Category Archives: Writing

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.

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!

Writers Need Other Writers!

One day, back in the years when I taught writing in various adult-education venues in my home community, I opened my back door to find a young man on my doorstep.  He was one of my students, and his face was creased with concern.

“Marion,” he said, “how long does it take to write a novel?”

I might have laughed except it was so serious a question.  He was working on a novel, had been working on it for some months, I knew, and his girlfriend, his parents, his friends had all ganged up on him.

Aren’t you finished with that thing yet?  What’s wrong with you?  Why are you wasting your time?

I invited him in and assured him that his process, the length of it, the difficulty of it, was absolutely normal.  And when he left, I held him and his bewildering isolation in my heart.

Writers need other writers!

At whatever stage of our careers we find ourselves, poking a toe into the cold water of a first manuscript or polishing a story for an impatient editor, it is too easy to drown in the isolation our work demands.  And the truth is that most of those we love and live with don’t get it!  They don’t have a clue about and sometimes even resent the way we spend our days, and if we try to bring them into our circle, their eyes have a way of glazing over.

I remind myself from time to time that there are many others who can’t share the details of their working day with those they live with, often because their work is so technical that other folks wouldn’t understand if they tried.  But most of those people have co-workers around them during the day, others who do understand their process, who appreciate the significance of their work.

They don’t spend their days alone in a room rummaging through the contents of their own minds day after day after day.

I’ll say it again.  Writers need other writers!

Over the years I have satisfied that profound need partly, of course, by searching out other writers and keeping them close.  But because writers tend to be scattered, I have also served my need for legitimization, for understanding, for authentication by teaching.

Teaching developing writers keeps me in touch with others who love writing.

I have taught in many different venues, including my last and most satisfying position with Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults.  When I left VCFA, I was ready for retirement and glad to be able to focus entirely on my own work.  But while I continued to value my freedom from the demands of an MFA program, isolation crept back in.

Is there anyone else in the world doing this thing I am attempting, day after quiet day?

That was until my good friend, VCFA grad, and National Book Award finalist, Debby Dahl Edwardson, came to me with her dream.  Debby lives in Alaska now, but she grew up in Minnesota.  And she used to spend her summers on Elbow Lake in the pristine wilderness of northern Minnesota.  That place became part of her writer’s soul, and she has long wanted to share it with other writers.

LoonSong

Debby’s dream came to fruition as LoonSong, a writer’s retreat, and LoonSong has brought me back into the company of writers, writers talking writing.  What a blessing it has been!  This coming September, from the 6th through the 10th, we will gather for the third time, and I can already feel my energy rising as I move toward the event.

The retreatants come from every part of the country and represent every level of experience.  The faculty is always stellar.  (Check the website, www.LoonSong.org.)  And the conversation—oh, the all-day, all-evening conversation!—is nurturing and challenging and the best way I know to break through writerly isolation.

Come join us.  It’s a very small retreat, a boutique experience, and there are still a few slots left.

I would love to meet you there.

I would love to sit down and talk with you about this unique, blessed, complicated work that occupies our lives.

And then we will carry one another home in our hearts, banishing the isolation for another year!

Duck and Cover

In 1951 the US Federal Civil Defense Administration in consultation with the Safety Commission of the National Education Association produced a film called Duck and Cover.  The film featured an animated turtle named Bert, who, with a catchy lyric playing in the background, taught American children to duck and cover if/when an atomic bomb detonated nearby.  I was in seventh grade in 1951, but the film never came to my school.  Nor did the duck-and-cover exercises, for which I cannot help but be grateful.

(If you’re interested in seeing the film, go to Duck and Cover)

I can’t imagine what it would have meant to me as a child to practice dropping under my desk and covering the back of my neck to keep safe from a horrendous and almost inevitable bomb.  Maybe something similar to what it must mean to our school children today to go through drills to prepare against shooters.

I did participate more fully in the moment in 1961.  I was a young teacher standing in front of my high school English class when the principal came on the PA system to give instructions for evacuating the school and our city should a nuclear missile come our way.  The terror of the Cuban missile crisis and the years surrounding it is imprinted on my bones.  (As a young woman I used occasionally to read newspaper obituaries in towns where I didn’t know a soul just to note how many people had lived out full lives, a privilege I was convinced would never be mine.)

My entire adult life has been played out in an improbable bubble, a bubble free of world-wide nuclear devastation.  That we all came through the Cuban missile crisis whole is almost beyond improbable.  We know now that the nuclear warheads we were holding off with our threats were already in place.  We know, too, that we were attempting to bomb Russian submarines.  Just think if we had connected with even one target!

And if the potential for devastation has been less obvious in the years that have followed it has been no less real.

The grace of that nuclear-free bubble has nothing to do with peace.  In the eight decades of my life, my country has been in a nearly constant state of war.  The fact that we haven’t all been blow away can be attributed only to luck and happenchance.

