Thursday, April 26, 2007

A Day In the Life of Sharlee: Mid-List Children's Book Author* and Mother


I met Sharlee for the first time at an Association for Mormon Letters conference. The women of Segullah were asked to give a presentation. Sharlee represented our poetry unit. She talked about all the sappy poetry she had read when she taught English at BYU. Her lecture was one of the best I'd ever heard. At that moment, I became an adoring fan. Also, please read her acceptance speech here, for winning the Dolly Gray Children's Literature Award for her recent children's book "Keeping Up With Roo." Thanks for being here Sharlee, you are amazing! (Photo courtesy of Maralise)

Here is her professional bio:
Sharlee Glenn is the mother of five, the wife of one, the sister of six, the daughter of two, the author of four (and counting), the friend of many. She lives with her family in Pleasant Grove, Utah, at the base of Mt. Timpanogos. Her work has appeared in periodicals as varied as Women’s Studies, The Southern Literary Journal, Wasatch Review International, Segullah, The New Era, and Ladybug Magazine. She is also the author of three books for young readers: Circle Dance (a middle-grade novel), One in a Billion (a picture book), and Keeping Up with Roo (a picture book, published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons). A fourth book, Just What Mama Needs, will be released next spring by Harcourt.


One of the great pleasures of being a writer of children’s books is doing author visits and workshops at schools. The kids are (usually) eager, charming, and bright. And I love their unabashed curiosity and candor. “How much money do you make?” they’ll ask. “How old are you?” (To that one I always answer, without batting an eye: “Twenty-nine. Next question?”)

Recently, I was speaking to a group of 3rd graders about how they could write, illustrate, and even bind their own books to give to their parents or grandparents on special occasions as a really meaningful gift from the heart.

“On Mother’s Day, for example, you could spend a lot of money and buy your mom something like perfume or chocolates or a new purse,” I said. “But do you know what moms really want?”

One little girl quickly raised her hand. “Jewelry,” she said.

Konk!

When I do assemblies, I often use a PowerPoint presentation I put together called “My Life as a Writer.” I begin by saying: “Okay, I’m a writer. So what do you think I do all day?”

Inevitably, the kids all sing out in one chorus: “You WRITE!”

“WRONG!” I sing back.

I mean, I do write, but not all day long. Not that I wouldn’t like to. It’s just that, besides being a writer, I am also a wife and a mother and a teacher and a volunteer and a church worker and a member of both the PTO and the PTA and a neighbor and a sister and a friend and a . . . . You get the picture. In other words, I’m a human being. Which means I spend most of my time being human. Which means I don’t accomplish half as much as I’d like to.

But per Courtney’s request, let me take you through a typical day.

Morning:

I’m usually up between 5:30 and 6:30, depending on the day. The family gets off in three shifts:

Shift #1. Hubby heads to work around 5:45 (when the weather is good, he bikes to downtown Salt Lake. That’s right. All the way from Pleasant Grove. That’s 40 miles, one way. And I’m talking “bike” as in “bicycle” not “motorbike.” What a guy, huh?).

Shift #2. I drive the 15-year-old to early morning jazz band at 6:50.

Shift #3. I leave at 7:25 to drop the 17-year-old off at high school (unless he has an early morning AP Calculus study group, in which case he goes earlier), then I deliver the two youngest to their respective schools.

Between shifts 2 and 3, I make sack lunches for the younger kids (they are at charter schools where school lunch is not available) and try to get the breakfast dishes done and the kitchen cleaned up.

Once the early morning taxi run is over, I come home and throw in a load of laundry (yes, I do at least one load of laundry every blamed day of the week, except Sunday. Sad, but true.). Then, if it’s Tuesday or Thursday, I do Power Yoga with Adrienne Reed from 8:00-8:30. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, it’s Classical Stretch with Miranda Esmonde-White. This is followed by a half hour on the treadmill (or, if the sun is shining, a 3 ½ mile power walk in the foothills of Mt. Timpanogos with my friend, Lauri), breakfast while reading the newspaper, a shower (actually, a bath most days), and general pick-up around the house. Often, I’ll also try to throw something into the crock-pot for dinner since afternoons/evenings are so hectic.

