Friday, September 22, 2017

Not What I Planned

This week I had planned to: write my paper submission (on child poet Hilda Conkling) for next year's Children's Literature Association conference (due October 1 to my panel organizer); read the most recent installment of my Hollins graduate student's creative thesis (a novel in verse); and generate nonstop fun for my visiting granddaughters.

I did none of these things.

Instead I went to the emergency room at 4:30 a.m. on Tuesday with excruciating lower back pain and constant vomiting, discovered I had a kidney stone large enough to require surgery, and spent the next 36-plus hours lying in a hospital bed awaiting my turn in the operating room. I came home yesterday afternoon without a kidney stone - yay! - but also without much of my usual perkiness and pep.

Some things I learned:

1. Just about anything you have to do can be canceled, and the world will still keep on turning.

2. There are worse ways to spend a day than lying in a comfortable hospital bed, drowsy, dopey, and drugged, cared for by someone else.

3. Nurses are the kindest people in the world, except for church friends, who are even kinder, and kindest of all? Church friends who are nurses. On the second day of waiting, I was lying in the dreary little pre-op room waiting for the surgical procedure that had been postponed a day, and was now delayed again. It was 5 p.m., and I was hungry, with no food or drink since midnight and almost no food the day before; I was bored, tired, restless, and scared. Then Louise from my church, a retired nurse, appeared as a welcome surprise to sit with me: cheering, consoling, a visiting angel.

4. It's better to focus on all the ways in which you are lucky than on all the ways you're not. I was unlucky to lose half a week of my life to this medical ordeal (though it's hardly an uncommon one). But, oh, I was lucky that this wasn't the week of my upcoming Viking River Cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest with my beloved friend Rachel - and that the hospital could fit me into the surgical schedule, however late in the day my slot fell - and that I was even able to arrange the appointment to remove my temporary stent for next week, before I head off for a quick jaunt to Indiana. I continue to be what I call "a lucky unlucky person."

5. Drink water! Lots of it! Every day! Always!

I'm home now, feeling grateful more than anything: to the wonderful medical staff of the Boulder Community Hospital Foothills campus (a beautiful new facility); to my St. Paul's UMC pastor and church family for their unfailing support (and other friends who offered child care, food, rides, company); to the son who took off work to drive me to the ER hours before dawn, losing a day of work (and pay) for my sake; and to the hundreds of Facebook friends, some of whom I've never met in "real life," who answered my anguished cry for help in the middle of a long night of pain with advice, shared stories, insight, and compassion.

So I'm not really a "lucky unlucky person." Just a lucky one. And lucky enough to know it, too.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

"Nothing Surely Is So Potent as a Law that May Not Be Disobeyed"

This is what my hero, Victoria novelist Anthony Trollope, wrote in his inspirational autobiography. He was talking about his practice of writing for a short, fixed span of time early every morning, and thereby producing dozens of sprawling novels while working full-time for the British Post Office.

For me this year, my law that may not be disobeyed is my commitment to myself to submit something somewhere every single month: creative or scholarly, long or short, old or new. The only rule is that twelve different things have to be submitted, one per month. That's all. Submitted, not accepted. Period.

It's now September. I've met this goal for nine months so far, and I'm track to meet it for the rest of the year. Each time I send something off into the universe, on this schedule, I get that lovely tingly feeling of anticipation that something nice could happen. And quite a few nice things have.

Here is my record of submissions/verdicts so far. (Here, too, I borrow from Trollope, who included in his autobiography a record of every pound and shilling earned on every book.)

January - grant proposal to the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota to do archival research on Maud Hart Lovelace
VERDICT: GOT THE GRANT! SPENT A BLISSFUL WEEK THERE IN MAY!

February - submission of a philosophy paper, "Artistic Integrity" to the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, my swan song as a professional philosopher
VERDICT: ACCEPTED CONDITIONAL ON "MAJOR EDITS"

March - submission of a children's literature paper on Ginger Pye and Pinky Pye by Eleanor Estes to the Children's Literature Association Quarterly, a revised and resubmitted version of a paper sent there last year
VERDICT: ACCEPTED THIS TIME!

April - submission of a poem to the children's magazine Highlights
VERDICT: NONE - PRESUMED REJECTED - OH, WELL!

