Tag Archives: Aging

When We Hear the Q Word . . . Quiet

quiet, aging, children's writing

Credit: diannehope | morguefile.com

My blog last week, On Being an Aging Children’s Writer, generated many responses both on my website and beyond it.  Some of those responses were about the trials—and more often the fears—surrounding aging.  Some of us are convinced we’re being written off by young editors who choose to be surrounded only by the same.  But eventually the conversation moved on to center around a single word, quiet. 


I had said in my blog that my agent, Rubin Pfeffer, often warns me, gently, that a manuscript might be “too quiet.”  Many of you wrote to say you are being told the same.  A discussion of what quiet means and a defense of quiet books followed.


I have my own thoughts about “quiet” and “too quiet,” but I decided to go to the source—at least my own personal source—of the word, Rubin.  And he gave me the gracious gift of responding fully and deeply to my request for amplification.


Here are Rubin’s words:



“Quiet” is relative. And “Quiet” needs to be taken in a myriad of ways and meanings. It’s about context. And largely the context is marketability.


Marketability from an agent’s point of view.

Marketability from an editor’s point of view.

Marketability from an imprint’s point of view.

Marketability from a publisher’s point of view.

Marketability from a sales person’s point of view.

Marketability from a bookseller’s point of view.


All of these contexts and more.


Let’s get a couple of points made and out of the way first—


Quiet books are fine, great even.  Quiet books are read and adored.  Quiet books sell, have always sold, and will continue to be sold.


Second point—you, MDB, are not perceived as “Quiet ” or as an “Aging Writer” by booksellers, publishers, or anyone else on the publishing food chain.  Those words don’t define you or categorize you.  You are relevant. You are admired. And you are attractive to all. You sell, you deliver, you receive starred reviews, and you inspire.


And sometimes you write “quiet” manuscripts. Sometimes they sell and will become prominent, wonderful books. Sometimes these manuscripts don’t sell.  I’d take your odds any day.


That out of the way, let’s quickly separate quiet manuscripts from quiet books.  I think that’s what we’re really talking about.  Does the manuscript have the requisite forces to make it through the numerous gates of acquisition so that it may enter the pearly gates of a publishing house and have all the attendants of editorial, marketing, sales, design, and production to transform it from manuscript to book?


That question is where we begin to really hear the term “Quiet.” And “Quiet” is code for any number and degree of meanings.


Here are just a few “Quiets” that might be painless to hear:  “lovely, but not quite what we’re looking for,” “ lovely, but doesn’t fit our current editorial objectives,” “unfortunately, not what we’re able to get into the big accounts and box stores,” “We are aiming our publishing in a more commercial direction.”


Here are a few versions of “Quiet” that might be painful to hear: ”lacks freshness,” “old fashioned,” “Not for today’s readers,” “ a bit dull,” “subject matter is tired,” “won’t hold readers’ attention,” “too institutional,” “will get lost.”


Here are a few that might be actionable to address:  “pacing is slow,”

“lacks action,” “lacks surprise,”  “needs stronger voice,” “language and dialect not current,”  “needs stronger characters,” “needs to be more reflective of today’s world.”


Editors, like agents, have many submissions to deal with.  “Quiet” may be THE handle that is least offensive to say –and yet covers a swath of meanings from legitimately quiet in its writing to just plain “Quiet” in terms of sales opportunities.


Quiet should not be taken as code for aging or irrelevant. Quiet generally means that the manuscript may not be marketable enough for any number of reasons. Likewise, Quiet will be seen as a powerful component of a powerfully written book.  (And MDB, you know this as you have a few wonderful examples of quiet, powerful manuscripts that have been signed up and are in the pearly gates of publishing houses.)


It takes one editor to see what a dozen other editors may not see in a quiet manuscript and to bring out all the noise and promise it offers, guided by the editor, the art director, illustrator, and marketers.


Thank you, Rubin, for the gift of your very professional insight.  I suspect the next step is for each one of us writers to figure out what “quiet” means when it’s offered up to us.


On Being an Old Lady

sparrowI love being an old lady. I love the gifts age brings every single day.

