Tag Archives: Debby Dahl Edwardson

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!

A Freudian Slip

It was one of those amusing Freudian slips.

Last week I posted a quote on this blog from Kelly Barnhill’s Newbery acceptance speech and dated the speech as having been delivered in 1987.  Kelly would have been fourteen years old in 1987.  I don’t know her though she lives in my community, but when the good folks at Winding Oak who manage my website caught my error, I looked her up.

The real year of Kelly’s speech was 2017.  How did I come by 1987?  That’s the year my novel, On My Honor, won a Newbery Honor.

On My Honor

A couple of times a month two good friends and I gather for conversation.  Our topic, aging.  We are old ladies, though I’m farther along the old-lady spectrum than either of them.  We talk about our fears, our hopes, the deep changes we are experiencing.  We own up to what we are losing, celebrate the places where we are still learning, still growing.  We’ve decided that it’s perfectly all right to talk about our physical ailments, too, something we don’t usually put on display.  And at the end of our conversation we look at one another, take a deep breath, and say, “Thank you.  This was really useful!”

Credit jclk8888 | morguefile.com

The day before my thirty-year slip with the date of Kelly’s speech appeared on my website, we three had been talking about the young who are taking our places.  One of these friends is a retired psychology professor.  She said she still sees reference to her published articles, but she knows they will grow fewer.  “Once research is more than ten years old,” she said, and her words trailed into a shrug.  And yet she has moved on to new territory, a master gardener, a fabric artist.  Roles she had little time for when she was immersed in her career.

The other is a retired therapist.  She with some others founded an institute designed to bring psychology and spirituality under the same roof.  She talked about how all of her companions in that groundbreaking work have moved on in one way or another, and yet how satisfying it was to go back and see that what they founded still thrives.

And I am still a working writer, though my work leaves my desk at a much slower rate these days.  And I spoke about the way the field that has challenged and sustained me for more than forty years has evolved in my wake.  I suspect that many of my early novels would never be published today, not because they were bad novels but because the world wants something different now.  Even so I feel validated by these changing standards, not erased by them.  I was one of many who helped create a world that made it possible for these new standards, these new writers to grow.

Recently, I read Kelly’s Newbery award novel, The Girl Who Drank the Moon.  (I listened to it, actually, a new kind of “reading” I have discovered as I make my way back and forth across the city in a succession of thirty-minute segments.  It seems that everyplace I go is thirty minutes away.)  And I was delighted by the grace of the writing and the wisdom of the writer.  By the world she created out of ancient elements while making her story wholly new.   By the skill of the narrator, too, in this audio rendition.

And I thought . . . how lucky I am to belong to a field that contains Kelly Barnhill and Katherine Paterson and Neil Gaiman and Kate DiCamillo and Kevin Henkes and Debby Dahl Edwardson and all the as yet unknown writers who will follow us as we tumble, one after another, into obscurity.  What a blessing to have been a part of all that good work.

If, for a brief moment, I conflated Kelly’s award with my own . . . so be it.  I’m glad to have flashed across the stage with her, if only in my own mind.  (If you go back to check on the mistake, you’ll find it corrected now.)

What matters isn’t that my day in the sun has passed or that even Kelly’s is passing.  What matters is that the work, our work, day by day by day, is good.  What matters is that we each lived our gifts, brought them singing into the world.  (This, not just for my fellow writers, but for my old-lady friends who did other good work as well.)

What matters is that, however minutely, our living and thus our song changed the world forever.

LoonSong

LoonSongWriters need other writers. At every stage of a career.

The newbie dipping a toe into the icy water of agents and editors and contracts and marketing plans and publication.

The just-on-the-edge-of-success writer who has had one-too-many encouraging notes from editors and too few contracts in hand.

The mid-career pro who needs to step for a moment outside the isolation of the work, to create, connect, discover.

The long-time writer who simply wants to be with others who share the vision, to be renewed.

A couple of autumns ago, two Vermont College of Fine Arts alumni of the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults, Debby Dahl Edwardson and Jane Buchanan, and I, a retired faculty member from VCFA, gathered in Debby’s cabin on an island in a lake in northern Minnesota. We went there to dream of a retreat for writers for children and young adults, those just starting out and seeking information and encouragement and those long established and looking for a community of their peers. We knew that given a long weekend in this breathtaking wilderness we could nurture one another. And that is how LoonSong came into being.

Now the dream has come to fruition. The first LoonSong retreat will gather from September 8th through the 12th, 2016. It will have riches to offer for children’s and young-adult writers at every stage of their careers. And we will meet, not in a rustic island cabin, but in Elbow Lake Lodge, a gorgeous, lake-side resort.

Here are the outstanding faculty who have agreed to join us:

William Alexander writes science fiction and fantasy for middle grade audiences. His novels include the National Book Award-winning Goblin Secrets and the Eleanor Cameron Award-winning Ambassador.

Kathi Appelt is the author of the Newbery Honor-winning, National Book Award finalist, PEN USA Literary Award-winning, and bestselling The Underneath as well as the National Book Award finalist The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, and many, many fun and rollicking picture books.

Kekla Magoon is the author of young adult novels including The Rock and the River, for which she received the ALA Coretta Scott King New Talent Award and an NAACP Image Award nomination, and X: A Novel, which was long-listed for the National Book Award in 2015. She also writes nonfiction on historical topics, including Today the World Is Watching You: The Little Rock Nine and the Fight for School Integration, 1957 and the forthcoming PANTHERS! The History and Legacy of the Black Panther Party in America.

Oh . . . and me. I’m on the faculty, too. (You can check my credentials if you like.)

