Tag Archives: Blue-Eyed Wolf

While I’m Talking about Aging

11_11I thought of titling this article, “While I’m Talking about Death,” but I changed my mind. Aging is a difficult enough concept in our society, but death is almost an obscenity. Too many might turn away without reading. We all hope to age one day, even though we presume that day to be farther away than it probably is. Who hopes to die?

And yet, the older I grow, the larger death looms. Inevitably. A bout with cancer added to the three-quarters of a century I have been on this earth has brought death into my daily consciousness. Not necessarily in a bad way.

Death means limitation. Just that. And every artist of every discipline knows that limitation is power. Knowing that I will die, knowing it not only in an intellectual way without really believing it, but knowing it in my gut, changes the quality of my days. They have become precious, pearls strung on the most fragile of threads. I often pause and think Now. Now. This moment. Hold it. Treasure it. It will not come again.

I remember hearing in high school literature class about some old guy—was it John Donne?—who slept in his coffin. As an adolescent, all I could think was Weird! But now I understand, deeply, fully. He was reminding himself every time he entered the “little death” of sleep about the preciousness of his life. What could be more affirming?

My gratitude for my career as a writer in this late stage of life is boundless. I have work that calls me every day, work that I love to do, work that feeds me by connecting me with others. And yet I can do it at my own slower pace. I no longer take on deadlines. I no longer even create deadlines for myself.

My discipline is the discipline of doing each day what I most love to do, whatever that may be. Sometimes it’s writing. Sometimes it’s a day spent with my daughter and my grandchildren. Sometimes it’s a Pilates session followed by lunch with a friend followed by grocery shopping and preparing another meal for myself and my partner. (I’m one of those who loves grocery shopping and food preparation. It’s only putting the groceries away that annoys.) Sometimes it’s doctor’s appointments, of course, or other unpleasant necessities, but whatever else I’m doing, each morning I rise knowing the writing waits. And I always turn to it with gratitude.

Recognizing the limitation of my days, however, has prompted me to reconsider the choices I make about what to write. I stood before my book shelf one day and counted the books that bear my name. It will be one hundred very soon. And I said to myself, it will be nice to keep writing. I hope to continue to publish. But it’s clear, whatever I write, that the world doesn’t need more Marion Dane Bauer books. And so, though I was fully engaged in Blue-Eyed Wolf, a young-adult novel that I found challenging and fascinating and satisfying to struggle through, I put it aside for a different project . . . a memoir in verse.

This . . . this is what I most need to write. I need to write it for my daughter and my grandchildren if it reaches no one else. And I need to write it for myself. It’s a way of parsing my past, discovering its shape, finding its meaning. It’s a way—returning to the opening of this piece to create a writerly shape—of preparing for my death.

I think the memoir will be called Writing a Life, and it is another gift delivered to me by limitation. It would not have occurred to me to do this in middle age. I do it—and do it urgently—precisely because I know my time grows short. Maybe another twenty years short. Who knows? Maybe much less.

And what I could not have known when I was young and repelled by the idea of an old guy sleeping in his coffin, the urgency brought on by Death fills me with joy!

 

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Not Knowing Yet

10_7Creative people are comfortable with not knowing yet.

—an unknown jazz musician

How that quote resonates with me! And challenges me at the same time. Because the truth is that “comfortable” doesn’t quite fit. I understand that part of creation is accepting those times when I don’t know yet, can’t know, have to wait . . . and wait . . . and wait. But it would be a gross exaggeration to say I am “comfortable” with such a state of affairs.

Recently I have set other work aside—yes, even Blue-Eyed Wolf, the nearly mythical YA novel you’ve been hearing about for so long if you’ve been following this blog—to work on a memoir in verse. I made this choice because I have a lot of books out there, nearly 100 now, and I can’t escape the fact that, even though I expect to keep publishing, the world is hardly panting for more books from Marion Dane Bauer. Nor is it likely that my heritage will be changed substantially by one or two or thirty more. Once I acknowledged that fact, it seemed to make sense to work on something I need for myself whether the world is calling for it or not.

Thus I set everything else aside, except projects already sold that needed further attention, and turned full into the piece I’d previously been playing with in the cracks of time. I have nearly two dozen of the verses written for the memoir but, as I’ve discussed here before, I don’t yet have a frame, a meaningful container to present them in.

As the weeks pass I read memoir after memoir. But I am unable to find anything like what I want to do, unable even to find a tone that fits for me, and unable to continue with my work on it. Except for this blog, my days begin to feel pretty thin.

I have never done well in that empty time between finishing one major project and starting on another. In fact, I used to decide, every time I found myself in such a chasm, that I had run out of fuel . . . forever. Some years ago when I announced to my partner that I would clearly never write anything again, and meant it, she said, patiently, “Yes. That’s what you said after you finished your last book.”

I was stunned. Had I ever felt this way before? Really?

So now, thanks to someone else’s memory—less muddled than my own—I have the perspective to know I’ve stood in this vacuum before, more than once, in fact. And I know, too, that, always before, I’ve come out on the other side . . . eventually.