This is what rising to an old-lady day looks like: I am first up, and I motion our two little dogs into action. They tumble down the stairs ahead of me, eager for a brief encounter with the back yard, then breakfast. And while they are rejoicing in their own routine, I slip into mine: emptying the dishwasher, straightening the house, making coffee and carrying it to my partner, showering.

I smooth my quilt across my bed, my hand lingering over its russets and burnished golds and forest greens. I acquired the quilt when I returned to Vermont for my dear friend Norma Fox Mazer’s memorial service. I had recently retired from teaching at Vermont College of Fine Arts, a privilege Norma and I had shared, and I chose the quilt to honor my years of teaching at VCFA and, of course, Norma herself. Each morning I unfold it remembering both. I remember with sadness that they are no longer part of my days and with the deepest gratitude that they are still part of me.

Then I take the dogs for a brisk if often interrupted walk.

Back home, I make breakfast, usually a veggie omelet, fruit with a sprinkle of granola, a tall mug of green tea. I gather my book of Daily Wisdom, 365 Buddhist Inspirations and another of Mary Oliver’s poems and my breakfast, and step out to sit on the patio in front of our house. (That is still true as I’m writing, but that part of the routine will, no doubt, have altered by the time you are reading. November in Minnesota is rarely a time for enjoying breakfast on the patio.)

And then I sit and eat slowly and watch the play of the breeze in the tall ornamental grasses at the edge of the patio and the play of life beyond. I live in the city, but our yard is deep and we have made it into a haven for small life. (“A paradise for rodents” an organic farmer friend said with some amusement.)

A chipmunk skitters beneath my chair, finding me as safe a fixture as the patio furniture. A black squirrel pauses, three feet away, and regards me with a quiet solemnity that almost belies the jerk and jitter with which she will resume her morning. A rabbit has managed to squeeze beneath a fence meant to protect a struggling bush and is enjoying a quiet breakfast. Chickadees, nuthatches, warblers, robins, blue jays, crows and more gather to the feast my partner spreads for them. Occasionally a red-tailed hawk appears at the very top of the ash tree, and everyone else vanishes.

As I watch all this, my day’s work gathers in my mind. As I watched this morning, this piece gathered.

I open my daily reading. Sometimes the day’s offering is so wise that I can only read it, set it aside and let my bemusement pass for wisdom: “A man named Lita Shiyu asked Yangshan, ‘May I hear the principle of attaining mind?’ Yangshan said, ‘If you want to attain mind, then there’s no mind that can be attained. It is this unattainable mind that is known as truth.’” (from Zen’s Chinese Heritage)

Sometimes I am deeply taught: “Be gentle with yourself. Be kind to yourself. You may not be perfect, but you are all you’ve got to work with. The process of becoming who you will be begins with the total acceptance of who you are.” (Bhante Henepola Gunaranta, Mindfulness in Plain English)

Then I turn to Mary Oliver. Perhaps one day I will graduate to another poet, but she teaches me so deeply—about writing, about this life I am living—that I feel no inclination to move beyond the home she makes for my spirit each day.

Mary Oliver says, “Watch, now, how I start the day / in happiness, in kindness.” (Why I Wake Early, new poems by Mary Oliver)

I do watch. And I am touched by joy.

For those reading this who can think only of the scramble and clutter of your own mornings—children to be fed and groomed and herded off to school; a job, even a beloved job, demanding deadlines; too many tasks lined up and waiting—I hold up my morning as a promise of good to come.

Our society does little to honor age, but you and I can honor it. We can honor, and when we arrive at that good place, we can enjoy.

I Stood before the Mirror

I stood before the mirror this morning
studying my chin’s newest collapse.
Two more grooves
inside the old familiars,
parentheses doubled for emphasis.
A sunburst of creases radiate from my lower lip,
as though drawn into being by an invisible purse string.

I tug my cheeks smooth.
Ah, yes . . . that’s the way I looked yesterday.
Or perhaps it was the day before.
Does it matter?
These new grooves are only a surprise
because inside my face,
inside me,
they don’t exist.

