Category Archives: Writing

Forget about Voice

Credit: pippalou |

Everyone knows the term voice as it refers to a piece of writing.  Defining what voice means in our own work, though, is an amorphous task, more difficult than our instinctive knowing.

If you’re a writer and you find yourself thinking about voice, about trying to achieve such a thing in your work, you are on the wrong track.  You can’t get there by thinking about it.

Voice is, in its most fundamental aspect, you.  It is that deep part of yourself that lands on the page quite without your consent.  If you are fundamentally kind in your approach to the world, kindness will show in your themes, in your language, even in your basic rhythms.  If you are a know-it-all, your writing will have an abrasive authority.  If you are sad, discouraged, pessimistic, that will show, too.  A believer of any stripe?  Your passion will inform your style.

If you are writing fiction, your perceiving characters, especially a first-person narrator, will change the tone of your voice.  But unless you are an absolute master of literary deception, no character you make up will erase your fingerprint.  If you a looking for work that will keep your true identity hidden, try almost any other career.  Putting words on a page, day after day after day, is like living in a mirror.  If you are writing true, you will reflect back who you are.

I find it off-putting to have strangers respond to me with particular deference because I am “an author.”  That I have been published means little except that I’m capable of hard work and persistence.  But when I meet someone who has read and loved one or more of my books, I am moved.  If you know something I have written, then you know something of me.  You have my voice in your head, in your heart.  And that honors me.

When I was Faculty Chair of the early MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Kathi Appelt, another faculty member named me “Mama Bear.”  It was a name that seemed to cling, and I rather enjoyed it, because it named something real in my soul. Not that I am—or was, when my children were young—always an exemplary mother, but that I always wanted to be that mother and because my virtues, such as they are, tend to be motherly ones.


Marion and her children

That mother piece comes through, not just in my teaching but in my writing, too.  It comes through when I’m writing about mothers, of course, but more subtly it comes through in the world I create and the language I use to create it.  But I never think “motherly” when I write.  I just inhabit my words with a mother’s compassion, a mother’s slightly larger-than-life perspective, a mother’s humbling lack of worldly power.  And if my story speaks to my readers, it is because in considerable part they respond to that mother’s voice.

No mother is only a mother, though.  I bring other dimensions of my self to my writing, some of them attributes I may not recognize.  How often I have learned who I am through the eyes of a perceptive reader who sees more clearly, more objectively than I!  All of those aspects that make up Marion become part of the world view that shapes my stories, of the language I choose, of the rhythm it finds on the page.  I have no doubt that who I am even impacts my punctuation.  (I love ellipses.  Don’t ask me why.  Maybe one of my readers will explain it to me one day.)

All of this happens unconsciously, but no one starts out writing with voice already established.  It’s something we grow into, something the language we discover, the stories that discover us must find along the way.  And a great part of the joy of sitting down to write, day after day after day, is watching that core of who we are find its way to the page.

So forget about voice.  Thinking about it won’t help anyway.  But enjoy creating something that perfectly—and almost invisibly—mirrors your soul.  Then take your courage in hand and send that unbidden voice into the world.


Storytelling Animals

I once had an adult writing student who had devoted her adolescent years to a journal.  She wrote tens of thousands of words.  Not an unusual scenario, except for one thing.  Her journal wasn’t a recording of her own life.  Instead she journaled through a character she had made up!

Where does this compulsion come from, the desire to step outside of our own skins and inhabit another’s? For what purpose are we storytelling animals?

I have heard many declarations about what distinguishes humans from the “lower” animals: for example language, tool making, bonding that can’t be explained away as genetic self-preservation.  Again and again, however, our presumed human superiority centered on that named skill is cast into doubt.

Wolves communicate with one another in remarkably complex and subtle ways.  So do dolphins. And what about the honeybee’s dance?  Ravens devise and use tools.  Primates do, as well. And how many stories have we heard about deep bonding between two creatures not even related by species let alone genetics?  My picture book A MAMA FOR OWEN, for instance, is the real-life story of an orphaned baby hippo adopted by an ancient male tortoise.

But storytelling?  We seem to stand alone in our use of and devotion to that skill.

What then is the purpose of story in human lives?

Distraction?  If we were to find our answer to that question solely in the stories appearing on our television screens, distraction would seem primary.  And there is certainly an element of looking away from our own lives when we immerse ourselves in story.  That’s as true about our fascination with gossip as it is in our longtime devotion to Shakespeare.  But there is surely more.

Our Puritan forebears forbad all fiction, saying it presented lies, though they based their lives on the “true” stories in the Bible.  And yet what they didn’t recognize—and what some evaluating children’s literature don’t understand even today—is that story, for all its artifice, is always based on truth.  It’s based on its creator’s truth which may be different than the truth of the reader, but the intent of every story is to convey a vision of the world as true.

ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN has been banned frequently and for a wide variety of reasons.  Once it was banned because Huck steals and lies, not a proper role model for the young.  Now it is banned for its used of the N-word despite the deep challenges it offers our views on race.  Perhaps more rightly it should have been banned for the last century and a quarter because it upends an entire belief system.  Huck knows because it is what he has been taught that he will go to hell for going against law and custom to help Jim escape.  And yet when he does this “sinful” thing, accepting what he assumes will be eternal punishment, we know he has done right.  Can you imagine a more powerful indictment of a society’s rock-solid teachings?

So story teaches truth.   At least it teaches a truth, and we are left, if we are thinking beings, to decide our own truth for ourselves.  Our Puritan forebears knew what they were talking about.  Fiction is a dangerous proposition.

But stories are not just a means of conveying ideas any more than they are merely distraction.  They do something else even more powerfully.  Stories, quite without our consent, create empathy.

They pull us in to live in another skin, another gender, another culture, even another time.

Separately and equally profoundly, they allow us to discover ourselves.

Now that function of story is truly subversive because it happens on so deep a level that it can’t be challenged.  Stories change our feelings about ourselves, about the world.

And yet we are drawn again and again into story’s powerful vortex. We are drawn because empathy is something our very souls demand.

And that, I believe, is precisely why we are storytelling animals.

The Muddle of the Middle

“Well,” I said to myself, “the day has come.  Your career is over, at least that major part of your career that is writing novels for young people.  You have lost the energy, the spark that keeps you deeply engaged with a story, a character.  You have lost the drive that takes you—and your readers—to the story’s end.  Clearly you are too old to do this any longer.”

It seemed a reasonable thought.  I have been writing novels for young people for well over forty years, and I am, by anyone’s definition, old.  Seventy didn’t slow me down, but looking eighty in the eye seems another matter entirely.

Surely a diminishment of energy, both physical and psychic, is a natural and inevitable part of aging.  No career lasts forever.

I had been working on the novella for a few months, not quite steadily, but moving in and out of it as I tend to do these days.  (One of the blessings of this time of life is that going off with a friend often wins out over time spent alone in my study, and I don’t even feel guilty about the choice.)  I have enough experience to be able to see that the story is working pretty well.  My themes are nicely interwoven.  My main character is complex and interesting, and his dilemma both universal and unique.  But when I finished Chapter 5 and stood balanced on the edge of Chapter 6, I found myself filled with ennui.  I didn’t care what my character did next!  I didn’t care today and I wasn’t going to be able to care tomorrow.  Maybe it was time to call a friend and go out to lunch!

What I had in front of me was a nine-year-old boy and his imaginary dog plopped down in a cabin in the wilderness of northern Minnesota.  The boy is there with his mother, whom he hasn’t seen since he was three.  A loaded situation.  And suddenly I not only didn’t know what was supposed to happen next, but far worse . . . I didn’t care.  Not even a little bit.

Credit: mommaof3beauties |

It was all artifice anyway, wasn’t it?  What was the point of caring?

The middle of stories is always hard.  Beginnings and endings practically write themselves.  But the middle—the term I’ve often used is “the muddle of the middle”—is plain hard work.  This was more than that, though.

This, I decided, was about me.  I’d lost the spark necessary to keep going.  Which felt a bit like losing myself.

Then one morning, over a tall mug of tea and an egg, I remembered something.  Something I’d completely forgotten.  I’d been in this place before!  This exact place!  Not just a year ago when I still qualified as old, but ten years ago and thirty years ago.  More.  I had stood in the muddle of the middle multiple times and felt the marrow run out of my bones.

I had known I couldn’t move forward another step because on the most profound level I no longer cared . . . about my main character, about my story.  I couldn’t imagine any source I could reach into powerful enough to restore the energy I needed to continue writing.  And ten, twenty, thirty years ago I wasn’t blaming old.

Then I remembered something else.  Each time this happened, the answer to my dilemma was the same.  It lay in the work itself.  My energy for the story relied on my main character’s energy, and I had the poor kid caught into a situation where he could only react.  React he was doing, subtly and richly . . . and passively.  Now he needed to begin to struggle. Struggle makes story!

Ah, I said that fine morning to my tea and to my egg, the problem isn’t old!  The problem is inaction!  And suddenly I knew what had to happen next.  My character had to do something.  Almost anything.  He had to act, even if he did the wrong thing.  In fact, he had to do the wrong thing, because if he did the right thing my story would be over too quickly.

And suddenly energy for my story filled me right down to my old toes.

Credit: dave |

What has more power to do us good or to take us down than our own minds?

The advantage of having that mind be an old one is that it has visited so many places before.  The challenge is to remember what I’ve learned!

What’s the Point?

Credit: Beth-Alison Berggren

First published on Karen Cushman’s blog post “What’s New?” in response to the following question:  “I find it profoundly difficult these days to be a writer.  My inspiration and enthusiasm have been buried so far below an onslaught of awful news headlines and downright hate, trauma, and tragedy that I struggle to reach them.  What’s a girl to do?  In a world so woeful and broken, how can I dig beneath the heartbreak and create?  Do you have the same thoughts?  If so, how do you free yourself to write during these confusing, troubling times?”


