Author Archives: Marion Dane Bauer

Storytelling Animals

That’s what we humans are, storytelling animals.  A skill we use to distinguish ourselves from the rest of creation.  We tell stories.  Our dogs and our cats, our cattle and our canaries may communicate, but tell stories?  Not possible.

Until we learn more—and I won’t be surprised if someday we do learn more—we might as well go with that.  It’s our stories that set us apart from the rest of creation.

But why?  To what end?

If we want only to teach one another, to pass on the wisdom of one generation to the next, surely we have more straightforward ways.  Two plus two equals four.  A butterfly emerges from a chrysalis.  Mix two primary hues to create a secondary color.

And of course, we do communicate with facts and ideas, yet we keep returning to stories.

My father was a chemist, enormously intelligent, but a concrete thinker.  He could not understand how I could get a college degree in literature.  He asked, What is there to study?

Someone accused me once of immersing myself in fictional worlds as a substitute for living my life.  The accusation hit close enough to home for me never to have forgotten it.

I remember the time on a year’s sabbatical in England that some neighbors stopped by to ask if we would go caroling with them.  I hesitated.  I was writing, you see.  In fact, curiously enough, I was writing a story set in the Minnesota I had left behind.  Fortunately, sanity prevailed and I shut down the computer and joined the caroling party.

What I remember most about that evening wasn’t offering ancient carols through the streets of an equally ancient village, though that was all quaint enough to be remembered.  It was encountering a tiny, curled-up ball of an English hedgehog as we crossed a grassy field.  But if I hadn’t left the story I was building behind I never would have met that hedgehog.

Photo by Piotr Łaskawski on Unsplash

I’ve been in the business of making stories for enough years to have asked the question many times.  Why?  Apart from the not-incidental fact that stories have come to be my primary source of income, what makes them so important?

And again and again, I come up with the same answer.  The stories I tell make meaning.  My meaning.  They take the substance of what has happened to me, the substance of fact combined with the substance of feeling, and give it significance, importance, consequence, value, worth.

I have had, as has everyone else in this world, both wonderful and terrible things happen in my life.  I have had the deepest secrets of my heart warmly received.  I have struggled with isolation.  I have learned a skill and used it to benefit others.  I have loved and been loved in return.  I have watched my son die.  I have seen my daughter and now my grandchildren sail into the world with confidence and strength.

And I suppose each one of these happenings could have been enough in itself, but it never seems enough to me.  I am compelled to take the randomness of rewards and the certainty of loss and create significance out of them.  I must take the feelings that came with dreams fulfilled and dreams shattered and make them mean something, too.

Life never comes with meaning intact, at least not in my view.  Meaning doesn’t exist until we create it.

Over the years, over many, many years, I have learned that when something I have experienced plays out again in a story moment I create or when it is echoed in a story someone else has offered me, my experience takes on a more certain shape.  The feelings attached to it do, too.  My life is no longer random, no longer simply pleasant or unpleasant, uplifting or devastating.  My life, with all its random events, all its unpredictable feelings, becomes story.

And story is meaning.

Wholeheartedness

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

I think our capacity for wholeheartedness can never be greater than our willingness to be broken-hearted.
Brene Brown

In Memoriam

Marion and Dawn

Marion and Dawn

The first time I ever saw her, she was so tiny I could hold her in my cupped hands.  I remember that she was uneasy about being gathered off the ground, and the whites shone at the edge of her large brown eyes as she peered up at me.

She was a Cavalier King Charles puppy, and I named her Dawn in honor of her gleaming ruby fur.

Whenever I take this kind of love into my life—and aren’t puppies the very definition of love?—I know I am taking on loss, too.  And I know that loss is inevitable.  And yet I didn’t hesitate.

Though I knew this loving would change me.

When Dawn went stone deaf at the age of three she was bewildered at the loss of so important a part of her world.  It was clear that she knew something was missing.  With no noise distractions, she began to sleep more deeply.  If I went downstairs from my study and forgot to rouse her from her spot beneath my desk, she would wake and, hearing nothing to let her know where I might be, tromp next door into my bedroom.  She would jump up onto the bed, face the far wall and say, “Woof.”  A deep pause.  Then “Woof” again.  Another pause.  Another “Woof!”  And on and on.

I’d hear her from downstairs and say, “Oh, my poor deaf dog,” and hurry back up, reach across the bed to touch her into awareness, then motion her to come back down with me.  She always followed happily as though she never would have known how to find me without my guidance.  (I’m pretty deaf myself, so my empathy was always at the ready.)

That was all fine until Dawn decided she enjoyed the game so much that she would leave us eating dinner or watching television downstairs and go upstairs to my bed to start the woof game.

