- The Creative Mind
- The Space between Discipline and Freedom
- All I Have to Give
- That We May Live
- The Healing Power of Story
- Considering Fame
- This Beautiful, Blue World
- A Gift for a 75th Birthday
- The Art of Aging
- Working with an Editor
- More Feelings and Fiction
- Transformation through Writing
- Making Sure I’m Okay
- Lighten Up and Play
- Creating Characters
- In the Business of Enlarging Hearts
- The Power of Routine
- The Descending Side of the Bell Curve
- What Makes a Good Critique?
- On Receiving Criticism
- Second Time Around ... the Novel in Verse
- "Really Touched Me"
- “Refusing Them the Right to be Hurt”
- The Gift of Truth
- The Blessing of Contrariness
- Another Response to "Why Wait?"
- Write to Publish ... or Write to Write?
- The Real World of a Working Writer
- Cobbling Together an Income
- An Unintended Gift
- The Question of Courage
- The Ending in the Beginning
- Resonance: The Core of the Verse Novel
- I Don't LIke Your Book
- Going into the Story
- 50 States to Celebrate
- When is Enough Enough?
- Born of Desire and Delight
- Writers Needing Writers
- More Writers Needing Writers
- But Do You Love Her?
- Writing About Not Writing
- The True Celebration
- Talent, What Is It?
- Writing as Translation
- Finding Our Souls in a Story
- Why Wait?
- Kids Saving the Rain Forest
- Betrayed by Dragon
- Must They Be Funny?
- The Sadness of Maturity
- Whale Watching
- Starting Over and Over and Over
- Is Remembering Enough?
- What Did I Learn?
- How Do You Know?
- A Surprising New Way of Writing
- Starting Over
- A Happy Christmouse to All!
- What about Branding?
- Writing into the "Golden Years"
- The Unglamorously Hard Work Part
- So You Want to Write for a Living
- Writing for Money
- A Search for God
- The Forbidden Topic ... Religion
- Hate Enshrined
- When Is Scary Too Delicious?
- Purging of Pity and Fear
- Emotional Power
- Writer’s Block?
- A New Teaching Opportunity
- Learning to Write, Then and Now
- An Invitation
- The Adult Narrator in a Children’s Story
- Another Reader’s Perspective
- Taking Sides
- On Excluding Adults
- The Pendulum’s Swing
- An Imitation of Life?
- Writers Need Other Writers
- Back to Ideas ... Where Do They Come From?
- Fido in Love and Mark's Mother, Too
- What about the Other Characters?
- Computers I Have Known
- Dipping Even Farther into Nostalgia–the Typewriter!
- The Secret
- Bringing Characters to Life
- Borrowing characters from real life
- The Illusion of “Real” Characters
- Marion Dane Bauer celebrates the publication of Little Dog, Lost
- A Research Trip
- More About Researching for Fiction
- Did That Really Happen?
- Longing, the Core of Every Story
- An adult presence in a child’s story
- Where Do Ideas Come From?
- Happy Stories
- What Do You Need Editors For?
- The End of the Children’s Book
- Greatest strength / greatest weakness
- I've been thinking about my career lately
- What I'm working on
The Creative Mind
February 25, 2014
“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.”
The Space between Discipline and Freedom
February 18, 2014“Art lives in the space between discipline and freedom.”
I heard that in a talk recently, though I don’t know who said it first. It was, though, one of those statements worth grabbing onto.
The speaker also said, “In the great artist you see daring bound by discipline and discipline stretched by daring.”
All I Have to Give
February 14, 2014III
This earth will grow cold,
a star among stars
and one of the smallest,
a gilded mote on blue velvet—
I mean this, our great earth.
This earth will grow cold one day,
not like a block of ice
or a dead cloud even
but like an empty walnut it will roll along
in pitch-black space . . .
You must grieve for this right now
—you have to feel this sorrow now—
for the world must be loved this much
if you’re going to say “I lived”. . .
That We May Live
February 14, 2014From Sherwood Anderson to his son:
The object of art is not to make salable pictures. It is to save yourself.
Any cleanness I have in my own life is due to my feeling for words.
The fools who write articles about me think that one morning I suddenly decided to write and began to produce masterpieces.
There is no special trick about writing or painting either. I wrote constantly for 15 years before I produced anything with any solidity to it.
The thing of course, is to make yourself alive. Most people remain all of their lives in a stupor.
The point of being an artist is that you may live.
You won’t arrive. It is an endless search.
“The point of being an artist is that you may live.”
I’ve never heard it said better.
We are thrust into this world without our consent—every one of us—and without any knowledge of why we have come. That knowledge must be gathered, moment by moment, day by day, year by year.
But we come into this world—again, every one of us—with such a fierce need to be! We are life calling to itself, life honoring itself, life as the deepest expression of the sacred.
Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, astrophysicist of the early 20th century, said, “The universe is less like a thing than it is like a thought.” And we are all thoughts. Thoughts in the mind of God if we frame our sense of the sacred with that word. Thoughts in the mind of the Universe if that language suits better.
What does any of this have to do with writing, the topic I keep circling around? Let me return to Sherwood Anderson: “The object of art is . . . to save yourself.” And I don’t mean, and I’m certain he didn’t mean, to buy yourself a ticket to eternal bliss. Because Anderson goes on to say, “The thing, of course, is to make yourself alive.”
And that’s it. That’s the secret. We are given these lives, these precious lives, and what better celebration of the gift we each hold so dear can there be than art . . . in any form?
Cooking is an art for me, though a minor one. I please myself and my family and friends but could never stand up to the most modestly trained chef. But that doesn’t matter. Standing at my kitchen counter chopping onions pleases me. It affirms the onionness of onions, the sustaining value of and the fragrant pleasure of food, and the long-practiced wisdom of my own hands.
Writing this blog pleases me, though I send it out with no expectation of reward.
Writing a book and having an editor choose it and seeing it go out into the world pleases me, of course. And I can do it because I, like Anderson, wrote constantly for many, many years before I produced anything with any solidity to it.
Anything we do with affection, with passion, with pleasure in the doing is art.
“The point of being an artist is that you may live.”
The point of being alive is to know we are so, to honor our own aliveness, to rejoice in each waking, each rising, each sacred breath.
There is no place to arrive. Anderson was right, the search is endless.
But the search itself—and the art that grows out of it—is so, so sweet.
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The Healing Power of Story
January 29, 2014It was Isak Dinesen who said, “All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.” And I have found that truth to be one of the most basic of my existence . . . and my career.
I don’t mean to suggest that I have borne more sorrows than others. Every life holds sorrows, and I have had the good fortune of having a way to process and grow through mine that feeds me on many levels. The stories I spin teach me, encourage me, comfort me.
Stephen Grosz, author of The Examined Life, discussing the ways stories can help us to make sense of our lives, says if “we cannot find a way of telling our story, our story tells us—we dream these stories, we develop symptoms, or we find ourselves acting in ways we don’t understand.”
And fortunately, we don’t have to understand ourselves, through and through, before we sit down to write for our work to serve as an effective catalyst. Inevitably, our deepest truths will present themselves in the topics we are drawn to and in the resolutions our stories discover. I have always found that one of the best ways of knowing what I believe, what I am feeling, what I desire is to read my own stories.
If I’m reaching deeply to find my stories, not merely assembling them from the bits and scraps that make up my external world to try to impress some imagined audience, it isn’t possible for them to lie.
The constant work of my own stories has been to process and resolve a sense of abandonment. It took me many years to understand where that hidden fear came from, and even then understanding its origins requires some guessing. But drawing on the emotional power of that ancient fear has fueled stories from On My Honor to Little Dog, Lost. In fact, it has fueled so many stories that I have sometimes wondered, if I were finally to heal myself so deeply as to banish the fear entirely, whether I would have any stories left to tell.
I suspect the truth is, though, that healing doesn’t work that way. While I may feel less vulnerable in my daily life than I once did—at least in part because of finding resolution to that sense of abandonment through my stories—that childhood vulnerability will always excite my imagination.
It’s like my favorite color, a rich auburn. I knew that color drew me powerfully long before the day I happened to be unpacking a box of childhood toys and came across Tim, my beloved teddy bear. Guess what color he is. Of course, a rich auburn! That color was imprinted on my adult heart even though I hadn’t seen Tim—or thought about him—for many years. And discovering the well-worn bear in a box didn’t make my love of auburn go away. The only difference knowing makes is that I sometimes smile at myself when an autumn landscape of rusts and golds or a mop of flaming hair makes me catch my breath.
January 21, 2014Recently, as I was walking into a restaurant with my eight-year-old grandson he looked up at me and asked, “Nonny, do you think anyone in here will know you are Marion Dane Bauer?” (This is the grandchild who was once convinced I was the author of all his books.)
I laughed—how could I not?—and said, “Chessie, I’m sure they won’t.”
But I couldn’t explain to him what a blessing that is.
My successes have all been of a manageable size. I’ve published steadily for nearly forty years, producing an occasional book that sells very well indeed. But the books of mine I love best tend to come out to nice reviews and then slip quietly out of sight. A Newbery Honor, not a Newbery. A solid reputation, but not a name that everyone in the field knows, let alone folks in the larger world.
All of which has added up to my being able, despite the public nature of books, to live my life almost entirely out of the public eye.
I can understand folks’ longing for fortune, but fame? It has always looked like a curse to me. When others respond to me as “the author” as occasionally happens, my first impulse is to laugh. If they respond to one of my books—a whole different thing—I am delighted.
Someone once suggested that it must be gratifying to know I’m leaving all those books “for posterity.” But I have no illusions about how long books stay in print or in the consciousness of their readers. Unless I die rather sooner than I have planned, it’s unlikely my published work will outlive me by much. Already I see much of my early work slipping away into a deserved oblivion. It isn’t that it wasn’t good enough for its time. It was. But times change and new times demand new books . . . and new writers.
What is the reward then of this curious act of sending my words out to an audience of strangers? Beyond, of course, the fact that it enables me to make a living plying one of my few skills?
It lies simply in the act of writing itself, in the pleasure I get from doing it and the satisfaction I’m filled with when I discover that my words have touched some individual reader out there.
As for being known in the world, let me tell you another grandchild story. A while back, I was taking my then almost sixteen-year-old grandson clothes shopping, and I suggested that, since he would soon have a driver’s license, he might prefer in the future to be given a check rather than having his nonny trail after him through the stores. He was indignant. This towering boy-man said, “But this is our time together! And besides, I’m proud to tell my friends that my nonny buys my clothes and that she writes books to do it!”
What other kind of “fame” could possibly matter?
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This Beautiful, Blue World
January 09, 2014I don’t remember who it was who said it, that 90% of the pleasure of travel lies in anticipation, the other 10% in recollection. There is, I believe, much truth in that statement, but anticipation and recollection are both of great worth.
I have recently returned from a long-anticipated trip, in fact one I have been considering and setting aside for many years, to New Zealand and Australia. I have two former exchange students in those countries: Mami, who was born and grew up in Japan and now lives in Auckland, and Megan, who is from the Melbourne area. My daughter, Beth-Alison, who has as deep a connection with these young women as I, was able to shake some time loose from her busy schedule to go with me. What could be better?
A Gift for a 75th Birthday
January 09, 2014Aging has been on my mind lately—passing a 75th birthday can do that to a person—though I recognize it’s not a hot topic out there in the world. Nonetheless, it’s a reality we will all deal with one day . . . if we’re lucky.
I am entering an era of last things.
I just purchased what I’ve told my partner and my family will probably be my last car. They laugh at me a bit. But the car is new, of a sturdy make, fulfills every transportation need I can imagine having, and comes with more bells and whistles than are entirely useful. Also, I usually drive my cars for ten years, and I am skeptical that another new car when I’m 85 will be high on my list . . . unless by then the ones that drive themselves are available and I can afford such a thing.
I’ve also just returned from a three-week trip to New Zealand and Australia. My daughter and I were visiting two former exchange students that were part of our family many years ago, and we loved rediscovering these women in their adult lives in the midst of their families, seeing their homes, exploring their worlds. But I was conscious with every step that this was a once-in-a-lifetime trip for me. No doubt my daughter will return one day, but I’m certain I won’t.
I have been working for what is beginning to feel like too long on a young-adult novel. Blue-Eyed Wolf is the biggest challenge I have taken on in my career. It is longer and more complex than anything else I have written. (The truth is I have been setting it aside as much as I’ve been working on it, the reasons varying from last winter’s broken arm to having contracted other work. But I’m ready to return to it now.) I am very conscious as I work that it is unlikely I’ll ever take on such a challenge again. There are days when I ask myself whether my brain—and my expertise—are even up to what I’ve embarked on. But mostly I enjoy discovering new dimensions of my own craft, of my own psyche, and am content to know it’s unlikely I’ll want to do anything like it again. Other, less challenging work, of course. But not anything of this scope or complexity.
And how do I feel about the lastness of car, of travel, of taking on almost-overwhelming writing projects? The truth?
Content. Deeply content.
My mother, who died at 97, used to say of being old, “But you don’t feel any different!” And I agree with her. The child you were, the young adult, the in-charge-of-the-world mom with kids and pets and career are still tucked away inside this too obviously crumbling shell. These former selves are there, intact, and none expects what they see when they look into the mirror.
And yet in another way—as was often the case—I don’t agree with my mother at all. I do feel entirely different than any of those younger selves.
Mostly, I feel better than I ever have. Not physically. Those challenges mount. But I am more accepting of myself, which means I’m more accepting of others. That doesn’t suggest this deep introvert can now walk into any social situation and know I belong there. Far from it. But it means that I rarely challenge my own right to exist.
It also means I am accepting of the life that stretches out behind me—monumental mistakes and profound loss included—and am content with this moment. This moment of sun- sparkled snow just beyond my study window. Of a small dog sleeping beneath my desk. Of this breath filling my lungs.
And this one.
And this one, too.
I wake each morning knowing I have little need, if any, to prove anything . . . to myself or to the world.
That is the true gift of a 75th birthday!
And a great place to be as I enter a New Year.
A blessed New Year to all my readers!
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The Art of Aging
January 09, 2014“The Art of Aging.” It was a headline recently in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, my local newspaper. The subtitle asked the question I have asked in this space before: “Is creativity destined to fade as we get older?”
The article quoted Doris Lessing who once said about creativity, “Don’t imagine you’ll have it forever. Use it while you’ve got it because it’ll go; it’s sliding away like water down a plug hole.”
Alice Munroe and Philip Roth made a similar announcement this past year. Both said they were through writing. She was 81, he 79.
Not very encouraging, to say the least, especially for those of us who can no longer fit into that broad category called middle-aged.
I celebrated my 75th birthday in November. By any standard, that’s not the middle of anything.
And I don’t need to hear the research director of the NEA say “Enhanced creativity is associated with greater satisfaction” to know it’s true. I’m holding my writing more lightly these days, but I haven’t put it down. Any time I do—even for a short while—the satisfaction seems to drain out of my days like that “water down a plug hole” Doris Lessing mentioned.
Only later in the article are two things named as the necessary components for keeping creativity strong: brain health and the willingness to do new things.
Brain health we have little control over. We can do what’s possible to enhance and protect our bodies, our brains, and, after that, it’s a matter of genetics . . . or maybe simply luck. (Perhaps the two are pretty much the same.)
But “a willingness to do new things” is completely under our control, and it’s an easy kind of control to master.
Michael Merzenich, the author of Soft Wired, a book about optimizing brain health, has said, “One-trick artists ‘become automized, they become very habit borne. They’re not continually challenging themselves to look at life from a new angle.”
The problem, of course, is that we all find such deep comfort in the familiar. And everything about adulthood encourages us to seek that comfort. In the first place, our authority in the world usually comes from narrowing our choices in order to develop expertise. Not to mention that much of the satisfaction of adulthood comes through finding our greatest, most naturally fitting power and living into it.
As children we weren’t permitted to study history and leave out math and science—or major in recess as my eight-year-old grandson would love to do. At least not until we had quite a few years of education under our belts. I have always admired deeply the adults who showed up in my classes saying, “I’ve never written a thing, but I’ve always wanted to try.”
I have never drawn a thing, have always wanted to try, but have never had the courage to walk into a class.
That has been my loss.
Nonetheless, narrowing my choice to writing has made success possible. That narrowing has given me power, exactly the way flowing water becomes a torrent when confined between banks . . . so long as the banks don’t become so confining as to form a dam. We are fortunate that there are so many ways to keep the stream flowing.
One of the most obvious ways, as writers, is to experiment with different genres. Doing that has been essential to me. Stepping away from a long novel to the exacting demands of a four-hundred word picture book is like opening a window for fresh air. When I finish a young chapter book and begin a longer piece, I rejoice in the time I now have to gather richness. When I return to younger fiction, I find it a relief to be able to move through a chapter in four or five pages. When I embark on nonfiction, I discover an entirely different and pleasurable rhythm for my work.
Even when I’m revisiting territory I’ve traveled many times, if I come to it after doing something else, it feels new. I don’t need research to prove to me that seeking variety in my work has kept me fresh. And the longer I work and the older I grow, the more essential I find it to keep challenging myself to keep my work alive.
It works at any age. Try it!
And by the way, Alice Munroe recently indicated that she hasn’t quite stopped writing, despite what she said. Apparently the ideas keep coming.
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Working with an Editor
December 18, 2013It’s a question I have heard many times: How, folks ask, can an editor tell you what to do? It’s your story, after all. Surely you know better than anyone else what it needs!
And, of course, it is my story, and before an editor ever sees it I’ve invested everything in it that I have to give. Or at least I think I have. But I’ve learned to equate what an editor brings to my story with what a vocal coach does for a singer. She stands outside my piece and hears/sees it whole. Especially, she sees what’s missing, often what lives so deeply inside me that I don’t recognize that it isn’t yet on the page. Her questions reopen the door to my story so I can climb back inside and discover it new.
That, of course, is the ideal, and editors are human, just as writers are, so not every interaction is ideal. But in a career that spans forty years I have worked with dozens of different editors, and nearly every encounter I’ve had has strengthened the piece we worked on together. Some editors have simply let my manuscript stand without requesting revision, though that’s been true only of picture books. When I submit a picture book manuscript it has been closely worked, and it’s possible to polish four-hundred or so words to so high a shine that they don’t need revision. But I would be disappointed if an editor accepted a longer work of mine without bringing her own insights to the page. However long I’ve labored over it, I will, inevitably, have missed important pieces, and when I hear what’s lacking from reviewers I’ll no longer have a chance to respond.
The only editing I find difficult to accept is the kind that tries to fix a problem for me instead of merely defining it so I can do the fixing. I want to be told what works and what doesn’t and then given the room to climb back into my story. Most editors do precisely that.
Over the years I’ve often been told that I’m a “real professional.” What that means, I’ve decided, is that I don’t make trouble. I listen and keep my mouth shut and do what’s needed. And it works. I’ve never had any book published where I regretted changes I’d made under an editor’s supervision.
Here’s the simple rule I operate under that gives me the label of “professional.” First, when an editor speaks, I listen. I don’t challenge or defend even if there is a challenge going on inside my head. I just listen. I ask questions, and I listen some more. Then I sit down with the edits and go through them thoughtfully and with care. They fall, I find, into three categories.
For most my response is, Oh, of course. I should have thought of that. And those I fix with gratitude.
For some I think, Well . . . I can see that it could be the way you are suggesting, though I’m not quite convinced your idea is better than mine. Still, your way wouldn’t diminish what I’m doing here, and since you have the advantage of perspective, I’ll do it. And I make the change without comment.
And then comes the final—and much smaller—category. That’s where I’m certain the editor’s suggestion isn’t a fit, where I believe making the change would actually diminish my work. That’s the place, and the only place, that I hold my ground. And because I’m not arguing every other point, because I’m clearly responding fully to the editor’s intent, those points rarely become a matter of contention. In the few cases where an editor continued to want a change as strongly as I didn’t want it, we always found a compromise.
We’re told again and again that editors now have little time to edit, that the day of Maxwell Perkins and Ursula Nordstrom is over. But however they find time to do it—in the evenings at home is my best guess—I have rarely felt that an editor paid insufficient attention to a manuscript of mine. In fact, again and again I have been grateful for the improved book that has emerged under an editor’s guidance.
Working with an editor? It’s one of the blessings of this good career.
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More Feelings and Fiction
December 16, 2013
Last week I asked if any of my readers shared my experience of using fiction writing to express feelings their early training had taught them not to acknowledge. Here are some of the responses I received:
Dorothy Pensky said, “Interestingly for me, trying (and so far kind of failing) to be a writer has made me able to see my feelings in real time in the world. I’m not sure I’m in control of them on the page, yet. Trying to be a writer has completely changed the person I was trained to be–Scottish Presbyterian minister’s daughter–to, I don’t know, someone able to cry about my father’s death and then feel the joy of being with my son and then the boredom of alphabetizing books. And to just keep my head up and keep moving.”
So in Dorothy’s experience, working with feelings on the page has enabled her to acknowledge and live her feelings more fully in her life. It’s an aspect of this process I hadn’t considered, but I suspect it’s almost inevitable, that stirring the pot of emotions day after day in our writing teaches us to recognize and honor emotions when we encounter them in our lives, which is the first step to being able to live them fully.
And I want to add that being a yet-unpublished writer isn’t a form of failure. It’s part of the journey for all of us. Besides that, we are all writers when we write. Publication doesn’t change anything about that. It just widens the audience.
Cori McCarthy spoke of another aspect of this journey, learning important truths about ourselves through discovering what our writing reveals. Here’s what she said, “I grew up hiding my sadness. This is not something that I realized until I started writing, but over the years, I’ve seen it come out in my work over and over again. I allow my characters to put forth so many emotions in an attempt to cover up sadness, regret, or embarrassment. For some reason, these were never acceptable emotions…at least not ones that I ever dared let someone else know.”
Early in my career I used to say, rather smugly I’m afraid, “No one can psychoanalyze me by reading one of my novels, because I never write autobiographically.” It didn’t take many novels, though, for me to recognize that anyone who reads more than one of them has, if they care to look very closely, a pretty good image of my soul. As the same themes, patterns, story problems arise, again and again, I have come to realize that I am actually quite transparent on the page. Recognizing that, I then had to look inside to see where these reoccurring themes came from. My stories don’t just reveal me to the world, they reveal me to myself!
And Karen said, “My mother, raised in a stoic Midwestern farm family, used to worry about me because she said I was ‘so sensitive.’ Fortunately, she came to realize that trait was a positive, not a negative, because she tried so hard to understand why we were different by listening to me closely my entire life. In the end, she said she learned from me, but I believe I learned the value of unconditional love from her. The ultimate gift.”
What a blessing such a mother would be! Our deep differences about being able to express and acknowledge feelings form one of the chasms that make us so unreadable—and thus unacceptable—to one another, especially in close family relationships. For a mother to be able to accept such a difference in her daughter is a gift beyond price.
And returning to fiction, once again, stories can open a window in all this mishmash of difference about our ability to acknowledge, express and accept feelings. Feelings of every stripe are safer when played through someone who is clearly not us, when they can’t intrude on our lives except on our own terms (we put the book down when we’ve had enough), and when they can ultimately be tied up into a neat little bundle called a story.
And the final question came from Steve. He asked:
Do you think you’ve ever been changed or transformed by the process of getting into the mind and heart of a character?
What an interesting thought! Anyone out there have a response?
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Transformation through Writing
December 16, 2013
In response to my blog, two weeks ago, Steve said: I’ve often thought that both acting and writing are ways to temporarily try on personalities and circumstances that our more reserved selves couldn’t really maintain in real life.
Here’s a question: do you think you’ve ever been changed or transformed by the process of getting into the mind and heart of character?
It was a question I didn’t find easy to respond to, so I turned it over to my readers.
Sarah Lamstein said this: When I wrote my novel about an 11-year-old girl who finds her voice, there were times I cried during the writing. I also found myself acknowledging my own feelings and felt my own voice strengthening. I began speaking up more. A welcome outcome.
Sarah’s experience makes perfect sense. If we are choosing well when we climb into a story idea, we are asking questions that still have urgency for us, not giving answers we’ve already found. Carrying a character through to a resolution in such a struggle will, almost inevitably, carry us to a new place as well.
A response from Mary Goulet involves a whole different kind of writing. Mary doesn’t build characters out of her own psyche. As a nonfiction writer she has explored other people’s experience, experience that is very different from her own. This is what she has to say about the impact of that exploration:
As a writer of non-fiction, perhaps I should not be making a comment, but as a faithful reader of your blog, I had to weigh in. While writing my latest book, Reveille in Hot Springs: The Battle to Save our VA, I found myself losing my perspective. While interviewing veterans from WWII through Afghanistan, I asked questions and listened to the stories. It was after each interview that I began to find myself crying while writing the stories, having nightmares and finding myself in the jungles of Vietnam during my sleep. My nights were disturbed and at times I woke in the middle of the night and continued work on an unfinished chapter.
After a few weeks of this my husband came into my office and suggested that we take a week off. I realized that I was getting PTSD by osmosis, or whatever, and I followed up with a relaxing trip to another country.
I returned to my writing with objectivity, but always with an increased empathy for veterans and anger for the present situation that they find themselves in with the federal government’s continued dwindling of their benefits they once earned in service to their country.
I will never look at another veteran in the same way again. The men and women who shared their stories will always be a part of me. They have become my extended family by bringing me into their world. They have enriched my life in a way I would never have believed before I took on this project and for that I am forever grateful.
Mary’s response makes me wonder. Can we create human psyches on the page that impact us as deeply as we are affected by coming to know other living human beings?
We can certainly learn empathy through our characters. Empathy with ourselves as well as with others. And empathy, whether it comes through contact with other beings or through our own creations, always transforms.
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Making Sure I’m Okay
December 16, 2013“When I’m asked what I hope people get out of my work, I always feel that it’s kind of a backwards question. I never really know what to say, because the real question should be, ‘What do I hope to get out of my work?’ and the answer is that I just want to check with everybody else to make sure I’m still okay.”
This from Jon Klassen in his Caldecott Medal acceptance speech for This is Not My Hat.
Every time I hear an artist in a field different from mine make a statement about his or her creative process that mirrors my experience as a writer, I am thrilled. I’m not sure why, exactly. Perhaps it makes me feel less odd. I’ve come to know that other writers are as odd as I am, but when the field includes visual artist and musicians and creators of all kinds . . . well, then, maybe we’re all just human!
Lighten Up and Play
December 16, 2013“For me, finishing a novel requires a kind of dogged persistence. It’s a long process requiring a suite of hard-won skills. But when I approach a book with a sort of grit-your-teeth determination, I can crush all the life out of it. My best writing comes when I lighten up and approach it in a spirit of play. For me, writing a novel is a delicate balancing act of craft, persistence, passion, and joy.”
What wise words from Susan Fletcher, author of Falcon in the Glass and many other fine novels. They are part of an interview on The Enchanted Inkpot, which you might want to check out more fully. She has lots more to say that’s wise and helpful and just wonderfully human.
December 16, 2013I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to what it takes to create characters. How do we writers manufacture the illusion of living human beings through words on the page? And I use that word, illusion, advisedly. It’s vital to remember that what we are doing when we write fiction is creating illusion, all of it, from the stories we make up—even if bits are borrowed from life—to the people who populate them. It’s not life; it’s an imitation of life.
Eeyore by his depressive view of the world. Charlotte the spider by her maternal wisdom. Pippi Longstocking by her irrepressible independence. All of them unquestionably strong characters . . . or at least they all have a single, strong characteristic.
But then I asked myself, How many real people do I know who could be hung on a single peg that way? And the answer came back swiftly. Not a single one.
Now, I’ve already acknowledged that when we create characters we are dealing with illusion, not life. So perhaps there is nothing wrong with the single-peg technique. It works, after all. But I find that when I try to do it with my characters something rings false for me. I want my characters—even the side ones—to hang from more than one peg!
And yet more than one peg gives us a less identifiable, believable, perhaps less strong creation. If your character is Eeyore you know that, however kind his friends might be, he will find a way to feel bad about himself and the world. He is absolutely reliable at every turn of the page. If you present too many sides to your characters they may be more “real,” but they won’t be seen as “strong.”
I have come to realize in this exploration that I am not good at creating characters with a clear single identity. What I can do is climb inside and give the reader a glimpse into a complex, interesting, human mental process. I often receive letters from young readers that say something like, “When I read On My Honor I always knew what Joel was thinking and feeling.” And that’s what I do well. I inhabit my perceiving character and invite my readers in.
The characters I don’t inhabit? They can still reveal their inner worlds by what they say and do, of course, but I’m not sure I’ve ever created one that lives on in my readers’ minds. They would certainly never be called strong.
The single peg works. I know it works. After all, I’ve just cited characters from beloved classics, stories that will live far longer than anything I have ever written.
And, of course, I understand the technique of starting off with a single characteristic, even a stereotype, and then giving the illusion of complexity by introducing a contradiction. The soft-hearted bully. The courageous coward. The passionate prude.
But for this story I want more . . . perhaps I want more than I can deliver.
Today, when I was walking the dogs, I came up with an idea for a new easy reader. Why not, I suggested kindly to myself, return to something you know you can do?
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In the Business of Enlarging Hearts
December 16, 2013
Franz Kafka said, “I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? . . . we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.”
Katherine Paterson has said, and I’m paraphrasing, If you give a child A Bridge to Terabithia after he has experienced death for the first time, you’re too late.
Stories aren’t meant as therapeutic tools to be administered in crisis. They are meant, rather, to crack open our hearts, little by little, to open us to the vulnerability of the human condition, to teach us to live.
Most children today don’t grow up in a village. They grow up in the walled prisons of homes, of schools. Their experience—except for what they get from the media, and it should give us pause to think what’s being piped inside those tight walls by the media—is insular, limited by the nuclear family and the few institutions that surround it. But books, lots of books, the right books and perhaps some of the “wrong” ones, too, can break down those walls and let the world in.
Books can enlarge hearts.
Another quote, this one from Pema Chodron, a Buddhist teacher: “If you can live with the sadness of human life . . . if you can be willing to feel fully and acknowledge continually your own sadness and the sadness of life, but at the same time not be drowned in it, because you also remember the power and vision of the Great Eastern Sun, you experience balance and completeness . . .”
And literature, when it embraces both, experiences balance and completeness, too.
I have come to the point in my own reading life that I resent the writer’s power to bring characters to bad ends if that power is used purely for effect. I know an author can make me cry by killing off the character I love. That’s easy. . . much too easy. But what good are tears unless they are balanced by “the power and vision of the Great Eastern Sun”?
If you are out there writing for young people, don’t be afraid of sadness. But don’t be afraid of the light, either. Sadness alone can shut us down. Tears and laughter in close embrace enlarge our hearts.
Let’s all be in the business of enlarging hearts.
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The Power of Routine
December 16, 2013I love routine. Most days I climb out of bed in the morning knowing exactly what I’m going to do: listen to a dharma talk while doing Pilates; groom Dawn, my little cavalier King Charles spaniel; shower and dress; prepare and eat breakfast; walk Dawn and Sadie, my partner’s Sheltie; settle in to write.
The Descending Side of the Bell Curve
December 16, 2013Some thirty years ago I read an article which stated with firm conviction that the peak of short story writers’ careers comes in their thirties, the peak of novelists’ careers in their forties. Since I was past forty and just getting launched—I was 38 when my first novel for young people was published—I was appalled. Until that moment I had always envisioned my career as an ever-ascending line, not the bell curve they described in the article. After all, I would certainly gain in proficiency and knowledge as I moved through my life; why shouldn’t my writing improve endlessly?
And yet in recent years I have come to realize that my career is, in fact, taking the shape of a bell curve. And there is no question, I am on the descending side.
The descent has to do with freshness. No one can do something every day for half a century and still come at it entirely fresh.
It has to do with having a less intense connection to the world around me. What was so urgently important in my early years of writing, what is still urgently important to my readers, has, shall we say, mellowed for me.
It has to do with bringing a different kind of energy to my work. Instead of stepping off into the unknown as I did in my early work, I am arranging and rearranging the familiar to find new shapes.
