). I write that first line someplace special, not all alone in my ordinary house, but Somewhere Else, with its own imagination-stirring energy.

Yesterday was the day I planned to start writing the second book in my After School Super Stars chapter book series: book one was set in an after-school cooking camp; book two is set in an after-school comic-book/graphic-novel camp. I've been consumed with intensive comic book research (see previous post). But I love to start writing as soon as possible, as so much happens - really, everything happens - when the characters start to come alive and interact with one another on the page.

I had already planned to take the bus to Denver in the afternoon for the Big Book Bash organized by the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators to celebrate new books out this spring by local members. The Big Book Bash was taking place at the Tattered Cover Bookstore in the LoDo neighborhood of Denver, right by Union Station.

A plan began to form. What if I went in a bit earlier and wrote my first line of the new book sitting in the grand, glorious Great Hall of Union Station, with its many couches, chairs, tables, and other inviting writing spaces, not to mention its abundance of eateries to offer writerly sustenance?

Yes!

The bus from Boulder to Denver takes just over half an hour; I used the time to read a graphic novel from my research stack (Smile, by Raina Telgememeier, which I loved). At Union Station I bought a luscious muffin and chose the unoccupied corner of a long, comfy couch.

Now was the fateful moment. I took the cap off my trusty Pilot Razor Point fine-tipped black marker pen and wrote what might - or might not - be the first line of Vera Everett, Comic Book Star. I won't share that line here, as it's too new and tender for sharing right now. But words have been written! On the page! By me! To start a new book!

Once the first page was finished (as well as every crumb of the muffin), for extra credit I hopped aboard the free Sixteenth Street shuttle and went further downtown to the Civic Center, where a convention of indie-comic-book-creators was taking place: DINK (Denver Independent Comics & Art Expo). More research for Vera's story! The day's outing finished up with cake to celebrate new books by several dear author friends at the Big Book Bash. This is what I would call a perfect author day.

So if it's scary writing the first page of a new book, go write it Somewhere Else (and eat something Extra Nice while writing it). Take it from me!