Friday, February 16, 2018

To Be a Player, You Have to Keep on Playing

Last week there were not one but two huge book-related events here in Denver. CCIRA (the Colorado Council of the International Reading Association) had its enormous annual conference down at the Denver Tech Center's Marriott Hotel, and ALA (the American Library Association) had its gigantic mid-winter conference this year at the Denver Convention Center, especially exciting as the ALA conferences move around from city to city.

I attended events at both.

On Friday:
- "speed-dating" with teachers/librarians at CCIRA (a chance for authors and teachers to talk one-on-one in rotating five-minute conversations);
- a cocktail reception at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts hosted by my new publisher, Holiday House, for the librarians attending ALA.

On Saturday:
- another cocktail party jointly hosted by YALSA (the Young Adults Library Services Association of ALA) and SCBWI (the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) held at a bar/restaurant with the adorable name of The Greedy Hamster.

On Sunday: lunch with my brilliant editor, Margaret Ferguson, followed by a blissful couple of hours roaming past the overwhelming amount of publisher booths in the convention exhibit hall.

It was exhilarating and exhausting  (also terrifying because it snowed both Friday and Saturday, and I am the wimpiest of wimpy babies when it comes to driving in snow, after totaling my car on a slushy stretch of road a year ago). But mainly I loved every minute of it. I loved sharing my books with teachers at CCIRA and schmoozing with hilariously funny librarians at the elegant Holiday House reception. I loved connecting with another group of terrific librarians at the Greedy Hamster event. It was magical to have so much time to talk intimately with my editor. And as I wandered up and down the convention center exhibits, all I could think about was how much I love the world of books for young readers, and all the people - authors, illustrators, editors, teachers, librarians - in it.

I also realized that if I'm going to stay in this world - and BELONG in this world - I have to keep on contributing to this world. If I want to be a player in this magical playground, I have to show up to play.

Lately I've been finding myself losing interest not in writing, never in writing, but in publishing what I write. After keeping my commitment to myself for 2017 to submit something somewhere every single month, I'm sort of "over" submitting things. This year I'm loving above all writing poems just for me, or for a few friends, just for the joy of it. It matters less and less to me to see a book in a bookstore with my name on the cover.

But my time at CCIRA and ALA reminded me that if I want to be truly a part of this world I love so much, I have to keep on being willing not only to write, but to share what I've written with editors, teachers, librarians, and most of all, children.

I love this world. I love being a part of it. It's true that most of all I just want to have creative joy in my life, but I also love being part of a creative tribe. So I'm going to do what I can to keep my place in mine.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

"New Voices" Book Group

Back in January, when the fervor of ambition for the new year was upon me, I saw on Facebook a link to a list of "11 incredible books by writers from s---hole countries" - that is, countries denigrated by our president as producing immigrants that shouldn't be welcomed here. The writers on the list were all women writers, and all but two writers I had never heard of. Politics aside, wouldn't it be a lovely project to read these books through the course of 2018? And what if I formed a little book group to read them with me?

That day I ordered up as many titles as were available through the Boulder Bookstore, our premiere indie bookseller. Then I put out an invitation on Facebook asking who wanted to join me for this reading adventure. After a day or two, I had a dozen participants here in Boulder/Denver/Longmont, as well as several from around the country who wanted to join in, too. This was really going to happen!

I was a bit nervous before our first meeting, as the only connection among the participants was that they were my Facebook friends, and friends from so many different parts of my life: former philosophy students from CU, fellow children's book authors, a mom whose kids knew mine in their elementary school days, a "pew mate" from church and her Brazilian friend. It all felt a bit - random, I guess. But it turned out to be wonderful. When most of the people in a book group don't know each other, when they share only a commitment to challenge themselves as readers, they come ready to spend 90 minutes actually talking about the book, enriched by their diverse experiences, and eager to fill their lives with more diversity still.

