Tag Archives: Marion Dane Bauer

The Secret of Living Well


Photo by Duy Pham on Unsplash

Perhaps the secret of living well is not in having all the answers but in pursuing unanswerable questions in good company.

Rachel Naomi Remen

On Staying Alive

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I’ve been thinking about it for a long time, noticing the elements of my day that bring me joy, that wake me into aliveness.

The waking isn’t automatic.  I don’t open my eyes each morning to say, “Wow!  Another day!”  Rather, I wake into an ordinariness I treasure.  (How aware I am of standing close to a time when I will, inevitably, look back on this very ordinariness as golden.)

I wake, get up, dress, meditate and exercise, then gather myself a lovely breakfast.  A spinach-bacon omelet this morning with homemade guacamole tucked inside, grapefruit topped with a sprinkle of granola, and a chai latte.

Then I settle into my study, surrounded by books, by reminders of Vermont College of Fine Arts where I once taught, by photos of my family and beloved friends, and I dive into my computer.

That’s what it feels like most days, this thing that happens when I sit down to the computer, a deep dive.

And in that immersion I come most fully alive.

Sometimes the dive is into very cold water.  Can I do it again?  Is what I’m doing even worth the attempt?  What in the hell is wrong with this manuscript?

What in the hell is wrong with me?

In the balance between sitting down to do again this thing I know for certain I can do and tiptoeing out over the abyss of something I’ve never tried before, I tend to favor the tiptoeing.  Which sounds nice in the telling of it, but the living of it can be as eerily uncomfortable as the language of this analogy.

It is, however, the very tension that comes with stepping out over the abyss that keeps me knowing I am alive.  I have encountered people who thrive on the adrenaline that comes with jumping out of planes.  That kind of rush does nothing for me.  When I went whitewater rafting to research a long-ago novel, I spent the entire three days imitating an oily puddle in the bottom of the raft.

But the challenge that comes with learning something new, struggling to put it into words!  That is a whole different kind of adrenaline.  And a whole different kind of aliveness.  At least for me.

Recently, I have been trying to create a picture book that could be a worthy companion to my most recent The Stuff of Stars.  I have been working on it for months.

My first attempt turned out to be too like the original.

My next couple of attempts bemused both my agent and my editor.

This attempt . . . well, this attempt . . .

A friend recently passed a quote on to me.  It was Kim Stafford quoting a jazz musician.  He said, “Creative people are comfortable with not knowing . . . yet.”

I would say that “comfortable” is too strong a word for me, much too strong.  I’m not the least bit comfortable with not knowing where this attempt will land, but I’m committed to finding out.

I’m tiptoeing over this particular abyss because I read a book called Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli.  I read the book three times, in fact, and still keep pulling it out and dipping into it again.  Because I fell in love.

I fell so hard that I set out to write something to be shared between an adult and a very young child, words based on the mysterious excitement I draw from my first real encounter with quantum physics.

I know.  I know.  Of course, I don’t understand quantum physics.  I don’t pretend that I do.  I have no meaningful background in science at all.  But the description of a universe that comes into being through interaction, in which reality is a happening and we are a happening too, in which we are part of everything and everything is part of us thrills me.

It’s that kind of challenge . . . and that kind of excitement that wakes me into aliveness each day.

And keeps me writing!

Feast on Your Life

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The time will come when, with elation, you will greet yourself arriving at your own door, in your own mirror, and each will smile at the other’s welcome, And say, sit here. Eat. You will love again the stranger who was yourself. Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart to itself, to the stranger who has loved you all your life, whom you ignored for another, who knows you by heart. Take down the love letters from the bookshelf, the photographs, the desperate notes, peel your own image from the mirror. Sit. Feast on your life.

Derek Walcott

Nobody asked you to write that novel

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My favorite thing to remember about novel-writing is an observation I saw taped to a friend’s wall in her office in graduate school: “Nobody asked you to write that novel”. Therefore novel-writing is a choice–you can always stop, always keep going. You are free to do whatever you want. Most novelists come to writing novels because they have been avid readers. Almost all novels, because they are capacious and hard to contain, are imperfect. Normally, “perfect” and “ambitious” cannot co-exist in the same novel. Therefore, most readers have plenty of opinions about how even a wonderful, beloved, and thrilling novel might be made just a little better. And so we try it. And we discover that it is both harder and easier than it looks.

