Tag Archives: Foster Child

Serendipity

Serendipity began my career as a writer for children and young-adults.

shelter from the windMy first novel was published in 1976, and in 1976 the young-adult field wanted what was being called “the new realism in children’s literature.”  What can it be called but serendipity that new realism was exactly what I needed to write?

(I’ll pause to clarify that what was called “young adult” in 1976 would now be called middle grade.  Our stories were aimed at 11 to 13-year-olds, because it was 11 to 13-year-olds reading our books, one of those self-perpetuating systems.  Only later, when publishers began to dare to put out books about older characters and more complex issues, did the readership become truly young adult.)

I knew nothing about “the new realism” when I began writing with the dream of publication.  In fact, I knew little about the field I was trying to enter except that I had read a handful of Newbery medal books and fallen in love with their fierce truth-telling.

Truth-telling was the passion that brought me to write for youth.  I had been persistently lied to as a child.  It was presumably innocuous lying, the same lying that most other children of my generation were subjected to, but my mother was, I suspect, better at it than most.  The lying was intended to protect us, but actually protected adults from their own discomfort about difficult topics.  And once I parsed the silences, the outright lies, I felt betrayed.

So when I sat down for the first time to write for young readers, I was ready to whip back the curtain of protective silence that had so infuriated me.  I began with a story about a girl in a foster home, sexually abused in the name of Jesus.

That story was in my heart because I had a foster child at the time, one of several who shared my home at different times, and I had come to be aware of—and angry about—the sexual abuse such children too often encountered.  It was in my heart, also, because I happened to be a clergy wife, and I was equally angry about the way religion could be used to support and hide abuse.

7_29FosterChildIf I had written Foster Child ten years earlier, it probably would have gone unpublished.  As it was, even though the field was opening up, I may have stumbled onto the only editor in town—James Cross Giblin at Clarion Books—with the courage to take on such a loaded topic.  (Foster Child was published as my second novel, because by the time I found Jim, I had another less problematic manuscript, Shelter from the Wind, completed, and so he began with that one.)

So . . . serendipity launched my career.  Editors in the 1970’s happened to want to publish what I needed to write.  If my heart had instead been invested in a story about a boy attending a school for magicians, I would have had a much harder time getting published and a much harder time getting noticed if I’d been published at all.

My point?  Sometimes it helps to know that the field goes through cycles and that what you’re doing may simply stand outside the current cycle.

Before the unlikely success of the Harry Potter stories, fantasy was poison to most editors.  After Harry, they were starving for it.

I had a student many years ago who wrote adult horror novels.  They were well written, well plotted, could make your hair stand up.  But at that time editors simply weren’t buying horror.  I could do little but tell her how good her work was . . . and commiserate with her for her inability to sell it.  (I lost contact with her after that class and have always wondered if she managed to catch the publishing merry-go-round on a later revolution.)

My advice?  Write what you need to write.  It’s probably the only thing you can write well anyway.  But if you want to publish, be aware of trends.  And learn patience!

And trust to serendipity.

In Defense of Repression

Last week I talked about the difference between sentiment and sentimentality in our stories and, in particular, I invoked the cut-away technique used so much by films. Bring your readers/viewers right to the brink of the kind of powerful moment they already know as inevitable, then leave them to play the details out in their own minds. But stepping back from such moments isn’t the only way to play them or the only point to consider about effectively drawing feelings from our readers.

7_29How do we move our readers in a genuine way through the artifice of story? I think the answer begins in ourselves, with our own emotional control. I remember Madeleine L’Engle’s saying, and I’m paraphrasing, that if she made herself cry when she was writing, she had to throw the scene away. To bring her readers to tears she had to write with her own emotions under tight control. The emotion we bring to our work must be sifted through layers and layers of art. We need to work as a potter works clay, close in, our hands and hearts immersed, but separate, objective at the same time.

During the years of my son’s illness and death, the pain I was living through, a pain so deep I had no words for it, touched and transformed everything I wrote. My grief intruded even on stories where it didn’t belong. But I could no more set that pain aside when I sat down to write than I could do so in my daily life. I never, however, tried to write about Peter’s illness and death directly. Not enough art stood between me and the event to make that possible.

ph_peter2More than seven years later, I am, at last, ready to take on this loss more directly, not his actual death but the experience of losing a son. In Blue-Eyed Wolf one of the topics I am exploring is the death of a son through the perspective of that boy’s mother. And when I write it, I know it won’t be sensational, melodramatic, sentimental, because whatever I say will rise out of the heart that made the story, not be snatched from the air and inserted for impact.