At our first meeting, last night, our chosen title was Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, born in Ghana, but raised and educated in the U.S. Her book is an ambitious interwoven narrative that traces the stories of the descendants of two sisters over half a dozen generations, one side of the family engaged in the slave industry in Ghana, the other enslaved, and then free but burdened by oppression, in America. We talked about whether we found the structure of the book satisfying or constraining, whether we found the stories unbearably depressing or celebratory of resilience in tragedy, and what the book was trying to tell readers about the way that knowledge of our own stories, even the darkest ones, can set us free.

It was exhilarating.

In March we'll be reading Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue of Cameroon. For April we'll switch it up by turning to a slim volume of poetry, Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth by Warsan Shire, a Kenyan-born Somali poet now based in London. Then we'll decide what to read next, perhaps something by Haitian author Edwidge Danticat, some of whose books I read in a reading group at DePauw University during my time there.

My world will be bigger at the end of 2018 than it is now. Hooray for the chance to hear new voices, and to listen to them together with new friends.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

A Poem-a-Day

My chief creative-joy-achieving strategy for February has been joining an online group of poets organized by brilliant, inspirational poet Molly Fisk, who is a specialist in creative joy if anyone is.

The group works like this. You sign up and pay a modest fee to cover administrative costs. Every day Molly posts a prompt (you can find the February prompts on her website, on the February 2018 tab at the bottom on the home page). Then you write a poem on that prompt - or on some other topic of your own choosing - or no poem at all. Then you post your poem on the private group website - or not. You can comment on others' poems if you feel like it - or not. The only rule is not to offer unsolicited critique - just to express appreciation. If you feel like it!

The combination of structure and freedom here - the daily prompts, but the lack of coercion to produce accordingly - has been magical for me. Also, many of my fellow poets in the group are amazing - experienced, well-published poets of astonishing gifts who, like me, just thrive under Molly's gentle guidance.

When I'm writing a poem for Molly, I don't need to add Cool Whip to my Swiss Miss hot chocolate, or sit in a cozy cafe, or do a single solitary thing to make the experience more special, as writing poetry is already as special as anything could be. So: first I get a half hour of joy writing my poem. Then for the rest of the day I get many flashes of joy as I go back and read my poem over and over again, with a mother's proud fondness in her cherished offspring.

Here is my favorite of the poems I've written so far. Thanks for letting me share it here!


Me to four-year-old granddaughter:  “It’s so cold this morning. Don’t you want to wear your slippers?”
Her to me: “NO!”
Me in high squeaky voice while wiggling the slippers at her entreatingly: “Don’t you want to wear us?”
Her to them: “YES!”

It’s always come so naturally to me, the desire
to animate the inanimate. When my boys were little,
I would make their jackets beg to be zipped up,

their lunchboxes plead not to be forgotten.
Finally, when he was twelve or so, my son rebelled
against their tyranny: “No more making voices

for inanimate objects!” Adolescence was hard enough
without having the Eggo waffle imploring to be eaten,
the carrot weeping at being left upon the plate.

As if every object – all of them – were Puff
waiting for Little Jackie Paper, or Pooh saying goodbye
to Christopher Robin at the Enchanted Place.

My granddaughter left yesterday, back to her mommy.
We see her so seldom now, my son and I, since the divorce.
And now it’s not only me who misses her

but the slippers abandoned in the closet,
the sippy cup lonesome in the cupboard,
the small spoon all by itself in the drawer.

Monday, January 22, 2018

America's Test Kitchen: Author Version

Some of my author friends love doing research for their books so much that they keep on deferring the actual writing so they can linger in the library a bit longer. Not me. I love the actual writing so much that I tend to write the book first and then do the research for it afterward.

This is not always a good idea.

It's not always a bad idea, either, as after all, the story is the most important thing, and if it's right, those pesky little real-world details can be tweaked afterward. But sometimes, the after-the-fact research can prove a bit, shall we say, daunting.