May - submission of a children's literature paper titled "Trying to Be Good (with Bad Results): The Wouldbegoods, Betsy, Tacy, and Tib, and Ivy and Bean: Bound to Be Bad" to Children's Literature
VERDICT (JUST ARRIVED  YESTERDAY): "Revise and resubmit"

June - short article to the SCBWI newsletter, Kite Tales, called "The Most Underrated Line of Your Book"
VERDICT: ACCEPTED!

July - re-submission of the massively edited "Artistic Integrity" paper (enough changed to count as a new submission according to my self-imposed rule)
VERDICT: ACCEPTED!

August - story ideas sent to an educational publisher interested in working with me, and one full-fledged story pitch
VERDICT: MORE WORK IS NEEDED! BUT GETTING CLOSE!

September - my new chapter book, tentatively titled Cooking All-Stars, to my editor at Holiday House
VERDICT: I WON'T HEAR BACK ON THIS FOR A MONTH OR TWO

Plan for October: submit my paper abstract for the June 2018 Children's Literature Association conference in San Antonio

Plan for November: submit another idea or two to the educational publisher

Plan for December: revise and resubmit my "Trying to Be Good (with Bad Results)" paper

And then that will be a full year of faithful obedience to this law I have given myself.

For 2018 I'm already planning to try something completely different, to impose some other not-yet-determined-but-unbreakable law upon myself, and wait for what I expect to be dazzling results. For, nothing surely IS more potent than a law that may not be disobeyed.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Worries: Short Term, Medium Term, Long Term

I have a lot of worries these days, so I've been thinking a lot about how best to do my worrying. Of course, the very best way to worry is not to worry at all, as worry itself - as opposed to concerted, strategic planning - is one of the most pointless activities on earth. The Gospel of Matthew quotes Jesus as asking, "Can any of you add a single hour to your life by worrying?" Mark Twain quipped,"I've had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened." And yet, most of us are addicted to worry. We just can't stop doing it.

So I sat down recently and sorted my worries into the categories of short term, medium term, and long term. Here's what I figured out.

In the very short term - such as, right this minute - all is actually well with my life. I have a roof over my head, good health, money to pay my immediate bills, work I adore, and loved ones safe and cared for. This actual minute - actually, all of today - is pretty good. I do have stuff to do today: get an oil change for my car, see a dentist for a second opinion regarding the three pricey crowns I've been told I need, write for an hour on my chapter-book-in-progress, read a friend's manuscript, and work with my son to make a dent in the overwhelming volume of paperwork for his impending, very sad divorce. But I can get all of that done. Today is okay!!

In the long term, say, more than a year or two away from now, all bets are off. I have no idea what will happen to me, because anything could: a terrible medical diagnosis, tragedy befalling my family and friends, evaporation of my writing career. Five hundred hideous things could happen. Or not. I have no way of knowing. So here, instead of worrying, I need to focus my energies on maintaining resources that will stand me in good stead whatever happens. I call these the five dimensions of health: physical, mental, emotional, financial, and spiritual. There is no downside to keeping myself fit on all those five dimensions. For me this means walking 10,000 steps a day and watching my weight, keeping intellectually alive through challenging creative and scholarly work, fostering a network of close friends, spending less than I earn, and being an active member of my faith community.

It's the medium term that's the problem. This is where I'm consumed with fears about all of these divorce decisions and paperwork - plus two trips abroad that I committed myself to before my family's need for me intensified so greatly - plus a book to finish, a paper to write for an upcoming conference, and a bunch of other life challenges ranging from pesky to profound. But here what I really need is not to spend my time on worry, but instead to spend it on work - actually getting done what I need to do - and getting it done day by day by day.

That is to say, the medium term is just made up of a bunch of short terms. Each day I need to wake up, express gratitude for the basic okay-ness of my life right now, and take small, regular, manageable steps to do what I need to do. Instead of agonizing about all of my middle-term worries, I'm going to focus on short-term gratitude and small concrete accomplishments, and long-term maintenance of my health on all dimensions.

Worry, begone!

Monday, August 21, 2017

Total Eclipse Birthday

When your birthday happens to fall on the date of a total eclipse of the sun, and your younger son has given you eclipse glasses on the previous Christmas, you really have no choice but to make a special pilgrimage to celebrate the coincidence of natality and totality.

So I decided to head to Red Cloud, Nebraska, home of Willa Cather, on the theory that if the weather gods refused to cooperate and the eclipse itself was a total bust, a sojourn in the landscape so beloved of one of America's most brilliant writers would, in itself, make the trip worthwhile.

