Tag Archives: Marion Dane Bauer

Following My Own Advice

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The letter from my editor was polite, even encouraging.  She said something like, “Marion, this is going to be a very, very powerful read, but I find some things about it puzzling.”

And then she went on to explain her puzzlement, including saying that she didn’t know who my main character was, a young boy whom the story inhabited closely from the first page to the last.

It’s a novel, and it’s a novel I’d been working on for a long time.  Far too long.  At least that’s the way I was beginning to feel.  And though I had convinced myself that the manuscript was ready to be seen—I wouldn’t have submitted it otherwise—I had known the entire time I was working that something wasn’t quite right at the story’s core.

I began revising with the editor’s brief comments, reaching back in, finding a new place to stand in the story.  And then one day, having finished revising about five chapters, I looked ahead to the rest of the story and I could finally see what was wrong.  What had always been wrong from my first conception . . . with my character, with my story.

To resolve the problem that lay at the core of my novel, I needed to perform one simple but profound maneuver.  I needed to turn my central character, Ben, inside out!

Ben is reconnecting with his mother who abandoned him when he was three, and in my first conception of the story he is filled with resentment.  He doesn’t want to see her.  He’s there only because his parents said he had to be.  All he truly wants is for his life to go on as it has in the past, just him and his dad.

How many times have I said to developing writers, “Your character must want something?  Your main character’s desire is the energy that drives your story.”  And having said that dozens of times before writing classes, having said it hundreds of times in notes on manuscripts, I had failed to say it to myself.

What does Ben want?  When delivered to his mother, his only desire is a negative one, resistance.  And so the energy informing my story was anger, nothing else.  One of my early readers had even said, somewhat cautiously, “I wonder if this kid isn’t too angry?  It makes him hard to like.”

I had heard her comment, understood the truth in it, but I couldn’t imagine any way of presenting my story without that overwhelming anger.  So I kept working, committed to my original conception.  When my discomfort with the manuscript rose too high, I decided, as we writers are prone to do, that what was wrong with my story was me!  I’m getting too old.  I’m running out of energy.  Maybe even, running out of brain cells.

(There’s almost nothing that can’t be blamed on old in this maturity-denying society.)

It took my editor’s puzzlement and a new round of revisions to come back up against that truth.  When I arrived at it, at the understanding that my character was starting from the wrong place to carry my readers with me, I found myself holding months—no let’s be honest, years—of work in my hands and knowing it hadn’t yet come to anything worth reading.  And it was very possible it never would.

Sometimes that kind of darkness is just darkness.  Sometimes it’s the setting that allows the glimmer in a new idea to come through.

“What if,” I said to myself, “this boy, instead of being sullenly angry, is naively hopeful.  What if he is the one who engineers this meeting, confident he can get his mother to come home?  What if?”

“That would mean starting over from page 1,” said another voice, also mine.  “That would mean passing every single line of the story through this new lens.”  It was a discouraged voice.  A tired one.  Let’s face it, an old voice.

“Well, why don’t you try?” the more hopeful voice said again.  “Isn’t that what you would say to another writer?  Try it?  What do you have to lose?”

Why is it so much easier to teach others what I know than it is to apply my wisdom to my own work?

Which is the same as asking, Why is it so hard to follow my own advice?

Just in case you’re wondering, I am doing that now.

And guess what.  It’s working!

By Happiness

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

By happiness I mean here a deep sense of flourishing that arises from an exceptionally healthy mind. This is not a mere pleasurable feeling, a fleeting emotion, or a mood, but an optimal state of being. Happiness is also a way of interpreting the world, since while it may be difficult to change the world, it is always possible to change the way we look at it.

 

Matthieu Ricard

Autogenics

In my last blog, I talked about positive expectation, about keeping a friendly relationship with my brain so that it will keep working for me.  What I didn’t talk about is the technique I’ve learned for doing just that.

It works, and it’s so simple that I’m turning into a crusader, eager to share it.

The technique is called autogenics.  The concept has been around since the mid-twentieth century, and the core idea that makes it work is integral to many different kinds of psychotherapy.  But autogenics doesn’t require the assistance of a therapist.  It involves nothing more than talking to our brains.

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This is my version:

I begin each morning with a body scan, sitting in meditation, breathing gently but deeply.  Or lately, with cool mornings that are destined to turn into hot days, I skip the sitting meditation and do a meditative walk instead, still taking note of my breathing.

These are the phrases I use for my body scan—you would create your own—reciting them silently and reciting each phrase five or six times:

My mind is awake and alert.

My body is rested and ready for the day.

My eyes are eager to see.

My nose savors the world.

My ears delight in hearing.

My jaw is relaxed, my tongue is soft.

My throat is open.

My shoulders are warm.