Does it mean my later work is inferior? I hope not. Does it mean there is no longer a place for me out there in the world of publishing? I certainly hope not on that one, too. What it does mean, for certain—and this is something Norma Fox Mazer and I used to say to one another from time to time, wryly—is that I’m no longer the flavor of the month. Another book from Marion Dane Bauer is simply another book from Marion Dane Bauer. Nice, but no one gets very excited . . . including, I must admit, me. And it means that while I believe my work grows in richness as my life gathers riches and it grows in competence as my technique becomes more effortless, nothing I write will ever be “cutting edge” again.
I was cutting edge once, in a small way. I embarked on a career as a middle-grade novelist—my novels about eleven to thirteen-year-olds were considered “young adult” then—at the beginning of what was being called “the new realism” in children’s literature. Because I came to my writing with a passion for truth telling, I broke through some barriers. In 1977 my novel Foster Child dealt with sexual molestation in the name of Jesus, pretty heavy stuff. In 1994 I was the editor for and a contributor to Am I Blue? Coming Out from the Silence, a book of short stories for young people based on GLBT themes. (Or it was just GL then. BT were not yet in most people’s consciousness.)
Today I am no longer breaking barriers, except, perhaps, some of my own and that rather quietly. For instance, writing a novel in verse broke an internal barrier for me, but it was only another of a long list of verse novels out there in the world. Writing my first animal story did, too, though nothing of what I was doing was unique. There is certainly no reason for me to be—a smile and a nod to dear Norma here—the flavor of the month.
I admire the young writers coming behind me enormously, their energy, the freshness of their vision, their determination to change the world with their words. And oh, how beautifully those gifts are used. Long, long novels! Stories that probe worlds I can’t even dream. Picture books so fresh and innovative they take my breath away.
In the meantime, I plod on in the old ways. Some of them new for me. But I doubt anything is going to come out of me that the world hasn’t already seen and heard, much of it already from me.
I’m clearly on the descending side of the bell curve. And what’s amazing to me now is that I can realize that’s true and be content. The concept, when I first encountered it, infuriated me. No longer. I just keep on doing what I do, grateful both for the career I still have and for all the fine writers coming up behind me.
I hope, for every one of you, that your writing gives you as much joy as mine has given me.
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What Makes a Good Critique?
December 16, 2013Recently, a former student who had once been part of an ongoing workshop I ran asked if I still had the list of recommendations for critiquing manuscripts that I used to give out. I’m so far from having a copy of the list of suggestions that I had forgotten it ever existed. But her request got me to thinking, and so I’m going to try to resurrect it, if in somewhat abbreviated form.
My suggestions for giving critiques boil down to two:
First, always begin your comments by naming something about the manuscript you like. This is imperative, not only for the ego of the writer receiving the criticism, but for your own understanding of what you have read/heard. It’s easy, far too easy, to leap into a manuscript and begin to pick. But it’s only when you consider first what the writer is doing well that you are truly seeing the piece whole. And only then, when you have seen and acknowledged its strengths, can you be useful in pointing to the places where a work in progress might be improved.
I used to warn my students not to be intimidated after reading to a group if the first this-is-what-I-like comments were slow in coming. My experience is that the stronger a manuscript is the harder it is to define just what makes it work and why. And for some reason, the more impressed workshop participants are with what they have heard the more likely they are to pick. (My most charitable explanation for that phenomenon—we’ll put pure jealousy aside—is that such a response comes from a powerful need to be helpful.) But having to define what works and why slows down the rush to demonstrate our critical insights.
So if you belong to a writers’ group—or exchange manuscripts for comment—I recommend that you make this a hard and fast rule. Each person who speaks must first tell the writer what she likes about what she has heard or read. Only then does she have permission to suggest improvements.
Second—and this rule is a harder one for most of us to follow—don’t try to fix whatever problems you see. You may have excellent ideas for improving someone else’s manuscript, but the revising is not your job. Tell the writer what you don’t understand. Tell her what you want more of or not so much of. Tell him how you respond to his characters so he can decide if that’s the way he wants you to respond. Tell her where the movement seems abrupt. Tell him where the story trajectory loses momentum. But don’t tell her how to fix it. Stand back and give her room to climb back in to find her own solutions.
Even the best, most creative suggestions—“Wouldn’t it be better if . . . ?”—are apt to make it harder for the writer to find her own place in her work when she returns to it. That good idea came out of your creative energy. What we all need when we are revising is to tap back into our own.
So when you are offering a critique, say what doesn’t work for you and why, then leave it at that. Don’t problem solve. The writer conceived the piece you are responding to. She is capable of conceiving a solution, too.
That’s exactly the kind of help I want from an editor, and it’s the kind of help that is most useful between writing peers as well.
Those are the only rules that matter when offering critiques. Respect the manuscript, which is another way of saying tell the writer what he is doing well. And don’t intrude. Offer your insights about what work still needs to be done, but don’t try to explain how to do it.
Next week I’m going to consider the other side of the coin, how to receive criticism, whether in a writing workshop or from an editor.
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On Receiving Criticism
December 16, 2013Last week I discussed the art of giving manuscript critiques, especially in workshops. I had two basic suggestions: first, always start off with a statement about what you like in the manuscript you are discussing, and second, present the issues you see, but don’t intrude on the author’s work by trying to fix them.
This week I’m going to talk about the art of receiving workshop criticism.
The first thing to remember when you walk into a workshop is that the piece you are bringing is yours. Don’t turn it over to the group for surgical repair. Listen to what they say. Take notes. Especially write down the positives. You’ll remember the negatives, I guarantee, but the positives will flow past you like a pleasant breeze, leaving no trace. Then go home to consider what you heard and let the dust settle.
When you know what comments you agree with, which ones feel useful, return to your piece. But return to it as your manuscript, not theirs. If you find yourself making changes to please Bob and Nancy, you have lost control. You are the author. You—your experience, your insights, your language—are what you have to bring to your manuscript. You can gain insights from others, but you cannot replace your vision without losing control of your piece.
Never defend when you are being critiqued. You don’t have to. It’s your manuscript and you don’t have to do a thing that you don’t want to do. Just listen. Ask questions if you don’t understand what someone is saying or why and make notes so you’ll remember. That’s all you need to do.
Part of benefitting from a writers’ workshop is simply finding the right workshop for you. And it isn’t difficult to know whether a workshop is right. Do you go away each time feeling good, pumped up, invincible, but with no insight about further work you might do? That’s fine if all you want is stroking, but if you want your writing to improve, find a group with higher expectations. It is equally bad if you go away feeling defeated or, even worse, disrespected. Such a gathering won’t help your work grow however “right” they may be, because confidence is part of growth.
Those writing for young people but participating in a mixed group where others are writing “grown-up” things need to be especially careful about the group’s attitude toward and impact on their work. I have too often seen writers whose primary audience is adults respond to juvenile work in a condescending way. They seem to assume that anything is good enough for kids. You and I know from within the field that the exact opposite is true. More is required of writers for the young, not less. And it will be difficult to produce that more if the folks responding to your work don’t understand what is required.
A workshop that is right for you will demand much, and it will support you the entire way. If you aren’t getting that balance of comments that invite you to stretch with those that reaffirm your commitment to your piece then you need to get your feedback elsewhere.
Finally, if you find yourself rejecting everything you hear, then first you need to reexamine your workshop. Are they that far off base when they comment on other writers’ work? Is there some tit-for-tat going on? (If you think you don’t like my character just wait until you hear what I have to say about yours!) Do others in the group simply not understand or like or respect your genre?
Or is the problem with you? Do you come to the workshop open to suggestions or do you come with your words chiseled in stone? Learning to respond to valid criticism is as important a skill for a writer as learning to write in the first place. Remember that the next step after getting your manuscript accepted by a publisher is revision. And that often means just what the word says . . . finding a new vision. Learning to respond to others’ insights in a workshop is the best training ground I know for preparing to work with an editor.
And that’s what I’m going to talk about next week, working with an editor.
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Second Time Around ... the Novel in Verse
September 24, 2013The first time I wrote a novel in verse, Little Dog, Lost, I felt as though I had just stepped onto the moon. After forty years of writing and publishing, I was doing something entirely new . . . for me. In fact, I was doing something I had disapproved of in times past. “Poetry novels,” I had been known to expound, with my nose pointed rather high, “are too often neither. They aren’t poetry and they don’t work as novels.”
It goes without saying that the world hasn’t been waiting for my approval in this matter. Since Karen Hesse’s groundbreaking Out of the Dust, verse—if not necessarily poetry—is a form that has been used for novels many, many times. My decision to try one myself wasn’t groundbreaking for anyone but me.
I discovered how much fun the form is to work with once I got past my first panic. I had at my disposal the compelling rhythms I use in writing a picture book, the satiny flow, the carefully orchestrated sound, the distinct taste of each word on my tongue. But I didn’t have to draw my story to a conclusion after four-hundred or so words. I could keep right on going!
And once I realized that, I was hooked. So hooked that I returned to the form last winter.
I entered the second verse novel, Peggotty, with much more confidence. It’s another animal story, this time about a calico cat who leaves home, not quite intentionally, in pursuit of a flying leaf. She has adventures—and babies—and eventually returns home, accompanied by more than her litter of kittens. I aimed it somewhat younger and, as a consequence, found myself writing in shorter lines. But beyond that, the experience of writing the two stories was much the same. And it was still fun.
This time, though, in the midst of my fun, I gradually grew more aware of what I was leaving out, the aspects of a novel that are less apt to happen on the page in verse, the aspects of verse novels in general that had prompted me to find them deficient before I decided to write one myself.
A single word . . . introspection. I have no difficulty inhabiting my characters in third person when I am writing standard prose. And I have always considered giving the reader an intimate experience of the protagonist one of the marks of strong fiction. But writing in third person in verse, I found language carrying me along far more than my characters’ psyches.
Now maybe that experience of distance from my characters came from my decision to tell my story through a narrator, someone I don’t usually allow into my stories. No doubt, it also came from the fact that I am exploring more than one character. But a lot of it seemed to come from the way the language flows, pulling along the story, giving me little opportunity, it seemed, to dip inside.
It’s what I love about writing picture books, the way language is equal with story and character, the way I get to revel in language, not always having, first and foremost, to move the story. When I write stories in prose, language takes a back seat to character. In fact, language is limited by character, even in third person, because the entire story in a subtle way passes through the main character’s consciousness and therefore is imprinted by his or her language.
But my question remains: what makes these novels verse? (I won’t even use the word poetry, because few, if any, qualify as poetry.) Is it just the broken lines?
If it is, we have nothing but chopped up prose. Surely there must be more, a certain intensity of focus, a heightening of feeling, a precision of language.
Every choice we make—first person or third, omniscient or standing in close to a single character, prose or verse—brings limitation as well as strengths to our work. The point is to understand and accept both.
So perhaps depth of characterization is necessarily lost in the attention to language and sound and flow, not to mention the concentration on short, intense bursts of feeling. But I’m still asking the question and probably will continue to ask it through the next verse novel I embark on: Is it possible to explore character as deeply in a verse novel as in prose? If it isn’t—and my experience of others’ work as well as my own is that it doesn’t usually happen—are the strengths of the form enough to be worth so deep a sacrifice?
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"Really Touched Me"
September 20, 2013
Last week I talked about an e-mail from a student. Here is one I just received from another reader:
Dear Mrs. Bauer,
My name is Mia and I am 8 years old. I am home schooled. I found one of your
books at the library called The Very Little Princess and I loved it. When I was
reading the story, I wanted to go into the story. The very last lines really
touched me. I really hope to find other books you have written.
Maia’s response is particularly interesting given the nature of The Very Little Princess. I’ve had some rather angry letters from adults concerning that book, caring, responsible adults who felt betrayed by it. They found it entirely unacceptable that the story involves a mother who goes off and leaves her young daughter with a grandmother the girl has never met. Or that it centers around an arrogant doll who comes to life only to be faced with her own mortality. What kinds of topics are these for a pink-jacketed princess story? What kinds of topics are they for little girls, whatever the book jacket portrays?
It’s the old question, of course. To what extent do we need to protect our children from emotionally challenging material? Note, we’re not talking about pornography here, either the pornography of misappropriated sex or the pornography of violence. Rather we’re talking about a story that recognizes pain in another, the pain of having a mother who isn’t stable enough to continue being a mother, the pain of acknowledging that the joy of living in this sensory world is coupled, always, with the knowledge that our lives will end.
It is of particular interest to me that Maia responded to the last lines of the book. Here are those lines:
“Does being made of blood and bones mean that I will die?” Regina asked suddenly on bright blue morning.
. . . “Not today, I think,” [Zoey's grandmother] said.
So Zoey and Princess Regina have learned to live with that. Not today. Not today for dying or for Zoey’s mother coming back, either.
But today for waking, for being delighted to see one another, for dipping a corner of toast—or a crumb—into the runny yolk of a fried egg.
For smelling the good, dark smell of the earth.
Today for making up games in the throne room, too.
. . . Together they have learned that today, every day, is a day to be brave in, a day to be alive in . . . a day to love in.
And if a few tears fall? Well, a good friend can always be counted on to wipe them away.
Isn’t that so?
I wonder, as I so often have before, who it is we are protecting when we ask that stories for children be swept clean of pain.
Clearly Maia got precisely what this difficult story is about . . . and it touched her!
Another child might have been put off by it. I acknowledge that. But because that is so, should the book have been withheld from those who would be touched, who would, perhaps, even grow a bit larger emotionally for accompanying this story journey?
Another child who picked this book up in the library as Maia did, a child who didn’t want to feel what the story calls forth, would, most likely, have put it down very early on. And that’s as it should be.
The primary time where care should be taken is when a book has a captive audience, when a teacher or librarian (or a parent, for that matter) reads to children who have no choice but to listen.
The power of reading is the power of choice . . . for all of us. Out of nearly endless possibilities we choose the experience we want to have, the information we want to glean. The same choices must be available to young readers.
And thankfully, in this society, anyway, they usually are.
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“Refusing Them the Right to be Hurt”
September 20, 2013This is a letter I received from a fellow writer and reader of my blog after I talked last week about one reader’s reaction to A Very Little Princess, a young novel of mine some adults consider too painful for young readers.
Thank you, Moira. I will let your good letter speak for itself:
Dear Marion Dane Bauer,
Your latest webpage column, “Really Touched Me,” really touches me in a very pertinent way right now.
The book I’m writing was originally going to be short and about a single incident. I reread “On My Honor” for inspiration. But, quite unexpectedly, my book grew, collecting and incorporating characters, scenes and life experiences I’ve gathered over the decades. I love the story, and I love writing it, but one thing is always at the back of my mind. The story has to do with a girl who’s 11 and 3/4ths (she would insist that I mention the 3/4ths) who must make a choice about facing a grim reality of life. The choice is imposed upon her by a beloved aunt. My protagonist mulls over it for days, and, thinking that since what she must do is deemed of no consequence by two kids her age and by adults whose opinions she’s asked for, she decides. Her choice blows up her interior world. But no one else thinks it should bother her, and certainly not as much as it does.
If I write it well, I hope that the reader feels my protagonist’s moral and ethical crisis and the pain that comes with it. But what lingers at the back, and often in the front, of my mind is, will it hurt children? Should I protect children from this pain? Will parents and possibly librarians and booksellers be as angry with me as they are with you about “On My Honor” and “The Very Little Princess?”
Nothing can stop me from writing the story—I love it too much, I want to share it, and one of my particularly aggressive characters would NEVER let me rest if I didn’t—but now and then I think, “Maybe I should just self-publish it and give copies to friends. Would an agent or publisher even want to read the entire manuscript about a girl who must choose whether to kill, and what a person should feel about killing?” But now I ask myself what you ask in your column, “… should the book have been withheld from those who would be touched, who would, perhaps, even grow a bit larger emotionally for accompanying this story journey?”
Your column reassured me that, whatever the outcome concerning finding an agent or a publisher, and any future reactions from adults, I have no choice but to allow my character to make *her* choice. With fictional children, as well as real ones, to refuse them the right to be hurt in learning the whole of being alive is to restrict the quality of those lives.
Thank you, thank you for your column. It’s just what I needed to read just when I needed to read it.
Very best regards,
And Moira, I’m sure you story—with all its pain—will be exactly what some young readers need as well.
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The Gift of Truth
September 20, 2013My mother lied to me when I was a child.
Now, I don’t want to be hard on her. After all, I grew up at a time when lying to children was routine. Any topic that embarrassed adults was deemed inappropriate for kids—sex, bodily functions, adult foibles of all kinds, finances, birth, death . . . sex.
My mother, however, was probably better at lying than most. She not only lied with her silence on all those terrible topics. When asked a direct question she lied to my face.
An example: Not a word was spoken in front of us kids about my aunt Carol’s divorce. When it occurred to me one day to ask, “Didn’t there used to be an Uncle Kenny?” my mother said simply, flatly, “No.” And I was left to struggle with my memories of the man who had fathered my little cousin.
The result? Years later when I began writing novels for young people, I had one overarching goal. To be a truth teller. No matter what topic I took on, I wrote it straight. For instance, in 1977 I published a novel for middle graders that dealt with sexual molestation in the name of Jesus. You’d better believe I had a reputation in my field, and I was proud of it.
I was not my mother. I could be counted on never to lie to my readers, either by my silence or by my words.
Life never happens in a straight line, though. About fifteen years into my career, a change came along, a deep one. I left my marriage of 28 years and formed a relationship with a woman. I was entirely open about who I’d discovered myself to be. I was open with my young-adult children, with my elderly mother, with my husband’s congregation as I left the marriage (he was a pastor), with my writing students, with my friends. Some accepted this new knowledge of me, some turned away, but being open was the only way I knew to live, so I hid nothing, except . . .
Have I mentioned that I am a children’s writer?
Have I mentioned that this all happened twenty five years ago?
Have I mentioned that a librarian in California said to me one day, speaking of a well-known picture-book writer, “We know he died of AIDS, but we don’t say it, because his books would stop selling instantly.”
Have I mentioned that publishing and speaking with a bit of teaching on the side is my only source of income?
Have I mentioned that I like to eat?
Just as I was turning this corner in my life, my career was blossoming. My novel, On My Honor, won a Newbery Honor Award. I was traveling all over the country, speaking to young people and to adults. I was still writing about hard topics, topics I cared about passionately. I was still a truth teller, except for this one small matter of who I was . . . and . . . well, I had to survive, didn’t I?
Then one day the inevitable happened. I looked at myself and asked, What kind of a truth-teller are you? You live in a world where young people are dying—literally killing themselves—for lack of support and information about their sexuality. They are dying because no one is willing to tell them that they can be who they are and still live a happy, productive life.
You, I reminded myself, are in a unique position to reach them. And you are choosing silence.
What else could I do? I had to come out professionally, but I needed to do it quietly, because I am at my core a quiet person, and I needed to do it in a way that would be useful rather than sensational.
My first thought was to go to other gay and lesbian children’s writers—there are lots of us floating around out here—and say, “Come out with me. Let’s put together a book of our own coming-out stories so gay and lesbian kids will know we’re here.” But before I’d extended the first invitation I realized I couldn’t do that. The decision to come out is always personal, and at that time it would have been more than personal. Coming out could have been career destroying for anyone writing for young people. A person can choose that kind of risk, but no one can ask it of anyone else.
And so I came up with a different approach. First I found a courageous editor who accepted my plan. Then I approached other writers in my field without regard to their sexuality. I chose people whose names would be noticed and whose work would be fine—I wanted librarians to feel obligated to put the book on their shelves—and asked them each to write a short story for me. My only requirement was that the story center on a gay or lesbian character. The collection came to be called Am I Blue? Coming Out from the Silence, and it was published almost 20 years ago to more acclaim than I could have dreamed.
And that would be the end of this story except for one thing. I was working with two editors at the time. One happened to be a gay man, the other a lesbian. When they learned what I was doing, the man supported me—in fact, he contributed a story to my collection—but the woman was very concerned. She didn’t say it, but I knew she was afraid she would never be able to publish me again.
When Am I Blue? was almost completed the editor who had been my supporter asked a question: Are you going to come out in your personal essay attached to the short story you’ve contributed to the collection? I told him I was, that coming out was, for me, part of the point.
His support vanished.
I was thrown off balance. Should I revise my essay? I still had time, but just barely. People were going to guess anyway because my name was on the collection as the editor. Was it better to leave them guessing?
Then my other editor, the one who had never wanted me to do the book, asked the same question. I gave her the same answer and held my breath, waiting for the inevitable response. What I got was silence, a long silence. Then she sighed and said something I’ve never forgotten. “Well,” she said, “maybe for every door that’s closed another will be opened.”
That, I said to myself, sounds exactly right, and I let my essay stand.
In case you haven’t guessed, I am still eating.
I’m proud that Am I Blue? Coming Out from the Silence has played its small part in the revolution we’ve all witnessed these past 20 years. I’m grateful for the letters I’ve received telling me how those stories changed lives, even saved lives. And I’m delighted to say that last year I contributed an essay to a book called The Letter Q. The book is comprised of essays from 64 different gay and lesbian writers for young people, all of us acknowledging our sexuality and offering advice to our younger, less certain selves.
Sometimes it doesn’t matter what the impulse is that sends us on our journeys. It matters only that we set off, taking each step with as much conviction and self-honesty as we can muster.
Who knew that my mother’s well-intentioned lies would give me the gift of truth?
The Blessing of Contrariness
September 16, 2013Last week I wrote about my father, about the way he, disappointed in his own existence, discouraged my brother’s and my every aspiration, thinking he could save us from disappointment that way. I told how our dad’s discouragement actually gave us both the determination we needed to succeed in our very different careers.
I asked my readers, what gives you the courage, the drive, the against-all-odds determination to seek out a working writer’s fraught existence? And what keeps you struggling with it, day after sometimes discouraging day?
Donna Gephart answered this way:
Growing up, I watched my single mom work hard every day at a job she didn’t seem to enjoy. When it was time to choose a career path, my mom suggested I go into computers (which was a hot, emerging field at the time) or teaching (which would afford summers off to write). She told me I’d never be able to support myself as a writer.
I was also told by someone I admired that I’d “NEVER, EVER be a writer.”
Now, these are good stories to share with students at school visits, because that resilient spirit you mentioned led me to a most fulfilling career as a children’s book author.
Every day, my own children see me incredibly excited to “go to” work. (I work from home.) And once, when they were little, hubby asked our oldest son what they should give mommy for Mother’s Day. His reply? “Let’s give her more work. She loves her work.”
Donna and I both succeeded despite discouragement, but just think what a gift she has given her own children—not to mention all the children she reaches with her books and school visits—through the example of her delight in her own work.
Clearly, whatever the origins of our need to write, it’s our delight in the work that makes it possible. What better gift can we give our children than the knowledge that we spend our lives in work we love?
Sandra Warren had an experience similar to Donna’s and mine. This is what she said:
Wow! You could have been writing about my younger years; different scenarios but similar message just the same. The fortunate thing for you and your brother and I’d like to think me, was that we all were determined to be different and find success and happiness in what we love to do. We’re all proof that positive things can come out of adversity.
How right you are, Sandra, and I suspect our experience isn’t that rare. I remember years ago hearing an interview with a well-published writer—I no longer remember her name—who said she had a creative writing teacher at one of the prestigious Eastern colleges who told her that she would never succeed as a writer. In the interview this successful writer also told about meeting another of this teacher’s students, also a career writer, who had been told the same thing! (Makes you wonder how many publishing writers there are out there who have been thrust into their careers through the same bad advice!)
This morning I heard an interview with the Irish writer, Edna O’Brien, on Public Radio. She talked about her mother having discouraged her writing. In fact, she said, her mother equated the written word with sin. What better place to begin than with a little sin?
What a blessing contrariness can be.
Next week I’ll present some other kinds of responses I received to my question.
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Another Response to "Why Wait?"
September 16, 2013Last week and this week I'm passing on reader responses I received when I asked if anyone had advice for a twelve-year-old novelist, Diana, who wants to publish.
I gave published Barbara's response last week. A self-published writer, she suggested that if Diana wants to self publish she will need to have a team in place
to help with editing, book designing, etc. She also suggested that, precisely because Diana is twelve, such people might emerge, willing t
Here is ano
You raise great questions. I think it’s especially wise to consider anew our responses to these sorts of inquiries, given that changing technology has opened up all sorts of avenues for writers–kid or adult–to get their work read. It’s much easier in 2013 to find an audience for one’s work than it was fifty or twenty-five or even ten years ago. I think I would direct Diana to a website like kidpub.com, where young writers share their stories (many of them novels) and have a path to publication, if they want it. The site publishes some of these books and sells them in their online bookstore (and on Amazon, I think). I don’t know much about this site in particular (just did a quick search); there are lots of sites where kids can share and build stories, among them figment.com, scribblitt.com and storybird.com. Maybe one of your other readers has an opinion of these or knows of others?
But there’s something else here that niggles at me, some point that might serve Diana better in the long run. I think it’s that writing and publication are two separate things. We tend to look to publication as a big, fat seal of approval on our work, but the truth is that there are many factors that determine whether a story–even a beautifully written story–gets published. Writers write first and foremost for the love (and occasional misery) of creation. I think I’d tell Diana to learn to love the ‘making’ more than anything else, because there will be many times in her life as a writer when that is all she has to sustain her.
Thanks for the thought provoking post!
And thank you, Jane. I had no idea the kinds of sites you list existed, and I'm glad to know they do. What an exciting opportunity they offer for committed young writers!
And I agree wholeheartedly with the last part of Jane's message. In fact, I had already said much the same thing to Diana, that loving the writing she is doing is the real point, not publication. And writing because she loves to write will always be accessible to her, whether she is publishing or not.
Next week I'll say a bit more about the tension between writing and publishing . . . for writers of any age.
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Write to Publish ... or Write to Write?
September 16, 2013A couple of weeks ago I shared a twelve-year-old writer's request for help publishing her novels. I asked for responses to pass on to the young writer and have shared those here, too. Today let's bring the topic back to ourselves, the grown-up writers out there longing for, needing publication.
Of course writers need to be published, because we need to share our work. It's as hard for most of us to write in a closet as it would be to play a violin in one. But there are many ways of sharing, and that is the gift of today's wide-ranging publication opportunities. We can even share by handing a manuscript around to family and friends, electronically or on paper.
But when most people talk about publishing, handing a manuscript around is not what they're talking about. They are talking about selling. They may even be talking about earning a living as a writer.
It has long struck me that writing is the only artistic field where the world seems to assume that anyone who practices it must surely be a professional. If you play the piano, no one asks you when you were last on a concert stage. If you paint, your friends probably don't expect your work to be on display in museums. But if you write, everyone asks, "Have you been published?"
It's as though publication is the only goal. It's also as though having a broad public audience for our words is the only justification for writing at all.
When I taught at Vermont College of Fine Arts, we repeatedly--and understandably--found ourselves working with students in the MFA in Writing program who were desperate to publish. And the first lesson we had to teach those who came filled to the brim with such a need was to put aside the desperation, to put aside even the thought of publication, to concentrate simply and wholly on the work. Only when they could do that--truly do it--could they begin to grow as writers.
That's an attitude even a publishing writer must carry with her through her career. We all need to learn that it's the process that matters! Everything else, even publication--in some ways, particularly publication--is secondary to the writing itself.
And that's the good news. Why? Because publication is hard. Even self-publishing takes stamina as well as funds. Publishing is also sporadic even in the most fertile career. If it comes at all, it comes only at irregular intervals. And the satisfactions that attend a book's birth are short lived.
Writing, on the other hand, is something we can wake to every single morning. The process will feed us, enrich us, satisfy the deepest and most hidden of our needs. Curiously enough, if we are writing truly, writing can satisfy even those needs we don't know how to name. And it does all that with or without publication.
I know if you are standing on the other side of your first major publication, these words must seem hackneyed, even insensitive. Sure! Tell the homeless man how much he should enjoy the fresh outdoor air! And I'll admit that, if I had read what I'm saying now back in the days when I was longing for publication, I would have been unimpressed. The truth is, I probably would have been pissed.
But my words remain true, nonetheless. Writing is its own reward.
It is an act that blesses itself.
However successful our careers may be--or not--that's something we would all do well to remember.
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The Real World of a Working Writer
September 16, 2013I prefer that term, working writer, to professional writer. In asking myself why that's so, I went searching for a definition of the word professional and came up with this one from Reference.com. Here it is in part: "In western nations, such as the United States, the term [professional] commonly describes highly educated, mostly salaried workers, who enjoy considerable work autonomy, economic security, a comfortable salary, and are commonly engaged in creative and intellectually challenging work."
Parts of that definition certainly applies to publishing writers, but "economic security, a comfortable salary"?
One of the questions students always ask writers visiting in schools is "How much money do you make?" (It's what the teachers want to know, too, but they don't ask.) To answer I'd hold up a book and ask, "Each time a copy of this book sells, how much do you think I earn?" Most students--and often the teachers--find the royalty percentages shocking. Estimates are usually far above the standard ten percent or the five percent for picture books or the two or three percent for paperbacks.
And that doesn't even take into consideration the lack of benefits such as health insurance and 401Ks for "professional" writers.
After the students absorbed those figures, I would go on to say, "If your parents worked the way I do, they would go to work every day for the next couple of months--or years, perhaps--and, at the end of that time, they would ask the boss, "Do you want the work I've done for you?" And if the boss said, "Yes," they would get paid. If the boss said "No," they wouldn't.
It's not a secure existence, to put it mildly.
That's been the hardest piece for me to adjust as a self-supporting writer, the financial uncertainty. A book that gets starred reviews and that the editor and I both think will go big can disappear with barely a trace. (I once heard another writer say about that phenomenon, "More copies were returned to the publisher than went out.") On the other hand, a board book I whipped off in a couple of hours that receives no critical attention, a low advance and a smaller royalty percentage on a lower price, can pay my rent for years.
That uncertainty is why most self-supporting writers supplement their income by doing such things as lectures and school visits. I know some who have ended up on such an intensive cross-country circuit that they barely have time to breathe, let alone write. Which is more than a bit counterproductive, but a bird in the hand is hard to ignore.
I don't do school visits any longer, except for volunteering for my grandchildren from time to time. I miss the contact with the kids, miss it seriously, but I simply ran out of the kind of energy it takes to stand for hours before a gym full of wiggly kids . . . or bored-looking teens.
The other option for some guaranteed income is to teach developing writers, and that's something I did for many years. I know few things more thrilling than being able to open the door to the moment when another writer breaks through to her own story, her own heart in a way I, as her teacher, could never have imagined.
Nonetheless, the day came when for all my love of the process, the students, the program I was part of, I couldn't teach any longer. Simply could not. Teaching demands creative energy. Lots of creative energy. And despite the fact that I always worked hard to be a writer who teaches, not a teacher who writes, I found I needed to return to the place where I had begun, being simply and only a writer, a working writer.
It's still not a secure existence, but I have learned my craft well, have managed to keep exploring deeply enough to stay fresh--or as fresh as seems possible for someone who has been publishing for nearly forty years--and I still find open doors for my work.
Not everyone who writes wants to work with the kind of slogging intensity required to be a self-supporting writer. But for those who do, the work is good.
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Cobbling Together an Income
September 16, 2013Being a working writer means just that . . . working. And it also means continually strategizing ways to cobble together an income. Especially if you have no back-up salary, your own or a partner’s, to count on for the groceries, the medical bills, the rent.
Here’s an example of what I mean.
Last year I published three new books, a verse novel, Little Dog, Lost, and two picture books, Halloween Forest and Dinosaur Thunder. All received starred reviews. My writing life seemed to be in order. But I’ve long known that starred reviews and big sales are two different things. And so one day, nearly 200 pages into Blue-Eyed Wolf, a young-adult novel that I knew I wasn’t going to finish any time soon, it occurred to me that I’d nearly run out of new books in the pipeline.
(Deciding to write a long novel when I can sell shorter, younger work is hardly practical. It may not even be wise. Longer means, inevitably, more time committed, and more time committed doesn’t mean more income when the book is published.)
As I was considering all this, Holiday House came to me asking for a picture book to be paired with Halloween Forest. So, glad to be writing something that I knew an editor was actually looking for, I set the novel aside to try to find my own heart in her idea. In the process, I produced several picture-book manuscripts that pleased me but, for one reason or another, weren’t what was wanted. Returning to the same artist inevitably creates a different set of requirements for the text. I did finally come up with the right manuscript, Crinkle! Crackle! Crack! Curiously, it was the one I’d written first, but I’d tucked it away in the bowels of my computer because I’d decided it wasn’t right. (Which tells you that my own instincts aren’t always reliable.)