We drove all day yesterday, almost four hundred miles, most of it on Highway #34, which runs across the bottom edge of Nebraska, parallel to Highway #36, running along the top edge of Kansas, which I used to take back and forth to and from Indiana. I don't like to view America's Heartland from the Interstate, the auotomotive equivalent of a fly-over. I want to pass through its little towns, eat at its hometown cafes, wave close-up at its sunflowers.

We're not only staying in the town made famous as Black Hawk in Willa Cather's pioneer novels, we are staying in her parents' one-time house, the Cather Second Home, now operated as a bed-and-breakfast by the Willa Cather Foundation.
Our room is the one right above the front door in this picture. Although it's the smallest, it's the one Willa herself stayed in when she came to visit once she was all grown up and living in New York City.

Down the street is her childhood home:
Just outside of town is a stretch of virgin prairie, preserved in her name:
Red Cloud isn't in the actual totality zone, so this morning we drove 40 miles north to Hastings. On the ride we listened to a selection of sun-themed classical music pieces courtesy of Nebraska Educational Radio. My favorite: a baroque rendition of George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun."

The weather gods did indeed bless us so we could view the eclipse from a pleasant park, with a few dozen other spectators.
And it all happened EXACTLY as it was supposed to, with the sun gradually eaten away by the moon, until at precisely 12:58 p.m., it was gone altogether, for two minutes of mid-day darkness.

The thing I hadn't expected was how bright the world remained up until the moment of totality. Even when the sun was ALMOST totally eclipsed, the shadows upon the sunlit grass were sharp; it was still clearly daytime, even with only the merest fingernail paring of sun on view through my eclipse glasses.

Moral: even the tiniest bit of sun is enough to hold off the darkness. A good thing for me to remember from this birthday I'll never forget.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Perfect Writing Day

Every once in a while the universe delivers to each of us one perfect day. Yesterday was one of mine.

My writer friend Sarah organized a "write-out" yesterday at the Denver Botanic Gardens: a "write-out" is just like a "write-in" except that we gather together to write outdoors instead of in. Only two of us were able to accept Sarah's invitation, but there we were at 9 o'clock yesterday, when the gardens opened, wandering through gorgeous late-summer plantings to this enchanted structure:
Inside are four little tables, one for each of us, plus one for any other wanderer of the morning. Here I sit at mine:
Then, for the next few hours, we wrote. That's all we did: sit at our own little tables, and write. But not only did I write, I wrote the final chapter of my chapter-book-in-progress, where I could scrawl a huge THE END when I put down my pen - even though I know it's only THE END, for now.

While Sarah continued writing, Jean and I walked through the gardens talking about some challenges in creating character conflict in her novel-in-progress. Then we returned to the gazebo (is it a gazebo? or is there some other name for this magical spot?), collected Sarah, and had lunch together at the cafe by the Monet Water Lilies pond.
The sandwiches were yummy, and we talked, and we talked, and we talked some more.

And that was my day. And it was perfect. Thank you, Sarah and Jean, for sharing it with me. Thank you, universe, for giving it to me.

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.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Off to Paradise (i.e., Hollins University)

I leave tomorrow to spend six weeks teaching in the Graduate Program in Children's Literature and Children's Book Illustration at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia. I will be entering the portals of paradise.
I've sojourned at Hollins twice before: as a writer-in-residence in the summer of 2005 and as a faculty member teaching chapter book writing in the summer of 2014. So I know exactly what to expect, which is six weeks of creative joy.

This time I'm teaching one of the three Advanced Creative Writing Tutorials, where students are working on their creative thesis projects, intensely workshopping them in class sessions as well as honing fine points of craft. I will have four students in the class - yes, four - and we'll meet twice a week, Mondays and Wednesdays from 2-5. I've been in email contact with them already to learn what project they are planning to pursue during our time together and to ascertain how I can best assist them in its pursuit. I love them already.

That's what makes the Hollins program such a paradise. Everyone is there for one reason only: love. The students want to write or illustrate children's books more than anything in the world and have waited all year to have these six enchanted weeks in which to immerse themselves in doing this. The faculty leave behind everything else in our lives - all our cares and woes - to spend six weeks teaching what we love best to people who yearn with every fiber of their being to learn it. In most university teaching, if you end class a few minutes early, no wails of lamentation are heard from the students. At Hollins, if you try to end a three-hour class five minutes before the close of the final hour, the students say, "But - we still have five minutes left! Can we just ask you a few more questions?"