My current work-in-progress is a third-grade-level chapter book set in an after-school program, where each book will feature a different camp: cooking camp, robotics camp, graphic novel camp, etc. Book one takes place in the cooking camp, and at least I know how to cook, right? I mean, I have made meals for my family for decades, and a few of them have turned out all okay. Still, I am not what you would call much of a cook. And this book, as you might expect, involves a great deal of cooking. The kids learn how to prepare healthy lunches; they make their own pet treats; there's a whole week devoted to pumpkin delicacies, and another for bake sale goodies; the camp culminates in a Trip around the World international feast.

In her editorial letter to me containing her suggestions for revision, my editor asked, as her final query, with perhaps just a tad of suspicion: "Have you made the food you are describing?"

Um, that would be a NO.

So last week I got busy. I searched for recipes all over the internet and found a bunch for the Morning Glory Muffins the kids make for their healthy lunch week. I combined, altered, tweaked, and experimented, and they turned out SCRUMPTIOUS!
But the make-your-own dog biscuits were a disaster. The dough would NOT stick together. It refused to be rolled out to a half-inch thickness. It was so tough and leathery you could NOT cut it with bone-shaped cookie cutters, even if I had had a bone-shaped cookie cutter, which I didn't. The first batch looked grotesque. (Yes, Tanky-the-dog did eat one happily, but this is the same dog who had to be stopped from eating out of the cat's litter box, so this sets the bar pretty low.)
I tried again, adding a couple of tablespoons of vegetable oil and using smaller cookie cutters, and this time the results were more aesthetically pleasing:
Next up: the cat cookies with tuna fish mixed into them (ick! but, yes, the dog ate one of these, too), and home-made granola (pretty yummy). Still lying ahead, the greatest challenge of all. Nixie's team is the one that makes the saag paneer for the Trip around the World feast. Luckily, I put out a plaintive plea on Facebook for a simplified recipe, and a brilliant children's book author friend, Varsha Bajaj, sent me one, which I'm planning to try, bravely, this afternoon. Wish me luck!

Here, today, I offer you the Morning Glory Muffin recipe. Enjoy!

Morning Glory Muffins

2 cups whole wheat flour
2 tsp baking soda
2 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp ground ginger
¼ tsp salt
2 cups grated carrot
2 cup grated apple
½ cup coconut flakes
¼ cup sunflower seeds
3 large eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
¼ cup orange juice
1/3 cup honey
½ cup vegetable oil
½ cup seedless raisins

Preheat oven to 375.
Combine dry ingredients in large mixing bowl (flour, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, salt).
Stir in carrots, apples, coconut, walnuts and seeds.
Beat together eggs, vanilla, orange juicy, honey, and oil.
Fold in the raisins.
Spoon into muffin pan (the recipe makes 18 muffins).

Bake for around 18 minutes (a bit less for darker pans).

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Creative Joy Progress Report

I have now had four hours of creative joy in this new year, the two hours I spent writing at BookBar -  the indie bookstore/cafe on Tennyson Street in Denver (see my previous post) - and two more this week.

One of the hours was just spent here at home doing a careful review of my chapter-book-in-progress in preparation for a conversation with my editor. To make the hour extra-special I put Cool Whip on my Swiss Miss hot chocolate, and it was a most satisfying hour indeed.

But the most creative hour of creative joy was yesterday, when I went with Kate, my partner in the creative joy project, to the Denver Art Museum for the final week of "Her Paris: Women Artists in the Age of Impressionism." Our mission: to look at beautiful paintings and write poems about them, or about anything at all, really. Kate brought along her sketchbook, too, for creating a visual record of our visit.