  1. Be the tortoise, not the hare. You learn a lot by taking your time, paying attention to what is going on around you, and keeping at it. Every draft is first and foremost an exploration before it is a work of art. You have to finish exploring before you begin shaping, so it is all important to get to the end of the first draft.
  2. Read a lot. You take in a great deal of knowledge without intending to. Familiarity and pleasure breed ease. When you read other novels, you get models of what to do and what not to do. When you read other sorts of literature, your idea of what a novel is shapes itself by contrast. And every subject requires some sort of research, if only to stimulate your own ideas.
  3. Look and listen. Never hesitate to watch people, eavesdrop, and ask “innocent” questions. You want to know how individuals comport themselves. Novels thrive on the energy of real life. Characters in novels seek to emulate human variety. You cannot know human variety and maintain good manners at the same time.
  4. Exhaust your own curiosity about your project before showing it to someone else. Let your own ideas play out without getting input from others, then, after you show them your work, use their responses as input to push you forward. It may take you several drafts and a long time to come to the end of your ability to tackle a given subject, and when you do, you might be satisfied or dissatisfied with your product. If you are dissatisfied, the input of others will give you ideas for how to shape your novel further. If you are satisfied, the input of others will let you know if your novel is readable and accessible.
  5. Focus on enjoying the process and let the rewards, such as they are or might be, take care of themselves. If you love the process, you will be happy. If you focus on possible rewards, you will be unhappy.

So, even though nobody asked you to write that novel, you may, you should, and good luck to you!

Jane Smiley from an interview with Publisher’s Weekly

The Privilege of Hope

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Hope . . . is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. The more unpropitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper that hope is. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. . . . It is also this hope, above all, which gives us the strength to live and continually to try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now.

These words come from “the great Czech playwright turned dissident turned president, Vaclav Havel.”  And the phrase I just quoted, as well as the larger quote above, comes from the amazing newsletter by Maria Popova called brainpickings.

If you haven’t yet discovered brainpickings, I recommend both reading and supporting it.  I promise Maria Popova will enlarge your life or, at the very least, your mind.

But here is the question Havel’s words left me with.  How can those of us who write for children do our work without hope?  For that matter, how does anyone write anything for anyone without hope?  I can’t imagine, day after day, finding the energy to gather words of despair.  And what would be the point of putting them out into the world?

I’m not talking about cheerfulness or false reassurance when I speak of hope, and Havel isn’t either.  I’m talking about something deeper, harder . . . harder to come by, maybe.  Certainly harder to live.

I’m talking about a hope nutritious enough to feed to children.

If you, as I do, look out at our world—our spiraling-out-of-control climate, our spiraling-out-of-control political system, our spiraling-out-of-control wars—and find yourself filled with apprehension, then how do you put all that aside to write a picture book for the most tender of the young?  Or even a novel for teens?

What do we have to say?

Duck?  Disaster is on its way?

I’ve been struggling with that question lately.  The truth is that my view of our world has never been a confident one, and I have struggled with that lack of confidence my entire career.  I have come up with two very simple answers.  (Let the simplicity of my answers serve as warning.  For better and for worse—and it is both—I have been gifted with a reductionist mind.)

The first answer I have found is to turn outward.  I mean truly outward.  Lately I have been reading books about the Universe in all its mystery, about the stars, about quantum mechanics.  I don’t understand all I read.  Truth be told, I understand only a fraction of it.  But it fills me with wonder.  It fills me with “Wow!”  And that, that “Wow!”, is what I want to bring to my life and to my writing.

My second answer is the opposite, to turn inward.  Profoundly inward.  To find the deepest truths of relationships, the deepest truths of my own heart.  And to carry those into my life, my work.  Because such truths can never be about despair, no matter how much pain they may hold.  Such truths embody healing at their very core.

Havel also said this:

The kind of hope I often think about (especially in situations that are particularly hopeless, such as prison) I understand above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul; it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.

Havel says, “Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul.”  But I don’t think he means that hope is something we a born with like brown eyes or a sunny disposition.

Hope is something we must teach ourselves, day after day after day.  And once we have a firm hold on it, then—and only then—can we be privileged to carry our hope to the young.