The campus itself is lovely, tucked in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern Virginia. Each morning I walk, very early, with two dear friends past horses grazing in green pastures. Evenings are filled with stimulating talks, or long, intense, funny, heartfelt conversations.

As if this weren't enough, my closest friend in the world lives in Roanoke. She is retiring from thirty years of teaching high school theater, and her last day is . . . TODAY. So there will time for playing with Rachel, including a weekend getaway to Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, with two other beloved friends who live in Maryland.

Oh, and I'll have time to do my own writing, too. I've been preoccupied with scholarly, academic projects for the last few months, but I'll return to being my creative self at Hollins. Last time I was there I wrote an entire 15,000-word chapter book: Simon Ellis, Spelling Bee Champ. This time I have two creative projects packed in my suitcase - plus dreams of writing something utterly new of which I haven't yet a glimmer of an idea.
But one may come to me in paradise, don't you think?


Thursday, June 8, 2017

"The Ants Go Marching" Song - New and Improved!!!

In the first book in my Nora Notebooks series, The Trouble with Ants, budding myrmecologist (ant scientist) Nora is irritated by the decidedly unscientific lyrics of the song, "The Ants Go Marching Two by Two" (hurrah, hurrah!). She sniffs:"'The little one stops to suck his thumb.' As if ants had thumbs rather than mandibles! 'The little one stops to tie his shoe.' Tying a shoe? Really?"

Well, yesterday I received an email from Kate Wolff, first grade teacher at the Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning in Denver. Her students had read Nora's story and responded by writing new lyrics for this old song, informed by their own study of ants. The lyrics are brilliant. The lyrics are amazing. The lyrics took my breath away.

Here, with their permission to post, the new and improved version of "The Ants Go Marching Two by Two."

The Ants Go Digging
A scientifically correct version of “The Ants Go Marching” by Kate’s Crew
The ants go digging one by one, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging one by one, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging one by one,
Then one emits a pheromone
And they all follow the smell down, underground
To get into the chamber
BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM!
 
The ants go digging two by two, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging two by two, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging two by two,
Their colony is like a crew
And they cooperate
In all they do
BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM!
 
The ants go digging three by three, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging three by three, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging three by three
Their feet are called their tarsi
And they use them to climb trees
BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM!
 
The ants go digging four by four, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging four by four, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging four by four,
The army ants might go to war
If other colonies attack
BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM!
 
The ants go digging five by five, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging five by five, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging five by five
They hide away to stay alive
Avoiding predators (and rain)
BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM!

The ants go digging six by six, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging six by six, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging six by six
The nurse ants give the larvae licks
To keep them moist and clean
BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM!
 
The ants go digging seven by seven, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging seven by seven, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging seven by seven
They have two stomachs in their abdomen
And one is called a crop!
BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM!
 
The ants go digging eight by eight, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging eight by eight, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging eight by eight,
In the winter they hibernate
Deep down under the ground
BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM!
 
The ants go digging nine by nine, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging nine by nine, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging nine by nine,
They leave the nest in a line
To forage for their food
BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM!
 
The ants go digging ten by ten, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging ten by ten, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging ten by ten,
The queen ant lays some eggs again
And the life cycle never ends
BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM!

Thank you, Kate's Crew! I told them I only wished Nora were a real person, instead of a character I invented, so I could send these lyrics to her directly. How pleased she would be!

Monday, June 5, 2017

Kicking the [Stuffing] out of Plan B

This year May was my cruelest month.

My family is undergoing huge, heartbreaking changes. For the past four years my son and his wife - and their dog - have lived with me. Then came adored granddaughter number one, and adored granddaughter number two, making a total of six humans and two animals in my 1500-square-foot condo. I sometimes mourned the loss of control over my own space and my own time, even as I knew these intensely sweet days wouldn't last, as nothing in this world ever does.

And now it's over: my son and his wife are divorcing, and the girls and their mother moved out this past weekend to a mountain town a good four hours' drive away (not counting weather and traffic, which are huge factors for much of the year).

I'm heartbroken. Now, of course, I'd give anything to have my old crammed, crowded life with those two little girls back again, in every exhausting and exasperating detail.

But Plan A is no longer an option.