In the meantime, I have just received notice of an offer on one of other manuscripts I especially love, The World is Singing. So–deep breath–I now have more books in the pipeline.
At various times this past year, in response to ideas that niggled, I’ve also paused to work on other short pieces. One, You are the Love of Baby, has sold to Chronicle Books for their new personalized books. Another, Higgledy-Piggledy, is just starting its journey.
And then every few months I return to a commitment I made a couple of years ago to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for their new Celebrating the Fifty States series. The books are brief, but each requires another pause.
Finally, there is Patches, the young verse novella I began this winter when I found myself having to dictate because of my broken arm. I’m close to completing a first draft of that.
All while Blue-Eyed Wolf waits.
It’s certainly a disjointed way to work. Though while I’ve been pursuing other projects, I’ve continued my research for Blue-Eyed Wolf and rethought important aspects of the story. Thus this very impractical project stays alive while I cobble together a living from my writing.
It doesn’t sound like “economic security,” does it?
It doesn’t even sound like the life I imagined for myself forty years ago when I waded into the cold water of my first novel.
Am I complaining? Not at all. I feel blessed every time I sit down to write, whatever I’m writing. I never forget how fortunate I am to be paid to do the only work I’ve ever wanted to do.
But still, all of it is–and this is the bottom line–work. Good work. Good, good work, but still work.
And that’s the basis, more than anything else, for whatever success I’ve had in my career. I am a working writer.
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An Unintended Gift
September 16, 2013
My father was a disappointed man. He graduated from college into the teeth of the Great Depression with a degree in chemistry. He landed a job, married my mother and soon found himself out of work. In those hard times, the last-hired, first-fired doctrine ruled.
After a long struggle to find a job that didn’t disappear out from under him, Dad was finally forced to accept work on his brother-in-law’s farm in Minnesota. He had grown up on a poor southern-California farm, so he knew farm work but hated it. It must have been humiliating, after being the first in his family to graduate from college, to be forced to return to farming and to the near charity of his wife’s family.
My father was a brilliant man. Mother told me once that in college his IQ was measured at 182. That’s beyond intelligent to weird. And when this brilliant man, so scarred by the Depression, finally landed a position as a chemist in an Illinois cement mill, he grabbed on and stayed put. It didn’t matter that anyone with a high school course in chemistry could have done the work he went to every day. “When the next Depression comes,” he said to my brother and me, again and again, “I won’t be laid off. I’ll have seniority.”
He also used to say, “The reason they call it work is because you don’t like to do it. If you liked doing it, no one would pay you.”
Having been so disappointed in his own life, Dad tried hard to protect his two children from disappointment. The way he did it, curiously enough, was to discourage every achievement we reached for. His theory, often stated, was that if we didn’t expect anything good we wouldn’t be disappointed when nothing good came. If by some miracle the good actually did show up, he would add, the victory would be all the sweeter.
So when I had just graduated from high school and the editor of the local newspaper accepted my bid to write a bi-weekly column for the paper, my father said, “But why would anyone want to read it?” Later when I began writing novels for young people and acquired an agent, he asked me how the agent would be paid. I explained that she would get ten percent of everything I earned. “Good,” he said, “because ten percent of nothing is nothing.”
He tried in the same way to keep my brother’s, Will’s, expectations in check.
It wasn’t that he didn’t want good to come to us, only that, from within the framework of his own life, he couldn’t imagine that it was possible.
Whatever his intention, our father’s parenting methods should have guaranteed that neither Will nor I would ever attempt–let alone have the determination to stay with–any effort beyond the most mundane. The fact is, though, that we turned into two of the most determined achievers I know, both of us fiercely committed to our very different goals. And in our separate arenas–my brother is in manufacturing–we have each succeeded.
I believe we succeeded not just in spite of our father’s dark message, but because of it. We both rebelled silently, refusing to let his voice be either limiter or predictor. That we did so says volumes about human resilience. (It also says volumes about other factors in our lives that built confidence and sustained hope, but that’s a topic for another day.)
For the last couple of weeks I’ve been talking here about the good work of writing.
What I haven’t mentioned is the determination needed to sustain a career. Where does that come from?
Mine came from my father, an unintended gift, but a gift, nonetheless.
What about yours?
What gives you the courage, the drive, the against-all-odds determination to seek out a working writer’s fraught existence? And what keeps you struggling with it, day after sometimes discouraging day?
I would love to hear your story and will include a few in upcoming blogs.
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The Question of Courage
September 16, 2013A couple of weeks ago I talked about my father and the role he played, in a rather perverse way, in encouraging my unlikely career as a writer. I asked my readers, “What gives you the courage, the drive, the against-all-odds determination to seek out a working writer’s fraught existence? And what keeps you struggling with it, day after sometimes discouraging day?”
Here are some more responses to my question:
Janet Fox said this:
I have such a similar story, in a way. My mother was a frustrated writer. She wrote children’s stories at a time I was off doing everything else but writing. She died suddenly, and I found a batch of her unpublished work among her papers, and that’s what started me on my path today.
So now I write for my mother—not because she discouraged me, but because she never saw her work in print. Every success I have, I think, “You’d love this, Mom. You’d be happy.”
I don’t want to die without having made every effort to write the best possible stories. For my readers, of course, but also for my mom.
So once again the motivator lies in a relationship with a parent. It would be interesting to know whether, if I were talking to people who write for adults, the motivation underlying their careers would, so reliably, go back to the primal parent/child relationship.
Carol Brendler took the conversation in a different and interesting direction. This is what she said:
I have never thought about the courage it takes to become a writer. I know all about persistence, but have never considered how brave it is of me to try this work. Wow. Where did it come from, this courage? From a deep-seated need to prove to an indifferent world that I do indeed have something worthwhile to contribute to it (beside producing one very smart and handsome child)? Is it a play for attention? Or is it simply that I have no marketable skills or aptitude for anything other than playing with words and telling tales? None of these seem courageous. Let me think about this some more, because I’d really like to think that I might be courageous.
After reading Carol’s comment, I had to stop to ask myself why I used the word courage? I decided that the word came out of precisely the kinds of questions she poses: Can I stand in the face of an indifferent world? If I do, will anyone ever notice? Can I accept the fact that playing with words and story is my sole talent and take ownership of that talent, no regrets allowed? No one gets past those kinds of questions without courage.
Sandra Warren, whom I quoted last week, also took on the question of “courage.” This is what she said:
Our writing isn’t what takes courage. It’s the believing that it’s good enough for someone else to read; good enough to want to get it published; good enough for a publisher to want it; a belief strong enough to sustain us through the process–the rejection that surely comes–to stick to it, persist and not quit; that’s the part that takes COURAGE.
Where my courage comes from I’m not sure. All I know is that deep down I have this strong belief that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.
And that’s exactly what I’m talking about, the courage that keeps us at a task—often for years—because we believe in what we’re doing and choose to go on believing even when the world has yet to support us in our conviction.
I especially like that Sandra ends with “All I know is that deep down I have this strong belief that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”
What better place to end this discussion?
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The Ending in the Beginning
September 16, 2013The ending lies in the beginning . . . always.
That’s true of stories, anyway, and it’s something I’ve known about them for a long time. In fact, when I first assemble a story I always have a few basic things in place: the story problem, the character who will struggle to resolve the problem, other characters who will assist or create more difficulty along the way, the incident that starts the story off and . . . the ending. I won’t necessarily know how my main character is going to resolve her problem, but I will understand, like a shiver that reaches to the soles of my feet, exactly what a resolution will feel like.
It’s the feeling that is key, and knowing that, feeling it, will also let me know what my story means, will reveal what English teachers refer to as my story’s theme. When I’m writing I never put that meaning into words, though. My story has to work by making the reader feel, not through handing out lessons.
I have always been intrigued with writers who tell me that they sail into a story without knowing the ending. I’ve even heard some say, “If I knew the ending, I wouldn’t write the story. I write in order to find out how it will turn out.” And though I would never argue with anyone else’s method of working—if it works for you, it works—I don’t understand how such a journey is possible.
To me, setting off to write a story without knowing where it is going would be very much like starting a road trip without deciding whether my destination is going to be California or New York. If I were driving, I would end up circling endlessly somewhere in Indiana.
This is something I’ve known about my own writing for a long time. And yet it’s something, every now and then, I find myself having to discover again. And I’ve just bumped into this simple truth about the way I work once more.
And bumped hard.
This winter after breaking my elbow and finding myself unable to keyboard, I began writing by dictating through voice-recognition software. At the time, I was working on Blue-Eyed Wolf, a long-suffering young-adult novel, but after dictating a couple of new scenes I grew distrustful of the process. Writing through dictation seemed to be altering my style, not a good thing halfway through a long novel
And so I decided to take a leap—eyes practically closed—into a new verse novella similar to Little Dog, Lost, which I especially enjoyed writing. Verse seemed a medium more conducive to dictation. The story I landed in is about a calico cat, and, at least for now, it’s called Patches. (Often my titles come last.) And so I began writing, that is dictating, with an idea half formed. I did, however, have a general kind of ending in mind. It wasn’t the definitive moment of strong feeling I usually rely on, but at least I knew where everyone would be by the last scene.
I wrote the whole story or nearly the whole story. I discovered various interesting events as I proceeded, as I always do. But when I got to the end I encountered a problem. The conclusion I’d been aiming toward was too vague. And when I stepped into the squishy territory of this vague ending, I discovered that I could go on and on and on, writing more and more events. But I absolutely could not draw what was supposed to be a small, simple story to a conclusion, because no conclusion I could imagine felt right, nothing I tried meant anything.
A story doesn’t end because the characters have finally arrived at some defined place. You end your story when you’ve revealed your heart’s truth, especially to yourself. And if your heart’s truth—the reason you began writing to start with—is going to mean anything to us when we encounter it, the story must be aimed at that truth from the first lines. That’s what makes it truth when we get there, that we’ve known it all along.
As I write this, though, I still have a story without an ending. So . . . what’s to be done? Go back to the beginning, of course. Find out why I entered this story at all. And then set my compass again.
California, here I come. Or will it be New York?
All I know is I’ve got to get out of Indiana!
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Resonance: The Core of the Verse Novel
September 16, 2013What would prompt a perfectly respectable writer of prose fiction to attempt a novel in verse?
Because verse can accomplish things prose cannot?
Because experimenting with new methods and styles is the best way to stay fresh in the midst of a long career?
Simply for the challenge?
Because, beyond the hard work of it, writing a story in verse is great fun?
For me it was all of the above.
Little Dog, Lost, published by Atheneum last spring, was my first novel in verse. I am currently working on my second, Patches. I made the initial leap for the most mundane of reasons. Writing in verse creates lots of attractive white space on the page.
That alone, all that white space, is a huge asset for developing readers. It makes the page look accessible, thus encouraging them to wade in, and delivers the lines in bite-sized chunks for easier deciphering. For a few years before beginning Little Dog, Lost, I had been writing young novellas, and I had grown tired of the necessary restrictions on sentence length that limited my style. I like writing for younger readers. I like the kinds of stories that work for them. But I longed to go back to writing with the stylistic flow of my older work. I also wanted to create a story that wasn’t age-specific, one that, by being easy to read and offering a captivating story, would appeal to a wide audience.
But simply breaking up prose lines to make them more readable doesn’t make a verse novel. I pulled up a copy of Little Dog, Lost recently and spread the words across the page just to see if making it look like prose would turn it into prose. The effect was . . . weird. Clearly when I write this way I am doing something different with language and even with my story. By striving toward poetry, I’m writing as I do for a picture book, every word weighed, the rhythm of every line tasted.
Something more is involved, though, and that something is harder to name.
The most important concept to understand in writing picture books is resonance. We are often told that picture book texts should be like an iceberg, ten percent above the surface, ninety percent below. Every word and phrase of a good picture books stands in for more, much more. The text allows us to feel what lies beneath the words. That’s resonance. And that’s exactly what a verse novel must have.
But is it possible to write a novel that way, relying on mostly unspoken meaning?
That is the key question. I used to resist reading novels in verse, let alone writing one. I found most of them thin. They rarely gave me what I most seek when I enter the world of story, a deep connection with a character. If I’m going to inhabit a story—as writer or reader—I want to enter it through a character, to become that character and have the story happen to me.
If a verse novel is written in a first-person stream of consciousness—as is often done in YA verse novels—then the reader can live richly inside the main character’s psyche and experience little loss. (Or the loss, if there is one, is apt to come from losing out on the energy of direct action.) If, however, the story is being told in a more traditional third-person perspective (or through a narrator’s voice, as I’m doing in both of my verse novels) with the presentation being more dramatic than internal, then resonance is the key.
And how is resonance achieved when you’re writing thousands of words instead of the few hundred of a picture book? Through the same painstaking effort a picture book text requires. Each line scanned, again and again, each word examined. Each scene weighed for its emotional impact. Each character encapsulated, presented in as few words as possible, but made as whole as possible in those few words.
And after doing all that, do we get the same results we would get writing a story in prose? No. There is much that is rather routinely played out writing in prose that will be left to the underwater part of a story in verse.
But when we make resonance work, our verse novels have the kind of impact the best picture books do.
If they really work, they may even do what picture books are most famous for, call their readers back again and again and again.
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I Don't LIke Your Book
September 16, 2013It was the heading for the e-mail. “I don’t like your book.”
The text repeated the sentiment. It said with the same directness and simplicity, “I don’t like your book.”
The message was “sent from awesome.”
Since I have a lot of books out there, my response was as simple and direct as the incoming e-mail. I wrote back and asked which book Awesome was referring to and why he didn’t like it. (Am I right to assume that, almost inevitably, Awesome is a he?)
Awesome responded. The book he referred to, it turned out, was On My Honor. No surprise there. Sometimes young readers are quite unprepared for such a sad story, one that doesn’t resolve all the problems it sets up, not to mention a story in which a main character— a young one— dies.
I wrote back sympathetically.
It is certainly your right not to like sad books. I don’t like stories that seem to me to be too loaded with sadness, and everyone has a different idea of what “too loaded” means. But for me, sadness in the right proportions stretches me, helps me understand other people— and myself— better, and sometimes even gives me a chance to cry a bit and to feel a whole lot better afterward.
I hope you find lots of books that you do like. Books are such a great way to live beyond our own experience.
Marion Dane Bauer
Awesome’s next e-mail presented a different challenge. He asked,
R u the real one speaking to my or is it your company
Sent from awesome
I assured him that I was the real one speaking and that ended our exchange.
Because my books— especially On My Honor— are frequently used for classroom reading, I often get letters in class-sized packets. Receiving stray e-mails is something new and is, frankly, a lot more fun.
Usually teacher-assigned letters all sound pretty much the same. They loved my book, whichever one it was. It was the best book they’d ever read. And then they ask their obligatory questions.
There is nothing wrong with such letters, beyond being a bit boring, boring for the kids to write, boring for me to read. (One of my publishers once sent me, accidentally, a packet of letters meant for Judy Blume, and except for the fact that the title mentioned in the letters wasn’t one of mine, I never would have noticed the difference. They all said pretty much the same thing, I/she is their favorite author, the book— fill in the blank— is their favorite book.)
When a child actually has the courage to say, “I don’t like this!” I’m delighted. When he can say it even in the context of a school assignment, I cheer. I am reminded of a moment, fresh out of graduate school, when another just-out-of-college English major said to me, “I’m not in school any longer. I don’t have to like The Fairie Queene.” And I cheered. I was at the time very intently reading books specifically not included in my English department’s curriculum, writers such as C.S. Lewis and John Steinbeck.
I was a high school English teacher once, so long ago that it feels like something out of a different lifetime. And I discovered that what I most wanted to accomplish in teaching literature was the hardest goal to achieve. I wanted my students to love to read and to return to doing it again and again and again.
Part of learning to love to read is having the freedom and the insight to be able to say, “I don’t like this,” and then, of course, to say why.
I do hope Awesome goes on to find books that he loves, and I’m glad he had the courage to speak up to an authority so remote that it seemed to him that he must surely be talking to a whole company.
But I also hope he doesn’t lose the discrimination needed to decide that some books, however honored, are not to his liking.
Having the courage to decide that and to say it to whatever powers may be is truly awesome!
[A post script. I just received another message from Awesome. It said, I love your other books]
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Going into the Story
September 16, 2013A few weeks ago I talked about an e-mail I received from Maia. She was responding to a young novella of mine called The Very Little Princess. And she said she “wanted to go into the story.”
We all recognize reading that way. How often have I looked up from reading a novel set in a warm, sunny clime to be surprised at the snow outside my window? (No longer, thank goodness. Our intractable Minnesota winter has finally melted away.) Or found myself feeling uncomfortably guilty from inside someone else’s badly behaved character? Or had to give myself a shake when I set a book aside before I could return to the present and the dinner waiting to be prepared?
Art by Cécile Anker, 1886
I remember reading that way most intensively as a child, swallowing books whole and then emerging, dazed, into my own small world, which, curiously enough, was still waiting for me.
I heard a description once of a toddler who, on being read Goodnight Moon, set the book on the floor and stepped on it, clearly trying to enter that green room. The child burst into tears when she found she couldn’t climb into Margaret Wise Brown’s world that way.
What is the point of giving over our psyches to stories? When we read, when we write, are we simply escaping the Minnesota snow or the narrow constrictions—perhaps even the ethical ones—of our own lives? Certainly that’s part of what we’re doing. But escape, while it has a bad name—literature labeled “escapist” is certainly not held in high regard—is surely the first step toward something much larger.
It depends on what we escape into. Something that enlarges our view of the world, of ourselves? Something that enlarges our hearts?
I once read about a man who said, “I don’t like music. I don’t want other people putting their emotions into me.”
First, I was stunned that it is possible for anyone not to like music—all music—in a generic way. Second, I wondered why experiencing others’ emotions might be so threatening.
We are community creatures. Solitary confinement is the worst punishment that can be visited upon us. We actually need to feel not just our own fear and lust and tenderness and boredom but our neighbor’s, too.
Obviously, we do that by living among other human beings. But we can extend our experience, our empathy, our understanding by going into the story, too, experiencing other people’s stories, by experiencing art of all kinds.
It’s what we writers of fiction do every day we sit down to work. We move inside someone else’s world, experience someone else’s feelings. If our stories are effective, it’s what our readers do, too.
What a privilege it is to create worlds for others to inhabit.
What satisfaction there is in expanding our own consciousness through building new worlds for ourselves.
Still, I wonder sometimes. What becomes of a life that is spent inhabiting imaginary others? Would it be better, somehow, to be crafting cabinets or tilling a garden? In these long hours I spend intertwined in story, am I escaping my own life?
Oh . . . you were expecting an answer? Sorry. I don’t have one. Only the question, followed immediately by the urge to return to the latest world I’ve created.
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50 States to Celebrate
September 16, 2013
Today, June 18th, is the publication date for four new books of mine.
Because I have done other young nonfiction, some on request, some by my own instigation, a Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt editor approached me a couple of years ago about writing a new series for them. The series is called 50 States to Celebrate and is part of the Sandpiper Green Light series, level 3.
In the past, I have written some very young nonfiction series, books intended for preschool and first grade. I thought, how much more difficult to research and write can Level 3 be? It’s only second grade, after all.
The answer . . . a whole lot!
In past blogs I’ve talked about stretching into new territory to keep myself fresh as a writer. Clearly this would be one of those stretches. It was also, I quickly discovered, an opportunity to discover my own limitations.
I have loved gathering information for preschoolers. It’s challenging and fun to take a complex topic such as a biography of Christopher Columbus—and all that attaches to his “discovery” today—and turn it into something accessible and true for the very young. To do so I read and read and read until I’m saturated. I read, for the most part, without taking notes, because when the time comes to write I’m going to have only 250 words. For a fact to survive as part of those 250 words it has to be very basic and very important. If I don’t know it in the most fundamental way at the end of my reading, it doesn’t belong in my text.
After I’ve finished my reading, I let all I’ve gathered sift through my brain. My brain, in the best of times, is a sieve with very large holes. Once a topic like Christopher Columbus—or volcanoes or the Grand Canyon or rain—has sifted through, what remains is the core of what I can say. And then I have only to say it in a direct and interesting way.
Since I seem to have a reductionist mind—not always an asset, but it certainly is one when gathering information for the very young—the process, for me, is quite simple and even fun.
My first realization that writing a step up from what I’ve written before would be different came when the editor said that every fact must be presented with two respected sources. I panicked. That meant I couldn’t use my absorb and sieve method. I was going to have to take notes and to keep track of where every piece of information came from so I could be held accountable for every fact. And that was before I knew how difficult some facts were going to be to track down and corroborate! (If you’ve never done this kind of research, you would be amazed at how many permutations there can be of one presumably concrete “fact.”)
I had done that kind of corroborated research when I was a student, of course, as we all did, but even graduate school was a long, long time ago. And it’s not the way I prefer to work.
(Perhaps I should explain here that the reason I hadn’t had to do this before was that the facts that survive for the much shorter books are so much common knowledge that they rarely require corroboration.)
I’ve always admired librarians. I have new reason to admire them now. I sought out the facts, of course, but I went absolutely cross-eyed verifying them . . . until I hired a librarian to verify them for me and to send me back to my seeking when she couldn’t support what I’d found. As I write this, I’m just ready to sail into the tenth book, and I would have fallen away long ago without my librarian’s steady, professional hand.
Read more about the book.
I’ve discovered that you have to want to do something to develop true competence in it, and I know now that the capacity to do precise, detailed research is a competence I have little desire to develop.
So as I complete work on the tenth book, I’m also signing off from the series. Ten books was what I’d agreed to in the beginning, and ten books turns out to be enough.
But Celebrating California, Celebrating New York, Celebrating Florida and Celebrating Texas are finding their way into the world today, richly illustrated by C.B. Canga, lovingly edited by Margie Markarian, and painstakingly written (and I mean that word painstaking quite literally) by me. They are colorful and interesting and fun . . . and thanks to my faithful librarian, Caitlin Cowan, they are accurate.
I hope the series soars and that a new writer with a better hand than I have at keeping track of research will move on with the next forty states.
Even in the endless process of cobbling together a living, knowing one’s own limitations is a good and necessary talent.
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When is Enough Enough?
September 16, 2013I had a curious experience a few months ago with a novel selected for my book club. It was written by a woman I knew, though only slightly, and we had invited the author to attend our discussion. I turned to reading the book with high expectations. Disappointment set in quickly. I found myself quite lost in a maze of characters and history that I seemed to be expected to know but that hadn't yet been presented to me. "What's wrong with me?" I kept asking myself as I slogged through. (If I hadn't been reading for the book club, I would, no doubt, have quit slogging.) "Why can't I follow this?"
By the time I reached the end, most had been sorted out, though a lot of the feeling I would have brought to the story had been lost in the too-long process of sorting. And so I went to the meeting with great curiosity. The novel was beautifully written. What had happened?
And this is what I learned. The writer had spent twelve years writing that one story. Twelve years! She spent the first six perfecting the first draft, which was then turned down by the publisher she wanted, the one who had brought out her previous book. She spent the next six years rethinking, reframing, discarding, smoothing until she finally had a novel her publisher would accept.
Is there anything wrong with this way of working? (This is a woman who holds down a demanding professional position, so she wasn't hammering away at this one text day and night. But still, she was working steadily!)
You will never hear anyone more committed to revision than I am. And my experience is that few writers revise too much. Far more often we writers, especially developing writers, try to smooth problems over on the surface instead of digging back into the heart of the story to solve them where they lie.
But after I heard this woman talk about her process, I understood what had bothered me in my reading from the very early pages. This fine writer had worked her story so long and so intensively and knew it so well that she had quite lost track of what we, her readers, knew and needed to know and what our reactions might be to the unfolding story.
She knew it all so well, in fact, that she was no longer discovering it with us at her side. She had already lived her story, her characters' lives, again and again and again, and finally she no longer knew what we knew and what we didn't and what we needed to carry us to the next page. She had resided in that world of her own making so completely that writing the final story was like digging herself a hole from which she could barely see over the edge.
Do I blame the writer? Of course not. She was doing what we all must do, working hard to create the best story possible out of the material inside her head. And once she found herself in a tangle, there would have been no way out but through.
Then there is the additional fact, not to be denied, that my opinion of the novel she ended up publishing is by no means definitive. Certainly, the editor who accepted the book for publication didn't share it.
But struggling through reading and then listening to the author talk about her process taught me something. There can be such a thing as too much revision. While we are gaining polish we may be losing the emotional integrity of our work.
Our book club read another novel earlier in the year whic was so brilliantly written that nearly every sentence could stand alone as both an example of fine writing and a beacon of wisdom. At first I was entranced. By about halfway through I was numbed. Too much. Too much. Too much. That novel, too, had been written over many years.
My advice? Keep moving forward. Revise. Revise deeply and well. But keep discovering, too. Don't create a world so perfectly known that you can no longer translate it for your readers.
As with so much about the process of writing, this requires a fine balance.
It's easy to say, not always so easy to do. Keep enough space between you and your story so you can judge its impact. And stop when enough is enough.
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Born of Desire and Delight
September 16, 2013“Discipline is born of desire and delight.”
I copied that statement a while back without noting where it came from. Probably from one of the dharma talks I listen to while I do my morning Pilates/yoga. But whoever said it first, those words strike me as utterly and profoundly true.
“You are so disciplined!” People have said that to me all my writing life. And I have often demurred. After all, isn’t discipline doing faithfully something you don’t really want to do? “When I exercise,” I’ve said, “I’m disciplined. When I clean my house, I’m disciplined. Writing is simply what I get up in the morning to do.”
And yet if discipline is born of desire and delight then that’s exactly what I am . . . disciplined. And most other working writers are, too. Not because we beat ourselves into performing. Not even because we stand sternly over ourselves to make sure we meet our obligations. We are disciplined because the desire to write—the need to write—is what we are made of. Writing lies at the center of our lives. To stop writing would be like stopping breathing.
Yet I encounter many people who “want to write” and don’t have the discipline to actually do it, either in the “desire and delight” sense or in the old nose-to-the-grindstone one. In fact, wanting to write can be the exact opposite of doing it. I suspect what some folks really want is to have written . . . a whole different phenomenon. They don’t desire and take delight in the process of putting words down, one after another, of thinking through and shaping a piece, of writing and revising and revising again. They desire—and would take delight in if they only had it—the end result, that is the moment when they might hold the finished manuscript in their hands. Even better, they desire the moment when the world holds the resulting book . . . and praises it, of course.
For many years, I, too, “wanted to write.” The act of gathering words on paper was, at best, a guilty hobby. I wasn’t “disciplined” about my writing then in the sense of being structured or consistent. It was something I fled to in the cracks between more necessary activities: teaching, grading papers, preparing meals, having babies, caring for them, preparing meals or cleaning the house. (When I could escape from anything, it was usually the cleaning. In my world, cleaning can usually wait.) But even then I was disciplined in the sense represented by my opening quote. Writing remained my desire and delight.
Eventually I was able to leave my teaching job, the kids grew old enough for school, and I struck a bargain with my then husband to be given the freedom to devote myself to writing instead of taking on work that would guarantee the paycheck our family needed. And that’s when my friends began to see me as “disciplined.” I got up every morning to write.
But I did it, not because I suddenly grew a serious new muscle called “discipline.” I did it because I was, at last, free to use my life in the way that served my deepest desire, that gave me delight, every time I sat down to work.
That desire, that delight is the foundation for the 10,000 hours of practice we often hear spoken of, the 10,000 hours that turn an amateur into a professional.
So . . . yes, it’s true. I’m disciplined. I live in desire and delight.
And I can’t imagine a better or more privileged life than the one lived that way.
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Writers Needing Writers
September 16, 2013Writers need other writers. I’ve recently returned from a trip to the Pacific Northwest, a time of re-gathering, refueling, reacquainting myself with myself. A time of reestablishing my connection with other writers.
It’s not travel that refuels. Not for me, anyway. In fact, it’s not travel I seek at all. I am at core a homebody. I love my life, my home, my study, my routine and have little need to wander. On this trip in particular the magic lay in reconnecting with much-loved friends from my years teaching at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
I flew from Minneapolis/St. Paul to Portland, Oregon, to meet Ellen Howard, a long-time friend and travel companion. Then she and I took Amtrak to Vancouver, B.C.—a spectacular ride; the tracks border the ocean most of the way—to meet Sarah Ellis.
Lots and lots of talk in between patches of exploring Vancouver. (Are you going to retire . . . ever? What would it mean to retire? Can we stay current in this changing world? What makes middle-grade fiction—that traditional base and current step-child of juvenile literature—so compelling?)
Then Ellen and I re-boarded Amtrak for Seattle where we stayed with Laura Kvasnosky. More exploration, more good talk. We also took photos of Mr. Geo, the guiding character in my Celebrating the 50 States books, in various classic state-of-Washington environments to support the publicity for the upcoming book and gathered at a picnic with some VCFA folks.
Back in Portland we attended Ellen’s writers’ group where I saw more former VCFA faculty and met a couple of them the next day for brunch and a walk through a delicious book store.
Then home. Remembering deep kindnesses such as the banana bread Sarah had waiting for me when we arrived. It was gluten free, and since I’ve been gluten sensitive for years it was a delight usually forbidden to me. And then in Seattle, John, Laura’s husband, made gluten free popovers one morning, something I’ve never had. As you can tell, I was well fed.
But far more importantly, my soul was fed.
We talked and talked and talked. Good talk. Easy talk. Important talk. I grow weary sometimes with being a writer in social situations. What occupies my mind and my heart is too strange to bring into normal conversation.
I appreciate the moment when someone, trying to draw the quiet person I am into a group conversation, says something like, “Are you still writing?” I appreciate it because I know the question is meant to be polite. But it’s like being asked if I’m still breathing, and I find any kind of response difficult.
Perhaps even worse, if more appropriate, is “What are you working on now?” Because I know the truth is no one really cares what I’m working on now unless that someone is my agent, an editor the work is intended for or . . . another writer. When I try to answer such a question in a normal social environment, if I respond with more than a three-word sentence, I can always detect the instant when the asker’s eyes glaze over.
Writers care about one another’s work. The struggle, nearly 200 pages into a novel, to rethink and reframe the entire piece, is comprehensible. The need to make a whiney, needy character likable is an important point of discussion. Insights into today’s picture-book market—if anyone actually has such a thing—are fascinating.
And so now I am back home and, thanks to my generous hosts, I am heartened, energized, filled to the brim . . . and ready to climb back into the cocoon of my daily work.
And I am grateful.
Grateful for my good friends who fed me in multiple ways.
Grateful for writers everywhere who create the world I live in.
Grateful, especially, for those who read this blog. You help me know, even in the quiet world of my study, that I am not alone.
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More Writers Needing Writers
September 16, 2013From time to time I find I need to mention the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I mention it because, though I no longer teach there, the program is very dear to my heart and because I’m convinced it’s the best of its kind in the country. Well, in the world if we want to cast that wide a net.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll add that I was one of the founding faculty and the first Faculty Chair as well as a longtime teacher at VCFA, so I’m not exactly unbiased.
Not everyone can commit to the rigor and expense of graduate work, and I don’t want to hold an MFA degree up as the only way in. It isn’t. Most of the faculty who teach at VCFA arrived at their publishing careers without any academic training in writing whatsoever. We simply learned by doing. But it is, for many of the participants, the best possible short-cut to writing success.
And it is something else. Apart from teaching writers how to produce truly professional work, VCFA connects writers with other writers.
Most students leave the program with lifelong bonds in place, bonds with people who share the same language, the same vision, the same world, and that is probably as valuable as the two intensive years of working with mentors. To reinforce those bonds, VCFA students each summer set up a mini rez, a brief residency on campus while the regular residency is in session, where they can hear inspiring talks from other writers, meet with editors and agents, and most important of all, reestablish their bonds with one another.
I am including here a response to my last blog about my own experience of reconnecting with my fellow writers. This by Jane LeGrow, a graduate of VCFA’s low residency MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. It says it all:
Your post is timely; I just returned from the Alumni Mini Residency at VCFA.
