On Being an Aging Children’s Writer

quietly aging

Credit: scottliddell |morguefile.com

I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, aging.  Not so much the deterioration of the body, though that calls itself to my attention many times a day and sometimes in the middle of the night.  Not so much the diminishment of the mind, either, though I fear that kind of diminishment the most.

What I think about more often than either of those inevitabilities is another matter entirely:  What does it mean to be an aging writer whose primary audience is children?  What does it mean to be so far from my own childhood, so far from the children I reared, even to see my grandchildren moving into the adult world?  How do I keep contact with the child within this aging psyche, the one I have always written out of?

When I began to publish forty years ago, I wasn’t the brightest star on the horizon, but my work got noticed.  I wrote on the cutting edge, topics few other writers for young people had dared touch at that time:  alcoholism, sexual molestation, religious abuse, mental illness, homosexuality. I wasn’t trying to get noticed.  I was writing what was in my heart.  Sometimes I was writing what I didn’t know was in my heart, which was why I had to write it.

I divested myself of some powerfully repressed depths in those novels.  Having grown up in a family and a culture in which feelings of any stripe were not to be acknowledged or expressed, I had found the perfect way to make good use of all that energy without ever breaking my family’s rules.  (It isn’t my life, my feelings, after all.  This is story, don’t you know?)

And it worked.  My stories gave me a reputation for honesty and forthrightness.  They also gave me a career.

For a time.

But everything changes.  That’s one of the pieces of wisdom we old folks come to by default.  We have, after all, seen so many changes.  These days my youthful struggles, even the carefully repressed ones, seem to have happened on another planet.  And when I reach into my psyche for story, I emerge with very different stuff.

Rubin Pfeffer is both my agent and my touchstone.  He does far more than sort through the gobbledy-gook of contracts, far more even than find places to present my work that I didn’t know existed.  He watches both the market and what I’m producing and gives gentle guidance to help me shape my work.

And the word I hear him using these days to describe what I present to him is “quiet.”  Sometimes he says, “too quiet,” nudging me gently in the direction of greater action, higher thresholds of risk, more modernity.

I hear him, understand his intent, accept his insight, want to accomplish what he’s asking of me, but find myself feeling . . . well, quiet.  The person I am at this stage of my life is quiet.  The powerfully repressed feelings that gave energy to my fiction have been, to a great extent, put to rest.

A good thing for my life.  Not necessarily such a good thing for my work.  The truth is, though, I wouldn’t put on a younger skin, return to a younger psyche if I could.  That skin, that psyche were too limiting, too painful.

So what do I do with that quiet when I sit down to write except bring it to the page?  Even if I try, I can no longer return to the fierce wanting of my younger years.  And one of the rules of writing—at least for me—is that if I try to be something I am not, what I produce, however carefully crafted, will miss the mark.

Does this mean I am approaching the end of a long and satisfying career?  Or will it be possible to reinvent myself?  I have done it before by turning from novels to board books, picture books, early readers.  But even those are beginning to be called “quiet.”

Is there life after quiet?

Stay tuned.

43 thoughts on “On Being an Aging Children’s Writer

  1. Srivi Kalyan

    Thanks for this post Marion. Even as a child, I enjoyed the ‘quiet’ books very much. As a writer and artist, whatever I create, continues to emerge from the quiet. Even the most cheeky of my characters like to emerge from still and centered souls :). And as a teacher, I have always enjoyed teaching young people to discover the magic of the quieter, gentler stories that seem to carry us far and deep into our own beings. Best, Srivi

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  2. Rebecca Van Slyke

    Lovely, thoughtful post, Marion. As a second grade teacher, I find that the kids love those “quiet” stories equally as well as the action-packed ones. Kids need ALL kinds of stories to challenge them, slow them down and make them notice things, and fill their souls. Keep writing what is heart-felt to you.

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  3. patlc19

    Hi, Marion. My dear friend Anita Riggio sent me this blog post. I, too, have had a number of picture books turned down because they were too quiet. But this was also the case when I was young. I hope you will continue to write what comes from your heart and soul. I’m finding that the writing is as much for myself at this time of my life as it is for my audience. My blog “Aging and the Creative Process” addresses some other issues of those continuing to create as they age. Thank you for expressing this conundrum so well.

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  4. kathalsey

    Dear Marion, I have just begun this kid lit writing journey at 60; I ‘m now 63. I think the world needs some quiet these days and kids and parents need it, but they don’t know it. So, yay for quiet and for you and your books. I’m a retied school librarian and your books were “go-to’s” for me. I feel confident & chipper still, but I know my perceived age is against me. But, I am in a closed FB group w/ a group of similarly well-aged wine/ ‘er, women and we call ourselves “The Caldecoots,” or “Coots” for short. I try to see my age w/a light-hearted spirit, yet that doesn’t always work. TY for your blog, your work, your YOU!

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    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      Thank you, Kath, for your kind words. I know any number of writers who have begun their careers at a mature age. Manuscripts don’t arrive on an editor’s desk with an author’s age attached. It’s the manuscript that will sell itself, so if you know yourself and know the field, you will have much to bring to your work, quiet or not. There are challenges with age, but there is richness, too. And the richness can win . . . for both of us.