One of my writer friends has a new mantra: "When Plan A falls through, kick the [stuffing] out of Plan B." Her Plan A was having her most recent book, the one she loved best and believed in most passionately, rejected by mainstream publishers. Her Plan B is self-publishing, and she's determined to promote this book to every reader in the universe and make it her best-seller, anyway.

My Plan B is: 1) enjoy my peaceful, quiet house for three out of four weeks each month while I work busily and happily on my own creative and scholarly writing projects; then 2) have the girls come to us one week a month, where I'll be with them full time every weekday while their daddy is at work, filling every day with as much love and joy and memory-making moments as I can.

That is not a terrible plan.

It's not the plan I wanted, but I can make it a good plan. It won't be the "forever" plan, as someday the girls will be in "real school" where they will have to come to us on holidays or summer vacations - and someday they may no longer live in this mountain town - and someday everything may change yet again. There are no forever plans. I'm trying to make peace with the radical unknowability of the future.

In the meantime, I'm going to do everything I can to kick the [stuffing] out of Plan B.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Archival Rsearch at the Kerlan Collection: Part II

I've now finished three exhilarating and exhausting days of children's literature research at the Kerlan. And when I say "exhausting," I mean that yesterday I returned home to my bed-and-breakfast, put on my nightgown, and got into bed at 5:30. So many hours spent poring over voluminous heaps of paper, number two pencil clenched in my hand (no pens allowed, though laptops are permitted, and I did take lots of pictures of key items on my phone). I already have 25 pages of closely written notes.
I don't think I'm allowed, at this point, to quote directly from the collection (I need to check on what I need to do to secure that permission). But here is a little bit of what I've found.

I've spent most of my time on Maud Hart Lovelace, author of the Betsy-Tacy books. The Kerlan has two big cartons of MHL materials, plus another smaller box. Here I discovered:

 The typewritten manuscript of the first story Maud wrote as a precursor to the Betsy-Tacy books: "Betty and Bick [Tacy's real-life name] Visit a Hermit";

Correspondence between Maud and the childhood friends, now grown, who served as the real-life inspiration for her characters, pressing them for the vivid details to make each story come alive;

Dozens of pages of notes on Minnesota birds, trees, flowers, seasonal observations, and local history as background research;

Meticulous documention of article titles, fashion styles, popular actors and songs, from a month-by-month review of Ladies Home Journal for the year corresponding with each book;

And much more!

I have to say that I had no idea Lovelace did so much grueling research for her series, as the books are based so closely on her own childhood and teen years. Wasn't she just relying on memory? No! There is even a letter from the Hayden Planetarium in New York City answering a question about what constellations Betsy might have seen when sailing to Europe on the eve of World War I in Betsy and the Great World. I was humbled by this evidence of how hard she worked to make the early twentieth century feel so real for her readers.

The Eleanor Estes material here at the Kerlan is less juicy than I what I explored last year at the University of Connecticut; there it was a lot of correspondence, but here it's mainly typewritten and copy-edited manuscripts with relatively few changes made on them (but I did pounce on those I found with great interest.) Then I peeked into the six uncatalogued boxes on Elizabeth Enright. Oh, my! Best finds so far: a whole folder titled "Boyfriends 1925-29: with ardent love letters and Western Union telegrams from various swains, and a beautiful fan letter written to Enright by British author Noel Streatfeild (the "Shoes" books), another of my greatest loves.

What will I find today?

Monday, May 22, 2017

Archival Research at the Kerlan Collection: Part I

Last year, in my seventh decade on this earth, I learned something wonderful that I wish I had learned a long time ago: you can apply for grants that will give you money to do fun things, and if you're lucky you might even get one.

Last year I applied for, and got, a travel grant to do archival research on children's author Eleanor Estes at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center at the Univesity of Connecticut. This year I applied for, and got, a travel grant to do more archival research on Eleanor Estes, and also on my most beloved Maud Hart Lovelace, at the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota.

I arrived last nght at the guest house in the Dinkytown section of Minneapolis where I'll be staying for the week, the Wales House on 5th Street SE, about a twenty-minute walk from the Anderson Library that houses the Kerlan Collection.
I love every single thing about it so far.

When you arrive, you take off your shoes and put them in your own numbered shoe cubby. I'm number 24.
Tucked up on the third floor is my sweet little room:

I share a bath with three lodgers. We each have our own numbered towel hook.
In the kitchen we each have our own numbered cupboard and our own numbered shelf in the fridge.

