Monday, August 14, 2017

Strategies for Banishing Self-Doubt

One of my beloved former creative writing students just emailed me with the plaintive question: "So how do I get rid of this self-doubt stuff?"

Here is some of what I told her - and what I constantly try to tell myself.

First of all, it's really really REALLY worth trying to do this. The poet Kay Ryan wrote these haunting lines about doubt:

A chick has just so much time
to chip its way out, just so much
egg energy to apply to the weakest spot
or whatever spot it started at.
It can't afford doubt. Who can?
Doubt uses albumen 
at twice the rate of work.

I know that when I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation, which I finally finished TWELVE YEARS after dropping out of grad school to work in publishing in NYC, at least eleven of those twelve years were wasted on self-doubt. Indeed, I think the actual writing of the dissertation, once time spent on self-doubt was subtracted, probably amounted to six months total.

So: how do we banish self-doubt? How do I do it now?

Here are four of my go-to methods.

1. I keep a monthly list of my "nice things and accomplishments." When I find myself wailing, "I've done nothing this summer, nothing at all!", I go back to the list and see that this just isn't true. Already, for August, I can see from my list that I wrote three short chapters of my current work-in- progress, gave my visiting granddaughters a magical week for all of us, presented comments on a fascinating paper by the brilliant Rifka Weinberg at the University of Colorado's Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress, and wrote a tenure review for a professor at the University of Oklahoma. That isn't nothing! But I know this only because I took the time to document it.

2. When I decide that my current work-in-progress is horrible - formulaic, predictable, boring - I remind myself that my job is just to write it, just to get it down on paper. Then others can tell me whether it works for them as readers, or not, and when they do - guess what? - I can go back and fix it. I recently read this excellent statement from novelist 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."

3. When I'm tormented by voices of my imagined critics - or worse, by real ones - I sometimes go to an online review site like Goodreads and look at reviews of authors whose books I most adore. Even they have detractors. One of my favorite books ever written, for example, is Anne Tyler's Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. On Goodreads, its average rating is only a fairly lukewarm 3.81 stars out of a possible 5. "This book was dull and disappointing," wrote one reader. "This book really did not do it for me," wrote another. Moral: there will always be some reader somewhere, and lots of readers everywhere, for whom my book "really did not do it." But there will be others for whom it did.

4. Finally, I try to make the writing itself as much fun as possible, so that, whatever the outcome in terms of the world's response to the work, at least I found some joy in producing it. I drink Swiss Miss hot chocolate when I write; I write in interesting places, like the Denver Botanic Gardens; I write with interesting people, at writing dates with other writers who are defeating their demons as I'm defeating mine. I treat myself to adorable notebooks, or soft blankets to wrap myself in as I write. Fourteen years ago, when I finally gave into my sons' pleading for a cat, it was largely because my younger son painted a picture for me of how cozy it would be to have a purring cat beside me as I write. And it is!

So these are a few strategies I use. They are successful only some of the time. But "some of the time" turns out to be enough.
My best writing companion, Snickers.




Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Writing Goals: "Pick ONE bird and shoot it"

I'm home from my six-week teaching stint at Hollins and immediately launched into a ten-day grandmothering stint here in Boulder. I have full-time care of Kataleya, aged 3, and Madilyne, aged 14 months, for every day this week while their daddy is off at work. I have all kinds of treats lined up: library story times, splashing in the pool, best-friend reconnection for Kat, outing to the Museum of Nature and Science (with its fabulous new Discovery Zone), and an outing to my favorite place of all, Tiny Town in Morrison (my boys loved it when they were little, and Kat and Madi love it now).

There is only one problem with this: how am I going to get any work done at all, I who adore work, who thrive on crossing items off my to-do list, who can be truly happy only if I have both love and work in my life?

The answer, I already know, is early hours, rising not at 5 but at 4, or even 3:30. Oh, but sometimes, especially after a day of intense family fun, it's hard to get up that early; fatigue accumulates; exhaustion sets in. All I can ever count on is - yes - as the name of this blog attests - an hour a day.