She was a dog of strong opinions.  If I returned from our twice-daily walk before she felt she’d had her due, she would stand back at the end of the leash as I opened the door, refusing to come inside.  Or if I took a route she didn’t approve of, she would brace against the pull of the leash and, when I looked back, give me a long, steadying, meaningful look.

Sometimes I let her win.

Because sometimes giving over is a good thing and because sometimes it seemed good for my small dog to have the power.

When my partner brought a four-year-old, twelve-pound, one-eyed Sheltie named Sadie into our family, Dawn, half again her weight, gave ground instantly.  She gave a whole lot of ground, in fact, because when she gave ground I rescued her.  (As you can tell, I’m easily trained.)  When I’d go out of town, however, Dawn would quit waiting for rescue and take her rightful place in the room, on the couch, or whatever other space might be under contention, ignoring the little Sadie-bully entirely.

She and Sadie could collaborate, though.  One rule in our family was that dogs had to go down the flight of steps from the deck to the backyard to relieve themselves before they could have their bedtime treat.  We began after a time to suspect that the relieving was happening a bit too fast, so one night I stood at the top of stairs to observe when they went down.  The two dogs ran down the stairs, side by side, stopped at the bottom, turned to look at one another, and then, by mutual consent, ran back up the stairs.

When I sent them back they did what they were supposed to do with a resigned air.

Dawn died shortly before her eleventh birthday, a reasonably venerable age for a cavalier, though not long enough for me.  Not nearly long enough for me.

Sadie doesn’t seem to miss her.  I’ve always suspected that she was meant to be an only dog.  (Sadie came from a hoarding situation.)

But I miss her.  Oh, I do.

Write with the Door Closed …

Photo by Aziz Acharki on Unsplash

Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right — as right as you can, anyway — it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or criticize it.

Stephen King, On Writing, a Memoir of the Craft

Revision, Then and Now

Photo by Yolanda Leyva on Unsplash

I have always revised.  Of course.  Every writer does.

But revision has come to be a very different thing than it was when I began publishing in 1976.  Then I worked at a typewriter.  At first it was the 1956 manual portable (beige with white keys) Smith Corona typewriter that had been my high school graduation gift.

Eventually I moved on from that to an electric typewriter (it made pondering moments a bit tense by sitting there humming at me) and then to an electronic one.  One of those machines, an IBM Selectric, was self-correcting, meaning if you caught an error while the page was still in front of you, you could flip a switch and type backwards, whiting out the words you wanted gone.  I learned to type as rapidly backwards as forwards.

But always when I worked on a typewriter I had a routine for revising.  I triple-spaced my original draft, leaving room while the page was still in the typewriter to go back right then to type in changes.  Once the page was out of the typewriter, I could write in my changes by hand.

When a page became too cluttered with revisions, I would retype it, switching to a different color of paper.  I changed the colors with each draft, which allowed me at a glance to know how long a particular page had been part of the manuscript.  (What use that knowledge was I’m no longer sure, but the practice gave me a pleasantly colorful manuscript during these early stages.)

Looking back at that cumbersome process—typing, correcting, retyping—and thinking what it is like today to write from first draft through every level of revision on a computer screen, I have to smile.  The smile is one of delight.  I love today’s technology!

I love the way it takes so much of the physical labor out of the process of writing.

I love the way it allows me to finesse every detail of a manuscript every time I look at it.

I love the way I can save multiple drafts, so I can experiment with a piece and still, should I need to, return to its earlier form.

I love the way Word challenges my spelling, even leaps in to correct common mistakes before my fingers notice they have stumbled.

And I love the way I can save reams and reams of manuscripts, from the failed to the already published, inside one small box.

Remembering those typewriters, I wonder, in fact, whether I ever truly revised before.  Certainly the process now is more organic, more fluid, more deeply intuitive.

I have never reread my early books to try to weigh them against the work I do now. Even if I did, there would be, of course, no way of knowing whether the changes I might see were based on the freedom offered by today’s technology or whether they would simply represent a writer’s natural growth in mastery.

But every single time I sit down to write today, I rejoice.  I rejoice at the way I can slip in and out of a manuscript, shaping, smoothing, enriching, culling.  I rejoice in the power under my fingertips that makes revision downright fun!

I remember those old manuscripts, the piles of brightly colored pages.  I remember the final process of retyping the whole blasted thing—with carbon paper so I would still have a copy when I entrusted the original to the post office—and I am so, so glad to live in the 21st Century.

Yes, I know.  The 21st Century has its problems.  Enormous ones.  And we aren’t doing much to resolve them.

But oh . . . the technology that makes it possible to create on a computer—and revise, revise, revise—isn’t one of them!