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    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      Thanks< Maribeth, for mentioning Richard Rohr's article. I've started to read it, found it intriguing and have printed it off to read more closely away from the computer.

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  5. Moira M.

    Marion, I’ve been thinking about this topic for quite some time. I’ve noticed a trend in the middle-grade novels I’ve read over the last few years, a decided lack of quiet. Typically they open with action, with my not knowing what’s going on or to whom, and even while I’m trying to connect with the main characters “action” is happening, or interrupts. There’s no chance to catch one’s breath, or to get to know the characters intimately.

    In fact, intimacy seems to be passe, not only in the middle-grade books I’ve read, but in television and film. We aren’t allowed into the characters’ thought process, only her or his actions and reactions. There isn’t the psychological, ethical and moral complexity that comes from quiet, from a character alone with her or his thoughts. And too often the main characters have sudden, unexplained changes of heart, which I as a reader can’t understand because I don’t know what the character was thinking before and why she or he thinks differently now. Stories have a lot of noise and running and yelling and tears and inexplicable reverses of motivation — when more often than not I don’t know what motivated the main character to begin with.

    Where are the characters who are thoughtful? Even, dare I say it, philosophical? Are there no young people today who spend quiet time thinking things over? Don’t children still have inner debates about right and wrong, or anything? When I was a kid I was like that. My best friends were and are like that. I don’t have children, and my friends don’t have children, but I have to believe quiet, introspective kids still exist. They need quiet books. As my best friend pointed out to me after she read your post, *all* kids need quiet books. She wrote, “How are they going to figure out who they are and what they think without quiet books that talk about being instead of doing? The problem is luring overstimulated, high-concept minds into a space where they can be quiet, and that’s a culture-wide issue. Hard to sell useless junk to people who are satisfied with their own company and have rich inner lives, after all.”

    I’m curious how your agent defines “quiet.” How much action or drama does a story need to stop being “quiet?” Is “The Great Gilly Hopkins” too quiet by today’s standards? Or “Dear Mr. Henshaw?”

    As for age, now that I’m 55 I embrace quietness even more than I did as a child. I absolutely identify with what you say about it. I try not to allow my life experiences to give more intuition and perspective to my middle-grade-aged character than she should have. But she’s a thoughtful kid; she has ethical and moral dilemmas to wrestle with. Some of her wrestling will be expressed in actions she chooses, good and bad. But most of it can only be fought with internally. Is inner turmoil “quiet?”

    Thank you for voicing a topic that’s important to me right now, and I’m sure is to many writers.

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    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      Hi, Moira. You have written something that should be posted somewhere that will get more notice than the response section of my blog. Very thoughtful. Very on target. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with me and those readers who will follow this trail.

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    2. Lyn Miller-Lachmann

      If you think it’s bad with middle grade, you should check out YA. (Or maybe not.) I’m finding that the most thoughtful novels with teen protagonists are being published as adult fiction these days.

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  6. Karen Henry Clark

    I often find the perfect thought for my day on your site. Thank you a 1000 times for that. When I published my first picture book in 2010, I attended a gathering of authors. The woman beside me whispered her congratulations adding, “You’re lucky at your age. The editors want the young ones.” That knocked me back on my heels, to be sure, but as time passes, I see her point. And yours. And all the other thoughtful responses here. Do aging dancers hear “Jazz it up more?” Are senior painters told “Make it bolder and brighter?” I simply don’t know. But I’m definitely understanding I can’t write a story I don’t feel inside. These days my blog posts at For All I Can Tell are probably quiet to a fault, but they come easily and give me enormous satisfaction. As long as I can round up a reader here or there, I feel accomplished, even though the numbers might not support my personal venture. Again, thank you for sharing your wisdom.

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    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      Thanks, Karen. I seem to have hit a nerve that isn’t only mine. Thanks for sharing your experience. The bottom line here, though, is that we can’t argue with what editors want. Their desires are based in part on their age–which is often young, as you say, and which we can’t change–and on their experience of what sells. Hard to argue with either. And my agent is merely giving me the insight he gleans from what editors will–and won’t–buy.

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  7. Sheila Welch

    Several years ago, I thought about creating a blog for old children’s writers, and your essay, Marion, would have made a perfect quest post. I never started that blog. Sometimes it’s easier to not-start than not-finish. My daughter, a middle school librarian, has told me to quit writing. She is the person who hears my moaning (quietly) about how hard it is to keep writing now that getting published seems to require not only an agent, but also a blog, a twitter account, multiple e-mail accounts, a website, and also travel to present at schools, conferences, and libraries. Do any of those make me a better writer? It gets discouraging, but, at least for now, I’m not listening to my daughter (except when she tells me she book-talked my latest novel and kids are reading it and saying they like it), and I’m focusing on picture books — both writing and illustrating. Picture books are often read aloud at bedtime when “quiet” is exactly the reaction parents want.

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    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      Yes, our world has changed, hasn’t it? I didn’t write about the change out there, because, to be honest, I’m barely following it, but about the change inside me, which I find more interesting. But both are factors, certainly.