Which makes waiting for inspiration much less dramatic, but not a bit easier.

I don’t mind hard work. I don’t even mind mucking about when I’m not sure what I’m doing. But I’m far, far from being “comfortable” with not knowing where I want to go.

And yet a jazz musician, any jazz musician is probably a good model for me to hold in my mind these days. I am not musically enough inclined to have any real concept of what happens when the rest of the band falls away and the musician on display begins a riff, but I presume that kind of creative playing must involve a profound letting go. A kind of falling into the music. An unquestioning faith in the music and the instrument that makes the music and in the maker of music himself.

A faith that should come easily enough to someone who has published nearly 100 books.

But here I am, not knowing yet, and maybe I’m not a “creative” person, after all, but I’m not the least bit comfortable.

In fact my discomfort keeps whispering in my ear . . . “You’ll never write again, you know!”

Now let’s see . . . what else can I write while I’m complaining?

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Writing Nature

white-throated sparrow

white-throated sparrow

How I admire those writers who are also naturalists, or at least have a very specific knowledge of the flora and fauna that surrounds us.

I write about nature often and love the natural world deeply, but my knowledge is limited. In fact, my ignorance of all that surrounds me—the names of plants, the identity of bird calls, the life cycles of this and that—is profound. I am not even a gardener. (After paying someone to landscape my yard I find myself surrounded by a host of plants I have no names for.)

I once wrote a bit of verse, mocking myself as a “lover of nature.” It went like this:

Discovery

I have thought myself a lover
of nature,
rejoicing in the boom and crackle
of storm
from inside my house,
the silent exultation
of snow
flinging itself against the glass,
the tangle of forest
from an asphalt path,
a whale breaching
on a T-shirt.

Then I stepped into the thrust and decay
of an ancient wood,
home of bear and beetle
and a thousand nameless birds,
and found myself craving
house and window,
asphalt paths,

art.

How is it possible, then, to write about the natural world that I so consistently turn to for my stories when, in truth, I prefer the comforts of my neighborhood streets or a well-groomed trail over close-up encounters with the real thing?

A one-word answer . . . books.

It isn’t that I don’t leave the city and go into the natural world. I do. Often. But paddling my kayak around a suburban lake doesn’t teach me the names of the wading birds I encounter. And hiking through a state park doesn’t leave me with a specific memory of which flowers I saw blooming in exactly what season.

But if I combine my real passion for the outdoors, however timidly approached, with the information I glean from those whose knowledge is more specific than mine, I can write as though I, too, am an expert about the natural world.

When I return to my work on Blue-Eyed Wolf, a young-adult novel set in the wilderness of northern Minnesota, I will, no doubt, once more go to that north country to renew my love of and feel for that fascinating land. But I will also return to the books I’ve found to inform my descriptions of all my characters are encountering, books that I keep on my shelf to describe birds, plants, insects, reptiles, mammals, spoor and tracks.

9_16gunflintTwo books have been especially useful for Blue-Eyed Wolf: Gunflint by Justine Kerfoot and The Singing Wilderness by that master of the north woods, Sigurd F. Olson. Both are laid out by season, so I can easily check to see which birds would be around, which flowers would be blooming in whatever month I’m writing about.

Is it cheating to transfer knowledge from one book to another almost without its passing through my brain? It sometimes feels that way. And yet many of my novels have required research into topics as various as brown bears in Alaska and the experience of combat in Vietnam. If I were to limit my stories to what I already know they would be stunted.

I suppose the reason research about the natural world feels different than gathering information about being a grunt in Vietnam is that I have never wanted to know what it was like to be a grunt in Vietnam. I gather the information only in service of its story. But I have always wished the natural world information lived inside my head. And so I am embarrassed by what I do not know again and again.

When I open a book, however, to discover that the bird singing so lyrically in my character’s world might be the white-throated sparrow, I am enormously grateful to those who do know.

And always grateful when I sit down to write that I am not limited to the contents of my own brain!

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In Defense of Repression

Last week I talked about the difference between sentiment and sentimentality in our stories and, in particular, I invoked the cut-away technique used so much by films. Bring your readers/viewers right to the brink of the kind of powerful moment they already know as inevitable, then leave them to play the details out in their own minds. But stepping back from such moments isn’t the only way to play them or the only point to consider about effectively drawing feelings from our readers.

7_29How do we move our readers in a genuine way through the artifice of story? I think the answer begins in ourselves, with our own emotional control. I remember Madeleine L’Engle’s saying, and I’m paraphrasing, that if she made herself cry when she was writing, she had to throw the scene away. To bring her readers to tears she had to write with her own emotions under tight control. The emotion we bring to our work must be sifted through layers and layers of art. We need to work as a potter works clay, close in, our hands and hearts immersed, but separate, objective at the same time.

