The Descending Side of the Bell Curve

Bell_shaped_curveSome 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 bea 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.


16 thoughts on “The Descending Side of the Bell Curve

  1. Vicki

    You’ve expressed this so well, Marion, once again shining a light for me on a path I’m inexorably following. No matter if we are writers or not, the need for “freshness” has diminished and the satisfaction of “depth” and sure-footed-ness is quiet but brings contentment. Thank you, always, for sharing your thoughts.

  2. :Donna Marie

    This was very touching to read.

    I do think, though, that the peak of this bell curve is not dictated by a particular age in life. Rather, I think it’s more indicative of the likely path our career may take, regardless of what age we begin.

    I’m 56, am not yet published (with books, that is), and don’t feel I’m over the hill or not fresh or whatever. I guess it depends on which age group we’re writing for, too?

    1. Marion Dane Bauer

      I agree with you, Donna Marie. I think “freshness” has a lot more to do with how long you’ve been at something than it has to do with age, though for those of us who write for young people there is something about moving farther away from our own young years.

      1. :Donna Marie

        Yes, that, too! That’s why grandchildren are helpful in that way, I think 🙂 I don’t have any yet, but will someday. It’s also why it’s suggested to hang out in the same places you would find the age group your targeting—observe and eavesdrop.

  3. Shonna

    Reminds me of a healthy, long-term marriage or partnership. If we’re lucky, wild beginnings evolve into more depth and less fanfare. But I think perhaps we should all remain open to the possibility of “Une seconde vie” or second life, as Matisse put it when the latter part of his career became new and fresh again. It seems to me that breakthroughs comes when there is a significant obstacle or obstruction in our way, and we never know when those may come.

    1. Carol

      I agree with Shonna. I would like to remain open to the possibility or still being new and fresh. Otherwise, the idea is very depressing.


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