Recently, I have been reading Daniel Ellsberg’s The Doomsday Machine, Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.  Why?  I’m not entirely certain except, perhaps, to give credence to my lifelong nightmares.  Ellsberg does that very effectively.  To understand the myriad ways our planet might have been destroyed—may yet be destroyed—by accident or intent boggles the mind.  In fact, after a time, the boggled mind simply quits reacting.

At least mine did.

But what is the point of choosing to know?  It is clearly impossible in our system to vote a leader into office who would have the will and the power to stand against this obscenity.

None has for the last half century.  Not one!

Yet, these are our lives being played out . . . played with . . . lived.  The jeopardy is ours and our children’s and our grandchildren’s.

Ah . . . those grandchildren!  Sometimes I imagine sitting down with my grandchildren and trying to explain my failure to leave them a safe and habitable world.

Trying to explain why I have so few answers to offer, only more questions.  Lots and lots of questions.

What is it with the human race?  Do we still stand at the mouth of our caves, our hands filled with stones to repel the next intruder?  Certainly the stones have evolved.  Why haven’t we?

Each morning I emerge into the world filled with such questions.  And then what do I do?  I sit down and write another children’s book.  Whatever it is, it will at least be more honest, more useful than Duck and Cover. 

I often wonder what it must have been like to live in pre-World War II Germany.  Something like living in the United States today, perhaps?

“Things are awful.  I know they are awful.  But right now I have supper to fix.”

Supper is good, though . . . as is the choice to go on with our lives.

Maybe I could say that to those beloved grandchildren.

“Supper is good.  Every breath that fills your lungs and returns once more to the world is holy.  Now . . . go out and fight for those impossible-to-imagine leaders, the ones who understand just how precious you are.  How precious our world is!”

Writing Myself into Old

Credit: diannehope | morguefile.com

It’s the secret of life, I suppose, discovering where our own deepest energy lies and learning to reach into it, to mine it, to live it.

It’s certainly the secret of any kind of writing that must be spun out of the substance of our own psyches.

When I was young, I overflowed with ideas, and I wasn’t surprised when I picked one up to find the energy to fuel it attached.  I never asked myself why I wanted to write a particular story.  I just knew I did.

The story called to me, and I rarely understood where it had come from until long after it had made its way into the world.  I only began to discover what my story had to do with me when readers, more objective and therefore more clear-eyed than I, told me what I had said.

And through their discernment and through the questions I asked myself fed by that discernment, I began to be aware of the sources that feed my work.

I have been writing stories for young people, from babies to young adults, for a long time.  I have, in fact, written myself into old.  Old is, curiously enough, a destination I never really thought I would reach.  Mostly because our society teaches us that if we just will it to be so, we will never truly age.

For those coming after me, I’ll offer this small piece of wisdom.  Old is real and, unless we’re rescued through an early demise, it is also inevitable.

Old finds me searching for energy, not because I have run out, but because the energy I possess is no longer spread across so wide a field.  I can no longer pick up a story idea and find the fuel to propel it to its conclusion automatically attached.  And yet, the energy itself is still there, just stored in a deeper and less conspicuous place.

Recently, I encountered the work of two different women ahead of me on the path who refer to their 80’s as a time of great passion.  Such a curious idea to hold against our society’s image of the withering of age!  Even I, standing on the edge of 80, couldn’t help but wonder what they could mean.

But I’m beginning to understand.  The passion they speak of is a core that goes deep, the distilled essence of a long life, stretching all the way back to early childhood.  And while it doesn’t stand up and call attention to itself the way younger passions do, once tapped into, it is rich . . . rich.

The trick, though, is to find the source to tap.

I have always fed my writing with reading.  I don’t know any writer who doesn’t do the same.  Stories, after all, aren’t truly an imitation of life.  They are an imitation of other stories.

Old, though, has turned me into a persnickety reader.  I approach each book with an almost too-discriminating hunger.  I find myself searching for something richer, deeper, less predictable, less ordinary than most of what falls into my hands.  I can almost hear my mother saying, “If you’re not willing to eat what’s on your plate, you can’t truly be hungry.”  But I am.  I am.

I order up samples of electronic books, books chosen because they were recommended by someone whose opinion I value or because they have won awards.  And time after time after time, I read to the end of the sample and turn away, still searching.

Old has turned me into a persnickety writer, too.  I keep reaching for a form I’ve never tried before, a thought I have never thought before, and with more than 100 books published, I can tell you that’s a reach.  I find myself longing for a voice that I can feel reverberating but cannot name, for a story that asks questions I have not yet formed.

And yet the energy behind that undiscovered story still burns strong.

The answer to having written myself into old?  I don’t have one.  Not yet anyway.

Only to keep searching for that perfect book to read, the one that nourishes so deeply that it will propel me back into my own work.

Only to keep searching for the perfect container for my words, the one that will draw out the fire buried in my soul.