Although I look forward to reconnecting with my VCFA friends each year, I was feeling ambivalent about going in the days before the trip. I’d been trying for months to finish my current YA novel in advance of the Mini Rez, but my work life has recently exploded and gotten in the way of my writing. It’s a temporary situation (I hope) but very frustrating and stressful. I began to think, “what’s the point of going? Everyone’s going to ask what I’m working on and I’m tired of trying to explain why I’m not done yet.” I didn’t have a finished manuscript, I didn’t have a pitch prepared for the agents and editors, I didn’t even have a reading prepared.
But I gave myself a pass to just go and listen. And my writer friends surprised and delighted me yet again with their sympathy and encouragement and almost magical ability to rejuvenate my shriveled little soul. These are my people and they reminded me that I’m not alone and that what I’m trying to do is not only possible, but vitally important.
We talked about our writing dilemmas; they took seriously my concerns about how to make the sentient squirrels in my story ‘work.’ And I wound up participating much more than I expected and even connecting with a bunch of new writer friends.
By Sunday I found myself wishing I didn’t have to go home. On the drive home a verse from Mike O’Connor’s wonderful translation of Chia Tao kept running through my head: “When I find you again it will be in mountains/ this morning I lose you once more to farewell.”
I’ll see you next year, my beloved writer tribe.
And I’ll conclude by saying, may every writer out there have such a tribe.
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But Do You Love Her?
September 16, 2013I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it takes to make a main character likable. If readers don’t care what happens to the person who carries the story, there is little reason to keep reading. And yet a main character owns her spot in the narrative because she has a problem, not because she is appealing. In fact, there will inevitably be something negative in her struggle. That’s the nature of problems. How do you make a character, consumed by such negatives, sympathetic?
When I examine this question against whatever story I’m immersed in at the moment, I always come back to thinking about a novel manuscript in a workshop I led long ago. The story was about a thirteen-year-old girl whose parents announced that she must take care of her two much-younger brothers through her summer vacation. The main character was authentically thirteen. That means, in the face of this very real affront to her plans, she was self-involved, whiney, furious. She was totally believable as a character, and the story moved forward in good order, but the response in the workshop was consistent. Folks had few complaints about the story itself, but everyone, to a person, hated the main character.
I listened to this discussion without a lot of comment, trying to sort it all myself. As I’ve already said, the girl was recognizably thirteen. Her problem was one most girls her age would find difficult. Why couldn’t these women—as far as I can recall this ongoing workshop was entirely composed of women at the time—care about her? Was it because most of us were mothers ourselves and our empathy lay with the parents’ need rather than with the girl’s self-centered fury over protecting her summer? Would young readers have had the same response?
I never answered those questions with any certainty, but I learned something entirely different the evening this writer returned to the group and, though she had been deep into her novel, announced at the beginning of her reading, “Chapter 1.”
She had gone back to the beginning, and she had made one change. Now the girl who didn’t want to take care of her little brothers had something going on besides simply wanting her summer freedom in a self-obsessed, thirteen-year-old way. She was an avid photographer. She had been planning to enter a photography contest that summer. The winner would receive a prize that would advance her opportunities as a photographer. And, of course, taking care of her brothers would make it almost impossible to do the work the girl needed to do for the contest.
The story was off and running, and I never heard a word about anyone hating the main character again.
So here’s what I learned: Setting a character up with a problem—which is, of course, what a story, any story, demands above all else—isn’t enough. Problems carry a negative load. And as negative as we ourselves can be at times, we have a hard time caring about others who are only negative. But if our characters care about something in a deep, passionate and positive way, that caring will draw us to care about them. And then we’ll care about their problems, too.
It’s that simple. And that profound.
As I’m preparing to return to Blue-Eyed Wolf, I’ve been growing concerned that Angie, my main character, might be coming off as whiney and unappealing. She is grieving the loss of her much-older brother, who has enlisted to fight in Vietnam. And worse, in terms of her appeal as a character, there is no action she can take to bring him back. All she can do is grieve. So how do I make this passive, grieving girl appealing?
When I reenter the story, I’m going to experiment with a small change. Angie will be a passionate birder. Seeing her love something in a clear, positive way, a way that isn’t tangled with her anger and grief, will, I hope, give my readers a different perspective on her, a more reliable affection for her. And her birding will also fit seamlessly into the natural world that is her home and the base for the story.
Now . . . to see what happens.
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Writing About Not Writing
September 16, 2013It happens every time. I hadn’t expected it this round, but there it is, reliably waiting for me. As soon as I send a major project out to find its way in the world, I seem, every time, to step off into a vacuum.
Peggotty is with my agent, Rubin Pfeffer. (Peggotty is the verse novella that I was calling Patches until I remembered I had a better name tucked away.) There will be further work to do on it, of course. I certainly hope there will be further work as I always want the privilege of working with whatever insights an editor can bring to my manuscript. But it will take some time before any of that happens. In the meantime . . .
Ah . . . in the meantime is the problem.
In the meantime I’m floating out here, wondering what to do with myself, wondering why I got up this morning, wondering whether I’ll ever write anything again as long as I live!
A bit melodramatic? Of course. I admit it. More than a bit predictable, too.
I seem to go through this kind of awkward transition every time I complete a piece I’ve been working on for a period of months, though I haven’t always recognized the every-timeness of the phenomenon. I remember once saying that to someone who had been around me and my work for a long time, “I feel as though I’ll never write anything again,” and she replied, “That’s what you said last time, too.”
I was shocked. I had thought—I believed ardently—that I’d never in my entire career been in such a place.
But there I was, facing the fact that I’d felt it, said it, believed it many times. And yet, of course, I did write something again. In fact, since that particular revelation I’ve written many somethings.
This time, though, I thought I’d be immune. Didn’t I have a novel waiting, a novel I was eager to return to? I’d written nearly 200 pages of it before getting stopped, and in the months since I’d put it aside for other projects, it had remained with me almost constantly. I was ready to start again with a new structure, with newly conceived characters. And I was even excited about starting over.
So this morning, in preparation for moving back into the manuscript, I sat down to Blue-Eyed Wolf to reread the opening scene. It’s a scene that has remained essentially unchanged from the beginning. It’s a scene I was confident formed a strong opening for my story. But as I read, I found my heart sinking. Was this what I planned to immerse myself in for the next months? Really?
There was something wrong with it. Or if there wasn’t something wrong with the text, then surely there was something wrong with me!
Is this that same old place? I ask myself, the one where I can never do what I’ve just done again. Will I wake up tomorrow morning or a week from tomorrow morning and immerse myself once more in words and characters and story? Will I forget these doubts ever seeped into my soul . . . until some good friend who has heard me whine too many times reminds me?
We writers have nothing to work out of except our own minds, and minds are tricky stuff. Or as Anne Lamott said, “My mind is like a bad neighborhood. I try not to go there alone.”
My mind is capable of such marvels . . . and of such self-aggrandizement and distortion, such pettiness and cruelty, mostly toward myself. I’m reminded of the bumper sticker that comes out of Buddhist mindfulness practice, “Don’t believe everything you think.”
So . . . what do I do when I’m never going to write again as long as I live?
Well, I’m a writer, so I sit down and write about not-writing. What else?
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The True Celebration
September 16, 2013A former student of mine from Vermont College of Fine Arts, Cori McCarthy, approached me some time ago with a question. She had just sold her first novel, a moment everyone will understand she had been anticipating, longing for, working toward for years. The sale was firm. There was, I presume, a first rush of excitement and gratitude. But then . . . not much.
So she came asking, was there something wrong with her? No, I told her. Absolutely not. And I explained. It’s the odd part of publishing, that what is supposed to be the reward of writing—finishing a draft that can be shown, finding an agent, getting an acceptance from an editor, getting a contract (it’s amazing how long it takes those contracts to come through!), getting your advance or the first half of your advance (even longer), completing revisions (perhaps many revisions), finally seeing your book in galleys, holding the finished book in your hands, getting reviews, waiting to see if there will be any awards—is drawn out over so many months, sometimes even years, that it’s hard even to find the right moment to rejoice.
I gave her two pieces of advice. One, celebrate the small moments along the way, the acceptance even though you don’t yet have the contract in hand, the contract even though the advance is nowhere on the horizon, etc. Two, go back to writing. That is the real reward, the process of writing itself. And what better reward could there be? Isn’t that what you most love to do?
Cori just came back to me and her other VCFA mentors looking for further discussion on this topic for the Through the Tollbooth blog she shares with others from VCFA. What follows are her questions and my responses:
First Cori asked, How do you feel when you’ve finished a draft? How does that compare to selling a book?
When I finish a draft, my first feeling is satisfaction, of course, but that is followed very closely by a let-down the moment I send it off looking for a home. Always. I feel finished, depleted, certain I’ll never write anything again. The longer I’ve been working on the manuscript I’m sending out, the bigger the let-down. And I’ve repeated this experience through scores of books.
It happened again in this last round—which I’ve just written about here—when I finished a verse novella but had a well-started YA novel waiting in the wings. I didn’t even have to come up with a new idea. A manuscript I was deeply committed to was waiting. But when I reopened the YA novel I felt . . . blah! It no longer looked nearly as exciting as the memory of it I’d been carrying. My energy for it seemed to have vanished.
How long does that blah last? Sometimes a few days, sometimes a few weeks, but always I find my way into the next project and then my doubts—most of them, anyway—slip away and the work is good, again. In fact, the work is all.
When I sell a book? There is no letdown then, but the splash of enthusiasm doesn’t last, either. So it’s sold. Good. Now what?
Years ago, standing in the shower one morning thinking about that blah feeling against the various successes of my first novel—starred reviews, a film option, etc.—I asked myself, “Are you one of those people who can’t enjoy success?” I decided even before I was out of the shower that the truth was less negative than that. I’m one of those people who loves to write. To love having written is a whole different thing. And that, I decided, is the best of all worlds. The successes come along, at most, a couple of times a year. Writing is something I get to sit down to do every day. So isn’t it grand that the process is more satisfying than the product?
Cori’s second questions was what kind of ways do you pause and feel accomplishment through your writing? Do you have a particular celebration and/or routine?
This question makes me realize that I’m better at giving advice than at taking it. I don’t pause to celebrate often, certainly not often enough. I do, however, pause often in the writing itself . . . tasting just the right word on my tongue, rejoicing over a scene that finally comes together, sitting down to revision, so grateful to have this good work in front of me and to know I can make it even better. And again, maybe that’s the best kind of celebration, because it’s one I get to do every day.
Some things don’t change, no matter how many times they happen, and that, I’ve decided, is good.
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Talent, What Is It?
September 16, 2013The remark came through my agent with a rejection of a picture-book manuscript. The editor turned the manuscript down—I’ve forgotten why now, perhaps because she had something on her list on the same topic—but added, “Your writer is talented.”
My response? A burst of surprised laughter. Talented? Isn’t that something you say about young people, those folks of high energy and raw hope? How long has it been since anyone has used that word about me? I bring to my work some facility for language, its rhythms and its nuances. I have a strong sense of story, too. Beyond that I am simply a solid craftsperson and a hard worker.
Eventually, though, the remark brought me back to a question I asked myself often during the years I worked with developing writers. What is talent? Who has it and who doesn’t? Who can be mentored into a viable career?
An old, old truism says, “You can’t teach writing.” But that should be called a falsism instead. There is much about writing that can be and is taught every day. There must be a foundation in place, though, for a person to learn, and here we return to those two important factors I mentioned above: a facility for language and a sense of story. Any writer who comes to the page unable to taste language, to feel it on the tongue, will be like a carpenter working without a hammer and a saw. And if there is any way to teach an understanding of the way stories make us feel, I have never found it. We have to be able to feel it ourselves to create it for others.
And so those are the tools we start with. I do think of them more as tools than as talents, though not everyone who wants to write has them and I, at least, don’t know how to teach them, thus I suppose they are talents.
Beyond those starting talents and a lot of hard-learned craft, what else does a writer need?
Freshness of perspective is helpful. And because writing is not so much an imitation of life as it is an imitation of other writing, freshness of perspective can be hard to come by. Interestingly enough, I have occasionally seen it from students who, for one reason or another, came to their writing without being lifelong readers. Their freshness rose out of innocence—or one might say ignorance—but it could sometimes be compelling. The problem was that their lack of foundation in the literature they were trying to create usually undid whatever interesting new perspective happened to hit the page.
How do we who are saturated in the literature find freshness when we sit down to write? Most readily, I think, by reaching into our most deeply hidden selves, into the parts of ourselves we don’t want anyone else to see. Perhaps the parts we don’t want to see ourselves. And I don’t mean to suggest that freshness comes primarily through confessional writing. Freshness often shows up in wacky humor, in high-flown fantasy, in newly conceived forms. But however off the wall our writing may be, it won’t seem fresh if it isn’t also true, if it doesn’t come from a place inside us that matters.
It’s what gives us something to say, and don’t underestimate the importance, even for the youngest audience, of having something to say.
A final talent I could name? An ability to follow through. Simply that. An ability to stay with a piece and stay and stay, turning it over again and again and again. An ability to conceive and reconceive and reconceive. An ability to keep working when writing feels like work and to keep thinking, plotting, planning, shaping when everything seemed to be already locked into place.
That last “talent” comes from wanting this single story—and the next day’s story and the next—so badly that the wanting gets out of bed with us in the morning and follows us into bed at night.
I have taught many years, and I have often seen writers who were every bit as “talented” as I . . . or more if we’re talking about those first three talents I have mentioned. I have not nearly so often seen developing writers with the same fierce wanting that has sustained me through a long career.
If that’s talent, then yes, I’m talented . . . still.
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Writing as Translation
September 16, 2013“Remember that writing is translation,” E.B. White said, “and the opus to be translated is yourself.”
An article in my local newspaper recently cited a study which gave proof that we get pleasure from talking about ourselves. No surprise there. Surely that’s a phenomenon we’re all aware of. But what was interesting about the study is that psychologists actually monitored people’s brain waves during conversations and watched the pleasure centers light up when they were being self-revealing.
So this pleasure can actually be measured, and it affects everyone, not just you and me.
Perhaps the hardest thing to comprehend about self-absorption is that it is universal. Every single person is, to him or herself, the most important person in the universe.
How does that relate to the overall topic of writing I keep circling around?
Stories can work only if they elicit empathy from the reader/listener. Without empathy we would simply be experiencing some oddity, someone out there struggling with a problem that has no connection to us, and we would probably quit reading. It is because we can see ourselves caught in the struggle, actually feel the pain, the frustration, the triumph, that we care about stories at all. It is because we care about ourselves first that we are capable of caring about anyone.
And so we writers approach the stories we create through understanding our own psyches. The stuff of our stories is drawn from the bewildering complexity of our own thoughts and emotions. And the more deeply we dare plumb, the more honestly we dare see, the richer our stories will be.
It’s a curious irony that the more personal and individual the moments are that we carry to the page, the more people we will touch.
So if we want to write about love, death, joy, abandonment—any of the universal themes—the best place to start is with our own most private moments, the ones we’ve never dared share with anyone.
And the shield fiction offers, even for our own psyches, allows honesty without embarrassing exposure. Who can sort what is my character and what is me?
Often not even I!
What we are writing toward, always, is that moment when our readers will say—probably in the silence of their own minds—“But I thought I was the only one who ever thought that, felt that, wanted that.” When they say that, they are truly hooked.
And when they say that they will know what our truest stories always teach . . . that we are not alone, not the writers writing out of our most deeply hidden psyches, not the readers approaching our stories with the same kinds of unspoken experience of being human.
So we translate ourselves not as an act of hubris—though there is that in there, too, of course—but as an act of our deepest generosity.
If we give ourselves to our stories, we give ourselves to the world.
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Finding Our Souls in a Story
September 16, 2013I seldom reread. There is so much out there waiting that I have little inclination to carve out the time to read even the best books a second time. Sometimes, though, I find my soul in a story, and then I am compelled to return.
Wendell Berry is one who draws me back. The moral universe in which his characters live, the farming culture they inhabit speaks to me profoundly. Interestingly enough, the depth of my response comes not from my own history but from my mother’s. My mother grew up on a farm, and when I was a child I could practically warm my hands at the glow that came from her when she spoke of that farm. Everything in Berry’s world is familiar to me, passed down through my mother. It matters not at all that he writes about Kentucky and she grew up in Minnesota.
That familiarity is, no doubt, why, some years ago, one of Wendell Berry’s novels could comfort me even as I sat by my son’s hospital bed when he was being diagnosed with a terminal illness. I found the novel during one of my and my daughter-in-law’s brief escapes from the hospital. I don’t remember which novel it was now, and it doesn’t matter, but I’ll never forget the comfort I found in that story even as the world shattered around our feet.
Another writer who calls to me as fiercely is Elizabeth Strout. The novel of hers that I find most compelling is Abide with Me. That story so perfectly resurrects for me the oddly vulnerable life of clergy and their spouses, a life I lived for a couple of decades, that reading it the first time cracked me wide open. It carried me back to much I’d lived and forgotten . . . suppressed? Abide with Me did what the best literature always does, reminded me that, even at our most lonely, we are not alone.
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell astonished me with the depth of its insights and the complexity of its world. But what I’ll always carry with me is the scene, played out with soul-wrenching irony, when a disillusioned Jesuit priest finally arrives at the truth of his faith-seeking. If he had found the God he’d been searching for I would have been touched. That he found brutality and degradation instead left me filled with astonished compassion.
Each of these stories has come to be part of who I am.
But if I am asked what story touched my life most deeply, I would have to return to a nameless picture book. Nameless because I can’t remember the title, though I can still see the cover in my mind perfectly. It was pale blue with a fuzzy pink lamb on the cover, the kind of fuzz small hands love to stroke.
I never owned the book. But every time my mother and I visited the public library, I went straight to it . . . again and again and again. It was a classic story. The lamb gets lost and searches for his mother. Lear-like, he gets caught in a storm, and I can still see—even more clearly than I can see the cover—the double-page spread when all color suddenly left, when lightning flashed in the grays of the page, and when—how could it be?—even the lamb’s pettable pink fuzz vanished. I ran my fingers over the smooth, gray lamb again and again, willing the pink fuzz to return.
By the end of the story the lamb is reunited with his mother . . . of course. He is even pink and fuzzy again. What joy!
Where did my passionate connection to that lost lamb come from, I whose mother stood so close that losing her should have been beyond imagining? Out of a fear too deep to be named but not too deep to be healed through the lamb’s story . . . again and again and again.
All these books have one thing in common, Aristotle’s purging of pity and fear. Each one caught something unspoken, unacknowledged, perhaps only half remembered in my own life and allowed me to move through it . . . this time to safety. These particular stories might not do the same for you, which is why literature must be endlessly various. But I am more whole for my encounter with each one.
It’s what I hope my own stories might accomplish occasionally, the very most I can hope. That some few readers will find their own lives reproduced, their own needs acknowledged, their own world made more safe by discovering that they are not—never have been and never will be—alone.
March 12, 2013That was the headline for an e-mail I received last week . . . "Why wait?" The message was from Diana, and with her permission--and her mother's--I give it to you below.
I am a young writer, twelve years old. I plan to become a author in the future, but why wait? So over the past years I have been writing. I have a book that I feel confident in. I have written The Fight for the Throne and the sequel to it. My cousin and I have created our own writing club where people write their stories. So I was wondering if you would guide me on how to publish and tips on writing fiction books.
I am in the midst of writing a fiction book, Ninety Days In the Desert, about the struggles of three young slaves, who left their “owners” and fled to the desert. The three young adults, Willie, Sara, and Claudia are friends who where all slaves to the same “owner.” They come across poisonous animals, murderers, and cannibals in there excursion. Many frightening happenings, but they stand courageous and get out in the end, and live a better life.
I feel that my book is good enough to publish, but I know publishing books is VERY hard, especially for twelve year old. Would you be able to guide me into the steps of publishing, and is there any way the publisher wouldn't be able to know that I am only twelve? If you have time it would mean a great deal to me that you would respond. Thank you for your time.
Now, I have received letters like this many times in the nearly forty years since I began publishing for young people myself, letters from young, articulate, self-confident writers wanting to know how they can open that magic door to publication.
And every time I have written back with appreciation for the writer's enthusiasm, for the exceptional level of their writing and for the hard work that built their dream of publication. But I have always offered the same advice:
Keep writing. Keep loving to write. But be patient. However good your writing may be for your age, you're not ready to compete with the world of professional writers, adults who have spent many years honing their skills. And you will only grow discouraged if you try. Writing is a skill that requires life experience as well as training. Better to use your energy now writing, learning, growing. If you do that I can almost guarantee that you will be published one day, because you are the kind of person who grows up to be a professional writer.
And I began to say all that to Diana, but in the midst of my own words, I found myself hesitating. Is my perspective accurate any longer? In recent years I have heard of cases in which young writers with access to the traditional publishing system have, in fact, published. Not to mention the fact, that, if the work were truly good enough to justify publication, any publisher would be thrilled to advertise the author as a twelve-year-old. Anything to pull a book out of the pack!
And then there are the statistics recently reported in The Authors Guild Bulletin, that this past year half of all books published were self published. What about the possibility of self publishing for young writers? Either as physical books or e-books? It's a world I know nothing about, but it's one that is changing the face of publishing in ways quite beyond this old writer's comprehension.
And then there is that another question entirely. Would any writer publishing as an adult want her twelve-year-old novel series to be available for the world to look back on? Early work is always hard enough to own without its being that early.
All those questions bring me to you, my readers. Do any of you out there have answers for Diana that I haven't thought of? What would you say to a young writer of her commitment and intelligence? Are there good reasons to wait? Or are there doors open to her that I haven't dreamed?
I'll pass on your insights for this talented young writer next week.
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Kids Saving the Rain Forest
March 05, 2013Whoever it was who said "Ninety percent of the pleasure of travel is in anticipation and the other ten percent is in recollection" had hold of a disheartening truth.
I'm just back from a week in beautiful Costa Rica and the deepest discovery I made is that I'm allergic to the entire place.
I've long known I have a slight allergic reaction to mold. In Minnesota my head gets a bits stuffy when the fallen leaves begin to rot in the autumn and again when the snow melts in the spring. A nuisance, nothing more. I never once stopped to think when my partner and I were making plans for a glorious week in the rain forest of Costa Rica that the entire place would be made of mold.
The trip was sponsored through a wildlife rehab center here where my partner volunteers, and we would be visiting another wildlife rehab center there, Kids Saving the Rainforest. What could be better? Mountains! Ocean! Rainforest! Monkeys, sloths, birds, crocodiles! A whole new world of experience and information. Surely I would find much that would be fresh to write about. And it wasn't incidental, of course, that we'd be escaping the Minnesota winter for tropical sun.
Within an hour of stepping off the plane, my bronchial tubes tightened. Interesting, I thought. By the second day, I had a constant, deep, rattling cough. By the third, my head was congested, too. And yet the vacation my partner and I had planned with such enthusiasm still lay before us, jolting bus rides, long treks under a blazing sun, swinging bridges to be navigated while my head seemed to float free of my body, constant conversations with fellow travelers though my voice was merely a croak.
When we arrived back home, snow has never looked so good!
Was it a lost experience? Money spent merely on misery?
No, because I'm a writer, and every experience, comfortable and uncomfortable, exotic and ordinary, is fodder for a writer.
I came home with a head full of nonfiction possibilities drawn from the generous caretaking I saw dedicated people giving that fecund and fragile world. The three young women who work day and night to save the endangered macaws. (In addition to all else they do, for six months out of the year they feed the babies every two hours twenty-four hours a day.) The care taken at Kids Saving the Rain Forest for monkeys and birds injured or once kept as pets that can no longer fend for themselves in the wild. The hurt sloths they take in, treat and return to their forest canopy. Our guide who turns down opportunities for work if he doesn't believe what the clients want help with would be good for his beloved land.
And beyond all that was new and fascinating, I carried my old work with me as I always do, not in a computer, but in my head. As the plane thrust itself through the sky, as we bounced down rutted roads, as I climbed and trudged and gazed overhead, I was constantly sorting through everything I'm working on: Blue-Eyed Wolf, the young-adult novel; Patches, a new verse novella I'd almost completed a draft of before we left, and a ditty set off by a friend's sending me an article on the phrase "Higgledy-piggledy."
It was time outside of time, which gave me a rich opportunity to let everything I'm working on turn over inside my head, slowly and steadily. I read some of the new ALA-award novels on the flights and decided to try first person for the new points of view I'll be introducing to Blue-Eyed Wolf. I gazed at the unfamiliar world all around me and realized that Patches needs to have a more distinct reaction to the unfamiliar world she is thrust into. And I played endlessly, not a scrap of paper in sight, with the phrase higgledy-piggledy. By the time I got home I had half a dozen lines ready for the page.
I also arrived home more than ready to see Minnesota snow and a doctor.
It's a strange world we writers live in, this world that grows inside our heads. Wherever you take us, however our bodies betray us, those stories just keep jogging along inside us.
But isn't it fun?
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Betrayed by Dragon
February 26, 2013Not long after I fell on the early December ice, dislocated my elbow and broke the radial bone, I wrote about having discovered Dragon software. It was quite magical. I spoke into a microphone, and the words I spoke appeared on the screen in front of me.
As I said earlier, I wasn't sure I could write that way. Many years ago, I began having problems with carpel tunnel, and my very practical-minded brother recommended that I try voice recognition software. I was convinced, though, that my words had to come out through my fingers to reach the page in proper order. In addition, at that time, the only available program was frustratingly difficult to work with.
As a consequence I've spent years seeking ergonomic solutions. I have a desk chair that supports my arms and permits them to move, still supported, toward the keyboard. The chair I use is called BodyBilt, the company is Ergogenesis. I recommend it highly, though it's expensive. If you check it out, note that it comes with different kinds of arms, and the type of arms I have on my chair don't show up easily. In fact, when I replaced my chair recently I had difficulty, even dealing directly with the company, finding the same kind of arms. I finally got them again, but they didn't appear on the website, and the salesperson I dealt with at first didn't understand what I was asking for.
I also use a track ball instead of a mouse and have one dedicated to the left hand, which was--before my recent fall--my less vulnerable wrist. (Incidentally, the physical therapist I've been working with is less enamored than I am with track balls. She thinks the movement of a mouse is less stressful and has some suggestions about positioning the mouse such as putting it on a pad on your lap.)
And for many years I've used a Kinesis keyboard. (Available only online.) The position of the keys is such that you have to spend some time relearning to type--and when I broke my arm I discovered that it's impossible to hunt and peck on it--but my Kinesis keyboard has kept me out of trouble for a long time. One of the advantages it has is that it puts all the function keys under your thumbs, which are stronger than your fingers.
These solutions all served me well until I broke my arm and couldn't get the rotation I needed to use my left hand at the keyboard. That's when I turned to Dragon.
Dragon's capacity is truly amazing. And its capacity, I know, goes far beyond what I learned to control during the weeks I wrote using it. I was eager to get back to work, so I moved through the tutorials quickly and didn't explore much beyond them. Its accuracy isn't 100%, of course. I'm writing a verse novella about a calico cat, and for some reason it can't hear me say cat. Another more amusing example, I have a grandson named Cullen, and when I send an e-mail to Cullen the program insists of writing : It is, however, far better than good. And there are, I know, ways to improve Dragon's accuracy that I didn't take the time to learn. You can even ask it to read back what you've just said, and it does. (That's something I stumbled onto accidentally when the program misunderstood what I had asked it to write and gave me a read back instead.)
But--and it is a huge but--despite the fact that Dragon is designed, in particular, to work with Word, after I'd worked with it for a while, it began to crash Word. Again and again and again. Checking online I found that other people have had the same experience.
And when I realized that I was done with Dragon . . . or wanting passionately to be done with it.
Fortunately, all that happened as I approached the time that the combination of healing and physical therapy were finally beginning to give me the rotation I need to type with both hands. And now, here I am, back on my Kinesis keyboard, thinking with my fingers.
Home, at last!
So can I recommend Dragon? Only if you really, really need it to survive.
And in the meantime, I'm still sorting the question I started with. Where do my writing brains live anyway?
My stories flow so naturally from my fingers!
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Must They Be Funny?
February 25, 2013"Must they be funny?" It's what Shonna McNasby asked following my last blog. And her thoughtful question calls for a response.
Shonna also said, "I am an aspiring author of picture books, and what I write, I’m told, is rather quiet and sometimes sad. Everywhere I look there are hilarious picture books, (which I do love), and I just saw a notice in SCBWI about a publisher who just can’t find enough, and is hosting a competition to find more.
"Of course this bothers me as a writer, but it also bothers me on a basic human level. I think we need books that mirror a complex range of emotions, regardless of age. I hope books about loss, anger, and sadness continue to emerge because we can’t stop needing them, whether they’re on trend or not."
And yes, of course, she is right. We do need books that touch a wide range of emotions, every emotion we are capable of feeling, in fact. That's why we read stories at any age, to affirm our own humanity, to recognize our most private experience in another. And young children experience as wide a range of emotions as the rest of us. In fact, they probably feel more deeply than you and I because they are less well defended against their feelings.
With picture books, however, there are hurdles to be gotten past if we start reaching uncomfortably deeply into the well of human experience.
The first is that most adults want, understandably, to protect children from pain . . . all pain. Even in the form of story. This is especially true with very young children. And picture books always have two audiences, the adult who selects and reads the book and the child who receives it. Getting sadness, in particular, past the protective adult can be a great challenge. (One could ask whether we are really protecting children or ourselves, but that's a matter for another discussion.)
The second is that everyone is having a hard time selling picture books these days. I'm not talking only about us writers having difficulty selling our manuscripts, but about the publishers, as well, which is the cause of our trouble. One hears various reasons for the fact that picture books aren't selling as well as they once did--one of which is, no doubt, that too many are being published, a difficult truth for writers to acknowledge—but we're told they aren't.
Publishing is a business. If businesses don't make money they don't survive.
Thus, everyone is looking for the book that will leap off the shelf, that will command instant attention. And funny does that more easily than anything else.
That doesn't mean everything else will be left out, but "too quiet" seems to be the code word these days for, "We just can't count on enough sales to risk this one."
One of my favorites of my own picture books is The Longest Night, published by Holiday House. It is lyrical with stunning illustrations by Ted Lewin. It is also the epitome of quiet. It was, as my editor, Grace Maccarone, recently explained to me, a literary success but a commercial failure. I can't earn a living on commercial failures any more than publishers can.
What's the solution? Well . . . an obvious one is to write funny if you can.
Unfortunately, funny—good funny—is really, really hard to do.
And if you can't write funny? Or if you have something to say that simply isn't funny? Then the old advice stands. Write what's in your heart. Write what moves you. Write what you believe will touch a child in a deep and genuine way. And whether it's "on trend" or not, some of those manuscripts will slip through and find life as books.
And some of those books may even sell!
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The Sadness of Maturity
February 13, 2013It was a lyrical picture-book text. The subject was spring. And it bounced back because the editor found the tone, somehow, too sad.
My agent was bemused, but when he passed the comment on to me, I understood.
An undercurrent of sadness often shows through in my writing. There is, truth be told, an undercurrent of sadness in me.
I have never been a jolly type, even when I was a child. I have always been thoughtful, even pensive. I love to laugh--don't we all?--but making others laugh is rarely my goal. And I simply can't write comedy. When I try, the words on the page feel instantly false. Or at least they feel inconsequential. The writers I admire most deeply are the ones like Katherine Paterson who can make you laugh and then, in the next breath, make you cry.
The laughter makes the tears more heartfelt. The tears make the laughter more sweet. How I would love to be able to do both!
I once heard someone refer to "the sadness of maturity," and when I heard the phrase, I knew it was right. Part of maturity is simply accepting the sadness we have all gathered throughout our lives.
This time of year is always a challenging one for me. My son died on February 9th, six years ago. I've never been a believer in anniversaries, except as something to choose to celebrate. And after Peter died, I saw no reason to renew my grief each year and didn't expect to have it happen.
Oddly, I've discovered that the memory of the time of my son's death seems to live in the cells of my body. My body remembers even when I tell myself that this month, this day is no different than any other. My very cells seem to grieve.