I hadn't planned to fix my own meals as a continental breakfast is provided here, and the grant money covers my other eating expenses, but I wanted to have something to put in my cupboard and on my fridge shelf, so I went to the small urban Target two blocks away and bought some yogurst, berries, and of course my necessary Swiss Miss hot chocolate.

The other lodgers whom I've met so far all hail from distant lands: a man from Japan, a woman from China, another man from Spain, All are conducting research at the University of Minnesota. I feel part of a global commuity of scholars.This morning I walked to campus with Choa from China, who is doing molecular biology medical research. Then, as it happened, I met up with her by chance at the end of my day and we walked home together.

So the trip proved to be lovely before I even opened a single box of children's literature treasures at the Kerlan, the treasures from which I'll share tidbits in my next post.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Submission-a-Month Plan: Mid-May Report

My chief goal for 2017 is to submit a different project somewhere every single month. It can be a creative project or a scholarly project; it can be a big project or a little project. Options include: children's book proposal, completed children's book manuscript, academic philosophy article, academic children's literature article, personal essay, poem, grant application, and more. I don't have to have a single submission actually accepted, mind you. Whether something gets accepted is up to the universe. Whether it gets submitted is up to me.

I am loving this plan so much. As soon as I press SEND, I feel a shiver of anticipation: now, there is at least a chance that something nice can happen. Admittedly, the nice thing is unlikely to happen any time soon, as the review process can drag on for months. And in some cases, it's unlikely to happen at all. But it is definitely sooooo much more likely to happen than if I hadn't pressed SEND. Pressing SEND is key.

So far this year, this is what I've submitted:

January: grant proposal to the Kerlan Collection of Children's Literature at the University of Minnesota for travel funds to spend a week in Minneapolis researching their archived materials on several children's authors I adore - Maud Hart Lovelace, Eleanor Estes, Carol Ryrie Brink.
VERDICT: Accepted. I head for Minneapolis next week.

February: massively revised philosophy paper on artistic integrity, submitted to the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. This is a paper I've presented to a number of university audiences over a number of years, with increasing embarrassment at still dragging the same old thing around with me wherever I go. It was time - long past time - either to do something with it or just consign it to the flames. VERDICT JUST IN: "Accept with major edits." I'm stunned, actually, as my usual verdict is "revise and resubmit," and this is a step up from that- and for a paper I almost abandoned. This may very well be my philosophical swan song, and I'm glad I've had the chance to sing it.

March: significantly revised academic children's literature paper on Pinky Pye and Ginger Pye of Eleanor Estes, the fruit of a research trip to the University of Connecticut library last fall. I submitted this to the Children's Literature Association Quarterly last November (I think it was) and did indeed get my usual revise-and-resubmit verdict earlier this year. So my task for March was to revise and resubmit, which I did. CURRENT STATUS: waiting to hear and cautiously optimistic.

April: a children's poem submitted to Highlights. This is a first for me, to submit one of my poems somewhere, and it's a long shot, as their website says explicitly that they are overstocked with poetry right now and are especially interested in non-rhyming poems, which mine is not. But, hey, you never know, right? CURRENT STATUS: waiting to hear, but not very hopeful. Still, I kept to my submission-a-month goal.

May: an academic children's literature paper submitted to the journal Children's Literature. The paper is called "Trying to Be Good (with Bad Results): The Wouldbegoods, Betsy, Tacy, and Tib, and Ivy and Bean: Bound to be Bad." This is a major expansion and revision of a paper I gave at the Children's Literature Association conference in June of 2015. It was a ton of work to overhaul it, but great joy to press SEND last week. CURRENT STATUS: waiting to hear and expecting a verdict of "revise and submit."

For June I'm trying to decide if doing the major edits on the artistic integrity paper (February's project) and resubmitting it is enough to count as meeting my goal for June, or if I need to submit something completely new, which means coming up with (i.e., writing) something completely new. I'm inclined toward thinking major edits on the paper is good enough. Anyway, I'm the one who makes the rules here, so I get to decide.

Then, that will be half a year done, with a delicious six months to go, when I'll turn my attention back to creative rather than scholarly projects. The rest of my life may be in flaming ruins (as in fact it is right now), but at least I'm sticking to my submission-a-month plan. At least I have that.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Writing an Hour a Day: Hopelessly, Faithfully

I am very happy today. I finished extensive revisions on a scholarly children's literature article that grew out of a paper I presented at the Children's Literature Association conference in Richmond, Virginia, in June of 2015. And I just sent it off to a journal - hooray, hooray!