With these new, more stringent time constraints, I have to focus with heightened care on exactly how I use that hour. I remembered this writing advice from Ian Frazier, in his essay in Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir (edited by William Zinsser). He wrote:

I began with the primise that I wanted to get at least one thing right. My analogy comes from hunting. When you're in a field and a whole bunch of quail go up, if you're a beginner, you put your gun to your shoulder and just go BANG. You see all those birds and you shoot at them all and you won't get one. If you want to get a bird, pick one bird and shoot at it. I've seen films of wolves pursuing a herd of caribou. They will pick one out. The wolf will run into a herd of thousands and will chase that one caribou through the herd - and get it.

So this week I'm aiming each morning to accomplish just one thing, asking myself: "What is the one thing that, if I accomplished it, I'd feel good about my work today?"

Yesterday it was writing for one hour on my new chapter-book-in-progress. My focus was so laser-like that in that hour I wrote all five pages of Chapter Six. (It helped that I had brainstormed exactly what to write on the flights home from Roanoke to Denver.) Today my one task was typing up yesterday's chapter, doing lots of revision as I tapped away on the computer keys. Tomorrow my one task is to complete an author questionaire for the forthcoming paperback edition of Write This Down.

With one fabulously focused hour of work behind me, I can feel good about myself as a writer, and then spend the rest of the day, most happily, on this:




Sunday, July 23, 2017

Counting My Life Away

I finish up my summer teaching stint at Hollins University in Roanoke to head back to my home in Boulder in five more more days. I know exactly how many days I have left because I started counting them on the day I arrived, five weeks ago today: 40 days then, 5 days now, 9 more meals left on my meal plan, 2 more classes to teach, 1 more time to do laundry in my friend Elizabeth's apartment. I recite these dwindling numbers as a litany each night before I go to bed and the first thing when I wake up in the morning.

Part of me wonders why I do this. After all, Hollins is paradise, my weeks here are filled with nonstop bliss, and I'm as contented here as I've ever been anywhere. I will return home to many more cares and responsibilites. So why on earth am I counting down these happy days, one by one, in this obsessive fashion? To borrow a phrase from J. Alfred Prufrock, aren't I "measur[ing] out my life with coffee spoons"? Isn't there something downright depressing about counting my life away?

I've decided my answer here is no. I love counting things. My counting of days doesn't mean I'm not squeezing every bit of joy out of each one. In fact, I keep the countdown in my trusty little notebook, with each day listed, from 40 to 1, with that day's blessings recorded next to it. So I'm not really crossing off the days with a big red X. I'm filling in each day with its quota of delight: a class well taught, lunch with a favorite student, a cozy hour writing in the library with good progress on my chapter book. Crosing off days becomes another method of journaling, a record not of days to be endured but of days well spent.

I've always counted things, all kinds of things. When I fold laundry, I count out the first five items folded, then the next five, and the five after that. When I drive a familiar route, I count out the next five traffic lights. When I read, my fingers count out the next five pages. I set myself five goals every day. Okay, so this does sound a bit OCD, I have to admit, given that I not only love counting but love counting in mulitples of five. But all of this counting is just a way for me to impose a teensy bit of structure on the otherwise sprawling chaotic mess that we call life.

So: writing this blog post is one of the five things I have to do today, and now it's done, and I feel happier than if I had never put it on a to-do-list at all. Knowing I have five days left at Hollins doesn't mean I'm dreading each one; it just means I'm savoring each morning, noon, and night that much more fully. 

Five more days, then four, then three, then two, then one, then HOME!


Friday, July 14, 2017

My Summer Office

Here at Hollins, the office I've been assigned in Swannanoa Hall (isn't that a wonderful name?) is perfectly adequate, but uninspiring. The suite of rooms I have in the Barbee Guest House are charming, but lack the essential of a desk, table, or any similar writing surface. But I have found for myself the most beautiful office I'll probably ever have on this earth: Hollins's Wyndham Robertson Library.