And my stories grieve, too. Every time of year. Peter's death changed who I am. How could it not change my stories?
The first novel I wrote after my son's death was The Very Little Princess. I had presold the story to Stepping Stones, Random House, based on a brief description. A tiny china doll comes to life and, upon seeing her own perfection in the dollhouse mirror, decides that, obviously, she is a princess. The doll is equally certain that the not-nearly-so-perfect giantess looming over her is her servant.
A fun premise. Right? Except that in my hands it became a story of loss, a story of mortality. By the end, the doll comes truly to life--becomes not just animated but flesh and blood, mortal--by learning to cry. "I know this isn't what you're expecting," I told the editor when I turned in the manuscript, "but in this season of loss, this is what I can do." She was brave to accept it.
Are tears a problem in stories for young people? It depends, of course, on the age of the intended readers. I have received a couple of furious letters from adults who thought this novella hurtful to their young readers. And I understand. The younger children are, the more protective we are . . . and need to be. But on the other hand, we are not a culture that deals well with sad endings, whoever the audience may be. And we can't pretty up our children's lives as if they lived in a Disney story.
Still . . . if I am ever jealous of another writer, it is of those who can write funny, especially those who can write funny and still say something important, still touch deep places in our hearts.
But I am who I am. My life has been what it has been. And there is no question, the sadness of maturity informs my work. Even, apparently, when I'm exalting spring.
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February 05, 2013Last July I was on the east coast, having traveled there to receive an honorary MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts where I taught for so many challenging and satisfying years. After the ceremonies my partner and I went on from Vermont to the coast of Maine, a place neither of us had ever visited before.
The Maine coast, in case you don't know, looks exactly like its pictures.
Our final day there, I signed up for a whale-watching trip. It's something I've long wanted to do. I've seen whales rising out of the ocean before. That was when I was on the state ferry making its way from Bellingham, Washington, up the inside passage into Alaska.
Several times on that trip to Alaska whales rose out of the dark water we lumbered through, their great backs flowing along in a rhythmic arc, the enormous whoosh of breath startlingly visible. Each time their appearance was both unexpected and utterly thrilling. They were so classic, so like what I'd always understood whales to be, and still so astonishingly new.
I began watching the ocean flowing past our ship with a new reverence. That such a gift could exist, hidden beneath its dancing surface! That the world I lived in could hold such wonders!
For a girl who has spent most of her life landlocked, it was an encounter with the sacred.
I joined the Maine whale-watching excursion not as a means of reaching a destination but with the express purpose of seeing whales. It was a perfect day to be on the ocean, calm, sunny, with a light breeze. I settled into the bow, ready to be thrilled once more. The thrills were slow in coming.
Eventually, as we were on our way back, a half a whale appeared for half a second. At least that's what we were told. I think the captain was the only person on board whose eyes were on the right spot in the right half second.
And so we toiled back through the sunny day--whales, we were told, prefer clouds--and tromped down the gangplank and onto the wharf, whaleless. We were given vouchers to try again. But this was the last day of our trip. So I left Maine still carrying my memory of the sacred whales in Alaska.
Strangely, though, I didn't feel cheated. The whales were there. I knew they were. They had once shown themselves to me.
It was only when I'd returned to Minnesota that I began to see the comparison. Going on a whale-watching trip is much like searching for ideas for a story. The ideas are not going to show themselves unless I'm attending to what emerges from the depths of my own mind. And they won't necessarily show themselves on demand. I may find the ideas I'm looking for because I have gone to a certain place in my thoughts, searching, or they may simply rise into view while I'm on my way somewhere else.
The point is to have faith that our minds are deep enough, rich enough, wondrous enough to contain all the ideas we need. To have faith that the stories are there, swimming in the depths, and that if we keep watch, they will rise to the surface, an astonishing gift.
Now when I'm struggling with a story and my mind feel barren, I think of that fruitless trip . . . and of that other journey where whales appeared, unasked, unexpected. The whales were there both times, I know. Only patience was needed . . . and perhaps a few clouds to turn my eyes inward.
The sea of our own psyches contains wonders. Trust it.
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Starting Over and Over and Over
January 30, 2013Perhaps it's a curse, this business of putting your thoughts out there for other folks to see. When you do your mulling silently inside your own head you can allow yourself to forget what you said to yourself. When you publish your thoughts, even on so ethereal medium as the Internet, they have a way of hanging around.
On New Year's Day I talked about starting over. I talked, in fact, about how life seems to be made up of starting over. I even pointed out what a good thing it was to find everything fresh. And it is. I know it is. But isn't there an old phrase, "too much of a good thing"?
So, guess what. For the past year I've been working on a young-adult novel, Blue-Eyed Wolf. I have 180 pages down and was, I figured, about halfway through. A couple of months ago, however, at page 180 I found myself with my nose pressed very firmly against a brick wall. A character who was important to the story but who wasn't quite working had stopped me cold. Suddenly, the story seemed to have no further use for her, and I was stuck.
When I get stuck I spend time reading, thinking, asking of every novel I examine why I'm interested, whether I care about and believe in the characters, how much is being carried by action, by my wanting to know what will happen next, how much through character exploration and how much simply by the power of the writing.
If that process doesn't carry me back to my own manuscript with solutions and new energy, I ask a couple of readers for their response. Perhaps I tell them what the problem is that I'm having and perhaps I just wait to see what makes them stumble. This time I did all that, and I got responses that only affirmed my stuckness. And so, defeated, I sat down with a friend who is a fine writer and outlined my characters and plot. She, not knowing the details that cemented everything into place, made an inconceivable suggestion, one that gave the character I was struggling with a whole new role in the story. I was astonished and grateful and still stuck. The character we were discussing is an adult. If I went in the direction my friend suggested, giving this character a central role, I would end up with an adult novel, not young adult.
I am a working writer. I earn my living with my stories. At this point in a long career as a juvenile writer my chances of selling even a finely written adult novel are limited at best. (Something about a snowball in hell might be appropriate here.) Could I afford to spend what could easily be another year on a project that had so little likelihood of being published? Was the fact that I was in love with this character – or rather in love with the idea of exploring her – enough to justify such an impractical leap?
It was a business question as much as an artistic one, and so I took it to my agent, Rubin Pfeffer. He gave the matter careful thought, then came back with another suggestion that would push my story more in the direction of another character, a teenager, whom I had yet to explore. My first response was resistance. I longed to climb inside the adult character. But then I took everything I had been given, everything I had already invested in the story, and stirred it together in another conversation with another friend and writer. (What a blessing free long distance is these days.) And I came up with a whole new way of telling my story through four different characters, one of them 12 years old, one of them 18—which will give my novel its YA credentials, and two of them, used more circumspectly but satisfyingly, adults.
Suddenly the energy I had lost last October was back, and I am ready to start over … with a bit of a sigh, I'll admit. My usual way of working is to revise as I go, looping back and back to polish and correct earlier missteps. I don't remember in forty years of writing ever going back to the beginning after I had so much down and starting in again nearly from scratch.
How ironically appropriate that I began the year talking about starting over.
And how do I feel about this new start? A bit weary, thoroughly resigned, and very, very excited.
Blue-Eyed Wolf, page one.
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Is Remembering Enough?
January 23, 2013Every time I happen across a children's television program where adult actors are pretending to be children I am grateful that those of us who write for young people are permitted to appear in the world in our adult clothes. We are even allowed to grow old!
What we must do, however, to make the leap from our own world to those we serve is to remember what most adults prefer to forget … our own childhoods.
It's understandable that few adults want to retain a deep knowledge of their own young selves. Dependence, vulnerability, unfulfilled longing are painful to relive. But while we who write for young people are commending ourselves for our ability to stay connected with those places in ourselves, perhaps we should pause to ask a crucial question. Is remembering enough?
Is the most intimate knowledge of our own childhood selves sufficient to create a connection with today's young readers? Especially if it's been a long time since we ourselves were young? Or is it possible that childhood itself has changed so profoundly that we are at risk of losing our ability to reach our audience? And when I say we, I mean mostly me … and those other writers out there who are no longer young.
There are, of course, fundamental facts about childhood that don't change with an evolving culture. Or they change so slowly as to feel constant. And the younger the child we are writing for, the easier it is to find a reliable empathy from our own experience. Very young children are connected primarily with families, and families have a certain sturdy consistency.
But smart phones and the Internet and video games and whatever the next innovation might be do, in fact, alter the experience of childhood. And the revolving landscape of movie actors, slang, and junk food has always been a plague for writers to sort through as they try to make their stories feel current without risking their being almost instantly out of date once they are published. Styles of parenting change. Schools do, too. And the world that seems to be tumbling around us at an ever accelerating rate impacts children as much, if not more, than it impacts us. But how? How do they experience their future as they witness the disaster our climate is sliding into? I came to consciousness during World War II, but that was a war that we all assumed would end one day … and it did. Or seemed to. What is it like to be born into an unending landscape of war?
One solution, of course, to staying contemporary with our young people is to write about a future that lies beyond their reach and ours. Many do that these days. Writing historical fiction is another way to avoid missteps in portraying today. That's what I'm doing in Blue-Eyed Wolf, the young-adult novel I'm working on now. Another solution for me is to write in an old-fashioned, classic tone set in no particular time as I did in Little Dog, Lost. Animal stories with almost no human characters such as Runt work, too. All those kinds of stories are mostly time safe.
I grow more aware every year, though, of the maneuvering I have to do to stay fresh, to stay in territory where I have authority, to stay publishable. And I'm aware, too, that I can no longer bring the boundless energy to my work that I see younger writers all around me bringing to theirs.
But that last—all that young energy coming up behind me—brings with it a wholly agreeable surprise. I once was out there pushing the boundaries of the field I entered with such passion and such love. Now I settle back into the flow, knowing writers all around me are pushing the boundaries still, that their work is robust and daring and filled with a whole new passion and love. And those enthusiastic, hard working, young writers bless my work by keeping our field alive.
Norma Fox Mazer taught in the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts with me. And she said to me one day, "You realize, don't you, that we're grooming our own replacements." We laughed because, of course, it was true.
What better way to experience just a hint of immortality?
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What Did I Learn?
January 23, 2013
Last week I wrote about spending two weeks working on a Christmas picture book and coming up at the end with a story that didn't work, even though I loved much about it.
Carol Brendler wrote with a question. She said, "I typically chalk up those weeks of writing that yield nothing to a learning experience. It doesn’t feel quite so wasted then. I wonder if you feel you learned anything from that Xmas story, even though you have proven again and again that you’re a master storyteller."
It's a wise question. What did I learn from my failed attempt? Everything I write, beyond grocery lists, is a learning experience, of course. We all learn to write by writing. In my early years before I turned to stories for young people I honed my words, my sentences, my paragraphs in letters and journals and poems. I learned day after day just by putting words on paper … often in the guilty cracks of time when I knew I should have been studying or grading my students' papers or getting dinner on the table, depending on which stage of life I was in.
When a piece—any piece—doesn't come out right, the first step, obviously, is to figure out where it went wrong. Once I can put my finger on what's missing I'm usually off and flying, ready to go again. That's just part of the process, and a good part. What is much harder is that grinding feeling that comes with understanding that what I've invested my heart's energy in isn't working and not being able to understand why. It's like knowing that I don't work, that there's something fundamentally wrong in my being. But usually the moment I know what's missing, my energy returns, my confidence in myself and my work is back, and I return to my piece as though the smooth flow had never been interrupted.
Sometimes, though, and this picture book was such an example, what I discover is that the core of my piece doesn't work, that the concept itself is flawed. And the deepest flaw that can inhabit any piece is a lack of genuine heart. Lack of heart is fatal to all stories, but especially to a picture book.
If I had made that discovery in a longer piece I would, perhaps, have had room to maneuver, to grab onto what moved me in the idea I'd begun with and to go deeper to find more. But picture books are such fragile things. They have to be on target from the first word. There is no room to discover what you truly wanted to say once you've begun writing.
And so I've set that one aside. I still love the title, Happy Christmouse to All, and perhaps one day I'll find a story as good as the title.
What did I learn from this failed attempt? It's something I'll admit I've learned before—perhaps even taught—but something I clearly needed to learn again. I must begin, every time, with a story I can feel, not just one that bounces amusingly in my head.
Nothing we write is ever lost, not when we're just starting out, not when we've been writing for a hundred years. It is the process itself that matters. The very act of writing feeds us and teaches us every step of the way.
Success is only a happy byproduct, not the reason for our effort.
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How Do You Know?
January 16, 2013“How do you know,” a reader asked, “when a picture book is right?” She was writing in response to my blog about my most recent failed attempt to write a Christmas picture book.
In the blog I said that after two rather intense weeks of work, I had a picture book text that I loved, but even as I finished it I knew it didn't work. This reader came back to ask, reasonably enough, how a person knows when a picture book does work.
And the truth is, if I could answer that question definitively I wouldn't be staring at two weeks of unproductive work. In fact, if I could define that mark before I got there I could hit it every time.
For many years I worked with an editor who never wanted me to tell him what I was working on except in the most general terms. He wanted to reserve for himself that instant of feeling what it all means when he got to the end of a story for the first time, the moment when, if the story is working as it should, the hair will stand up in the back of the reader's neck. And that is what we're always writing toward, that frisson that skitters across the skin when a story draws to its just-right conclusion.
In other words, your heart tells you. If a picture book works—if any story works—something about it moves you, changes you, gives you back to yourself new. That's why if a picture book is right for a child he may demand to have it read a hundred times, a thousand. He wants to feel that moment when everything clicks into place again … and then to feel it again … and again.
How do you know when you have created that magic moment? That click, if your story truly falls into place, happens inside you first. The problem, though, is that you can't always be certain that the click you experienced will reach your reader.
So first we can ask ourselves if our story transformed us. If it didn't we will always know we have missed the mark. Next we can ask trusted critics. Those people can range from other professionals—agents, editors, fellow writers, teachers, librarians—to anyone in your life whom you've discovered has an instinct for recognizing that moment when a story is exactly right. My life partner, who has never spent time with children since she herself was an adult, has a very solid instinct for it. She may sometimes like a manuscript that I find I can't sell, but she has never mistrusted one that people who mattered thought worked.
Our least reliable critics are usually children themselves. That's not because children don't know what they like, but because they are often too eager to please. They say what they think the adult consulting them wants to hear. On the other hand if you can find children in a situation where they are not intent on pleasing, their candor can be a gift.
A friend of mine was once told by an editor that her picture book manuscript was much too long. Indignant, she said to me, “What does he know? Does he even have kids? My grandson loved every word!” Not long afterward, she had an opportunity to read her manuscript to a kindergarten class. When she finished reading, one little boy in the back row yawned, stretched, and proclaimed, “That's the longest story I ever heard in my whole life!” She came home and revised her picture book.
But whatever good critics can tell you, the real secret to picture books lies in the heart. What does it make you feel? Would it make you want to live the story again? And again?
And what touches the heart cannot easily be defined or taught. It can only be discovered … each time new.
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A Surprising New Way of Writing
January 08, 2013If necessity is the mother of invention, then perhaps disaster—even a relatively small one—is the mother of necessity.
On a snowy Sunday, December 9th, I slipped on hidden ice, dislocated my elbow, and broke my rotator bone just below the elbow. That evening and in the days that followed I made a number of interesting discoveries.
The first was that if you arrive at a hospital emergency room via ambulance you might as well be the Queen of Sheba. You get instant attention. In my mother's last years she and I spent many weary hours waiting in emergency rooms, arriving via me with various small emergencies to be attended to. Most of our time was spent waiting, not being attended to. But then I didn't have flashing lights, five attendants, and a gurney on wheels. When you show up that way it seems that the nurses and doctors have been waiting just for you.
The second was that once the drama is over work that had been compelling will feel of little consequence if you find yourself caught in enough pain and disability.
The third was that when most of what you love to do—writing, cooking, walking the dog, working out at the gym—is suddenly taken away, you can spend an amazing number of hours stretched out on the couch half dozing, half reading a book, half wondering where your life disappeared to.
The only true deadlines I had waiting were for my blogs, and those are, of course, self-imposed deadlines. Fortunately, I already had blogs posted for the next several weeks. However, there were, as always, emails waiting to be answered, and I found typing with one hand a disheartening job at best. Then there was the question of how long I would have to wait before I could return to my work.
So I turned to my son-in-law, my resource for all things computer, and he set me up with the Dragon voice recognition software program. (He did much of that work, believe it or not, on Christmas Day while the family gathered.) I'll admit I was skeptical about writing with my voice. In the first place I've long been convinced that the brains I write with live in the tips of my fingers, not inside my skull. They certainly don't reside in my voice box. In the second place, I was certain I would spend most of my time correcting the program's errors. I'm still not entirely sure where my brain resides, my writing brain I mean, and the program's errors can be amusing—when I send an email to my friend Eugenie, Dragon insists on addressing "you Janie" and if I clear my throat it says, "Please say that again"—but I've found it to be amazingly accurate. You just say, "Wake up!" and it begins to record all you say.
What remains to be seen is whether I can truly think—and compose—by speaking.
What was my topic last week for New Year's Day … starting over? Sometimes it seems that life is entirely made of starting over.
Okay now. Go to sleep. Oops! Sorry, dear reader. I was talking to Dragon, not to you.
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January 03, 2013Every morning, right around 6 a.m., I spring awake. I could stay in bed longer if I wanted to, but I'm done with sleep. I step across the hall to my study where there is just enough open space on the floor for my Pilates exercises and a bit of yoga.
That done and my body beginning to unfurl, I settle in to meditate.
Breathe. Breathe again.
I'm not a particularly experienced meditator. I've explored mindfulness meditation several other times in my life, but only in the last couple of years have I begun to understand what I'm doing. Just begun. One of the things I've learned about it is that there is no way to fail. When you catch your mind chattering and swinging from tree to tree, you just start over. Return to your breath. Return to your breath again. And even if you have to do that a hundred times in a thirty-minute sit, you've had a good meditation, because you've paid attention.
As Mary Oliver says, "This is the first, wildest, and wisest thing I know, that the soul exists, and that it is built entirely out of attention."
Life, I've come to know, is also built out of starting over.
I didn't spend time in my younger days wondering what I would be like in my eighth decade. I remember when I was a child looking with astonishment at the year 2000 on a calendar and wondering whether it was possible that I would still be alive in such a remote time. But I never gave much thought—even as the years accumulated—to who I would be when I grew old. I must have assumed, though, that I would have it all together by now, whatever it was. I can tell I assumed that by the surprise I feel, almost daily, to find myself still struggling, still changing, still growing, still trying to figure out how to be this person I wake up inside of each morning.
I only know, as I've learned when I find myself caught in the midst of some loud clamor during my morning meditation, that it's a privilege to start over … again.
Last year at this time I was recovering from breast cancer surgery, waiting for the radiation treatments to begin. All that lies behind me now, but the possibilities it brought remain. Perhaps the most dramatic of those is that I have learned that I don't have time to rush, that the only moment I have is now, that attention creates meaning.
I forget, of course. I suppose we all do. But then I start over.
Breathe. Now breathe again.
A new year is here.
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A Happy Christmouse to All!
January 02, 2013“We need a sweet Christmas story, and we know you can do sweet.”
It was an editor on the phone, one I especially enjoy working with, and I found myself smiling. That the author of Killing Miss Kitty and Other Sins would be admired for her capacity to write sweet! I was charmed. So I wrote The Christmas Baby. It was sweet, and the book has been a success … probably in great part due to Richard Cowdrey's illustrations, which are even sweeter than the text.
However, the next time the same editor came to me, wanting something new for Christmas, I hesitated. Perhaps I had run out of sweet. Or of fresh ideas for a two-thousand-year-old topic.
Picture books are curious endeavors. Some of my picture book texts have been written from beginning to end in a couple of hours with little revision ever needed. Some I can struggle with for months before I finally lock them into place … or give up because they won't lock.
Recently I've been working on a new Christmas picture book idea called A Happy Christmouse to All! I finished it after a couple of rather intense weeks of work, and I loved it … and I realized even as I was loving it that it didn't work.
It wasn't particularly sweet, but it was light and fun … and it didn't work.
It had some marvelous lines, some great rhymes … and it didn't work.
Picture books have to arrive somewhere. They must click into place. They must, by the end of the story, give the heart what it longs for. This one didn't do any of those things.
I passed my Christmouse through my picture-book guru, Kathi Appelt. She liked it and told me that it didn't work.
I showed it to my agent, Rubin Pfeffer. He praised it and said that it didn't work.
Then he and I talked about what the story needed. I listened and agreed, but agreeing doesn't give me a stronger concept or the new voice I need to discover before I can start over. I'm waiting for those to come. Christmas gifts, perhaps?
In the meantime I have a great title, A Happy Christmouse to All!
And I wish every single reader who honors me by reading this blog a Happy Christmouse, too.
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What about Branding?
December 12, 2012Once you're published, you hear a lot these days about "branding," about getting settled into and known in a single genre. No one talked about branding when I came into the field forty years ago. But then my peers and I almost always started out under the guidance of a single editor, and that editor usually did his or her own shaping of our careers. If you succeeded with your first novel or your first picture book or your first work of nonfiction, your editor was very apt to want more of the same next time around. The result was that we usually did start with one genre and stay there. All my early work was in middle-grade novels, and my first editor had little interest in seeing anything else from me.
A shift that he did support was to a trilogy of books on writing, What's Your Story? A Young Person's Guide to Writing Fiction; A Writer's Story: From Life to Fiction and Our Stories: A Fiction Workshop for Young Writers. I was a writing teacher as well as a writer and the how-tos of writing were what I knew, so it was a logical step and a reasonably successful one.
I only began to be able to experiment further when the unwritten, unspoken rules of the publishing world shifted, and it became possible to publish with more than one or two houses. Then the door to real experimentation finally stood open.
Was I impeded by being confined to my middle-grade novels (and that writing trilogy) in my early years? I was sometimes annoyed by the limitation, but I suspect I profited by it. I was getting grounded in the novel. I was also getting known as novelist.
Now few writers feel confined to a single publisher, nor does a publisher invest in shaping each writer's career. So unless you have an agent guiding your choices, you are pretty much on your own deciding when--and if--branching into new territory is a good idea.
My own opinion is that, once you are established--and established, I acknowledge, isn't always easy to define--branching into new genres is the best way to sustain a long career. It gives you a chance to try out what you didn't think you could do, to discover new topics and new genres that interest you and to develop new strengths.
I have now published in just about every genre in the juvenile field except graphic novels. I've written novelty books, board books, picture books, early readers--both fiction and nonfiction, novellas for younger readers, middle grade and young adult fiction. For what it's worth, I suppose I've become my own "brand." I continue to survive--financially, I mean--without having to do other work on the side precisely because I keep myself open, keep experimenting, keep looking for new opportunities and new challenges. Editors sometimes come to me wanting a certain kind of work they have seen me do before. And I feel privileged, having just celebrated my 74th birthday, to still be working, to still be publishing.
My advice for those who come behind me? Don't play it safe. Try something you've never done before. You might crash and burn. If you do, no harm done. You put it on the shelf and try something else. But there is a good chance that you'll discover another kind of writing you love to do, another kind of work you can do.
So . . . keep challenging yourself. Keep learning to write what you never thought you could. It's the best way I know to stay fresh. And if writing for young readers isn't fresh, what possible use can it be?
Leaving your "brand" behind and trying something new may not be the key to instant success, but it is certainly the key to a long and fruitful career.
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Writing into the "Golden Years"
December 12, 2012The boy sat at his desk, his long legs splayed in front of him, his face twisted in disbelief. "What makes you think you can write for kids?" he asked.
Well, no. He didn't say it quite that rudely, but that's exactly what he meant. He looked at the old lady standing in front of his high school class in creative writing—and I must have been twenty years younger then—and clearly couldn't believe what he was hearing. How could such a crone possibly think that she knew anything at all about what it means to be a kid?
I don't remember exactly how I answered the question. I could, of course, have given the response once offered by a famous children's editor: "I was a kid once myself and I haven't forgotten a thing." I suppose I said something about inner truth, the truth of my own childhood experience, a slight variation on Ursula Nordstrom's response. I just know that my answer didn't satisfy him.
It's a strange business, this writing out of one world what is meant for another. I can't think of any other field where artists create for an audience so unlike themselves. And doing so comes with built-in hazards: What do we truly know? Even if our remembering is accurate, have children--and has childhood itself—changed so profoundly that we're deceiving ourselves to think we can create their stories?
It's one thing to do this kind of writing during our own early adult years when childhood experience stands close or even during the parenting years surrounded by real-life children. It is another entirely to continue to do it out of the quiet, orderly, mostly childless life I live now. I've known some writers for young people who moved up in genre, picture book through young-adult novel, as their own children grew and then dropped out of the field entirely when their source of inspiration emerged into adulthood.
I began writing for and about eleven- and twelve-year-olds before my own children had reached that age, drawing from a particularly awkward time in my own life and still close enough to feel it acutely. As my children came into the age I wrote about, I took great care never to use them as material. It would have seemed an invasion, a violation of our intimacy to do so. But their lives and the lives of their friends teaming around me certainly gave energy to my work. My interest in picture books blossomed with the birth of my first grandchild. So I have both used my own childhood and drawn inspiration from children around me through my career.
Now my childhood is far behind me and, to be frank, of less intense interest to me than it used to be, and even my grandchildren—except for one lively afterthought—have mostly grown beyond the ages for my books. So it's not surprising that from time to time I find that boy's long-ago question floating between me and this screen. What does make me think I can still write for kids?
I look back at my own early novels and detect a slightly dated quality rising from them like a slight odor of must. They were fine in their time, but something more, something different seems to be happening now, not just to kids but to the stories adults—most far younger than I—create for them.
I once heard an editor say she had turned down a novel from a well-known, long-established writer. "If you were in any other field," she had told the writer, "you would be retired by now." That was quite a while ago, but I was old enough when I heard those words to cringe. And I have never forgotten them.
I am definitely old enough to have retired. And I must admit that writing for young people these days has much more to do with plying skills I have sharpened over the years and still love exploring—not to mention that it has to do with supporting myself—than with either remembering my own childhood or responding to children around me.
What makes me think I can still do it? Well, simply the fact that I'm doing it, I suppose, that my work is being published, that my books are being read.
And I know that answer wouldn't have altered the twisted skepticism on that boy's face by a millimeter.
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The Unglamorously Hard Work Part
November 28, 2012In the last few weeks I’ve been talking about writing for the pure love of writing, not as a career, and then I turned to asking what it takes to make a career, beyond serendipity, which is usually one of the most important ingredients. Today, as promised, I’m going to talk about the unglamorously hard work required to make a living as a writer.
It starts with all I’ve been talking about, sitting down to write with consistency. And that begins with defining your writing as your work, because nothing has more respect in our society than work. “Sorry, I can’t do that today. I have to work.” If you are going to make a career of writing, it must be your work even if you have another job that requires your attention. And you–first, above everyone else–need to give your writing the kind of respect you would give any job.
Simply writing, just doing it, is the first step toward learning to write well. But it is possible to write consistently without ever improving. You need to discover what you do well and where you need to grow. Exchange manuscripts with other writers. Take classes. Enroll in an MFA in Writing program, if such a deep commitment is possible for you. Find critics who care about juvenile literature and have insight into what makes it work, whether they are writers themselves or not, and listen to what they have to say. Stay away, equally, from those who think that anything is good enough for kids and from those who think everything you put on the page is fantastic. Seek true critics, people who want more from you than what you managed to get down on the page the first time. But seek kind critics, those who give you meaningful support.
Perhaps above all else, learn how to rewrite . . . and to rewrite and to rewrite and to rewrite. Learn even to love to rewrite. Not just to polish each time you read through, though there will be plenty of that, but learn to let go, to rethink and start again as often as needed. I have worked with hundreds of developing writers over the years, many of whom are every bit as talented or more talented than I. I have found few, however, who are as willing to return to and rethink a manuscript as I am, who are willing to weigh not just every word but every idea, again and again and again. That kind of commitment to revision is the too-obvious secret of good writing.
Finally, a career writing for young people begins with reading, lots of reading. Every now and then, in my years of teaching, I’ve had someone show up in a class saying, “I want to write something for kids because everything that’s out there is junk and I know I can do better.” Anyone who thinks everything out there is junk is reading only junk. (It exists in every field.) Or more likely, I suspect, not reading at all.
The field of children’s and young-adult literature is rich and deep and varied. Extremely varied. And you will never find your place in it if you don’t know what the place is that you seek to fill. Read. Read and read and read. And read serious critics of juvenile literature, too. You don’t have to agree with every critic every step of the way, but holding your ideas up against theirs will help you to form your own opinions beyond “this is what I like.” What works for you as a reader? What doesn’t? Why?
It’s foolish to write hoping to be published without knowing what the market wants, what is being heralded by the critics, what is selling in the bookstores. (The two may be–and often are–quite different.) But it is even more foolish to focus on the market instead of your own heart. Know what’s out there and then set what you know aside. Write the book you yourself most want to read.
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November 26, 2012
Last week I talked about what it takes to build a career as a writer.
I discussed the importance of setting a writing schedule and keeping it.
I said that it is essential to learn to revise and to get the kind of input that tells you what kinds of revisions will be useful.
And then I marched straight on into the deepest secret of every successful writer . . . serendipity.
No writing career gets very far without it.
My serendipity came about in 1987 when my novel of the year before, On My Honor, won a Newbery Honor award. That happened nearly fifteen years after I moved my writing from a guilty hobby to a fulltime job, and eleven years after Shelter from the Wind, my first novel, was published. During those fifteen years I worked hard and constantly. In fact, the main complaint I heard from my children when they were growing up was that I was always writing. But despite that hard work and despite publishing six novels prior to On My Honor, I never once, in all that time, came close to earning enough money to live on.
Receiving an award of that stature does more than change one’s immediate cash flow. It opens doors. It puts a stamp of approval on a career for years to come. And that's what I mean by serendipity. There had to have been dozens of other books out that year that were equally deserving of such notice, but mine happened to catch the right attention at the right time and I was able to move forward into my career with a new authority.
Coincidentally, that was also the moment in my life for a much less serendipitous though necessary event. I left my marriage of twenty-eight years. But I left with the deep knowledge that my newly successful writing career was one of the gifts from the man who had for so long provided a roof for my typewriters and for me and our children and various foster children and exchange students and cats and dogs and hamsters. And I will always be grateful for the generosity with which he made my career possible.
Not everyone has the privilege of being provided for, however, while trying to get established. And not everyone will have a serendipitous moment of being lifted out of the pack. What do you do then?
Just keep writing because you love to write and keep slogging at the unglamorously hard work. One doesn't exclude the other. They can live side by side.
What further tricks I know for keeping a career alive I'll talk about next week.
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So You Want to Write for a Living
November 14, 2012Last week I talked about the benefits of writing for your own deep pleasure, not having to depend on this uncertain craft to have a warm bed at night and food in your belly. And as disingenuous as that sounds, coming from someone who is a career writer, I do remember from my own early years the pure joy of writing simply because I loved to write.
But I also remember yearning for a scrap of recognition, yearning to earn enough dollars even to pay for paper and typewriter ribbons, for the courage to fill in the occupation blank in the doctor’s office with the single word writer. And if someone who was actually earning a living from writing had tried to convince me that I was having more fun, I would, not to put too fine a point on it, have been pissed. And the truth is, however romantic I might feel sometimes about the long-ago pleasures of just-for-myself writing, I would never trade the solid, work-filled days I live for the pleasures of that early freedom.
So let’s look at the other side of the coin. You want your writing to be your work, your primary work. What does it take to make that happen?
First, and more than anything else, it takes intention. You get up every morning because you’re going to write. It’s that simple … and that hard.
If you’re working another job, if you have children, if you have a thousand other demands on your attention every single day—and most of us do—you’ll still get up knowing that writing is primary. You don’t get up at 3 in the morning after working the late shift unless you’re a masochist. You set a reasonable schedule that you know you can keep and you keep it. You will get a whole lot more writing done if you go to the library from one to four every Saturday afternoon (if that’s what works for you) and actually write than you’ll ever accomplish beating yourself up year after year because you never have enough time.