What ‘s the Point?


Mary Oliver:  I also believed and still believe, with more alarm as the years go by, that we are destroying the Earth.

Krista Tippett:  And you don’t write about that.

Mary Oliver:  No.  Simply that I think you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.  And there are some poets who pound on that theme until you really can’t take any more.  And I think that my way of doing it, saying this is what we have, let’s keep it, because it’s beautiful and wonderful and wondrous might work better.  Though probably it’s not going to work either.  We’re in deep trouble with the environment I believe.  And nobody’s going to stop this business of … of business, of making money, the amassing of things that will vanish for us as we vanish.  I’ll leave a few poems behind . . . but not much cash.

Unedited interview, On Being, October 15, 2015

So . . . Mary Oliver, from whom so many of us draw hope for our precious, struggling world, for our precious, struggling lives, despairs, too. How painful to hear!

And yet when I listened to that interview I only nodded and thought, Of course.  That’s the way it is, isn’t it?  We despair and, at the same time, we write about wonders.

Because what is the point of writing anything else? The wondrous, after all, still exists.  The wondrous in the natural world that surrounds us, the wondrous in human relationships, the wondrous that flows from the human mind . . . art, science, even technology. All worthy of honor.

I feel a powerful aversion to the message I’ve heard too often handed to young people, “We adults have failed.  The world is yours now.  Fix it!”

If I were young today I can’t imagine much that would fill me with more disdain . . . or more anger.

So I have recently spent intensive months first researching then writing and rewriting and rewriting a picture book text called EarthSong.  I don’t say one word in it about our collapsing climate.  I only celebrate. A hymn, not a sermon. My theory is that if I can fill a young child—and perhaps that young child’s caretaker, too—with wonder at our Earth, they will be more ready to take care than if I preach the fire and brimstone I can too easily see gathering at our feet.

And if, as I suspect, taking care in our individual lives is no longer enough to make a difference, then at least my words will bring my readers to the kind of deep appreciation that can change us today.

Of course, climate chaos isn’t the only threat I, and many others, see gathering around us.  We stand on the brink of war, war we can no longer simply export to other lands and pretend is not ours.  Our own society is collapsing under the burden of inequality, of a neglected infrastructure, of short-sighted and greedy economic policies.  Politics—all of it, not just the too-easy-to-name newcomers—has become a travesty, focused on power rather than the common good.

There are days when my most optimistic thought is that I’m old.  If I’m lucky, I will come in nature’s unerring way to that final exit before the collapse.

But then I have grandchildren.

I have grandchildren.

And young readers.

And the only answer I can find when I speak to them is to combine honesty with a deep honoring of the good, of the beautiful, of the holy.

Because it isn’t just that “you catch more flies with honey.”  That’s true, of course.  But what’s even more true is that we need, all of us, young and old, to live in that good, beautiful, holy place.  Otherwise, what is the point?

And if we need to live in it, then I need to write in it, too.

An Invitation

I’ve done it three times in the past few months and have loved it so much I’ve decided to make it a part of my life.  I’ve invited a writer into my St. Paul, Minnesota, home and provided comfortable, private space, meals and mentoring.

The writers who came to me were all previously published, though that is not a requirement.  All happened to have recalcitrant manuscripts they had been working on for too long.  Two of them brought novels that had grown cumbersome in their complexity, one a picture book that had seen many incarnations.  Each wanted a break, a new environment, nurturing, and one-on-one time with an experienced mentor.

And I wanted to dip back into teaching in a quiet way, have the pleasure of sharing my home and meals (I have more house than I need and I love cooking), and simply be of use to a fellow writer.  Women only, with apologies to any men who might be interested.

The way I’m framing this venture, now that I’m ready to embark on it more formally, is that the invited writer will arrive on a Monday afternoon and leave on Friday morning. I am ten minutes from the airport and will pick up and drop off.  Prior to your coming, I will read your manuscript.  No more than 40,000 words, which is approximately 150 pages, or if it’s picture books or easy readers no more than three, and I will provide a brief, written critique before you come.  A longer manuscript can be accommodated by judicious summary or we can discuss a different fee arrangement.

While you are here, I will go about my life and my work, but I will provide all meals and be available for further readings and all the consultation and good writer talk you need.  If you want to take time off for cultural activities—the Minneapolis-St. Paul area is rich in its offerings—or outdoors ones, I will join you.  (During good weather I keep a couple of kayaks on a nearby lake.)

If this invitation appeals to you, check out my website at If you’re interested, I’ll ask to see a small sample of your work to make sure I have enough to offer you, and after that we can talk about a time.  I’ll be offering these one-on-one retreats no more frequently than once a month.  First come, first served.

I have been publishing and teaching writers for more than forty years, and this kind of one-on-one mentoring feels like the work that my life has prepared me for.  I would love to welcome you and whatever manuscript you are working on into my home and my heart!