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  8. nancyboflood

    So lovely late at night to quietly read your essay and then slowly read through the comments and your responses. Life is change. Often it is a mystery and a challenge to decide how I can or want to shift internally and still be “me.” Thank you for nudging me to think more deeply and express with honesty.

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  9. Julie Larios

    Oh, Marion! I know this feeling. “Quiet” satisfies me, too, and I don’t miss the “fierce wanting of my younger years,” as you describe. I do think there’s life after quiet – maybe, though, it’s even quieter…? Who knows? But I love your question. And just the questioning implies a certain level of energy, yes? Maybe not “submittable,” but certainly valuable.

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    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      Thanks, Julie. I love the distinction between “submittable” and “valuable.” I’ve been at this so long, I have to remind myself sometimes that the two are not the same. And by the way, it’s lovely to hear from you!

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  10. Lindsey McDivitt

    Hi Marion, I enjoyed your blog post very much–for me writing came to me as a gift to get me through hard times, but yet I’ve always seem to write “quiet.” In fact, often writing about aging, and aiming at an audience of kids. Not a topic publishers seem interested in, nor one they think children are interested in. But I think its important to show kids the benefits of a long life–most will spend more time in old age than in childhood after all!

    I blog at A is for Aging on positive aging stereotypes in picture books. I’d like to point out that a diminishing mind with age is really just a negative stereotype, and continuing to write as we get older is one of the best things we can do to avoid it (that and learning dance steps!)

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    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      I’ll check out your blog, Lindsey. I’m intrigued. I love knowing that writing helps keep the mind active . . . and learning dance steps! I do dance with an Interplay group, though that’s all free form. I wonder if that qualifies. Surely it can’t hurt.

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  11. Norma Gaffron

    Wonderful comments here, Marion, on your wonderful latest JUST THINKING. You give us much to think about. Can a writer ever retire? What do they retire TO?
    Is it ever okay to “be old”?

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    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      I have no idea what a writer retires to, Norma. And I’m overwhelmingly grateful to have this good work to go to every day . . . however quiet it may be. On another note, I’m constantly struggling–not for myself but with other people–over the concept of “being old.” I love knowing I’m old. When I use that language about myself, however, other folks are inclined to rush to my defense, as though I’ve just diminished myself.

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  12. Hope Lindsay

    Well said! There is a need for quiet, and I hope so much we have another turning of the zeitgeist of our times to the values of contemplation, kindness and compassion, regardless of our chronological age.

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  13. Lyn Miller-Lachmann

    Thank you for your thoughts, Marion! You have been an inspiration to me, and I often think about your advice to move into different categories and genres if the field changes, or if I change. I think this is why some authors become translators later in life. That’s what I’ve done not only because I love languages and diverse cultures but also because I can use those words I’ve amassed over a career of writing to help out gifted storytellers who don’t write in English.

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  14. Janet Fox

    I so love this, Marion. And as I read it I wondered – having read so much of your fabulous work – whether you are simply a quiet person. Your books push boundaries but in a safe space. A quiet space, one more meditative than explosive. Kids need quiet books, and I think what goes around comes around. I wonder if it’s not a question of age, but of character. Play to your strengths, and keep writing those books where kids who are overwhelmed by all the noise can find wisdom in the quiet.

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    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      Thank you, Janet. And thank you especially for being my reader. I agree that it is largely a matter of character, made more distinct by age. The old truth that we become more of who we are as we age. And the truth is I have no choice but to play to my strengths and then, of course, editors will have a choice as to whether they want what my strengths have to offer.

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  15. Joanne Toft

    Interesting reflection. I was thinking about this in my own writing. The piece I am currently working on is to “quiet” for today’s market. Do I write it anyway? Do I put it away? Do I push it a different direction? Is it something I write just for me and not to put out into the world? The questions of writing with that internal issue of age is very interesting. Thank you for putting voice to it.

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    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      Thanks, Joanne. You are asking of your work exactly what I’m asking of the piece I’m working on now. I swing back and forth between saying to myself, “Surely I can do more of what editors want” and “But this is who I am, what I do best!” I haven’t settled on any kind of answer yet. The questions remain.

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  16. Sandy Asher

    Marion, you speak for me and so many others, with grace and clarity. I look forward to learning whether there is, indeed, a life after “quiet,” or perhaps a satisfying life WITHIN quiet, since I don’t know how to be other than I am. May I invite you to join my new FB group SPEAKING OF “OLD”? You’re kind of already there: our colleague Lois Ruby shared this post with the group.

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    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      Hi, Sandy, I responded to your comment earlier, but my response seems to have gotten disconnected from your entry, so I’ll say it again. I haven’t been doing any FB groups. Too much of my time is gobbled up with e-mails as it is. But I’d love to try out yours. Can you tell me how to join?

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      1. Sandy Asher

        I’ll add you, Marion. And you can always subtract yourself, if need be. A week ago, I had no inkling that I’d be moderating an FB group. But there’s seems to be a real need around the topic of aging. Enjoy your look around. Some interesting strands going on. And thanks, again, for your fine post.

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