The second thing you need to do is to find a good critic—or two or three—and learn to listen. Don’t let anyone else take over your manuscript. The critics who will help the most are the ones who know how to talk about what you’ve written without invading it. “This works for me, this doesn’t; this is too much, this is too little; I don’t understand; this moved me to tears; I laughed and laughed.” The ones who want to climb in with all four feet and start rewriting for you are poison. Smile. Thank them. And move on.
And then sort the responses you’ve received, let go of what isn’t working in your manuscript no matter how deeply attached you might be, take a firm hold on what is working and start in again. Learn to revise deeply. And keep doing it!
These two pieces you’re in charge of, entirely.
The third thing required to make a success at a career in writing is serendipity … lots of it.
And serendipity, by definition, is what you can’t make happen.
But that I’ll talk about next week.
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Writing for Money
November 07, 2012One of my editors said to me recently, “I tried to support myself with my writing once. The whole endeavor lasted for about a day and a half and scared me to death.”
I am one of the privileged ones. I do support myself with my writing. I no longer even supplement my income by teaching on the side, something I did for forty years. Nor do I supplement my income by speaking in schools as many children’s writers do. More than a decade ago I ran out of the energy required to hold the attention of gymnasiums full of wiggly kids or ostentatiously bored teens. So my income comes almost exclusively from the words I assemble each day, and yes, sometimes the uncertainty that oozes from every segment of this changing world of publishing scares me, if not quite to death, pretty thoroughly.
But I’m less interested in looking at that uncertainty—it is what it is, and much of it is beyond my control—than I am in examining the ways supporting myself with my writing impacts the writing itself.
First, let me say that I know that I am privileged to earn my income doing work I love so deeply. I never lose sight of that fact, even on the days when I face another rejection or a too-close deadline or a project I’ve committed to that stretches my “love” a bit thin. Not enough people are able to use their talents so fully in whatever it is they do to make a living, and I never forget that.
But the truth is that writing for publication changes the act of writing itself. It becomes less an expression of soul and more a product. The soul’s need to speak remains part of the process. If it doesn’t, one becomes a hack, the work no more than mechanically competent. But even with the soul engaged, when you are writing to earn a living everything about the process becomes work.
My father was a brilliant man, who, in the face of the Depression of the 1930's, settled on and subsequently stayed with a job greatly beneath his capacities and his education. “When the next Depression comes,” he used to say, “I won’t be one of the ones laid off. I’ll have seniority.” He also used to say, “The reason they call it work is because you don’t like doing it. If you liked doing it, no one would pay you.” I have spent my entire adult life proving him wrong. I like the work I do. I even love it. If I knew I would never earn another cent writing, I would still get up every morning and sit down to play with characters and ideas and words.
But . . . here comes my confession. Sometimes I envy those who write just because they love to write, without any thought of having to sell what they produce or meet a deadline or satisfy any eye but their own. Earning your living this way does change the process. What was once a guilty hobby, a thrilling exploration that I slipped into in every possible crack of time now comes guilt free. But it is also comes with few thrills attached.
Writing is the only one of the arts that, if you confess to doing it, people will nearly always ask whether you’re a professional. “What have you published?” they’ll say as though publication were the only reason to write. If you were to say, “I play the piano,” the same folks would be unlikely to ask when were you last on a concert stage. And I have always encouraged my students to write because they love to write, without using publication as a yardstick to measure the worth of their work. And I mean that sincerely.
So for the just-for-the-love-of-it writers out there, I say, rejoice in the process. Share what you accomplish every way you can. And if you get a chance to publish? Go for it. But even publication doesn’t have to change the fun of a free-flowing process . . . that is, it doesn’t have to change it if you don’t quit your day job.
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A Search for God
November 02, 2012I talked last week about the years I spent plumbing novels for scraps of ideas about God. What I found in church and discovered through reading more traditionally theological sources was too expected, too much cloaked in arcane language, too certain of itself. I needed questions that didn’t come with ready-made answers. And so I turned to novelists, the creative minds that challenged and validated the rest of my world, for my theology, too.
What I rarely did, though, was to carry to my own work the questions I wanted others to explore for me.
But all that was before I tiptoed into Blue-Eyed Wolf, the novel I’m living in now. Blue-Eyed Wolf will be the first truly young-adult novel I have written as the field is defined now, and as such it opens possibilities that weren’t available to me with my earlier books.
Blue-Eyed Wolf is set in 1967-68 in the boundary waters of northern Minnesota. It’s about a fourteen-year-old girl, Angie, whose beloved older brother goes off to fight in Vietnam. It is also about the decimation of the wolves she loves.
More to the point for this discussion, though, it is about Angie’s search for answers within her very traditional experience of Christianity. (It will be no surprise to those who know scraps of my history to discover that she is an Episcopalian and that her closest adult friend is her priest’s rebellious wife.)
This is the first time I have ever created a fictional clergy wife. And it is certainly the first time I’ve tried to trace my own lifelong questioning through one of my stories. I‘ve discovered that neither provides easy territory.
The rebellious clergy wife is hard to keep under control. I kept a cap on my own inner rebellion with a sweet face and usually a well-controlled mouth, but if I presented Maia that way she would be of little use to me. So she’s out there, and she’s bursting her seams the ways kids burst out of school at the end of the day. My first task is to make her believable to those who have understandably set expectations for their clergy wives. My second task is to make sure, every step of the way, that she serve’s Angie’s story.
Angie’s search, though, is even harder to navigate.
My perception is that our society in general has a low tolerance for God talk. If I lean too heavily on Angie’s longing for a God who can keep her disrupted life intact, she tumbles into territory for which the labels are too easy. Her search will appear sanctimonious to those who don’t want to hear about religion. It will be naïve to those who have left the idea of God behind. Worse, from a craft point of view, she will seem a mere mouthpiece for the author’s ideas.
Perhaps even more to the point, if I let Angie work through and discard the religious ideas I myself have dismissed over my lifetime, she will offend many ... probably especially the adults peering over young readers’ heads. If I set the God search aside to make my story safe, I will have failed my own vision.
A friend, a professor of creative writing in a University and a writer himself, said to me many years ago, “I can’t write the kind of fiction I most admire.” I was young when I heard that, and I found the admission deeply sad. How was it possible to face such a limitation of your own talent?
Well, I’m no longer young, and some days I’m entirely unsure when I sit down to Blue-Eyed Wolf that I can write the kind of story I’ve been seeking to read all my life. But I’m not yet willing to settle into an admission of my own limitations.
Angie’s struggle still calls to me. And her rebellious clergy-wife friend is great fun to write. I have the ideas, the convictions, a clear vision of what I want to say. Do I have the skill to shape a story that can make sense—even a little bit of sense—out of my own journey?
That remains to be seen.
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The Forbidden Topic ... Religion
October 24, 2012Last week I took on same-sex marriage. While I’m on a roll, I might as well talk about religion, too.
There aren’t many topics forbidden to those who write for young people these days. Especially if the audience is defined as young adult, writers can take on sex, violence, racism, social taboos, war . . . you name it. And sometimes we can even tiptoe into religion.
Religion has long been a topic of passionate interest to me. And not just because I was married to an Episcopal priest for 28 years. Being a clergy wife doesn’t necessarily bring a person closer to religion, only to the inner workings of the institutional church, which is a very different thing.
I spent decades trying to locate God in books. I read philosophy and theology, of course. But there was something about most books advertised up front as being about God that sent me away still searching. Most of the authors, even when they seemed to be asking hard questions, were still defending an institution, a creed, a professional retirement plan. And especially as a clergy wife who understood too well the inner workings of that kind of commitment, I was seldom impressed.
So I set out instead to search for God in novels. I didn’t look for novels about God. That would be an impossibly short list. A suspect one, even, were it to exist. Rather I read serious, interesting, moving fiction and waited for characters to drop a word here or there about their perception of God. When that happened, I was mesmerized, as though a deep secret were about to be revealed. And some of those passing comments have stuck like burrs.
In a Saul Bellow novel—I no longer remember which one—a character says, “God isn’t sex, but . . .” And he left his musing—and me—to dangle. That phrase stills bubbles up in my mind from time to time. “God isn’t sex, but . . .” What was he saying? That the deep experience of sexual love is one way of approaching God? (Wow! That’s an idea that would set our Puritan foreparents spinning!)
Fiction has always seemed to me the perfect vehicle for struggling with hard questions: about our families, about our social norms, about our purpose on this earth, about God. And fiction intended for those who are just growing into those kinds of questions themselves has the perfect audience. The only problem lies in a writer’s inevitable awareness of the adults peering at the book over those young, inquiring heads.
I never write with the intention of offending. I want only to talk honestly about what feels important to me. But the reality is that honest talk about what is important inevitably will offend someone.
I have never met a child who felt he was damaged by one of my stories, though it’s true that I have met only a small fraction of my readers. (I have met a number, at least through teacher-required letters, who told me they were bored or otherwise poorly served by something I’d written, which is a different matter entirely.) I have, however, had encounters with adults who found a story of mine damaging to young minds. And sometimes those adults have ordered an entire class of children to write to tell me, for instance, that my use of bad words, damn and hell, in On My Honor offended them deeply. So I’m well aware that it is the adults who hold power here, not the kids I’m writing for.
Can I challenge traditional religious thinking, truly challenge it, and not find myself on the black list I barely escaped when I chose to let Am I Blue? bring me out as a “practicing” lesbian? (I’ve always loved that word, “practicing.” I wonder if one day I’ll get it right.)
I only know that I enter each of my stories with my soul bared, asking the hard questions, foregoing the easy answers. And after all these years of searching for God in other people’s stories, it seems time to see what I can discover in my own.
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October 17, 2012In this new and sometimes bewildering world of blogging, bloggers are advised to stake out a territory. Define who you are, what your topic is, where you have credibility, what will draw your audience to your words and stay there.
That hasn’t been difficult for me. I write for children and young adults. For years I have also taught those who want to write for children and young adults. Writing my own books and teaching developing writers forms the core of my experience and thus the lens through which I approach my blog. But occasionally when I sit down to tackle the next blog, I find myself drawn to a topic that isn’t about a recent book or about craft or even about children, and then I pause, not sure what to do. I’m in just such a pause today.
I live in Minnesota, have lived here for nearly forty years. Minnesota has been a good home for me. I love having four dramatically changing seasons. I love the wilderness that has been so carefully preserved, especially in the far north of the state. I feel both supported in my own work and challenged by the commitment to the arts that exists here. And there was a time when I could have said that I loved the feisty politics in Minnesota that have kept a continual tug-of-war going between those of different views.
Minnesota politics are harder to love these days. And with the upcoming election, I find my admiration for my state stretched pretty thin. We have an amendment on the ballet to define marriage as being between one man and one woman, in other words to write into our state constitution a prohibition against same-sex marriage. Apart from the serious question of whether such a matter should be defined by the constitution at all, apart from the fact that millions of dollars are being spent in an attempt to pass/defeat this amendment that are desperately needed in other pockets, even apart from the fact that same-sex marriage is already outlawed in our state so that the amendment is entirely redundant, the whole shibboleth is both maddening and impossible to ignore.
I am a children’s writer. That is the face I bring to the world. But I am also a lesbian in a committed relationship. In the early 90s I edited and contributed to a collection of young-adult short stories on gay and lesbian themes called Am I Blue? Coming Out from the Silence. I used that book to come out professionally, despite solemn warnings from editors that such an acknowledgement could end my career. But I was acutely aware that young people were dying—quite literally—because of lack of support and information about their sexuality, so how could I make any other choice? I also knew that by being open about my own life I could demonstrate that being lesbian or gay doesn’t stand in the way of being an ethical, productive, normal human being.
Am I Blue? made its way into the world and did its good work, and to this day, I am more proud of that book than I am of any other that has passed through my hands and my heart.
But here I am facing a public question concerning sexuality again, and what is my responsibility now? Thousands of children in Minnesota have gay or lesbian parents who are forbidden to marry. Many more thousands are discovering or will discover that they are themselves lesbian or gay and will find themselves looking out at a landscape of laws designed to impede their lives. Something more than stories is needed this time.
I have attended church services and rallies where we are urged to go out and knock on doors to defeat this restriction on same-sex marriage, to bring up the topic with grocery store cashiers, to make phone calls. But I am not a knocker on doors, a converser with strange cashiers. And while I’m glad to receive phone calls, I don’t like making them even to people I know. (My daughter complains that I never call, though I e-mail often.)
I am a writer. And a blogger. Only that. And so I bring my thoughts to this page.
We should on every level of society and government be supporting commitment, not standing in the way of it. We should be nurturing love, not shaming it.
In this world of climate chaos, of war, of sexual slavery and rape, of starving children, of homelessness, the issue of same-sex marriage shouldn’t have to be the center of anyone’s attention. There is so much more we need to be doing. But, nonetheless, in Minnesota we have a very public choice to make.
Do we want to enshrine hate in our constitution?
For whatever it’s worth, my small voice says NO!
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When Is Scary Too Delicious?
October 08, 2012Last week I talked about my new picture book, Halloween Forest, and about the function that fear has in a story, even for very young children. Fear tucked inside the safety of a story can allow us an exciting chill without submitting ourselves to danger. It allows us to move through our own feelings and emerge on the other side, having grown larger.
But that leaves us with a question, an important one. When is scary entirely too delicious? The truth is—and it’s an important truth for those presenting books to young people—no one can answer that question except the one facing the fear.
Most children, I think, will find Halloween Forest simply fun. Some will be frightened and love being frightened and emerge more self-assured. Others may peek at the forest of bones and turn away. If they are allowed to choose their own level, their own instincts will protect them.
My rule of thumb when my children were growing up was always to have lots of reading material available and to have no restrictions whatsoever on what they were allowed to read. Obviously, we didn’t have pornography in our home—neither sexual pornography nor the pornography of violence—but we had plenty of adult material they weren’t yet ready for. Without fail my son and daughter sought out what served them at each age and stage of their growth, selecting what entertained, satisfied, and nurtured them. And they both grew into responsible adults and lifelong readers. So our free-selection policy worked.
(I must add, though, that my children grew up years before the Internet and cable television came on the scene, so the pool from which they could select had easier boundaries than today’s world provides. And the access provided by those media would be the basis for a whole different discussion, one I’m not equipped to lead.)
Books, however, still live in a pretty safe zone. A movie that is terrifying can imprint itself on a young brain before the recipient has a chance to blink. But because reading is a less passive activity—or being read to is an interactive one where the child still can exert control—we have time to put the book down, to turn away when it overwhelms. And I’m confident that those for whom the fear set up in Halloween Forest is not delicious will do precisely that.
So “Take care! Beware! Despair! You can bet you’ve just met your worst nightmare!”
And if my story is for you and for your child, it will give you both a satisfying shiver . . . and a deep sigh of satisfaction.
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Purging of Pity and Fear
September 25, 2012Halloween is almost upon us, and my newest picture book, Halloween Forest, is on the shelf.
When I received my first copy with John Shelley’s marvelously creepy illustrations of the forest of bones I’d written about, a rather delicious shiver ran down my spine. All those bony tree hands reaching … reaching.
And my own shiver brings up an interesting question. What is the point of scary for kids?
The question carries me back to another book and a very specific child. When my son, Peter, was a toddler, he had many books to choose from, but for some months he returned over and over to one I now remember only vaguely despite my being the perennial reader. (Obviously the book didn’t impact me the way it did Peter.) I’ve forgotten the title, the author, even the plot. The story, I think, took place in a zoo, but I’m not entirely sure even of that.
What I do remember distinctly was that on one turn of the page, a bear appeared. A very large bear. And every time we came to that bear, Peter, cuddled into the safety of my lap, vibrated with terror … and total fascination. He covered his eyes, his body a tense little ball, and peered at the bear from between his chubby fingers.
Nonetheless, each time we finished the book, the bear safely tucked away in the closed pages, Peter asked to have it read again … and again … and again!
There is a name for Peter’s experience. Aristotle came up with it long ago. “The purging of pity and fear.” Peter delighted in being frightened because it gave him a chance, in the safety of his mother’s lap, to conquer his fear. In order to conquer fear, however, a little boy has to feel it first. And that was the function of that book and of that bear in his life … to allow him to discover that his own fear didn’t destroy him. Each new reading gave him a chance both to be afraid and to rejoice in his own bravery. And each time he emerged from the book a step closer to being the big boy he so wanted to be.
We all need bears in our stories. We need Halloween and perhaps even bony trees with deliciously reaching hands. We need, from time to time, to face fear—and loss and unfulfilled longing and loneliness and despair—to move through those all-too-human feelings and to emerge on the other side wondrously intact. And then we need to move on with our lives, a bit braver, a bit wiser, a bit more compassionate toward ourselves and the world than we were when we picked up the book.
That’s the way story works, and that’s what Aristotle was talking about.
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September 19, 2012A while back, talking about gathering ideas for a sequel to Little Dog, Lost, I wrote, "I'm off and running, the story that's growing in my mind gathering emotional power as I go."
And that is the key concept to understand when it comes to choosing the stories we write … emotional power. If an idea doesn't touch my own emotions, I can't possibly write it in a way that will touch my readers.
How do I tell if a story idea is right for me, worth embarking on the long process of committing it to the page? The test is a simple one. Story ideas that are truly mine, that bring up the right combination of creativity and possibility, give me instant energy. When I hold a fresh idea—the right fresh idea—in my mind, more ideas begin to leap to it like iron filings to a magnet.
The ideas that have the most resonance for me are ones that come from some deep lack in my childhood, what I have heard referred to as a "child hole." We all have them, these child holes. Human needs are so complex, parents and children alike, that it is impossible for anyone to enter adulthood unscarred. Each one of us is wounded in some way, lacking in some way, seeking to gather to ourselves what we missed when we were being formed. And stories are a perfect way to do that gathering, writing them or reading them.
But what makes an idea sing for me isn't only that lack. My own child hole inevitably, I've found, lies at the core of each of my stories. But the details of the stories themselves come from as many emotional sources as a life is capable of embracing. A childhood fantasy of being three inches tall. The way, though I was terrified of horses, I used to pretend constantly that I was riding one. An obnoxious family cat!
When I'm developing story ideas the ones I hang onto are those that, when they first occur, seem not just interesting, but important to me. Most of these ideas are nothing that has ever happened to me, but when I pick them up to examine them, the feeling of importance lets me know they are mine to write.
So when you're trying to decide what story to write, don't look for what's "in," fantasy or horror or sweet romance. It doesn't hurt to be aware of—and it's a gift to be able to produce—what the market has decided it wants at any particular moment. But your greatest success will come, not from writing for the market's ever-elusive demands, but from creating what satisfies your own deepest desires.
Only when you do that can you hope to satisfy your readers, too.
PS A reminder. I'm giving an on-line lecture on "The Basics of Writing Successful Picture Books" on Wednesday evening, September 19th, at 7 p.m. EDT. You can sign up for it at Writing for Children Live. It is free that evening, when it will be interactive, and it will be available without charge for twenty-four hours after. The lecture can be accessed for a fee after that.
September 18, 2012 at 12:01 am | Tags: ideas, stories, trends, writing | Categories: Journal, Little Dog Lost | URL: http://wp.me/p1RtA7-dz
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September 12, 2012On page 161 I discovered that I had forgotten how to write a novel.
It's happened before. I'm moving along at a fairly steady pace and suddenly . . . what's that? A brick wall? And what's my nose doing pressed up against it?
The popular term for the experience is "writer's block." Even grade-school children have heard of it and consider it a serious disability. "Do you ever get writer's block?" they used to ask solemnly back in the days when I went out to schools. And I suppose I have, though it's a term I've always refused to use. There is something about putting a name on what I prefer to think of as a temporary inconvenience that sanctifies it, gives it power. Like declaring every stubbed toe to be "stumbling disease."
But whatever it's called or not called, here it is again. I'm moving along in my young-adult novel, Blue-Eyed Wolf. I've just completed some active scenes, scenes I had looked forward to writing. I have my character exactly where I want her. I can see my way through pretty clearly to the end of the novel and . . . I can't seem to move into the next scene.
I go back to the beginning to consider where the story has come from. I examine my characters and their places in the story, what they have to offer. I ask a couple of thoughtful readers to look at what I have down so far. I listen to what they have to say and find that, while I agree with their suggestions, I don't seem to have an ounce of energy left to bring to the page.
So what do I do in the midst of this "temporary inconvenience"? I put the manuscript down, settle myself in a comfortable chair . . . on the deck in these glorious summer days, and begin to read the very best novel I can lay my hands on. Or several of them.
I'm not looking for some other writer to come up with an idea that will work in my story, of course. I'm not even reading to note how they apply their craft, though I am watching every element of craft with a sharp eye. (Note, for instance, how Ann Patchett enlivens The Magician's Assistant halfway through by revealing astonishing new information about a central character's past.) What I'm really reading for, though, is to feel at my very core how this business of making up characters and getting them to interact with one another on the page can move me. I want to discover again how stories can make me laugh or cry or hold my breath in apprehension or sigh with satisfaction. I read to be immersed in, excited by, completely taken over by story.
What I'm searching for is heart, the kind of energy that propels others writers into their stories and keeps them there, that makes a story feel like a magnet to which the iron filings of plot and character simply fly. And in this round of that search I've read several books. The last I picked up was Toni Morrison's immortal Beloved.
Now, please understand. I'm not reading to compare my work with Toni Morrison's. We all know where such a comparison would end. I'm reading to rediscover the worth of my own small endeavor. Reading a novel as perfect as hers tells me once more that this silent, solitary work I do every day is worth every silent, solitary minute I commit to it. I don't often re-read—there is so much out there I haven't yet had a chance to discover—and I chose Beloved remembering little beyond how deeply it had moved me when I read it long ago and how universally it is loved. And it worked. Halfway through my reading I found myself ready to fly back to my own work. The rhythm of Morrison's language, the depth of her insights, the raw beauty of her characters reconnected me with myself. And it's only when I can connect with myself that I can connect with my story. And once I can connect with my story I'm ready to face page 161.
Writer's block? No . . . a writer's brief pause to replenish. That's all.
September 11, 2012 at 6:57 am | Tags: Ann Patchet, Beloved, Blue-Eyed Wolf, summer reading, The Magician's Assistant, Toni Morrison, writer's block | Categories: Bear Named Trouble, Blue-Eyed Wolf | URL: http://wp.me/p1RtA7-dV
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A New Teaching Opportunity
September 10, 2012
I'll be teaching two on-line sessions with Writing for Children Live this month. One, on "The Basics of Writing Successful Picture Books" will be on Wednesday, September 19th, at 7 p.m. EDT. The second will be a webinar entitled "Point of View and Psychic Distance in Fiction for Young People." That will be presented on the next Wednesday, September 26th, 7 p.m. EDT. You can sign up, no charge, for either interactive session. These two sessions will launch a new on-line teaching venture, Writing for Children Live, hosted by Kim Taylor-DiLeva.
I haven't done an on-line lecture before, but this seemed a perfect opportunity to try out this new medium. It's a chance for me to show up, lay out some of what I know, and slip back into my own world and my own writing. The way it works for the participants is that they can sign up to be part of the free live session and then continue to access the session for twenty-four hours afterward for no charge. After the twenty-four hour period, the internet lecture and the webinar will continue to be available but for a fee. (That's the way Kim and I will earn something for our efforts.)
It's going to feel strange, lecturing into a telephone, but this is a brave new world for all of us. I'll set the lectures up so I can pause to get questions and responses from my audience after each section of the talk. That way I hope it won't feel so much like addressing a vacuum. And since I'm going back to topics I've explored many times when I was teaching at VCFA and at writing workshops across the country, it will be interesting to make them fresh for myself and for those who are listening in.
I hope you'll join me!
Marion | September 4, 2012 at 12:01 am | Tags: Kim Taylor-DiLeva, Marion Dane Bauer, online, teaching, teleconference, webinar, Writing for Children Live | Categories: Journal, Writing | URL: http://wp.me/p1RtA7-dg
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Learning to Write, Then and Now
August 29, 2012When I first mentioned the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts in this blog, I said that when I was invited to teach there I was skeptical. I had learned how to write without any such program. I had come to be published without even a meaningful creative writing class or a mentor.
As a University student, I took a couple of creative writing classes, but they gave me little except an excuse to use homework time to write, which was itself a blessing. My instructors were middle-aged men who sat hunched over their desks glowering at us, always bored, often hung over. The primary insight I took away from those classes was that my writing was "too female," too focused on small domestic moments of importance only to those of my gender. I don't want even to imagine the critique I would have received had a dared then to write something intended for young people.
But I did learn to write and I learned the way people have for centuries . . . by doing it. I didn't even have the privilege of contact with other writers. At the point I began taking my writing seriously, I was living in Hannibal, Missouri. In Hannibal we had Mark Twain Fried Chicken and the Mark Twain Roofing Company, but if there were folks in town other than me who were spending their days putting words on paper to get to the end of a story I never met them. Thus, having no one to consult, I journeyed back and forth to the library with armloads of books . . . and then I sat down to write every day.
So my first thought when asked to teach was that if I learned that way why shouldn't everyone else do the same?
But the truth is that the world of juvenile publishing has changed profoundly in the nearly forty years I have been part of it. When my first novel came out in 1976, editors routinely invested in the careers of new authors. They would take on work that was half formed, even work that might never be fully formed, because they detected something elusive called promise and they wanted that author to belong to them when she began to producing the kind of work that would make the world sit up and take notice. And so they made a commitment to a manuscript and to a writer in the same sweep of the pen, and for us writers, it was a bit like being indentured servants and enrolling in an MFA program, all in one.
Few editors I know today have the freedom to make such a leap of faith to take on a manuscript—and its author—for the sake of its promise, not because it is already a finely tuned piece. And even if they dare make such a leap from time to time, the loyalty system has broken down on both sides. Authors rarely feel obligated to remain with a single house and few editors feel obligated to stay with their authors, nurturing and sustaining them throughout their careers. I have heard an editor say "I can't take on a manuscript that isn't already 90% there the day it crosses my desk." And that statement was made at least fifteen years ago. I'd guess the percentage of "thereness" required has gone up since then. 95%? 100?
And that's where MFA programs come in. Writers come into these programs because they show "promise." And they work with seasoned authors who know how to edit, to guide, to encourage. Student writers don't learn simply to polish one manuscript but to understand the process behind their own work so they can grow through their time in the program and keep growing after.
The learning, the stretching, the refining process works. In the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, a program I still boast about despite having retired from the faculty three years ago, many of our alumni are publishing. But beyond simply publishing, our graduates' books have been New York Times best sellers, have won the PRINTZ and been shortlisted for the National Book Award, have been nominees for the YALSA best fiction for young adults, won the John Steptoe New Talent Award (one of the Coretta Scott King awards) and have received too many more awards to name here. The program I started off with so cautiously is celebrating its fifteenth anniversary, and I couldn't be more proud.
So . . . you want to write for young people? You can still learn by reading and by sitting down to write every day. Many have learned that way before you. But if you want to accelerate your learning and become part of a writing community that will stay with you long beyond your years as a student, you couldn't do better than Vermont College of Fine Arts.
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August 15, 2012I have recently returned from Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier where I received an honorary MFA in Writing. I'm not sure what one does with such a thing, but receiving it was a profound honor.
From the time I was very young I knew I wanted to write stories. What kind of stories I didn't know, just stories. One day in college I happened to write a single paragraph for a creative writing assignment, a paragraph that was never shown to the professor because it didn't fulfill the assignment. I wrote about being three years old and standing on a sunny sidewalk in my backyard, then stepping off the walk into the cool, tickling grass. Just that. But there was something about recreating that moment that made me know this was what I was meant to do. This. Write about childhood, all phases of it. Write from inside the consciousness of a child.
Not that I began doing it then. That single paragraph remained in my heart long after the paper on which it was typed disappeared, but it remained only as possibility, not as the beginning of something I was bound to do.
Soon I married and entered into a world of teaching, first as a graduate assistant in a university, then in a public high school. After that came a world of babies and all the responsibilities of being a clergy wife. In those years writing was something I did in the cracks of time . . . poems, letters, journal entries. Nothing intended for publication. Nothing ready for publication.
Receiving the honorary degree
Then came the day when I learned about the MFA in Writing available at the University of Iowa, a long-revered program. Oh, how I wanted to be part of it. I wanted to write! I needed to write! But I didn't know how to begin. Surely an MFA program would teach me.
We were living in Hannibal, Missouri, at the time, just close enough to the University of Iowa to make the dream seem possible, too far away for it to work. And I grieved, frustrated over what was being withheld from me. How could something I so wanted and needed be so right and so untouchable at the same time?
And then one day I set my frustration and my grief aside. "Marion," I said, "if you'll spend the amount of time writing that you are thinking of spending driving back and forth to Iowa City, you just might accomplish something."
And so I sat down and began writing, not sure what I was doing but determined to do it anyway. And eventually I did accomplish something.
At the reception, with the cake
In fact, I accomplished enough that one day the phone rang in my Minnesota home and a voice asked if I would like to teach in a low-residency MFA program in Vermont, a program focused entirely on Writing for Children and Young Adults.
I was amazed at the invitation . . . and dubious about the idea.
After all, I had learned this craft on my own. Wouldn't everyone else be better off following my path?
But I loved teaching. I had been teaching adults who wanted to write for kids for many years. And I could always change my mind after a semester or two, couldn't I?
I said yes, a tentative, skeptical yes, and I headed off to Vermont for the first time.
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The Adult Narrator in a Children’s Story
August 08, 2012Last week I quoted Dallas Bradel and her support for my call to keep adults more present in stories for young people. I agreed, of course, with all she said.
But she had more to offer, and this is the way she continued her very articulate argument:
I applaud your understanding of the importance of supportive, likeable adults in the lives of your protagonists. In Little Dog, Lost, Mark’s mother and the lonely old man give readers some insight into the value of adults as human beings and as allies in navigating the challenges of life.
I will add, however, that I found the parenthetical comments from the adult narrator in A Very Little Princess and Little Dog, Lost to be distracting intrusions into the narrative. I kept wanting to say, “Hush, I don’t care about the dog park; you’re interrupting Marion’s story about Mark and the dog.”
Could you possibly feel satisfied to be present as an adult voice strictly through your adult characters, without making sidebar comments to your reader? Just wondering.
She and I carried the conversation on a bit further through e-mail and she clarified her position this way:
Hope that my view was expressed clearly though, as I am not opposed to the adult voice in the story, as a character or as a narrator telling her story. I am a huge advocate of the active presence of adults in children's lives, both in reality and on the page.
In considering my negative feelings about the outside narrator whom I experienced as intruding via the parenthetical remarks, I think that that storyteller voice felt to me less like a comforting figure than like a benevolent know-it-all who thought I needed regular explanations in order to understand the story. Does that make sense?
Yes, Dallas, it makes sense. She isn't objecting to the looking-back-adult character through whom I told the stories in Killing Miss Kitty and Other Sins—a stance that is still pretty much forbidden in stories for young people—but she is annoyed by the standing-outside-the-story and, I suspect even worse, the commenting-on-the-story narrative voice I've used in the two Very Little Princess books and in Little Dog, Lost. A voice I happen to love.
So who is right here? It's easy—perhaps too easy—to say this is all a matter of taste. And in part it certainly is that. I've heard folks complain about the same thing in Kate D'Camillo's use of a very intentionally old-fashioned-sounding adult narrator in The Tale of Despereaux, a literary device I enjoyed. (Again, we're talking about adults who read and discuss children's books. not the young readers who are intended to be the primary audience.)
I wonder if anyone has asked kids how they feel about having such an adult filter? I remember reading Little Women to my daughter when she was eight or nine. Soon after I started I thought, "Oh dear. She isn't going to put up with this preachy, teachy voice!" But when I closed the book she wanted to know when we would read again.
The truth is that when I set out to use that adult narrator, I didn't ask anyone, adult or child, whether they liked my storyteller's voice. I used that voice because I needed it. It's that simple. The wise, kindly adult providing a window into my children's world was there for me because I found it comforting. I assumed, rightly or wrongly, that at least some of my readers would feel the same way. Where does that need come from? No place very mysterious. This past decade has been a time of deep losses for me, ones I could do nothing to prevent, and that storyteller voice is what has come to me out of those losses It makes me feel safe inside my own story.