During the years of my son’s illness and death, the pain I was living through, a pain so deep I had no words for it, touched and transformed everything I wrote. My grief intruded even on stories where it didn’t belong. But I could no more set that pain aside when I sat down to write than I could do so in my daily life. I never, however, tried to write about Peter’s illness and death directly. Not enough art stood between me and the event to make that possible.

ph_peter2More than seven years later, I am, at last, ready to take on this loss more directly, not his actual death but the experience of losing a son. In Blue-Eyed Wolf one of the topics I am exploring is the death of a son through the perspective of that boy’s mother. And when I write it, I know it won’t be sensational, melodramatic, sentimental, because whatever I say will rise out of the heart that made the story, not be snatched from the air and inserted for impact.

I have had writing students who came from the kind of family background I do, one where feelings of any stripe were considered to be not quite “nice.” And that kind of background can be a liability in many circumstances. But for my writing, I’ve found that the habit of holding back feelings can be a strength . . . as long as we find the right moment and the right words for letting go. And once the time comes, stories are a perfect place, a safe place to play them out . . . because it’s not me, you understand, it’s that character emoting.

When I spin out a story, I hold the feelings close, waiting, waiting for the moment to come when my characters can express what I’ve been holding back. And only then will my readers weep or rejoice or simply sigh with satisfaction. It’s the holding, the reluctance to let the feelings out that finally gives emotion power on the page. And for me, the holding back is easy.

Those who come from a background that allows, even encourages, displays of feeling, have, I presume, a different challenge, to find a way of holding back on the page that doesn’t feel natural or necessary in their real lives.

7_29FosterChildAs with so many aspects of writing, there is an irony here. To manifest genuine feeling in our work, feelings that grow our readers larger rather than simply manipulate them into a response, we need a light touch. You might even say we need a good dose of repression. I remember an editor saying to me as we were working on an early draft of Foster Child, one of my first novels, “Marion, you are asking people to cry too often.” Now, I rarely call for tears. Nor do I cry myself.

I just write my way toward the moment when my character does the work for me.

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Desire . . . Fiction’s Secret Power

6_17Why do we read stories?

It’s an important question for any fiction writer—or any teacher of fiction—to ask.

The Puritans forbad novels. Stories were thought to be immoral, composed of lies. And there was a time, much nearer at hand, when teachers who wanted to read a story to their students had to close their classroom doors lest the principal come by and overhear them “wasting time.” I suppose that may still be true in some schools.

I have thought about this question often over the years, as any fiction writer should. What gives these worlds I fabricate value? What are readers seeking when they immerse themselves in a story of mine, in any story at all?

I’ve come to be convinced that we turn to fiction, at least in part, to be empowered, however vicariously. We all struggle, even if our lives are blessed. And the reality is that most mornings when we get up we shoulder exactly the same load we carried the day before. We do the same the day after that. And the day after that. Change comes hard, if it comes at all, and usually if it does come it does so only incrementally.

So I believe one of the reasons we turn to story is to see someone else do what we aren’t much inclined to do ourselves. To see that person take hold of her life and give it a good shake . . . and come out on the other side having changed herself or her circumstances or both. The truth is, of course, it’s easier to do in fiction than in life.

But every story begins with a core question, “What does my character want?” Because it is the wanting that draws our readers in with echoes of their own desires. And it is the wanting that energizes and propels the story toward the empowering resolution.

Often, when a story is stalled, we can get it moving again by repeating that simple question. What does my main character want? And sometimes it’s surprising to realize how many pages we may have written without yet having understood the answer.

As anyone who has been dipping into this blog from time to time knows, I have been working on a young-adult novel called Blue-Eyed Wolf for a couple of years now. Well, working on it and setting it aside and then working on it again. At the moment it is resting. Other manuscripts—even this blog—keep pulling me away.

There is, however, something besides the pull of other work that is making it easy to step away. I have a profound question about this story I haven’t yet answered. My characters—I now have three perceiving characters—all want something. They want their brother/boyfriend/son to come back from Vietnam whole. Or, actually, what they really want, each one, is for him not to have gone in the first place. And they are all helpless to do anything about that fiercely held desire. They can only get up every morning and shoulder it again.

Just the way we do in real life.

I know where I’m going with this story. I know what will be resolved . . . and what will not. And much won’t be resolved. I know how each of my characters will change by the end of my tale. But sometimes I run out of energy for getting them there. I suspect it’s the amorphous quality of my characters’ wanting that keeps draining the passion—my passion—from my story.

And will it drain my readers’ passion, too? A crucial question.

I have to figure out how to keep my characters moving when there is no place for them to go. How to keep them energized when there is little hope. How to keep my readers caring and connected even if the characters aren’t taking charge of much . . . and how to keep my readers committed, right to the end, even when no one is being empowered.

What I count on—what I have to count on—is the deep curiosity we all carry for other people’s interior lives. It’s a curiosity about ourselves, really. Am I alone out here? Am I the only one who ever thought that, felt that, wanted that?

What does it mean to be human?

Taking our characters through struggle to a victory that empowers is time-tested way to satisfy our readers. But sometimes the simple journey into a soul’s struggle is all a story has to offer.

Can it be enough?

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