Here are the three poems I wrote from the "Her Paris" exhibit, paired with the paintings that inspired them, as well as the one I wrote in the small exhibit featuring statues and paintings of the Hindi elephant god Ganesha. The beauty of this kind of creative hour is that the poems don't have to be good. They just have to be written - and in order for me to fulfill my own personal objective, written with joy. I have to have FUN writing them. And I did.
Anna Archer
Young Woman Arranging Flowers
About 1885

We do not know the year
or the month, or the day,
but we know the moment.
You stand erect, even stiff,
in your dress of jade velvet,
golden hair tightly coiled,
absorbed in positioning
yellow and white flowers
in their careless profusion,
lavish, almost lewd, their petals splayed,
drooping beneath the extravagant
weight of their blooming,
alive in this instant,
this instant,
this one.

Louise Abbema, Lunch in the Greenhouse, 1877

Little girl with the sunlit curls,
it is not your pink bow,
as big as you are,
that catches our eye,
but the sagging socks,
gray worsted bunched at the ankles,
as you stand, just barely on tiptoe,
gesturing with outstretched hand,
too busy to tug at knee socks,
the bright sun tangled in your bright hair,
too busy to care.

The Last Days of Childhood
Cecelia Beaux, 1883-85

But how did you know?
We can only say afterward
That this was the last,
And not even then.
Which farewell was the final one?
Which moment the marker
That tells us the when?
I lost a piece of my childhood
Just yesterday.
Then I found it,
And then I lost it again.

Broken Tusk – Poem for Ganesha

My tusk is broken, too.
All of me is, really,
Mainly the parts you cannot see.
Am I an Overcomer of Obstacles like you?
It depends on what is meant by overcoming.
But I guess it’s clear that brokenness
Isn’t a deal breaker here.
Even an elephant with a broken tusk
Can grant prayers.
Even a woman with a broken spirit
Can continue praying.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

New Year's Goal: Creative Joy

Happy new year, everyone!

I've made my main goal for 2018, and I think I'm going to have a lot of fun with it. For that is the goal right there: fun! Or to be more specific, creative joy.

As goals have to be measurable and quantifiable, so I can know whether or not I've achieved them, and also because it's just so much, yes, FUN to have tangible evidence of progress, I've formulated the creative-joy goal in this way: every month I am committed to finding ten hours (give or take) of creative joy, with a year's end total of 120 hours - with one extra hour thrown in, so that I can have a rhyming slogan (borrowing from a South Pacific tune): "121 hours of fun."

I'm still trying to determine exactly how much fun I have to provide for myself in any given hour of creative endeavor for it to count toward my goal, but my tentative thought is that I have to make at least some special effort - it won't be enough just to do my ordinary scribbling while lying on my ordinary couch, or ordinary tapping away at my ordinary computer. Some things that would count: writing with friends, writing at cozy cafes, or art museums, or on park benches, or mountain retreats - and DEFINITELY writing in Paris!

Writing at home can count, too, if I enhance the experience in some way: if I drink tea from a teapot (I have so many pretty ones I never use), or burn a scented candle, or eat a Pepperidge Farm apple turnover, or put a shot of Amaretto in my Swiss Miss hot chocolate - or even, maybe, just a big enough dollop of Cool Whip on top.

I had my first two hours of creative joy yesterday, when my writer friend Kate Simpson and I went together to the BookBar on Tennyson Street in Denver, a charming indie book store with a cafe with an appealing menu of munchables. Kate and I claimed a comfy couch and ordered our treats, all with literary names (I had the Melville Melt). And then we sat there and wrote, and chatted about writing, and shared dreams about writing.
So: two hours of creative fun completed, with eight more to go this month. I might go make myself a pot of tea right now and light my vanilla-scented candle (if only I had a Pepperidge Farm apple turnover to pop into the oven, too. . . .) And then I'll look at my editor's revision notes on my forthcoming chapter book and figure out how to respond to them.

With joy.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Keeping a Promise I Made to Myself

It is now the last day of 2017.