Can I justify my decision in literary terms? No. I can only say again, I wrote those stories as they were given to me, as they sang themselves in my heart. They will—as all stories do—work for some readers and not for others. Not a very satisfying answer, I know.
It is, in truth, the only one I have.
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Another Reader’s Perspective
August 06, 2012I've been sharing my readers' responses to my July 10th blog about excluding adults from our stories. Here's a response from Dallas Bradel:
It may seem as if an author is empowering children by communicating that kids can solve their own problems, but I believe these authors, however well-meaning, are doing a disservice to their readers. Children need, and need to recognize that they need, the guidance, instruction, love, support, and presence of adults in their lives in order to fully develop their potential as human beings. It obviously takes children a great many years to mature physically, mentally, and emotionally, and they can only master certain tasks as their bodies are ready to do so, and as their environment equips them to do so. The love and support of adults in a child’s life helps the child develop not only life skills, but also identity, confidence, and empathy. We cheer them along as they progress one step at a time towards eventual independence.
Yesterday I finished reading Gary Schmidt’s book First Boy. The newly orphaned protagonist is struggling against all odds to keep his grandparents’ dairy farm. And while he is a courageous, hard-working dairy man himself, his 14-year-old body simply cannot succeed in running the farm without help, especially while he continues to go to school. Help comes from two neighbors and his best friend’s family, people who demonstrate their love by coming alongside him in his struggle to fulfill his dream, and by protecting him from evil adults who seek to take advantage of the boy’s predicament.
I agree with everything Dallas has said here, but she had more to say. She also challenged the technique I have been using lately to feed a story through an adult narrator. And that's a topic I'll look at next week.
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August 06, 2012In 1976 when I published my first middle-grade novel, the lines were clearly drawn. If you wrote for young people, you had to be on their side, because there were clearly sides. Adults were on one. Kids were on the other. And though it's trite to say it, the twain did very little meeting.
Adults, it was assumed, were to be banished from juvenile literature, or if they were there, they were to appear only in the shadowy background or to take their proper role in the story as the villains, the ones who had already destroyed the world, the ones who were incapable of understanding the clear-eyed truths so obvious to the young. I know of a group of children's writers who met regularly in a critique group. Though mothers themselves, they took on the name "Kill the Mothers." It was an age of killing the mothers, of assuming we would all be better served by eliminating adults from our stories if not from the world entirely.
But I'm beginning to wonder. I have been writing and publishing in this field for nearly forty years, and I'm not sure whether the rules are changing or if my own foundation is shifting. What I am sure of is that I have grown weary of a story world without adults. In fact, increasingly, I find such a world narrow, stultifying, lacking in perspective, and--the worst possible criticism if we're talking about stories--downright boring.
Now, granted, I'm 73 years old, so that statement may say much more about me than it does about contemporary juvenile literature. Maybe kids wouldn't agree with me at all. That's very likely. Maybe I've simply grown too old for the career that has sustained me for nearly forty years. That's a possibility, too. I know writers younger than I am whose careers have quietly closed down because, while they still have all the strengths that built their careers, the market has moved on and left them behind.
But maybe, just maybe, there is a place in publishing for an old lady who doesn't want to play by the rules any more. When I sit down to write these days, I need that adult voice enriching my stories, or at least I need adults--their problems, their failings, their wisdom--to be present in my story world.
Thus the voice of an adult narrator in Little Dog, Lost. Thus, too, the lonely old man, Charles Larue. Thus Mark's mother who isn't just a meanie who says her son can't have a dog but who has a history of her own, painful and vulnerable, out of which her refusal comes.
Thus the voice of an adult narrator in The Very Little Princess and The Very Little Princess: Rose's Story and in Killing Miss Kitty and Other Sins. For myself as a writer, I have come to need the wisdom and comfort of that mature perspective to make my stories work, and I am convinced that young readers can take comfort from that storyteller's voice.
Recently I spoke in an eighth-grade classroom for one of my granddaughters. (I don't go into schools any longer except for a grandchild.) Afterwards she said, "My friends think you're a cute old lady, so I guess they liked you."
I'll take that, the old as well as the cute. One is a fact, the other a compliment.
How grateful I am to be permitted to speak for the young with this old voice. Grateful, and convinced that I still have something important to say.
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On Excluding Adults
August 06, 2012
I've received more responses on the topic I wrote about last week—the practice of excluding adults from stories for young people—than any other I've taken on, so I'm going to stay with the topic for a couple of weeks.
One young mother, Meghan Gordon, responded this way:
Adam and I have been thinking about this issue recently. Several weeks ago, our 7 year old son decided to have an adventure. He and a friend packed their backpacks with the essentials (Fig Newtons and a baseball bat) and left our back yard without telling me. The boys walked along the train tracks behind our house for over a mile and found themselves a very comfortable spot under a bridge. They had their Fig Newton dinner and talked about how lucky they were to find a couch that was outside. Fast forward through three hours of my own personal hell, and Ian was delivered home safely by the police. He was not doing anything intentionally hurtful or naughty. Deep down he knew how "against the rules" this was, but he was having too much fun on his adventure to acknowledge it.
Anyway, Adam and I discussed many aspects of Ian's little walk-about. One of the things we realized was that he reads story after story about children going on an adventure all on their own. It just isn't cool for the children in his books to wait for their mom to help them cross the street or feed them healthy food. Generally, children are on their own for their adventures and they come up with their own creative solutions. For an adventurous and free-spirited boy like Ian, these are thrilling stories that he loves. For us, his parents, they were fuel to the adventurous fire that could have ended in tragedy. Of course, he could have ran away without having read any books. But, books inspire kids- in good ways and potential bad ways. Adam and I now know that discussions need to be had around the lack of adults in his books: what are good things the children are doing and what are things Ian should never do.
I think it is a parent's responsibility to have their child read books and to discuss aspects of the books with them. But, I am glad you put an adult voice in your books. I appreciate it when an author thinks about the children who will read their book and may take it as an instruction manual.
What Meghan has described is the nightmare of every author who writes for children, having an adventure story—or in this case a long-time diet of adventure stories—turn into an instruction manual for real trouble. And there is no way to get around the fact that, unless we go back to the somberly warning tone of stories written for children in the 19th and early 20th centuries, this kind of imitation will happen from time to time.
Does that mean we must only show the children in our stories being very good little boys and girls or show them being well punished—a little hell fire, anyone?—when they aren't? There are some who would say so, though that certainly isn't Meghan's point. It is a well-established truth—at least it's been a long-taken-for-granted assumption—that you have to put your young characters in charge of their destinies to make their stories interesting. And it's difficult to do that without getting those young characters out from under adult supervision. But can we empower young characters without orphaning them?
And can an adult voice telling a story be a comforting frame for the reader, or is it only an intrusion?
More next week.
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The Pendulum’s Swing
August 06, 2012I mentioned last week that I’ve received a number of interesting comments on my blog on July 10th concerning the long-standing practice of excluding adults from kids’ stories. Here is one by Moira M:
I remember when writing teachers would state, as a rule, that children did not want adults in their books. One of the things I love about Carl Hiaasen’s books for young people is that his child protagonists interact with three-dimensional, fully-realized adults, and Hiaasen has scenes with only adults. In reality, adults play parts in children’s lives, on all levels. Why shouldn’t this be represented in children’s fiction?
Yes, Moira. Why shouldn’t adults be an important part of the children’s book world?
But . . . here is a moment for true confession. I used to be one of those writing teachers. The truth is that we were trying to avoid mother-knows-best stories. Those are the ones written about children making cute or thoughtless mistakes until an adult finally comes on the scene and sets everything straight. We wanted to put children at the center of their own stories, and that was—still is—a laudable effort and not always an easy one. This is a strange field where those who do the writing are not the intended audience for the work, and it has always been too easy for adult authors to end up writing about themselves, especially for mommy authors to write about mommies. So it was an important concept to consider, that children’s books—or teen books—needed to be about children or teens.
The problem is that the pendulum tends to swing too far—as pendulums so often do—even to get stuck at the end of its arc. And then something else important is lost.
Another reader’s perspective next week.
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An Imitation of Life?
July 06, 2012I once had a friend who made a point of not telling me about the more dramatic events in her life because she was convinced that if she did she would find herself one day in one of my stories. The fact that she had never found herself—or anyone else she knew in my stories never assuaged her fears.
If she had only known, stories are not—as is often assumed—an imitation of life. They are far more an imitation of other stories.
Life, even an ordinary, mundane life, is almost infinitely complex in comparison even to the most intricate weavings of fiction. Stories are created by distillation, by selection, by leaving out all that doesn't move this particular character in this particular story toward the particular conclusion that is sought. Stories are written to create meaning out of the jumble of our days, and meaning gets lost in the myriad details we call life. Meaning in stories is actually created as much by what is left out as what is left in.
I have found that when I start with a real place as the setting for a story, I have to struggle to keep my setting from intruding on my story. You may find a large oak tree growing in the center of my story even though the tree has no particular significance, but it will be there because, in the real place I'm writing about, the oak tree exists. If I'm imagining the setting, no oak trees grow there unless they serve the story, because it's work, imagining oak trees, so I only imagine what my story needs.
If I start with an actual person to create a character, I will find myself telling this about him and then that and then something else, and the different parts of the real person I'll reveal, all of them true, all of them real, will seem contradictory, because they won't be focused on achieving a single effect as readers expect. That is what happened to the father in Killing Miss Kitty and Other Sins, my collection of semi-autobiographical young-adult short stories. The main character's father was modeled on my own father, and so he appeared in one story behaving in one way and in another behaving another—all true to my own father—but as one reviewer pointed out, legitimately enough, the parts didn't add up to a whole.
A character I've created from whole cloth will seem more real, because he will be more consistent. We will understand who he is and what he is about. Consider Mark in Little Dog, Lost. He is a totally created character. The touch that brings him alive on the page came from my having to answer the question my editor asked, "Why does Mark want a dog?" And in answering that I moved beyond what I already knew, that Mark was the son of a single mother who was the mayor of Mark's small town. But when I went searching for more, I found something central to my story, that Mark's father had left his mother and him before Mark was even born, and in discovering that, I also discovered the longing that brings Mark alive.
So start from life? Of course. Start from all you have experienced and felt and known. But take just a dollop, a crumb, a seed and build upon it in your own imagination. Create a sleek and meaningful structure by holding back most of what you know.
Then all that will be left over to use in your next story.
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Writers Need Other Writers
July 06, 2012Writers need other writers. It is such a solitary occupation, this sitting in front of a computer—or a typewriter or a pad of paper—and building stories out of the deepest recesses of our minds, that we need from time to time to be with others who share our compulsion for wandering off into worlds of our own creation. The conversation that occurs when we come together gives us a chance to breathe, to say, "Ah, yes. It's all right, this odd thing I'm doing. Someone else does it too!"
I'm back home in St. Paul, Minnesota, having just returned from the Oregon coast. I flew out there to meet with a group of folks I used to teach with at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I retired from teaching at VCFA two and a half years ago, and I have seen few of my good friends since. We met in a big, old house with a fireplace and lots of room to spread out or curl up or sit at a long, indoor picnic table, and we wrote and wrote and wrote.
When we weren't writing, we talked. About the college, of course. (I listened, feeling a million miles removed, but connected all the same.) About students and former students and fellow faculty. About editors and agents and contracts. About our stories. About our lives experienced in the light of our stories and about our stories in the light of our lives.
And when we weren't writing and weren't talking we cooked and ate and cleaned up after cooking and eating and walked on the beach and went into town to watch a glass-blowing demonstration and sat in a small restaurant listening to and chatting with a singer who we realized, only later, is quite famous. We were simply friends, good friends, stepping out of our lives for a few days to be with one another, and because most of the time we live in such isolation from others like ourselves, we drank one another in like water in a desert.
Then we came back home . . . to return to our good lives, to return to our good work, having renewed the kind of connection that strengthens our very bones.
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Back to Ideas ... Where Do They Come From?
July 06, 2012Usually ideas for a novel grow slowly, gathering over a period of weeks or months from bits and pieces that cling to a central idea.
I have such a novel idea gathering now, even while I'm deeply immersed in writing another. And because I'm writing this blog I've been more intentional than usual lately in noting the way that gathering process works.
I have known from the moment I finished writing Little Dog, Lost that I wanted to return to the town of Erthly and to the characters I created there, and so I have been carrying the town and the characters in my head long after I would ordinarily have put them to rest.
The character that stayed with me most strongly was Fido, the leash-walking, dog-dominating cat. I had created him in part from the memory of a cat we had when I was growing up. She didn't make friends with dogs so long as they knew how to behave as Fido does. Nor did she walk on a leash. All that was made up. But Fido's fierceness came directly from her. One summer day when we were away from home, our cat chased the paperboy down the hill and tore a big piece out of his sock. When a neighbor heard the yelling and came to help, our cat chased him down the hill, too. And here is where she gets closer to Fido: my brother once saw her riding a dog's back right out of our yard. It was that last memory—passed on from my brother—that gave me my starting point for creating Fido.
So when I began thinking about writing a sequel, I knew that I wanted to revisit that wonderfully obnoxious cat. (It says something about human nature that obnoxious characters are a great deal more interesting than nice ones are, both to write and read about.) I also knew that returning to Fido would require showing him as we have already seen him to keep his character consistent but also developing his character further to discover aspects of Fido the first story didn't reveal. And so, thinking about that other dimension that might be found in Fido, I decided that it would be great fun to see him fall in love.
Fido in love? How wonderful! And so the new story gathers richness and complexity long before the first words ever find their way to a page.
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Fido in Love and Mark's Mother, Too
July 06, 2012I mentioned in my blog last week that in gathering ideas for another story set in Erthly, the home of Little Dog, Lost, I decided that the cat Fido would be an important character in the new story. And if he is to be an important character, then he needs both to go on being the dog-dominating cat we already know and, at the same time, to grow more richer, more complex. And what better way to make a character richer than to discover a soft underside?
A quick leap. Fido will fall in love!
With whom? With a dainty calico, of course. All calicos are female as almost all orange-marmalade cats are male, so making the new cat a dainty calico seemed a perfect choice.
Having made this decision, I was intrigued on my recent visit to Oregon to meet a friend's calico. Her name was Peggotty. There she is! I thought when I saw Peggotty and learned the source of her name. There is Fido's sweetheart, name and all! What could be a more perfect foil for a cat named Fido than a sweet little female with a literary name? (Peggotty was the nurse in David Copperfield, in case you didn't know. I didn't. I had to be told.)
So meeting Peggotty took me another step forward in planning my new story. The Peggotty I am creating will be more petite than the one I met, in order to provide contrast with Fido's physical prowess, but downsizing is easy to do on paper. No diet required.
The friend who owns Peggotty gave me another gift besides her cat, however. After reading Little Dog, Lost, she told me this story. When she was a single mother, she gave her young daughter a dog. Predictably, her daughter fell in love. She played with her dog, talked to her dog, slept with her dog. All was well in the little family until my friend fell in love, too, her love being a man who was fine in every respect except that unfortunately . . . he didn't like dogs. Her daughter took the matter into her own hands. She told her new step-father, "My dog has been here longer than you. He has seniority."
What a perfect idea for my story! I hadn't intended to make Mark the center of the new story, but nothing prevents me from changing my mind while the story is forming. By the end of Little Dog, Lost a boy named Mark finally gets the dog his mother has always refused to let him have. And what if Mark's mother were to fall in love with a man who is good in every respect except that . . . he doesn't like dogs. What would happen if this man Mark's mother wants to marry dislikes dogs even more than she always has? Would Mark and his dog and his whole world suddenly be in jeopardy?
I'm off and running, the story that's growing in my mind gathering emotional power as I go.
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What about the Other Characters?
June 05, 2012Most readers, I suspect, assume that a story’s perceiving character will come from the writer’s own psyche, at least to some degree. Not that authors must commit murder to write from the perspective of a murderer, but to do so we must be able to get in touch with the part of ourselves that might, given the right circumstances, be capable of such an act.
What about the side characters, though, the ones the writer doesn’t climb inside of? If characters are only observed, not inhabited on the page, it’s easier to assume that they are complete creations, having little to do with the writer’s reality.
It is interesting, though, after drawing a central character out of my own substance, how much of me there is left over to scatter among others in the story.
Buddy in Little Dog, Lost carries the same longing for connection I talked about last week in Angie, the central character in Blue-Eyed Wolf. So does the boy who has to give Buddy up. So does Mark, who needs a dog. So does Charles Larue, the old man living alone in a mansion at the center of the town of Erthly. Every one of them brings to life some longing of my own.
And there are other points of connection with side characters. In Blue-Eyed Wolf, Maia, Angie’s adult friend, is the wife of her Episcopal priest. Where does Maia come from? It just so happens that for twenty-eight years I was married to an Episcopal priest, and while Maia certainly isn’t me—she’s much more up front than I ever dared be, for one thing—creating her as a character allowed me to dip into a deep well of feelings about the role I lived for so long. It was one in which I had, of necessity, to remain mostly silent, so finding an opportunity to speak twenty-five years after leaving that life behind gives me great energy and thus gives the character energy, too.
Long after I had begun writing Blue-Eyed Wolf, I was unsure about where I was going with it. The story I carried in my mind, in fact, had no middle, no action for Angie to take. Still, I kept inching forward, trusting that I would find what I needed, and eventually I did. I decided that, while attending the anti-war rally at the Pentagon with Maia, Angie would meet a draft resister, and that she would become involved in helping him escape to Canada. Great solution!
The problem was that I had a character, but no substance. For a long time, the young man in question was a blank. And then one day I remembered Charlie, a fellow I once knew, who, when I knew him in the early 60's, was struggling to get his draft board to accept his status as a conscientious objector. Just thinking about Charlie dropped my character into my lap. Charlie was a philosophy major, an early hippie, a sweet and gentle man. And while I can’t pretend to write about someone I knew slightly fifty years ago, Charlie became, as Ruby’s ears did, the springboard for my character.
So will this character come entirely from outside me? No. He will believe what I believe about the military and about war. Meditation will be important to him, something that is important in my life. And when he comes back with Angie to Minnesota, he will share some of my own fascination of and caution in the wilderness. Once more scraps of the writer will enliven a character, even a side character, one I won’t inhabit.
If human nature weren’t so complex, so varied, fiction would be dull. It’s because we are all endless resources for discovery that characters can be made to seem to live.
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Computers I Have Known
June 05, 2012I've been thinking lately about computers I have worked with. I don't usually have much of a relationship with machines. The cars I drive are only practical necessities, something to move me farther and faster than my feet can manage on their own. I have strong opinions about stoves, hate the electric ones, love the instant-on/instant-off of a gas flame. And I find a stick blender indispensable, the kind I can plop into a pot of soup to turn it instantly smooth and creamy. (Can you tell I'm fond of cooking?)
But computers . . . ah, computers. Nothing in my life can bring me to tears faster and nothing—no other machine anyway—gives so much satisfaction.
I used to have a computer on which my writing appeared as green phosphorescent letters on a black background. The screen was rather snazzy, I thought, but there was one problem. When I went to bed at night and turned out the light, my first thoughts appeared in front of my eyes as green phosphorescent letters on a black background.
I didn't tell anybody about this phenomenon. It felt a bit too weird to bring up in ordinary conversation. But then one day I was with a group of writers and one fellow said, "You know, I've got this strange thing going on. When I go to bed at night my first thoughts pop up in front of me as green phosphorescent letters on a black background."
Halleluia! I thought. I'm not nuts!
But then came a night when my nighttime thoughts scrolling so greenly in front of my eyes caught my attention in a different way. About half a dozen words in, I spotted a typo, and I found myself, instantly and instinctively, reaching under the covers for the delete key.
"This," I said to myself when I realized what I was doing, "is ridiculous!"
And the green phosphorescent thoughts never returned again. My mind took control of my brain.
I wonder, though, how does this lighted black and white page on a blue background that I now look at all day long impact my brain? I know that the greater speed a computer allows sets me up for all kinds of repetitive stress injuries. To keep them under control I have an ergonomic chair that supports my arms over an ergonomic keyboard set on an adjustable tray, a trackball designed for my left hand (because my right wrist is the more vulnerable one), and I use regular exercise and yoga and an excellent massage therapist to keep my body pretending it's meant to sit poking at these keys all day long. But what is happening inside my skull?
I heard a scientist say once that our children's thumbs are already evolving in response to their hand-held texting and gaming. Are our brains evolving, too? Or are they being turned to mush? I've never been convinced that green phosphorescent thoughts are a good thing.
I have always known, however, that if all the keyboards were to disappear off the face of the earth, my career would be over. I didn't begin writing except in my head until I learned to type, and beyond grocery lists I still write almost nothing by hand. I once had a teenage foster daughter who said to me, "Mom, it's a good thing I'm a good kid or they'd never accept these typed absence excuses at school."
But I've grown to be dependent on more than the keyboard. I can no longer even imagine writing without the being able to insert and erase and flow back and forth through the pages hundreds and hundreds of times without leaving a trace of my process behind.
What I haven't grown dependent upon, and never will, are the occasional moments when a computer defeats me. About an hour ago, my Word program hiccuped and a piece of writing I finished working on yesterday vanished completely.
What was that I just said about computers bringing me to tears?
It must be time to take the dog for a walk!
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Dipping Even Farther into Nostalgia–the Typewriter!
June 05, 2012I was born wanting to write. Or at least I was born with my head full of stories. (My elementary school teachers used to write on my report card in the category then called deportment, "Marion dreams." It was not a compliment.) I didn't begin actually putting words on the page, though, until I was released from the drudgery of pencil on paper by learning to type.
What magic! It was like someone who struggles to walk acquiring wings!
The first typewriter I ever owned was a 1956 manual portable Smith Corona, my high school graduation gift. It was a sandy beige with white keys. I found it utterly beautiful! And nearly twenty years after receiving the gift, I wrote my first two or three novels on it.
I graduated eventually from my manual typewriter, which seemed capable of lasting a lifetime, to a new electric one. At first it drove me mad by sitting there humming, "Write! Write! Why aren't you writing?"
That first electric typewriter I owned broke down so often that the typewriter repairman was a familiar fixture in our house. (He used to refer to me as a "heavy user.") Once, when he arrived and sat down in front of the crippled typewriter, our eighty-pound German shepherd ran into my study, climbed into his lap and licked his face. Apparently she thought he was a member of the family who had been too long away from home.
Eventually, I moved from an electric to an electronic typewriter as did the rest of the world. That typewriter came provided with a ribbon divided between black and white. When I saw a typo as I worked, I could flip a switch and type backward. The words I had just applied to the page would be whited out as I typed over them in reverse. I got so I could type backward as rapidly as I could type forward. It's amazing the skills the human brain—and fingers—can master.
And then came a word processor. Not a computer. The only thing it would do was gather and store words and send them to a printer. When I was shown this expensive machine, the saleswoman also showed me an even more expensive version. It came with a spell check! I was utterly in awe, but couldn't afford the leap.
The first time I bought an actual computer I was convinced I was back to my 1956 manual portable Smith Corona. After spending that much money, surely the thing would last the rest of my career!
Anyone capable of reading this knows what a misguided hope that was.
I can't even count the number of computers I have owned since or the number of times my son-in-law has rescued me when either the computer or I hiccupped.
Oh . . . but talk about struggling to walk! It's my computer that has truly given me wings. More than anything else, it has given me wings for revision. The ease with which I can now polish and smooth, add and delete—one hundred times, one thousand!—couldn't have been believed in the old type-your-manuscript-triple-spaced-to-leave-plenty-of-room-for-making-changes days.
And nothing is more important to the final result than ease in revision. After all, that's where most good writing happens, in the revising not in the first draft.
How did Dickens and Melville ever do it?
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June 05, 2012I love revising. Revising is so much more fun than facing the terror of the blank page/computer screen.
And that's the most important piece of advice I have for writers coming along after me. Learn to see revision as the best part of writing. Learn even to love revising.
The key is never to think of revising as fixing something that went wrong the first time around. Think of it as going back to something you love to play with it, to make it even better.
It is nearly impossible for a manuscript, long or short, to discover all that it can be the first time the words hit the page. Usually I lay down one layer and then go back to lay down another and another and another . . . like a painter working in oils. When people ask me how many drafts a manuscript goes through, in these days of revising on my computer, I can't begin to say. When I send a manuscript off into the world, every word has been considered and reconsidered dozens of times, hundreds. I will have a whole file called "extra," which consists of paragraphs, scenes, chapters that I have removed but kept on hand "just in case." (I've never gone back to those files, but keeping them allows me to be ruthless and kind to my beloved words at the same time.) I will have found a reader or two—usually fellow writers—to give me critiques, and I'll have responded to what they tell me. And all that is before I approach an editor and, inevitably, begin further revisions.
Some writers throw everything at the page in the first round, a hundred words where they are going to want ten. Then they go back to find the bones beneath all that flesh. My process is usually the opposite. Every draft is carefully controlled, spare. I do some carving away, of course, but I do even more coming back and finding places that need more, finding greater complexity in my characters, introducing a new scene that will better prepare us for an important moment later on, giving more thorough description of a setting.
I once had a student who spent months, even years between books. In that fallow time, though, she was always working on the next book, writing and revising every word . . . in her head. She did it all mentally and held it in her mind until she was ready, then sat down and, in the space of a few days, let it spill onto the page. And she never changed a word before sending a new manuscript to an editor. Most of us don't work that way, though. Most of us have to see our work in front of us before we know what the next step might be, before we can even begin to ask the right questions.
The secret, though, whatever your process, is to love returning to your words, challenging and reframing, polishing and clarifying, making this thing you love shine. Revision is never defeat. "Why couldn't I get it right?" It's the best kind of victory. "This is the way I wanted it to be in the beginning!"
And being able to enjoy that long, demanding process, more than anything else, is the secret of being a published writer.
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Bringing Characters to Life
May 11, 2012I've been talking about fictional character as illusion, created out of my own psyche or borrowed from the world around me.
I find it a fascinating concept to sort, even after nearly forty years of writing fiction. The question of how characters are brought to seeming life is never fully answered, partly because the process changes from writer to writer and story to story and partly because it remains somewhat mysterious, even for the one writing the fiction.
Let me extend the discussion into the young-adult novel I'm working on right now, Blue-Eyed Wolf. A fourteen-year-old girl, Angie, stands at the center of this story set in 1967 in a small town on the edge of the Boundary Waters Wilderness Area in northern Minnesota.
The story is built around two issues, an older brother who enlists and goes off to fight in Vietnam and the destruction of the wolves in Minnesota. Both issues impact Angie deeply. And both come out of my own convictions, convictions about the senselessness and immorality of war, all war, and about the myriad ways we destroy our natural world.
Angie, however, is not a stand-in for themes that could be more efficiently discussed in an essay. She is created out of emotional substance, my emotional substance.
Angie struggles with feeling abandoned, something which shows up at the center of every one of my stories, so obviously it has some deep—if somewhat hidden—meaning in my own life.
But abandonment—and longing for connection—aren't the whole of Angie. She seeks religious/spiritual answers to the questions life poses for her, and that is something I sought passionately as a girl and continue to seek.
Angie also hates being fourteen and not yet having meaningful opinions on important topics—such as the war—that the adults around her argue about. I grew up in a home where conversation and argument—rational argument, but nonetheless argument—were indistinguishable from one another. A vigorous defending of ideas was essential to survival. And there I was, too young even to know what to argue about! And so I slip right inside Angie's frustration.
Thus both my present searching and my long-ago dilemmas shape themselves into my character and, if I'm working well, bring her to life.
Did I start out writing Blue-Eyed Wolf by saying to myself, "I'm going to write about abandonment again?" Of course not. Such a mechanical decision would result in a mechanical story. Rather I started out by feeling Angie's dilemma. And because I could feel it, I knew it was mine to write.
That's the way stories work.
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Borrowing characters from real life
May 07, 2012When my daughter was ten or eleven, she used to say from time to time, “Mom, write a book about me. You could call it Heavens to Elisabeth.”
“Beth-Alison,” I’d say, “I can’t write a book about you. I don’t know you well enough.”
“Oh, Mom,” she’d say, in utter disgust, and that was the end of the discussion.
But the truth is I didn’t know her well enough to use her as the perceiving character in one of my stories—and still don’t—though I know her about as well as most mothers know their daughters. Inevitably, though, I know her only from the outside. If I’m going to create a character on the page, one through whose eyes I view the world, I have to approach from the inside.
There is only one person I’ve ever known from the inside, and that, of course, is myself. And so every character I have ever climbed inside of to tell a story is, on some level, me.
The reality, however, because we are all so complex, is that only scraps and pieces of my psyche—of the longing I talked about last week—ever reach the page. Nonetheless, every main character starts with me. The most basic question every writer asks when approaching a story is “What does my character want?” and it is in the depths of my own longing that I find the answer to that question.
This is true even when the character I am passing through to reach my story is an animal . . . such as the dog, Buddy, in Little Dog, Lost.
With Buddy I did what I rarely do when I’m creating human characters. I began with a real dog. I don’t mind borrowing from a dog for a very simple reason. Dogs can’t read.
I don’t have to worry about Buddy—or Ruby as she was called in real life—feeling invaded. Nor could she tell me that I didn’t get her right on the page.
And the truth is, actually, that I began not so much with Ruby—she has an interesting story, but I didn’t use any of it—but rather with her ears. Ruby had “airplane ears.” So does Buddy in Little Dog, Lost. And Ruby’s ears create a pretty good metaphor for the way I draw all my characters. One small bit stands in for a much more complex whole.
That’s Ruby in the photo at the beginning of this piece, the dog whose ears I borrowed for Little Dog, Lost.
And here’s the artist’s, Jennifer Bell’s, rendition of Buddy, who ultimately earns the name Ruby in the story.
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The Illusion of “Real” Characters
May 07, 2012
Ruby had the most incredible ears I've ever seen. They jutted out on each side of her narrow face like airplane wings. They seldom drooped, and they never rose higher. They just hung out there horizontally as though she were about to take flight.
And that's where Buddy, whose name ultimately becomes Ruby in Little Dog, Lost, began.
The real Ruby was a service dog for my friend Martha. (I'm using past tense, because Ruby died about the time I completed the manuscript.) Martha suffered from clinical depression and for seven years had spent some part of every year hospitalized or in hospital-based treatment. She found the little black and brown dog at the Humane Society, adopted her and went through the rigorous training necessary for Ruby to do the work of a service dog as her constant companion.
Ruby responded well to her new responsibilities. Wherever Martha went—to church, to the gym, to restaurants—Ruby stayed close by her side, silent and attentive. At home Ruby's service jacket came off, and she relaxed—usually on Martha's bed—but even then about every ten minutes she would get down off the bed and come to find Martha, wherever she might be. "I'm all right," Martha would tell her, and Ruby would go back to her place on the bed.
Ruby's presence worked in Martha's life. Martha has not had a hospitalization since she came home with the little dog with "ears like airplane wings that drop just at the tips."
A fascinating story . . . and one that has almost nothing to do with "the little black dog with brown paws and a brown mask and a sweet ruffle of brown fur on her bum just beneath her black whip of a tail" in Little Dog, Lost.
Why have I told it then?
Because it exemplifies the way character reaches the page. Whether I'm starting from my own psyche or from a friend's dog, I take only a kernel of what's real, plant it, and let it grow into something entirely new. In this case, I borrowed a dog's ears and a few other physical attributes, stirred in my own propensity for kissing my cavalier "on the lips" and then saying "Argh-h-h-h!" when she chooses that instant to lick, and added a pinch of my own longing. . . all of which you'll find in Buddy in Little Dog, Lost.
The results? A nicely developed character. Or at least the illusion of a nicely developed character.
Because the truth is that characters on the page are illusions. They give the impression of being whole human beings—or whole dogs—when in reality they are merely wisps.
Strange how much we can love these creations anyway, authors and readers alike. Strange how ready we are to fill in the blanks and bring words on a page to life inside our own minds.