During the academic year the library may well be overrun with frantically studying students, but in the peaceful summer, I have the choice of so many delicious options for work.

If I need my computer, I have a favorite table on the second floor;
I love this table so much I'll leave my laptop there all day to stake my claim (not that there is any competition) even when I head off for lunch, completely confident that it will be there waiting for me when I return.

Here is the view out the window from my table of a sunlit hillside.
For my actual creative work, however, I prefer writing by hand curled up a couch. Here is the selection of couch options in the Hollins Room on the library's third floor.
Should I feel chilly as I scribble away, why, the library has anticipated my every need:
For a final tempting option I can wend my way up a tiny spiral staircase to the reading loft:
There I can lie upon cushions to read (though my students report that this option can also result in unplanned naps).
On my non-teaching days I spent all day most blissfully at my library "office." Over the past few weeks I revised chapter one of my new work-in-progress (still untitled), and went on to write chapters two and three. I finished revisions on a last-hurrah scholarly philosophy article and wrote comments on a paper that I'll be delivering, as a respondent, at the University of Colorado's Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress in August. I've read and responded to student work. I'm writing this blog post there right now.

My goal when I return to my life in Boulder in two weeks is to see what I might find for a western office-away-from-home, as I'm now so enamoured of the productivity that comes from spending time in such a magical place. But I have to admit that Hollins has set a standard it will be hard for any other place on earth to meet.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Give Your Charater a Controlling Belief

One of the best things about teaching in an MFA program, as I'm doing right now in the graduate program in children's literature at Hollins University, is that the faculty get to learn both from their students and from each other.

Last week I heard a lunchtime talk on characterization from the incomparable Kathi Appelt, our current writer-in-residence. Listening to Kathi's crisp distillation of the process of character creation was the single most productive hour I've spent as a writer in the past year.

Drawing on a course that Kathi (herself a Newbery-honoree and two-time National Book Award finalist) had taken from writing guru Dennis Foley, she told us that we need to know five essential things about our characters. (Have I mentioned on this blog that I have an obsession with the number five? My daily, weekly, and monthly lists all have five items on them. So a list of five essential things to know about our characters is perfect for me!)

Here are the five things on Kathi's list:

1. their occupation (or role) - for a child, this "occupation" might be daughter, sister, friend
2. how well they perform that occupation, or how well they think they do
3. their controlling belief or attitude (doesn't have to be true or logical)
4. their goal (what the character has to achieve, overcome, or acquire)
5. their stakes - what is at stake if the character fails?

The item on the list that struck me most powerfully was #3: the controlling belief. Kathi gave as examples: "I can do anything I set my mind to," "Nothing I do will ever be good enough to please my father"; and (for Romeo and Juliet), "I can't live without you." A well-structured story culminates in a "crisis of faith" when the character comes face to face with the controlling belief, as the belief is challenged in some way and either validated or discarded. The controlling belief needs to be meaningful enough to the character to carry the entire story forward to its climax and resolution.

I've been struggling with my current work-in-progress: the first title of a new third-grade-level chapter book series set in an after-school program. I had written three chapters on it several months ago, but I had a niggling worry at the back of my mind that my chapters were ALL WRONG. I haven't been able to stand the thought of looking at them since, or working on the book at all - which, I might mention, is not a productive way of moving a book forward.

After Kathi's talk, I forced myself to read those three chapters. And yes, they were indeed ALL WRONG. I had idenitifed the wrong occupation for Nixie: I had thought it was daughter (she's upset that her mother has gone back to work), but it's friend (the real reason she's upset is that her best friend isn't going to attend the after-school program with her, but go to the home of a rival friend instead). Although I hadn't thought consciously about her controlling belief, if I had, that belief would have been: "Nothing should ever change." But her real controlling belief, I now can see, is: "You can only have one best friend."