My arms are strong.

My hands are skilled.

My heart is joyful.

My lungs treasure the air.

My tummy awaits goodness.

My gut nurtures my soul.

My legs love to move.

My feet stand on the earth.

I am here.

I am here.

I am here.

After doing the body scan for a time and finding it both relaxing and energizing, I tried one morning when I was despairing over the manuscript I was engaged in to add in phrases about my work.

I began simply.  Nothing specific to the problems I was struggling with, just a general affirmation.

My writing is my gift to the world

My writing is my gift to myself.

To my amazement, that day my work went smoothly.  And while those affirmations are certainly no guarantee of perfection, they keep my energy high.

What a powerful tool!

I am told that the brain does not recognize negatives, so if we tell ourselves, “I have no pain,” our brains will register only “I have” and “pain.”  But it’s easy enough to avoid negatives.  In fact, it’s good practice for other purposes, too.

I’ve found the results refreshing and encouraging, so much so that I wish I’d been taught this simple practice with the alphabet.  What matters, though is that I know it now and that it works.

These days I’m adding another element to my morning routine.  Valuing my writing can be easier, I’ve discovered, than valuing my days when no writing is accomplished.  I have long weighed my days importance according to the words I have assembled and brought to the page.  But who will I be, what worth will be left for my days when I can no longer write . . . or choose not to?

I would never weigh the worth of any other life that way.  Why my own?

And so I’m adding another dimension to the meditative conversation I have with my brain each morning.  Gratitude.  Simple and profound gratitude.

Gratitude for my body expressed through the scan.

Gratitude for the world that greets me each day.

Gratitude for the gift of my life, the gift of each breath.

And I find that nothing alters a day—and all that day embraces—more than gathering that gratitude into words.

And repeating,

repeating,

repeating,

repeating

them.

 

Try it.  It’s such an easy practice, one that fits smoothly into a life.

And it makes a difference!

The Universe

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It’s very likely that the universe is really a kind of a question, rather than the answer to anything.

Kevin Kelly

Positive Expectation

A writer’s career, more than any other career I know or can imagine, is dependent on our having a friendly relationship with our own brains.

Sometimes in my life as a writer that friendly relationship is just there.  It requires neither thought nor effort.  The project I am working on itself creates that friendship.  The work is a gift I return to day after day with full energy.

That kind of experience is, I presume, what is referred to as being “in the zone.”

Then there are other times, other projects, that I struggle with from the first paragraph.  Books where I start and stop, start and stop, where I find myself reimagining and starting over at the point I expected to be done.

“Why,” I ask, in the midst of this kind of muddle, “can’t I just write the blasted thing?  What’s standing in my way?”

Photo by Xenia Bogarova on Unsplash

I have always avoided the term “writer’s block.”  It seems an easy excuse to quit trying.  But I have come to understand something.  The what that is standing in my way when my work falters is always, always me!

In fact, it’s my own brain and the unbidden, often barely noticed conversation I’m having with myself.

These days that one-sided conversation goes something like this:

“Marion, can’t you see?  You’re old.  You’re losing it.  Do you remember how you used to be able to hold an idea, with all its complexity, in your mind from the beginning of a long work to the end?  Now you can’t even remember that inspired idea you came up with yesterday!  And if you bothered to take notes when the idea came, you’ve probably lost your notes.”

That kind of self-talk, I’ve discovered, is powerful.  Really, really powerful.  And when I get caught into it, guess what?  My time at the keyboard turns into a struggle.

Awhile back I sailed into a new novel without quite sorting everything I needed to know about my story’s foundation.  “It will come,” I told myself.  “After all, I’ve been doing this for a long time.  I know what I’m doing.”

(That’s another kind of self-talk entirely.  Too much confidence based on assumptions I know better than.)

And some of it did come.  But some of the story’s foundation remained elusive.  All the way through my work, it remained elusive.

I am fortunate to have an editor interested enough in my work to read this almost novel and respond with, “I think it has the potential to be a very very powerful read, but it also puzzled me a bit . . .”

Then she spelled out her puzzlement.

And I sighed, knew she was entirely right, spent a few minutes feeling sorry for myself—and very, very old—and then said to my brain, “Okay.  Time to go to work.  Time to do what you told yourself you didn’t have to do.”

And I have gone to work.  And I can do it.  New ideas to resolve the puzzlement are flowing.

All inside my head still.  Inside my enthusiastic brain.

But the work will begin to hit the page tomorrow.

New ideas, new words will come out of this old brain of mine as long as I feed it the right kind of food.  And the right kind of food is positive expectation.

“Okay, Marion.  You know how to do this.  In fact, you’ve been doing it for a long time.  Now sit down and, without trying to skip over any steps, use what you know!”