And believe it or not, Katherine Paterson, our first National Ambassador for Children’s Literature, twice Newbery Medalist, named a Living Legend by the Library of Congress, will be our keynote speaker!

Extraordinary literary agent Rubin Pfeffer will be there, and since he’s my agent, I can promise that he is truly extraordinary.

An editor, yet to be named, probably someone who works with one of the faculty so you’ll be able to see them interact, will be there, too.

Vicki and Steve Palmquist of Winding Oak, the folks who manage this web site and market all my books and do the same for many other writers for young people, will be there to teach us about marketing and to give individual consultations.

Vermont College of Fine Arts is sponsoring the conference and those who are interested will have an opportunity to learn about VCFA’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, the oldest and most prestigious program in the country. (I’d say “in the world,” because it is that, but that would sound pretentious.)

You can come to learn from masters, to connect with your peers, and/or simply to retreat and write. You create your own experience. In addition to lectures and panels and workshops, writing prompts and consultations, there will be quiet space for writing. Oh, and I mustn’t forget to mention bonfires on the beach, pontoon rides on the lake and a whole wild world out there, beckoning.

This is truly a boutique program with room for fewer than forty participants, so check it out now. I’m guessing it’s going to fill fast.

I’d love to see you there!

In Which Their Own Faces Shine

smiling boyLast time I wrote in this space, I talked about our need for diverse books, diverse books and diverse authors . . . a point on which, I assume, we all agree. All children, when they enter the world of books, need to be able to find their own cultures, their own families, their own faces there. If they can’t, how can we possibly expect them to value a world that excludes them?

But even as I proclaimed the need for such diversity, I acknowledged that I, as a white writer, have neither the ability nor the courage to produce the needed books. Why? Because my own knowledge is so bound up in whiteness as to be blind. Not colorblind, just blind.

A bit of history. I grew up in north-central Illinois in a community bound by an unspoken, unwritten “sunset law.” “Don’t let the sun set on you in this town.” And people of color knew for whom the unwritten law was created, and they stayed away. Far away. When African-American artists came to entertain us in our community concert series, we applauded mightily. But then we chose not to notice as they drove fifteen miles to the county seat to eat a meal in a restaurant or spend the night in a hotel.

I grew up knowing this restriction to be wrong, deeply wrong. What I didn’t understand was how thoroughly my community’s restriction deprived me. In all my early years, I never knew a single person of color, leaving me so encased in my own whiteness as to be stupid.

Of course, I have the privilege of having friends outside my white circle now, but that leaves me understanding only the most obvious surfaces of their lives. To try to write such a person into one of my stories? Mistakes would fly.

Cross-cultural writing is always complex, even fraught. I know a book, for instance, in which a Jewish writer presented a Jesuit seminarian as agonizing over the fact that someone he loved hadn’t been “saved,” a muddling of Christian culture so profound as to be almost funny. The difference, though, is that Christians have had centuries to portray themselves with accuracy and insight. One outsider’s mistaken stereotype is a drop in an already replete ocean.

Am I saying that no one can write outside her own culture? No. I’m saying only that I know I cannot, because my experience lacks a deep enough foundation.

I once discussed the topic of who-can-write-what with Ashley Bryan, a black writer and artist. He pointed out that there are black singers who specialize in German music and that these singers are much loved in Germany. But to do that successfully, he said, they immerse themselves in German culture. That’s what few white writers who cross over to write about people of color choose to do. It’s what I feel incapable of doing in a deep enough way to be authentic.

There are people, however, who manage such a crossing, at least to my eyes. Two alumni of Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I once taught, come immediately to mind: Nancy Bo Flood is white. She lived and worked for many years on the Navajo reservation. She writes about the people she knows and loves with both knowledge and empathy, but she also takes great care to have native readers vet her work. Is that enough? Some will say no. It seems enough to me, but I stand outside the culture she is writing about.

Debby Dahl Edwardson is white, also. She has lived since she was a young adult in Barrow, Alaska. She married an Inupiat man and raised seven children with him. She writes about her adopted culture with insight and grace. Enough insight? Enough grace? Clearly I’m not the one who can judge. The bottom line for all of us is that we should judge the book, not the author. If the book gets it right, it doesn’t matter the color of the author’s skin. If it gets it wrong, it doesn’t matter either. Call out the book’s successes or failures.

Having said that and believing it, I still have a confession. When I taught at VCFA I would occasionally have a student, someone I perceived to be heterosexual, give me a manuscript with lesbian characters. Now, I am a lesbian, and I always tried hard to judge only the manuscript. Did the story work? Was the depiction of the lesbian experience authentic? But even as I reminded myself to stand behind my own beliefs—judge the book, not the author—I bristled inwardly. How did she dare . . .? What gave her the right . . .? Each time, because I had a solemn responsibility to these students, I managed to talk myself down to fairness. But the talking down didn’t come easily.

Cross-cultural writing is never simple.

It is a reality, however, we need to keep wrestling with. For too many years we wrestled with nothing at all, because we simply left people of color out of our books or included them only in little-black-Sambo stereotypes. And I wish now that we are at least trying to be inclusive we could be more gentle with one another’s mistakes, that every one of us on every side of this issue could be more gentle with one another’s mistakes.

What we need is for people from all the parallel cultures, the term Virginia Hamilton preferred, to write their own worlds. But we also need others with a deep enough understanding to dare to write across lines, even knowing some will object to that line-crossing for their own justifiable reasons.

We also need, not incidentally, more publishers and editors of color. And we need more sales reps of color, too, so that we don’t have white men saying in acquisition meetings, “I can’t sell that.”

And we need, finally, equity across every racial divide, equity in the economy, in education, in work opportunity, so that more people of color can walk into a book store and buy a book in which their own faces shine.