Now that I know these two things I have an actual plan for the book. Nixie's goal is going to be to get her best friend back. Her attempts to implement the plan will backfire, driving her best friend ever further away. It all makes so much sense!

Thank you, dear brilliant Kathi, for giving me this crucial tidbit of writing wisdom.

Now I'm off to rewrite those first three all-wrong chapters, and write new three terrific ones instead.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Little Bits of Enchantment

I'm now finishing up my second week of the six-week term of the Advanced Creative Writing Tutorial I'm teaching at Hollins University in Roanoke. I love my class, I love my students, and I love my colleagues. But most of all I think I just love the magic of this campus in the summertime, with all the creative spirits wandering about in this bucolic space. . . where you never know whom you might meet on a stroll.

Such as. . .
Or:
And:


These, and other beloved friends from children's classics old and new, roam the campus, thanks to the efforts of my colleague Ashley Wolff. In addition to Ferdinand (can you see the flowers he's sniffing?), Eloise, Pippi, and Olivia, I've been able to greet Madeline, Frances-the-little-badger, Sal from Blueberries with Sal, Pooh, Piglet, and Eeyore, and more. And who knows? Someday one of my students may create an immortal character who will bring another bit of enchantment to this campus on some distant tomorrow.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

From Paradise to Paradise

I had no sooner arrived at Hollins University for my summer teaching in the graduate programs in children's literature (i.e., paradise), and settled into my adorable rooms in the charming Barbee Guest House on the Hollins campus, when I had to whisk myself off for a whirlwind visit to ChLA - the annual conference of the Children's Literature Association (i.e., paradise), held this year in Tampa.

I was disappointed that my two paradises had a conflict in dates, with the ChLA conference falling during the crucial first week of the six-week Hollins summer term. How could I miss my very first class with my already beloved students? But how could I miss the mandatory all-day meeting of the Phoenix Award Committee, for which I'm in the middle of serving a three-year-term? I decided to try to do both -  dash off from Hollins to ChLA for the Wednesday meeting and one conference session (the 8:00-9:15 a.m. session on Thursday, the first day of the conference proper), where I'd deliver my paper for a panel on the North American Girl's Bildungsroman. Then I'd dash back to Hollins, with a makeup class planned for my students with compensatory love to be lavished upon them.

It made for an intense few days, but also for a magical few days. What is more satisfying than to spend hours and hours talking with four super-smart children's literature scholars about the ten finalists we had chosen together for the Phoenix Award? As the award honors a book published twenty years ago, which didn't receive a major award at the time but is deemed (by us) as worthy of one now, these were all titles published in 1999 - and oh, that year had some amazing books for us to agonize over. We aren't able to reveal our choice yet, but we left the meeting most pleased with ourselves for what we had chosen.

That evening I squeezed in a dinner with three conference friends. We've been meeting together since we first met as roommates at the ChLA conference in Buffalo in 2004 - strangers to each other at that time, who teamed up to save money and ease demand on a limited bank of conference-reserved hotel rooms. That year we had our first "midnight feast" (the term borrowed from a staple scene in classic girl's boarding school books). Our feast, however, doesn't take place at midnight, but after an early dinner. We lie on the beds in one of our hotel rooms and read aloud to each other from favorite children's books while stuffing ourselves full of candy. What better feast could there be?

This morning my three co-panelists and I delivered our papers to a surprisingly large audience for our early time slot. One of them, the panel's bold organizer, Dawn Sardella-Ayres, gifted me with yet more candy to thank me for reading and commenting (earlier this year) on a draft of her now-completed dissertation for her Ph.D. from Cambridge University. The candy was TWO Cadbury chocolate bars of top-quality British Cadbury chocolate, in the largest size of any candy bar I've ever seen. Here is one of the two (alas, there isn't much left of the other one), with two good-sized mugs behind it, for scale,


Then I flew back to Hollins, from one paradise to another, with more candy than one mortal has any right to dream of this side of, well, paradise.