Ideally, I’m now ready to sit down at my computer and do the actual work of a writer, but more often than not I have some other kind of commitment (volunteer time at one of the four different schools my kids attend, church work, extended family responsibilities (my mother-in-law is currently undergoing chemotherapy), or medical/dental appointments (four out of my five kids (so far) have had to have braces and glasses/contacts, so orthodontist and optometrist appointments alone have swallowed up about seven years of my life). It’s also possible that I have a school visit or a writers conference or workshop or critique group scheduled on any particular day.

If not, I usually start by answering my email (always, always hoping for something positive from one of my editors or the agent who is currently looking at my middle-grade novel manuscript), logging onto the Segullah editorial table (where I serve as assistant poetry editor), and checking the various listservs and online critique groups I belong to. Then it’s time to WRITE. Most days I try to honor the period from 10:00 to 12:00 as my Sacred Writing Time. Emails don’t count as writing during this time. Neither do letters, church talks, Relief Society lessons, comments on blogs, or shopping lists. By “writing” I mean I either draft something entirely new or actively revise something I’ve already started (and I’m talking here about stuff I intend to send out for publication). I recently finished the first draft—rough and dirty—of my second middle-grade novel, the revising of which should keep me busy for a good, long time. I also have about twenty picture book manuscripts in various stages of development.

(True Confession Time: I always thought it would be easier to find the time to write once my youngest child started school. Guess what? It’s not. Well, in some ways it is—or at least it should be. I DO have more uninterrupted time during the day. (Unfortunately, I don’t seem to be as efficient and disciplined as I was in the days when time was tight and energy was high.) Evenings, though, (when I’ve always tended to be most productive) are much more hectic now that the kids are older. Not only do we have more activities, but the kids don’t wind down as early. It used to be we had all our children in bed by 7:30 PM. I’m not kidding. We were bedtime Nazis! Now, we’re lucky if the last lights go out in my oldest kids’ rooms before midnight.)

At noon, I tear myself away from the computer and go down to the kitchen to make myself some lunch. I’m always tempted to take my sandwich or salad or whatever I’m having that day back up to the computer with me, but I’ve had to make an Absolute Rule (much more powerful and binding than a regular rule) about not eating at the computer (I once polished off an entire 14-ounce bag of chocolate-covered raisins without even realizing it while I was deep into a writing project. I’ve discovered that, for me, computer eating equals mindless eating which too often equals extra rolls around the middle).

Or, if I’m really in The Zone, I might skip lunch altogether. I love it when that happens-- when I’m so invested in a project, so lost in the imaginative world of my own making, that I lose track of time and space and forget even to be hungry (or to check my email!).

Early Afternoon:

My afternoon is filled with more of the above plus business correspondence, submissions, and follow-up queries. And every once in a while I get to engage in the blood-pumping excitement of negotiating new contracts, reviewing galley proofs, tearing open the package of f&g’s that have been sent, overnight express, from my publisher, or discussing details like jacket cover art or dedications with my editor. Ironically, it’s at these times that I feel most like a real writer—much more so than when I’m actually, well, writing.

(True Confession #2: In truth, I spend far too much time doing writing-related stuff and not enough time actually writing. The internet is a huge temptation for me. I tend to be an information junkie, and the internet is my genial, ever-present supplier. It’s so easy to get caught up in the thrill of chasing information through the endless maze of cyberspace. And let’s not even talk about email!)

I try to time any errands I may have (bank, post office, grocery store) so that I can do them just before I start the afternoon pick-up/run-around of kids. If it’s, say, Thursday, I take care of my errands, then pick up my 15-year-old at 2:45 and zip him over to The Music School in American Fork for his Little Big Band rehearsal, then beat it back to Pleasant Grove to pick up sons three and four at their schools.