On the first day of 2017 I made a commitment to myself: to submit something somewhere every single month. I worked out some rules. It had to be something new - I couldn't just submit the same manuscript twelve times to twelve different places. But it didn't have to be something completely new: it could be a significantly revised and resubmitted version of a previous manuscript. The project specified nothing about having any of these submissions accepted. I was giving myself a grade on effort, not results. But I wouldn't count something as a submission unless I thought it had at least a chance of being accepted. I couldn't just scrawl a four-line ditty and send it off to The New Yorker.

Here is my report on the first eleven months of the year.

JANUARY: sent a grant proposal to the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota Libraries for travel funds to spend a week in Minneapolis doing research on Maud Hart Lovelace, author of my beloved Betsy-Tacy books  - VERDICT: I got it! And spent a most happy and productive week there in May.

FEBRUARY: revised an old and never-submitted philosophy paper, "Artistic Integrity," my last-hurrah as a now-retired philosophy professor, and sent it off, without much hope, to the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism - VERDICT - accepted (!!!!) conditional on major edits.

MARCH: revised and resubmitted my paper on Pinky Pye and Ginger Pye of Eleanor Estes to the Children's Literature Association Quarterly - VERDICT: accepted and now in press.

APRIL: spent the month writing poetry and sent one poem, for children, to Highlights Magazine - VERDICT: after a wait of many months, rejected.

MAY: revised a children's literature paper I had delivered at the Children's Literature Association conference a few years ago and sent it to Children's Literature - VERDICT:  revise-and-resubmit, which I plan to do.

JUNE: short article ("The Most Underrated Line in Your Book") to the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators Bulletin - VERDICT: accepted and published, to some nice responses.

JULY: did the "major edits" on the "Artistic Integrity" paper and sent it back to the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism - VERDICT: accepted and now in press.

AUGUST: sent a story pitch to an educational publisher that had approached me as a possible contributor - VERDICT: rejected.

SEPTEMBER: sent my 15,000-word chapter book (already under contract) to my editor Margaret Ferguson at Holiday House - VERDICT: she pronounced it "darling" but of course has lots of revisions for me to undertake in the new year.

OCTOBER: sent in my proposal for a paper (on child poet Hilda Conkling) to be delivered on a panel at next year's Children's Literature Association conference in San Antonio in June - VERDICT: still waiting to hear, but this one is practically guaranteed to be accepted, as the other panelists are all academic super-stars.

NOVEMBER: sent another story pitch to the educational publisher, and then, with their encouragement, sent the full story - VERDICT: rejected - WAH! - but with a generous "kill fee" of $1000.

Then came December.

I was tired of submitting things. I was discouraged by the last rejection. My heart was heavy with family woes and stressed by Christmas preparations. I had hoped to have the energy to revise-and-resubmit the children's literature paper (May submission) sent back by Children's Literature, but couldn't face the additional research needed. Maybe it was enough to have done this submission project for eleven months? After all, as a result of it, I had already gotten my grant to go to Minnesota, published my article for SCBWI, and had both a major philosophy paper and major children's literature paper accepted in good journals - plus wrote an entire children's chapter book. Wasn't that enough?

No, it wasn't. I had made a promise to myself in the bright new morning of a fresh new year. Now I had to keep that promise.

So yesterday, with just 48 hours to spare, I unearthed some of the poems for grownups I had written back in April. I liked them! I researched places I might send them, by looking at places that had published work by poet friends who also wrote "accessible" poems drawing on their own life experiences. I picked one journal, looked at its submission requirements (maximum of three poems sent in one MS Word file), chose my three best poems, and sent them off. I have little hope for this one - but I also had little hope for my last-hurrah philosophy paper.

It feels SO GOOD to keep a promise to myself. I sometimes think that I owe any success I've had in my long career to one thing only: the ability to follow through. In the waning hours of 2017, I followed through on this January commitment, dear readers, and I'm so grateful to myself that I did.

Now I have to decide: what commitment to myself will I make in 2018?