There is no bliss greater than the bliss of attaching a document and pressing SEND. Well, except for the bliss that awaits me this afternoon of lugging all the books I needed for this project back to the university library and beholding a clean desk ready for the next project.

This article is titled "Trying to Be Good (with Bad Results): The WouldbegoodsBetsy-Tacy and Tib, and Ivy and Bean: Bound to Be Bad." It examines three different texts, published over the course of a full century, which feature children who are making conscious, deliberate, intentional attempts at being good, with results that end up as decidedly NOT good. The central thesis of the paper is that all three authors (E. Nesbit, Maud Hart Lovelace, and Annie Barrows) are not satirizing children's naivety about the moral realm; instead they are satirizing the ways in which adult authorities communicate significant errors about the moral life to young readers.

Anyway, it was a HUGE project to turn a half-baked 10-page conference paper into a well-researched 30-page journal paper, festooned with footnotes and chock-a-block with citations. I really didn't think I'd get ever get it done, it was so overwhelming and I was so daunted.

But I did. 

And this is how I did it. Yes, I worked at it for an hour a day (well, sometimes even TWO hours a day), day after day after day, for perhaps a month and a half. 

That's all. 

I worked without hope - the whole project seemed hopeless. But I worked with a steady, dogged faithfulness. 

Now it's done. And submitted. And the months of waiting can begin for what will almost surely (based on my quarter century of past experience) be a verdict of "revise and resubmit." Which will mean tackling another extensive round of massive revisions. Which I will accomplish by trudging hopelessly, but faithfully and even cheerfully, for an hour a day, day after day, until it's done.

Then, once again, I'll hit SEND in a rush of rapture, and once again have the joy of returning the library books, and once again be DONE DONE DONE with a project - at least until it returns for more revision.

An hour a day. That's all it takes. 

Monday, May 1, 2017

May = "Make It Work for Me" Month

Happy first day of May! For those of you who, like me, start an entire new life on the first day of each month, may this one be infused with the buzzing, blooming energy of full-blown springtime.

I like to have themes for my months, when I can think of them. For this May, the theme is going to be "Make It Work for Me." I'm going to prioritize my happiness, my productivity, and my creative joy - all without short-changing what I owe (and gratefully give) to others. My task is going to be, in everything I face this month, to ask myself, "How I can make this work best for ME?"

A few examples as I begin my month-design pondering.

I need (and want) to spend time taking care of my in-residence grandchildren, to give their mother the opportunity to take care of herself in various ways. But I feel trapped and desperate if I'm stuck in a house for hours with small children, and I also feel nervous if I head out on ambitious adventures all alone with an extremely independent three-year-old and stroller-bound baby. Solution: this Thursday I'm joining forces with a writer friend who has a four-year-old of her own, meeting up at the Denver Zoo where she has a membership that will admit all of us for free. So while I'm taking care of grandchildren AND giving their mother some time for herself, I'll also have a delightful outing with a good friend and fun galore for all of us.

I need to take the new-to-me car I bought last week back to the dealer to have one little thing fixed on it. I'll probably need to wait an hour while the work is done. What a wasted morning - NOT. I'm going to take the book on plotting that everybody on earth seems to have read but me - Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder - and start reading it there.

I'm heading to Minneapolis later in the month for a week of research at the Kerlan Collection of children's literature at the University of Minnesota - digging into correspondence and manuscripts of favorite authors such as Maud Hart Lovelace, Eleanor Estes, and Carol Ryrie Brink. This is already going to be an amazing trip. But why not make it even more amazing? I want to make sure that I'm not lonely in the evenings by lining up some dinners with children's lit friends who live in the area. If I'm going all that way for all that time, I might as well squeeze maximal bliss out of it, right?

Finally, I need (and want) to spend early mornings cuddling with three-year-old Kataleya. But I also need (and want) to spend early mornings revising yet another children's literature paper, this one an expansion of a paper I gave at the Children's Literature Association convention a couple of years ago. How can I make this work for me? Well, the solution is obvious, but I need to remind myself of it every single morning as I glance at the clock while snug in my bed: GET UP EARLY! Not at 5, but at 4:30. It's so hard to do, but every single time I do it I feel downright giddy with joy for the rest of the day.

These are four ways I'm going to make May work for me. Are there ways you can make May work for you, too?