Standing here, though, before the truth-telling mirror,
I am reminded of another time,
another mirror,
another face—
also mine.
Many miles away my son lay dying.
We all knew except,
Control of his body slipping away,
comprehension, too.
Visions we could not share galloping through his brain.
We watched him, son, husband, father leaving,
all of us watching.
We had been so certain he had come to stay.
And during those watching days,
during those months that stretched into years,
I rose each morning,
stood before the mirror
and saw that in the blessed dark
my face had

It didn’t matter particularly,
that fallen face.
More a curiosity than a concern.
Watching your son die,
even from a great distance,
teaches you to care little about such things.
When you go out into the world there is so much you cannot say.
Your face is only doing its best to speak for you.

But still I stood then,
toothbrush in hand,
studying the grieving mother who studied me,
the collapse of flesh almost a comfort.
A substitute for the tears,
so nearly vanquished by

when even grief lives far away,
as though all this happened in another lifetime,
to another mother,
I find strange comfort in this meticulously outlined chin.
The comfort
that comes with knowing
that death
will rescue us all.

This will probably be the opening piece for the memoir I’ve been talking about, a memoir that will now be primarily in prose. The title for the whole is one I’m returning to: When Even Grief Lives Far Away.

A Continuing Conversation

conversationLast week, talking further about the effects of aging on my work as a writer, I spoke of now being more successful in “getting out of my own way” when I sit down to write. I said that I find myself far less concerned about what anyone else—friends, agent, editors, reviewers, etc.—will think about what I’m creating and more able simply to let what I find within me flow. And I quoted one of my readers of the previous week’s discussion who referred to the process of aging as being like creating a reduction when cooking, after long simmering our own “me-ness” grows more intense.

I asked my readers for their experience of the impact of aging on their work, and here are some of the responses I got.

I love the idea of coming to an age where writing from the place of story is the thing that makes you feel most yourself. I think many of us get rare glimpses of this place as we move through our careers. I know I’ve been there…and I cherished that space. I’m always looking for it. Maybe, instead, I need to just let that place find me. —Ann


I took great comfort from this post. This idea of reduction is like distillation, which ironically is a process used to create alcoholic drinks—”spirits.” Likewise, our spiritual life after age 60 is reducing life to its essence and saying no to many things that used to concern us. —Doug


I find, as mortality looms ever larger in the window (assuming I have at least another 20 to live), that the mundane things and the pesty demands that KEEP me from what I want to do (write my novels) are more and more annoying, and, “no” is easier to say now, though the biggest thing I need to say “no” to, much more often, is the plethora of online interaction lol  —Donna Marie


Thanks so much for this post – It helps me focus my thinking about writing and projects at this time of my life. I loved the line -“I’m simply reaching into myself, into that place where language begins, where story resides, and pulling out whatever I find there.”

This is what I needed to hear to let go of my own expectations to push outward. Now is the time to reach inside to find my stories. Here is a link to a bit more of my thinking —Joanne T.                            


These posts of yours have actually frightened me – partly because you’ve expressed my well-buried thoughts, and partly because the concept of not being able to write some day due to age is horrifying. But what I have found with my recent projects casts a happier light on being an older writer: I know stuff. I don’t know where or when I learned it, I don’t remember the research, the study, but there it is – language and detail and nuance. I can bring a depth to my work that I couldn’t have brought to it when I was in my 20s. Count me among those writers who will never retire, and who doesn’t give a fig for the so-called career. All I care about is that my stories get better, that I care about them deeply, and that I keep on writing. —Janet


I’ll soon be 74, and my days are among my happiest—rather akin to childhood. 

For many years, I worried about growing old and what it would be like. Such wasted energy! Now that I AM old, I live in gratitude for each day. Every day is different–with a rhythm that feels “right.” Today I did a book signing for my newest PB, Ben and Zip: Two Short Friends. The smile on the face of a three-year old (who had the whole book memorized) filled my heart. 

Much like you, the creaks and squeaks in my joints remind me that I’m old. But my heart has never been more fulfilled. —Joanne L.

Thank you to every one of you for your thoughtful, eloquent responses. I wish I’d been able to use every comment I received. Hearing from my readers makes this a conversation, and it’s the conversation that keeps me returning to the blog!


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!