I have had writing students who came from the kind of family background I do, one where feelings of any stripe were considered to be not quite “nice.” And that kind of background can be a liability in many circumstances. But for my writing, I’ve found that the habit of holding back feelings can be a strength . . . as long as we find the right moment and the right words for letting go. And once the time comes, stories are a perfect place, a safe place to play them out . . . because it’s not me, you understand, it’s that character emoting.

When I spin out a story, I hold the feelings close, waiting, waiting for the moment to come when my characters can express what I’ve been holding back. And only then will my readers weep or rejoice or simply sigh with satisfaction. It’s the holding, the reluctance to let the feelings out that finally gives emotion power on the page. And for me, the holding back is easy.

Those who come from a background that allows, even encourages, displays of feeling, have, I presume, a different challenge, to find a way of holding back on the page that doesn’t feel natural or necessary in their real lives.

7_29FosterChildAs with so many aspects of writing, there is an irony here. To manifest genuine feeling in our work, feelings that grow our readers larger rather than simply manipulate them into a response, we need a light touch. You might even say we need a good dose of repression. I remember an editor saying to me as we were working on an early draft of Foster Child, one of my first novels, “Marion, you are asking people to cry too often.” Now, I rarely call for tears. Nor do I cry myself.

I just write my way toward the moment when my character does the work for me.

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The Descending Side of the Bell Curve

Bell_shaped_curveSome thirty years ago I read an article which stated with firm conviction that the peak of short story writers’ careers comes in their thirties, the peak of novelists’ careers in their forties. Since I was past forty and just getting launched—I was 38 when my first novel for young people was published—I was appalled. Until that moment I had always envisioned my career as an ever-ascending line, not the bell curve they described in the article. After all, I would certainly gain in proficiency and knowledge as I moved through my life; why shouldn’t my writing improve endlessly?

And yet in recent years I have come to realize that my career is, in fact, taking the shape of a bell curve. And there is no question, I am on the descending side.

The descent has to do with freshness. No one can do something every day for half a century and still come at it entirely fresh.

It has to do with having a less intense connection to the world around me. What was so urgently important in my early years of writing, what is still urgently important to my readers, has, shall we say, mellowed for me.

It has to do with bringing a different kind of energy to my work. Instead of stepping off into the unknown as I did in my early work, I am arranging and rearranging the familiar to find new shapes.

Does it mean my later work is inferior? I hope not. Does it mean there is no longer a place for me out there in the world of publishing? I certainly hope not on that one, too. What it does mean, for certain—and this is something Norma Fox Mazer and I used to say to one another from time to time, wryly—is that I’m no longer the flavor of the month. Another book from Marion Dane Bauer is simply another book from Marion Dane Bauer. Nice, but no one gets very excited . . . including, I must admit, me. And it means that while I believe my work grows in richness as my life gathers riches and it grows in competence as my technique becomes more effortless, nothing I write will ever be “cutting edge” again.

I was cutting edge once, in a small way. I embarked on a career as a middle-grade novelist—my novels about eleven to thirteen-year-olds were considered “young adult” then—at the beginning of what was being called “the new realism” in children’s literature. Because I came to my writing with a passion for truth telling, I broke through some barriers. In 1977 my novel Foster Child dealt with sexual molestation in the name of Jesus, pretty heavy stuff. In 1994 I was the editor for and a contributor to Am I Blue? Coming Out from the Silence, a book of short stories for young people based on GLBT themes. (Or it was just GL then. BT were not yet in most people’s consciousness.)

Today I am no longer breaking barriers, except, perhaps, some of my own and that rather quietly. For instance, writing a novel in verse broke an internal barrier for me, but it was only another of a long list of verse novels out there in the world. Writing my first animal story did, too, though nothing of what I was doing was unique. There is certainly no reason for me to bea smile and a nod to dear Norma here—the flavor of the month.

I admire the young writers coming behind me enormously, their energy, the freshness of their vision, their determination to change the world with their words. And oh, how beautifully those gifts are used. Long, long novels! Stories that probe worlds I can’t even dream. Picture books so fresh and innovative they take my breath away.

In the meantime, I plod on in the old ways. Some of them new for me. But I doubt anything is going to come out of me that the world hasn’t already seen and heard, much of it already from me.

I’m clearly on the descending side of the bell curve. And what’s amazing to me now is that I can realize that’s true and be content. The concept, when I first encountered it, infuriated me. No longer. I just keep on doing what I do, grateful both for the career I still have and for all the fine writers coming up behind me. 

I hope, for every one of you, that your writing gives you as much joy as mine has given me.