Marion Dane Bauer celebrates the publication of Little Dog, Lost
May 07, 2012Win a set of 35 bookmarks (2" x 6" in size), one for each child in your classroom. “Like” Marion’s Facebook page, sign up to follow Marion's blog (in the column to the right)—lots of good information about writing you can use with your students—or sign up for e-mail announcements on Marion’s home page between May 1st and May 21st and we’ll send you a pack of bookmarks for your classroom or book club (we'll do this for up to 140 classrooms). Ten very lucky winners, chosen at random, will receive an autographed copy of Little Dog, Lost. (USA postal addresses only, please.) Sign up today!
A Research Trip
April 19, 2012I’ve just returned from a research trip for the young-adult novel I’m working on, Blue-Eyed Wolf. Well, actually, it was a mixture of a research trip and a retreat with a friend who needed some time away from home to concentrate on her writing. We went to Gunflint Lodge, a marvelous old Minnesota resort on the Gunflint Trail north of Lake Superior. The time we spent couldn’t have been more perfect.
Blue-Eyed Wolf is set on the edge of and in the Boundary Water Canoe Area, a wilderness of lakes and forests in northern Minnesota bordering on Canada. It’s a magical place and one I’ve visited many times (and Gunflint Lodge is one of my favorite visiting points). I went back to a different area in the early fall just before that resort closed for the winter, but the story I’m writing begins in May, 1967, and ends in May, 1968, so it encompasses winter.
Early March isn’t exactly deep winter, even in northern Minnesota, and it especially wasn’t deep winter this year. We were assured, though, that they still had a good snow base there, so we headed off with enthusiasm and a sincere hope not to drive into a March blizzard. The roads remained clear, the skies blue, and when we got there, the snow base was indeed deep, though melting fast. Gunflint Lake had two feet of ice, though, and ice houses and vehicles dotted the lake here and there.
We spent our mornings writing. I revised and polished my last 25 pages and in the three days we were there wrote another 25. (I usually consider five pages a good day’s output, so apparently I needed the time away, too. Probably in my case more time away from e-mail than anything else.)
Our afternoons were reserved for the outdoors.
One afternoon we went dog sledding . . . in the rain as it turned out, but we returned to our cabin wet and happy. I imagine the soaked Alaskan huskies enjoyed curling up inside their small houses at the end of our ride as much as we enjoyed lighting our fireplace and curling up in front of it. And now Blue-Eyed Wolf will have a dog sledding scene. Our musher answered a dozen questions, demonstrated his techniques for controlling the sled, and gave me the title of a good book to recheck details. By the day’s end I knew exactly how the dog-sledding scene would work in the novel.
The next afternoon we went snowshoeing. I’ve lived in Minnesota for many years and have snowshoed before, though more often in metropolitan nature reserves than in deep forest. What I hadn’t learned previously, though, was that if you step on one snowshoe with the other and don’t notice what you’ve done, when you try to lift the trapped foot you will topple forward like a tree. And I did just that. While I wasn’t hurt—rather amazing considering that it was a 73-year-old body doing the toppling—the moment did add spice to the concern we were beginning to feel that we might be just a bit lost.
Once more we made our way happily back to our cabin after deciding to use the setting sun as our guide instead of struggling with the trail map we kept misreading. And once more I had a new scene for the book. So guess what? My novice snowshoer is going to step on his snowshoe and topple like a tree! And he and my main character will get just a bit lost, too.
I am an unapologetic coward, but in pursuit of stories I have gone whitewater rafting—over a seven-foot falls, would you believe, hiked the high desert of the Oklahoma panhandle and peered into an abandoned wolf den. I have stood much too close—in my mind, anyway—while a naturalist dug through the snow to reveal a hibernating bear curled beneath the roots of a fallen tree. (On that trip I held a tiny cub, her fur fragrant from the balsam needles her mother had nested in. I never washed the gloves I wore that day. Instead, I carried them around in my pockets and held them up to friends from time to time saying, “Smell that. That’s what a baby bear smells like.”)
What a privilege to keep enlarging my life, one carefully sought experience after another. What a privilege to keep writing stories!
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More About Researching for Fiction
April 19, 2012Not every story has to be lived to be written. That's what imagination is for. If writers are going to produce more than one or two novels, they are probably going to have to extend their experience through the most readily available source . . . reading. I need to do research in order to be able to write many of my novels. Some of that research, as I wrote last week, has been through travel and trying out new experiences. Far more comes from books.
I consider it an imperative that any facts that come up in my novels be well . . . factual. So if wolf pups are going to be born in a story set in northern Minnesota, I go to a book to find out how long a wolf's gestation period is, what time of year the pups will be born, what their birthing den is apt look like, how old they will be when they are first fed solid food, how older siblings will interact with them, when the family will move them to a new site and more.
Why? This is a story, after all. Can't I just bring wolf pups into the world any time it serves my plot to do so? The answer lies in something Coleridge famously referred to as "a suspension of disbelief." The writer has a contract with the reader. The writer says, "Everything I'm telling you is true." This is the contract even when elements of the story are obviously fantastic--ghosts, elves, unicorns. Whatever a story is built from must seem true, however, because if readers finds themselves saying, "I know better than that!" they are very apt to quit reading. One of the secrets of creating true-to-life stories, fantastic or realistic, is to make sure all the facts--every single one that could possibly be corroborated--are accurate. If I don't, if, for instance, I have my wolf pups born in July, any reader who knows better will instantly lose faith in every other aspect of my story.
So when I'm preparing to write a story, sometimes I do a lot of reading. Usually, if I need information, I simply read and read and read, rarely taking notes. My object is to know what it is I'm writing about as though I have lived it myself. Then, when I begin writing, I can dip into what I've learned from reading in exactly the same way I dip into my own experience.
Sometimes, though, I dare build parts of my story out of material that is so completely unfamiliar to me that, despite all my reading, even despite lots and lots of reading, I can never expect to absorb it entirely. That is the case with Blue-Eyed Wolf. One dimension of that novel is an older brother who enlists to fight in Vietnam. I needed to build a key part of the story from letters written home from Vietnam. During the years that war was tearing this country apart, my life was totally consumed by babies. I barely followed the news. As to what it was like to be a soldier in Vietnam, I knew nothing. Less than nothing.
And so I read and read and read. I marked up books. I took notes. I watched films. I listened to interviews. I learned that a shell coming in at night sounds like a freight train falling from the sky, that when a high velocity bullet hits a man's chest it makes an entry hole the size of a dime and an exit hole the size of a fist, that the effect of stepping on a mine called a Bouncing Betty is called "the old step and a half." And more . . . much, much more. I learned and marked up and took notes on infinitely more than I will ever use. More, I'll admit, than I wanted to know. But my story must know it, and so I read on.
If I work well, out of the stacks of books on my study floor now highlighted and studded with sticky notes, out of the information I written onto color-coded note cards, I will glean a few solid and distinctive facts, ones that can bring those letters to life, ones that will bring that desperate and distant war to life for my young readers.
Someone said once that stories aren't an imitation of life; they are really an imitation of other stories. That's true even of the facts our stories are built from. We keeping borrowing, passing on what we have learned, creating new reality from old.
It's called research.
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Did That Really Happen?
April 19, 2012
The question readers often ask, adults or kids, is the same. Did that really happen? And to you? And sometimes, of course, it has . . . in some way, at some time. Most of my stories, though, come not from the substance of my life but from fragments and bits: a place I once lived, a promise once broken, a cat that once rode a dog's back all the way out of our yard.
I have been writing lately about researching to extend my experience, going dog-sledding in order to write a dog-sledding scene, reading books written by soldiers in Vietnam so I can include letters home from that war.
Some novels, though, are born, not from my immediate experience or from research of any kind, but simply from the world I know. Little Dog, Lost is such a story.
The place that forms the center of Little Dog, Lost, a town named Erthly, is very familiar to me. Erthly is based on the small town in north-central Illinois where I grew up. Erthly isn't that same town in any factual way. I have added what did not exist and taken away some of what did. A mansion stands at the center of Erthly. There was no such mansion in my home town. I've left out the taverns that wafted their fried-food and beer smells onto the sidewalk as I walked home from school. (Most stories for young children don't seem to need taverns.) I've left out the dusty cement mill that was so much a part of my life. My father worked at the mill and we lived in the mill housing, tucked neatly at the base of the mill. The mill with its smokestack and its throaty whistles and huffing, clanging trains has appeared in other of my novels, but it wasn't needed in this one.
The names of the streets I grew up with do have a way of finding themselves in Erthly, however. And more important, the town comes onto the page with some of the same feel as the town I remember: folks who mostly know one another and have opinions about what they know; freedom, even for the very young, and a safe, encompassing world.
A picture book, Dinosaur Thunder, is coming out this spring, too, and that is drawn from my life in a very different way. It began with a summer week spent with my daughter's and son's families in two adjoining cabins in Wisconsin. One evening, I was upstairs in the loft of one of the cabins with my son's three little boys reading bedtime stories when a thunder storm came banging through. Brannon, who was three, grew frightened, but he accepted no comfort from me, an occasional grandma who lived too far away to count. He wanted neither cuddling nor soothing explanations. Instead, he went to the corner of the loft and stood there, very close, facing into the adjoining walls until the storm had roared on by.
What a strange thing to do! I thought, and I carried the incident home with me when the week was over. Eventually, What a strange thing to do! turned into a story about a little boy, who happened to be named Brannon, who was afraid of thunder. (It was the first--and the last--time I ever used one of my grandchildren's names in a story.)
In Dinosaur Thunder, the family attempt all kinds of comfort, but Brannon accepts none of it. His response with each new explanation about why he doesn't need to be afraid is to find a new place to hide until . . . But I'll let that stand until you read the story yourself.
(The interesting add on to this story is that I placed Dinosaur Thunder with an editor about twelve years ago and, for an assortment of reasons, it has been delayed coming out until now, which means it's arriving in time to humiliate ever atom of fifteen-year-old Brannon's soul. He's a bright, thoughtful young man, though. I assume he will forgive me.)
Did that really happen? Yes, three-year-old Brannon, upstairs in a strange cabin, was once afraid of thunder. Did various members of the family try to reassure him as the family does in my story? Nope. All that came from my imagination. And that's the way stories are born, from fragments and bits of a writer's life, from books we've read, from experiences we've sought in order to write about them. Mostly, though, they rise out of a place I haven't yet talked about, out of our deepest longing.
Longing is the place where writers and readers meet, and I'll talk more about that next week.
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Longing, the Core of Every Story
April 19, 2012Last week I mentioned that every story springs from the writer's own longing. Even the most careful readers would find it impossible to assemble the facts of my life from my stories, but they would have little difficulty peering into my soul. The longing each story is built upon provides an exceedingly transparent window.
Some elements of my stories come from small, if once deeply felt, moments of longing. For instance, Erthly, the town where Little Dog, Lost plays out, is based loosely on the one in Illinois where I grew up. However, our town had no mansion such as the one that stands at the center of Erthly. Where did I get such an idea? From a stately home I often passed in a nearby town. On a deeper level, though, the mansion in the story comes from my own youthful longing.
The most important feature of that mansion—I assume today I would see it only as a rather large house—was a round tower at one corner with a witch's hat roof. Oh, how I wanted to live in the round room I knew must exist at the top of that tower! I wasn't much interested in the rest of the house, but I longed for that tower room. More than a half century later, my heart remembered that longing and the mansion with the round tower found its way into Little Dog, Lost.
Another longing of mine found a place in that story. In the town where I grew up most of the kids I knew had grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins living close by. In fact, one boy had an uncle a year younger than he right there in our school. That fascinated me. To be older than your own uncle! To have him a grade behind you in school! All my uncles were old . . . forty at least. And all my relatives lived far, far away. My mother's mother lived in Minnesota, a trip that took us all day to make during my father's vacation time from the mill. My father's parents were in California, and during all the years I was growing up we visited them only twice. Aunts and uncles and cousins were flung all over the country. None lived, in Mark's terms in Little Dog, Lost, "close enough to count." And so that desire to have extended family close by is part of the yearning out of which the story is built.
And at the very center of the story lies another source of longing, a deep one. All the years I was growing up I wanted a dog. I spent my entire childhood, in fact, wishing for, begging for, longing for a dog. My parents always explained very carefully, very reasonably, why we couldn't have one: They both worked. The dog would be left alone too much. Even though we lived on the edge of our small town, there were still leash laws, and it wouldn't have been fair to keep a dog on a chain. And on and on. I learned only after I was well grown that the real reason a dog had been forbidden was that my father didn't like them. The truth was that he was afraid dogs. And so in Little Dog, Lost, despite Mark's needing a dog, his otherwise very reasonable mother has refused for years to let him have one. Guess why.
I have spent my adult life satisfying that particular longing. There has hardly been a time, in fact, when I haven't had a dog of my own, sometimes two. The one I have now, a ruby cavalier King Charles spaniel named Dawn, sleeps at my feet as I write this. But though the longing is satisfied now, the little girl who dreamed of having a dog never quite goes away.
I play her out through Mark in Little Dog, Lost.
It's the way writing stories—deeply felt stories—works. And longing is what makes stories come alive . . . for the writer as well as for the reader.
March 22, 2012How many times have I said it to my students and to other developing writers? When you're publishing a book, celebrate every step of the way, because if you don't celebrate the small moments, you rarely arrive at one that feels big enough to justify loud rejoicing.
(Okay. If you win a Newbery or a National Book Award you get a party. Short of that, one moment in the life of your much-loved book tends to blend right into the next.)
The process of writing a book and getting it published is a long and arduous one, but it has many defining moments along the way.
So . . . when you finish the umpteenth revision of your manuscript and are ready, however warily, to show it to the world, celebrate!
When an agent agrees to represent you, celebrate!
When a publisher offers to take your manuscript, celebrate!
When, months later, the contract is actually in your hands, celebrate!
When, more months later, the check for the first part of the advance arrives in the mail, celebrate! Use a bit of that money on a fancy dinner or a romantic weekend with your spouse or . . . well, you know what's special for you.
When you send your editor the very last draft in response to the very last jots and tittles to be revised, celebrate!
When you receive a copy of the ARC—Advanced Reader Copy—of your book or get the F&G's—folded and gathered sheets—of a picture book with all its glorious art in place, celebrate!
When you read your first review--we'll hope it's a glowing one—celebrate!
When you finally hold the finished book in your hands, celebrate . . . celebrate . . . celebrate!
If you don't do it, who will?
As always, though, advice is easy to give. And advice givers don't always live by their own wisdom.
During a recent Sunday after church, a friend and I were discussing the health crisis I've just been through—now behind me—and wanting to turn to a more cheerful topic, I announced that I have two books coming out May 1st, Little Dog, Lost, my first novel in verse, and Dinosaur Thunder, a long-awaited pictured book.
"How wonderful!" she said. "Let me give you a book party."
I was startled. I haven't had a book party since . . . well, since 1976, the year Shelter from the Wind, my very first novel, came out.
"Oh," I stammered, "when you have more than eighty books out there a book party begins to seem a bit--"
She interrupted. "No," she said. "Let me give you a book party."
"Let me think about it," I said. And I went home and did just that.
When I told my partner about my friend's generous offer, she said, "What a good idea!" Then she added, playing with words in a way that would delight any writer, "We need to do it quick while you're still quick."
So while I'm still alive and can enjoy it--a state of affairs I expect to last for a good long time, by the way, but nonetheless, why wait?--we're going to have a party for two books I've been looking forward to, two books I'm proud of, two books worth celebrating: Dinosaur Thunder and Little Dog, Lost.
It's taken me far too long to take my own good advice.
But it is good advice, and I intend to enjoy every minute of that good party!
An adult presence in a child’s story
March 15, 2012When I began writing fiction for young people in the mid-seventies, I had absorbed one of the most basic rules for such books through reading contemporary novels for young people: keep the adults at bay. No comforting–or scolding–adult voices narrating the story as was standard in the 19th century. In fact, few adults allowed on the scene, certainly none solving the kids’ problems for them. My protagonists were out there on their own, making their own discoveries, solving their own problems. In fact, in some of my stories, the adults at hand were the problem.
And so in everything I wrote for many years I moved in close to my main character and stayed there, inhabiting my character deeply and making his or her world the only view my readers had. But then that changed. I didn’t ask it to change. It just did. Something was happening within me that began impacting what landed on the page. I still wanted to inhabit a world of young people. All that can befall children and young adults feels important to me in a way that the happenings of adult lives do not. But I found myself wanting to enter the child’s world as an adult voice: commenting, assuring, revealing. Doing exactly what late 20th century writers were not supposed to do.
Might the “rules” be different for the 21st Century? I didn’t know. And truth be told, I didn’t much care. I work hard at being in control of my craft, but I am much less in control of something called “voice.” And the voice that was beginning to rise up through me was a distinctly adult one. An adult voice in a child’s world.
And so I wrote A Very Little Princess: Zoey’s Story. And without my asking, an adult simply stepped in and told her story. I didn’t know where she came from, but it seemed to me that she was needed in Zoey’s painful world, for wisdom, for comfort. When my editor asked me for a prequel, naturally the narrator returned to tell A Very Little Princess: Rose’s Story.
I asked few questions. I simply wrote the stories as they came to me. And it was well after both books were completed that I made a discovery. I took a Wendell Berry novel off my shelf to reread and instantly fell into a world of familiar comfort. A deep wisdom undergirded the story. A subtle but all-pervasive narrator gave this created world meaning.
And then I remembered. A Wendell Berry novel had held me in its embrace during the days I sat in my adult son’s hospital room while doctors struggled toward a diagnosis for his debilitating and ultimately fatal illness. Afterwards, when I wrote the two Princess books, I was no longer remembering that novel, and I didn’t think of it once when the much more explicit narrator’s voice for the two Princess tales presented itself to me. But when I held Berry’s novel in my hands again, I knew that the comfort that voice had brought me had also brought my own narrator.
If you are born a piece of granite, the slow and inevitable erosion of the world presumably brings no pain. If you are born of flesh and bone and blood, pain is inevitable. After living through my son’s decline and death, I found myself needing to bring comfort in my stories . . . at the same time I had no choice but to choose stories that acknowledged the pain.
When I moved on to Little Dog, Lost, the narrator moved with me. It’s a much less painful story. It is, in fact, a story of a small, safe town, of good people trying to do the right thing, of happy—if not perfect—endings for everyone.
And I love that narrator and all the reassurance and richness her voice can bring. In fact, whether the rules for writing for children are changing or not, I love being an adult presence in my own story.
Thank you, Wendell Berry.
Where Do Ideas Come From?
March 15, 2012I got the idea for this blog when I was meditating this morning. Yes, I know, I'm not supposed to get ideas meditating. In fact, that's supposed to be a time for leaving ideas behind. But when my mind loses its quiet focus on my breath and skitters off to someplace else, ideas about what to write or how to fix something I'm currently writing are one of the more productive results it can return with. "Thinking," I remind myself happily as I tuck the idea away, and then I return to my breath.
It's the most frequent question fiction writers are asked, wherever we go, whatever age readers we're talking to: Where do your ideas come from?
And it is probably the hardest question to answer.
I always want to say: They come from everywhere . . . and anywhere. And that, of course, is true. It also gives absolutely no satisfaction to the questioner. So here's an attempt to define "everywhere and anywhere."
On My Honor started from something that actually happened, not to me but to a friend of mine, when we were both about thirteen years old.
A Bear Named Trouble began from an AP news story, only about two paragraphs long, about an adolescent brown bear that had broken repeatedly into the Anchorage Zoo. How wonderful! I thought. A wild bear who wants to live in a zoo! What a perfect story!
Runt came out of my remembering my passionate love for Felix Salten's novels when I was a child, the most famous of which is Bambi. I wanted to write a story that I, and I hoped others, could love as I had loved those.
A Very Little Princess and its prequel, A Very Little Princess: Rose's Story, came from fantasies I carried around as a child. I used to pretend I was a three-inch-high doll living in a family of normal sized people.
Little Dog, Lost began in a very different place. It started with my wanting to write a story that would work for young readers without giving up the natural flow of my own style. Thus I turned to verse to give lots of white space on the page. Through verse I can deliver sentences in bite-sized chunks without shortening them, chunks that are easier for developing readers to manage. And the topic? From a combination of my own much-loved little dog, a cavalier King Charles spaniel named Dawn, and a friend's service dog, Ruby, a terrier mix with the most astonishing airplane-wing ears I've ever seen. And since stories are always based on a problem—no problem, no story—I simply asked myself what problem would work best with a dog as a main character? To get her lost, of course.
But the topic is only the beginning of any story. What brings a story alive is the writer's heart. So always, whatever else I'm writing, I'm really writing both about myself and for myself, about my own longing, my own experience of being "lost," my own joy at being found.
What a perfect way to make a living, feeding my own heart again and again and again. And if I do the job well enough, my hope always is that I'll manage to feed your heart, too, wherever my story idea might come from.
March 08, 2012I have received letters from adults indignant about my novel, A Very Little Princess (the first of two stories about a tiny china doll), because, again, it is so sad . . . and for, presumably, a younger audience than On My Honor.
But I wonder, though we all cherish happy endings, especially it seems adults cherish happy endings in stories intended for children, are happy endings the only or even always the best kind? While pleasure on the page or in our days is greatly to be desired, I suspect it's the pain in our lives—and our stories — that makes us strong.
This morning I found myself thinking about a beloved foster child who was once part of our family. Michelle was two when she arrived. She had been deeply neglected in her first family and then passed from one family to another in the foster care system. She arrived with no comprehensible speech beyond "Mama," and any woman who picked her up was "Mama"; fearful of everything, baths, the outdoors, the least separation, and she left six months later, a happy, chattering, beginning-to-be-independent child, to become part of the "forever family" I'd been telling her stories about for the last month. A happy ending for all.
And yet, as my seven-year-old son and five-year-old daughter and I stood in the driveway watching that "forever family" drive away with "our" Michelle, Peter, whose persistent teasing Michelle would remember for a long time, leaned against me and said, "This is the saddest day of my life."
Did I damage my children with this experience of loss? I don't think so. I think we were all made larger, more human by the gifts Michelle brought to us, and one of those gifts was the pain of losing her. She went off to a life we could no longer share, and yet she remained part of us. And my children grew into adults with a strong impulse to reach out to care for those around them.
I think it is so with stories. Little Dog, Lost is a happy story. It ends with nearly every problem sweetly resolved. Yet it journeys through abandonment, yearning that seems as though it will never be filled, and profound loneliness to reach its happy ending.
On My Honor and The Very Little Princess both end with a moment such as my children and I shared in the driveway that spring day . . . deep sadness and a distant glimmer of hope. But that is life, too. It is the experience of all of our lives. It is the kind of experience through which we grow.
If our stories haven't the courage to touch our sadness as well as our joy, what possible use can they be?
What Do You Need Editors For?
March 01, 2012I've been asked the question many times, almost always by non-writers. Or if the question comes from a writer it is, for certain, from one who hasn't yet been published. "What do you need editors for? What right does anyone have to tell you how you should write your story?"
The best analogy I can think of as to why writers need editors is that it's the same as singers relying on vocal coaches throughout their careers, however stellar those careers may be. Why? Because they need someone to hear them who isn’t standing inside their own heads, someone who can give them feedback they are too close to the sounds they make to give themselves.
Let me give an example of what I get from a good editor: Little Dog, Lost went through many, many drafts before it ever left my desk. Once the manuscript was acquired and I began working with my first editor at Atheneum, Kiley Frank, it went through at least three further drafts. Here is one of the questions I remember Kiley's asking. (The best editors ask questions, lots of questions, rather than stepping in to try to shape the work themselves.) "Why does Mark want a dog?"
Now, right here I have a confession. My first response—a completely silent one, I promise—was "What a dumb question! Doesn't every kid want a dog?" (I'm good at keeping my first responses silent. It's one of the talents that has helped me to have a long career.) But then I realized . . . I had a generic boy wanting a generic dog, and who cares about generic? So I went deeper and this is what I came up with:
Maybe it was his mother's "No!"—
the flatness of it,
that made Mark want a dog
Maybe it was that,
before Mark was even born,
his father went out
to buy a loaf of pumpernickel bread
and kept on going.
That's the way Mark's mother put it.
"He went out to buy a loaf of pumpernickel bread."
Mark knew it was a joke—
he had never liked pumpernickel.
It wasn't that he missed his father.
How can you miss somebody you've never met?
his nice little house
and his big green backyard
and his life
seemed kind of lonely
So Mark had decided
that a boy without a dad
or a brother
or a sister
or even a cousin
living close enough to count
Presto, my boy was no longer generic. His desire for a dog was no longer generic either. And if I'm guessing rightly, when my readers hit that patch, they will suddenly want, too, for Mark to have a dog. It's so obvious now, but without Kiley's question, I never would have seen what was needed, because I didn't see it through multiple drafts when I was the only reader.
A good editor's eye helps the writer--every writer--to create the story she set out to write when she put down that first, solitary word.
Thank you, Kiley. Thank you to every editor who has helped my stories grow into what they started out wanting to be.
The End of the Children’s Book
February 24, 2012That was the headline on a news story on NPRs “All Things Considered” last week. Oh, no, I thought. Everything, especially it seems about children’s books, is always coming to a cataclysmic end. I am, frankly, weary of the hysteria. I suppose, too, at the age of 73 and in the latter part of a long career, I feel somewhat insulated against these changes. My books—some of them, anyway—will probably continue to be out there as long as I’m aware. But does disaster loom for those who follow me?
Once the cry was that with the advent of television no child would ever read again. But now it is that with the advent of e-books, those kids out there who are still, curiously enough, reading will lose their connection to the printed page. “The end of children’s books.” Disaster! The final line in the broadcast, in response to the interviewer’s bemoaning the loss of the tactile sense of the paper book, was “You’ll get over it.” And I thought, Yes! That is, indeed, the answer. We’ll all get over it, and we’ll move on to the next medium that brings us stories and pictures and information. And there will be, as there is in every transition, both loss and gain.
I once knew writers who had difficulty moving from writing by hand to composing at a keyboard, let alone a computer. The feel of pencil and hand against paper, they said, was essential to their creative process. And yet who now doesn’t work on a computer and communicate with editors through the Internet? How often do we hear people bemoaning the “death of the letter,” and yet most of us now communicate by e-mail or Facebook or texting every single day. Isn’t that writing? Aren’t we all doing more of it than we ever did before? What has “died” here? The quill pen and parchment scrolls?
I am a writer. Just that. I communicate with the written word. I assume that the world, however much it changes, is going to go on needing carefully crafted ideas, information, stories . . . perhaps even mine. And I’m very interested to know what the next bucket that will carry my words will look like.
Transitions are hard. Comfort zones are usually narrow. But a bit of curiosity and openness can carry us a long way.
My business is words, putting them together into stories. Stories, I’m convinced, are here to stay.
Greatest strength / greatest weakness
February 17, 2012I am about a third of the way into writing a young-adult novel called Blue-Eyed Wolf, far enough in to feel a sense of accomplishment, far enough from the end to still have some apprehension about making it the whole way. But a problem has begun to develop. As I sit down to work each day I find myself feeling increasingly claustrophobic, as though I’m being caught into a place I don’t especially want to be.
I sent these early pages to a friend, a fellow writer whose judgment I trust. “Should I keep going?” I asked. “Or am I wasting my time?”
“Keep going,” she wrote back. “I was so sorry the story stopped . . . definitely worth the huge amount of work.” But then she went on to say something else. “I wonder,” she said, “if Angie’s internal life isn’t a bit too pervasive.” And I thought . . . “Bingo! That’s the problem. I’m trapped inside the psyche of a fourteen-year-old girl, and even if I like Angie–which I do–I’m suffocating.”
One of my greatest strengths as a writer of fiction has been the ability to inhabit my main character deeply, to see through her eyes, hear with his ears, think with his thoughts, feel with her feelings. Often my young readers write letters that say, “I always knew what (insert name of character) was thinking.” And those letters have pleased me, because that was precisely what I had set out to do, to give my readers the opportunity to climb inside another human being, to experience the world through someone else’s psyche. It is, I believe, what fiction does best.
But every strength, it seems, has a shadow side. Sometimes you can get too much of a good thing. Your very strength becomes your weakness. In this new novel, at least, I have been giving my readers–and myself–too deep a plunge, getting trapped in my character’s internals at the risk of losing the momentum of my story.
The last novel I wrote, Little Dog, Lost, was written in verse. It’s a medium I had avoided–both reading and writing–because I had found most verse novels unsatisfying. The technique rarely seemed to permit as deep a journey into character as I seek in fiction.
When I began to write Little Dog, Lost, though, I was pleased to find myself carried along by language and rhythm the way I am when I write a picture book. Next I fell in love with the complexity of a story woven from the lives of several different characters. And because it is the most natural thing for me to do when I write fiction, I still dipped into important characters’ psyches. But I dipped with the lightest touch. I wrote almost as though I were revealing these characters on a stage, and yet I still took peeks inside. And what fun I had with the world I could create out of these intertwined elements!
Now I’m faced with a very different novel requiring very different techniques. As I return to Blue-Eyed Wolf with my friend’s encouragement, I realize that I must apply some of what I learned in Little Dog, Lost to this more familiar medium, to plunge more lightly, to move forward more surely.
Inhabiting my main character. My greatest strength. My greatest weakness.
I guess that means I’m still learning.
And if I’m still learning, I guess that means I’m still alive.
I've been thinking about my career lately
January 31, 2012I've been thinking about my career lately. Looking back over the thirty-five years since my first novel was published. Looking forward to … what? And to how much longer?
No answers there, only a clear desire. That I will have enough passion, enough hope for the world that comes after me, and enough insight to go on writing for whatever years remain.
A long career at work that is loved is a deep privilege. But even such a loved career requires constant refreshment, which is why I keep exploring the far reaches of what I know how to write: novels, picture books, board books, novelty books, early readers, nonfiction, essays. Each new genre gives me fresh challenges and new pleasures.
My latest challenge—and pleasure—has been a verse novella called Little Dog, Lost. I use the term "verse novella" advisedly. The story is young, short, more a novella than a novel, and while it is written as free verse, with all the attention to rhythm and language such a form demands, I wouldn't dare call it poetry.
I turned to the form because, while I enjoy writing for younger children, I have grown weary of the limits of vocabulary and sentence length such an audience usually requires to be able to read on their own. I decided that the broken lines of free verse could me more freedom, giving developing readers manageable, bite-sized chunks to navigate, even if the sentence itself is sometimes long, even if the language is sometimes complex.
And even though I've been known to argue against the form, maintaining—rather archly?—that most poetry novels work neither as poetry nor as novels, I fell into writing Little Dog, Lost with utter delight. I found I could play with language the way I do in a picture book while concentrating on story as I have in the best of my novels. An intriguing pairing.
And so Little Dog, Lost, with delightful drawings by Jennifer A. Bell, will be coming into the world on May 1st from Atheneum, and even though it will be—if I'm counting accurately—my 83rd book to be published, I'm as excited about it as if it were my first.
Keep looking for Little Dog, Lost. I'm hoping she will find a home in your heart as she has in mine.
What I'm working on
January 31, 2012"Are you writing anything?" people often ask. It is, I assume, just a conversation starter when they can't think of a better way to begin.
My response is usually, "I'm always writing something. I like to eat." But then, while eating is part of the issue, of course—writing is, after all, the way I earn my living—it is hardly all of it. I write the way I breathe, because it keeps me alive.
I've just finished four small nonfiction books for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. They are for a second-grade-level series on the states, and so far I've done Florida, New York, Texas and California, seeing them through the eyes of a fun character named Mr. Geo.
I took a break from a young-adult novel, Blue-Eyed Wolf, to write those books and am now back to the novel. It is the story of a girl living in a small community at the edge of the wilderness in northern Minnesota in 1967 whose older brother enlists and goes off to fight in Vietnam. It is also about the destruction of the wolves in Minnesota during that time.
I didn't have to do a lot of research about wolves before I could begin writing, because I have written about—and researched—wolves before. So I just did some refresher reading on that. I did months of research about the Vietnam War, though, from the perspective of the soldiers who were there, because the older brother's letters home are part of the story. I had to gather most of that information from scratch, because I was immersed in babies during those years and wasn't paying a lot of attention to the world stage.
As usual, I have a couple of picture books I'm poking at, too. Some come together in a few hours, some take weeks and months or even years to finally find their shape. And some never make it. So far, the ones I'm working on are either rough, unfinished, or still tumbling around in my head.