Late Afternoon and Evening:

Afternoons and evenings are jam-packed with activities--lessons, practices, games, concerts, recitals, meetings, homework, chores, dinner, etc. (It really is pretty ridiculous. Between the four kids who are still at home (ages 9, 13, 15, and 17), we have flute lessons, guitar lessons, saxophone lessons, trumpet lessons, piano lessons, wrestling, basketball, clogging, soccer, swim team, Utah Valley Youth Symphony, Little Big Band, part-time jobs, school clubs, AP study groups, not to mention scouts and other church-related activities. And you should have seen what it was like when my daughter (now at ASU) was home too! I often wonder if we have our kids involved in too many things, but that’s a topic for another day. In our defense, let me just say that when you have five children, even if you limit their involvement to two extra-curricular activities (an instrument and a sport, say), that’s ten commitments per week, not to mention all the extra practices, games, performances, recitals, etc. We do make sure that our kids have plenty of down-time--time for hanging out with friends, shooting hoops in the backyard, or just daydreaming. But we also want them to be actively engaged in good causes, to develop their talents, and to learn how to work. The sad truth is that we no longer live in an agrarian society and most of us can’t send our kids out to the fields to buck bails of hay or out to the barn to milk forty cows before breakfast. We have to find new ways to keep them busy and to teach them discipline, dependability, and the value of good, hard labor. Ah, but I digress!)

Once things have settled down in the evening (after family prayer and scripture study (if it’s a good night), back rubs and bedside chats for the older kids, bedtime stories and songs for the youngest), I usually try to steal another hour or so at the computer, preferably writing and not just chasing myself around the internet.

At 10:00, my husband and I like to watch the news together, then, ideally, we hit the sack between 10:30 and 11:00. (In truth, it’s usually more like 11:30.)

And then, the next morning, we get up and do it all over again.

And there you have it. More, I’m sure, than you ever wanted to know. But writing this has helped me remember how much I like my life. It isn’t a perfect life--I have my share of yucky stuff to deal with (mouthy teenagers, migraines, insomnia, dirty socks that end up everywhere except the clothes hamper, cars that continually break down)--but it’s a good life. And one of the best things about it is that I am doing what I always wanted to do. I am living my dream. Gustave Flaubert once said: “Writing is a dog’s life, but it’s the only life worth living.” I guess I would have to agree.

How about you? Are you living your dream?

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

*A mid-list author is an author whose books do okay but aren’t break-out bestsellers. It was my 17-year-old son who reminded me that that’s what I am.

Here’s how the conversation went:

(Kedric comes into my office where I’m typing away on my keyboard)

Kedric: “So, Mom, are you writing the next big bestseller?”

Me: “Yeah, right.”

Kedric: “Is this something you’re actually going to get paid for?”

Me: “No. This is something I’m doing for a friend.”

(Kedric sits down in the easy chair across from my desk. I keep working.)

Kedric: (after a substantial pause) So, Mom, do you think you’re ever going to really make it big?”

(Nothing like a 17-year-old to deflate any illusions of grandeur that might still be lurking around in the subconscious.)

(I stop typing and give my full attention to Kedric)

Me: “How do you define “making it big”? Do you mean, am I ever going to make a lot of money with my writing? Because that’s not what it’s about for me.”

Kedric: “But it would be nice, wouldn’t it?”

Me: “I guess so. But that’s not why I do it.”

Kedric: “But do you think you’ll ever be really famous?”

Me: (thinking about this) “Honestly, I’m not sure if I’d ever want to be really famous. I just want to write books—books that touch people. I guess I’d like my books to be famous.

Kedric: “That’s the same thing as being famous yourself.”

Me: “No, it’s not. Quick, name one of your favorite books from when you were a kid.”

Kedric: Bridge to Terabithia.”

Me: “Who wrote it?”

Kedric: “I have no idea.”

Me: “See, a book can be famous without the author being famous.”

Kedric: “Okay, okay. (Pause) So, do you think your books are ever going to be famous?”

Konk!