Tag Archives: Norma Fox Mazer

Grooming Our Own Replacements

Norma Fox Mazer and I were good friends. We taught together at Vermont College of Fine Arts back when our MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at VCFA was very new, when it was the only program of its kind. And I still remember the time when Norma stopped me in the hall of our ancient stone dormitory and said, “You realize we’re grooming our own replacements.”

I laughed. We both laughed. But, of course, it was true. By passing on the skills we had gathered over so many years we were making certain that those coming up behind us would have the acuity required to step over us one day.

Now Norma who, along with her husband, Harry, practically created the young-adult field, is gone, but that truth she and I once laughed over continues to play out all around me every day.

I saw it again last month when I attended the Minnesota Book Awards ceremony.

My verse novel, Little Cat’s Luck, was one of four books selected in the middle grade category.  I attended the ceremony with no expectation of my lucky little cat’s winning, and she didn’t.  However, the amazing non-fiction book I was certain would be chosen over mine, Sachiko by Caren Stelson, didn’t win, either. Instead, a beautifully written fantasy, The Secret of Dreadwillow Curse by Brian Farrey took the award.

(If you want evidence of the idiosyncratic nature of any kind of awards selection process, you have only to note that the 2017 Newbery Award novel, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, is also by a Minnesota writer, Kelly Barnhill, and that book didn’t make the list of four. But that’s another topic entirely.)

I had gathered a group of friends to attend with me, not needing an expectation of winning to enjoy the elaborate evening orchestrated by the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library. I invited my friends and I showed up prepared for the great pleasure of spending an entire evening celebrating Minnesota writers. But when I got there something more awaited me.

I found to my delight that I was sitting at the autograph table next to Abby Cooper, a young woman with whom I have a unique connection. A couple of years ago Abby sent me an e-mail saying, “You may not remember me, but when I was in the fifth grade, you spoke at a young-authors’ conference that I attended.” And, I’ll admit it, I laughed. Not derisively, but quite spontaneously. There had been so many young-authors’ conferences, so many fifth graders. No, I did not remember Abby.

Credit: David Cooper

But then she went on to tell me that she had approached me at the end of my session to ask if she could send me a story she was working on. I gave her my address, received her story, and responded with a critique. For a time we wrote back and forth, discussing her work, and then she moved on as fifty graders inevitably do.

Over the years I have had a similar correspondence with quite a few young writers, all of them bright, enthusiastic, passionate. I’ve accompanied each of them for a short distance, and then they’ve moved on. So the truth was, even with this new information, my memory of Abby was vague at best. Still, I was delighted to find out that she was writing to say that her first novel, Sticks and Stones, had been accepted for publication by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Sticks and Stones received a starred review from Kirkus, and now it was one of the four finalists in the middle-grade category for a Minnesota Book Award.

I sat down at the autograph table next to the still very young Abby—she was nearly vibrating in her chair in her excitement—and said quietly, just to myself, “You realize, we’re grooming our own replacements.”

But being there with Abby made the evening for me. I’ve had enough books published, enough awards, enough opportunities to sit in a large, noisy room autographing. But I’ll never have enough of watching young people rise up behind me … even when their rise suggests it’s time for me to move on.

So congratulations, Abby Cooper. I wish you well. May you replace me with vigor and joy. And may you take this good work we love and make it new for a world that is now yours!

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.

Mingling Souls

John Donne: “ . . . more than kisses, letters mingle souls.”

D.J. Taylor: “It’s is difficult not to feel that when writers stopped sending old-fashioned, hand-written letters to each other, literary life lost a dimension.”

A quote from “Along Publisher’s Row” by Campbell Geeslin: “Does anyone think an exchange of a lot of e-mails deserves to be printed and bound into a book?”

4_22Even as a young girl, I had letter-writing companions, a favorite cousin, a fellow counselor from camp, a friend who had moved away. I poured out my heart to these special people, and they responded. Letters kept distant friends close, and they helped me hone my writing skills, too.

The letter writing started for me at the typewriter, however, not with the hand-written missives Taylor commends. Writing by hand is arduous for me, always has been, and others find reading my handwriting arduous, too. Just about the only things I do with pen in hand are autographs and grocery lists. (A teenage foster daughter once said to me, “You know, Mom, it’s a good thing I’m a good kid or no one would accept these typed absence excuses at school.”)

All of which leaves me asking a very basic question: Why this romantic culture that suggests that letters from a typewriter are less than those produced by a quill pen? And why are e-mails any less than letters? Why not gather a book of thoughtfully conceived, heartfelt e-mails? Does the medium really diminish the message?

It is a bad habit of our kind—by which I mean writers and other such literary folk—to denigrate technology any place it touches the words we love. Most of us are willing to climb onto a jet plane or carry a smartphone, and yet too many make a point of eschewing e-books and other such readerly technology. I suspect, though, that nothing has made more of a difference to the quality of our work than being able to put our words on a screen where we can then revise as often as like. How clumsy and difficult revising used to be! Back in my typewriter days when I used a different color of paper for each draft, I used to maintain that I revised about as much as anyone could. Once I began writing on a computer, I discovered I had barely begun to rethink and rework. Even my e-mails are better than my letters ever were. How I used to long to be able to make changes in a letter without retyping it!

Yes, I suppose e-mails often come out of a culture of hurry, a culture of get it down and move on. But all e-mails aren’t created equal any more than all letters ever were. During the years my son, Peter, was terminally ill, I spent time with a therapist who encouraged me to journal. I understood what she wanted and why. But I couldn’t do it. I spent all day at the keyboard, and I couldn’t return to that keyboard to create for only my own eyes. And yet, I knew that writing would help as much as anything could.

And so one day I came up with a solution. I began to send long, carefully worded, deeply felt e-mails to my dear friend Norma Fox Mazer. And she read the e-mails and responded. The conversation was intense, thoughtful, loving and made even more impactful by being swift. The same process with ink and paper couldn’t have come close.

I have a love-hate relationship with technology, as I presume most old ladies do. Technology makes my work easier, more fluid. It also too often confounds me. (Fortunately, I have a son-in-law who bails me out again and again.) But I grow weary of the assumptions too many writer types make about this changing world. Is an e-book really a book? Of course, it is, and now that I find small print more of a challenge, a book that provides its own light and permits me to choose the size of the type—I read on my iPad—is more than a book. It’s a blessing.

What is the point I’m wandering around here? Only this. Let’s resist using our energy to try to hold off a changing world and concentrate instead on using that world to enhance our work. Whatever shape the bucket that carries our words, our words will still be needed. One form of technology will keep supplanting another, but we writers will remain. As will our stories, our essays, our letters.

“More than kisses, letters mingle souls,” and that’s no less true when the letters wing their way to their destinations through cyber space.

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.

 

Is Remembering Enough?

YouthEvery time I happen across a children’s television program where adult actors are pretending to be children I am grateful that those of us who write for young people are permitted to appear in the world in our adult clothes. We are even allowed to grow old! 

What we must do, however, to make the leap from our own world to those we serve is to remember what most adults prefer to forget … our own childhoods. 

It’s understandable that few adults want to retain a deep knowledge of their own young selves. Dependence, vulnerability, unfulfilled longing are painful to relive. But while we who write for young people are commending ourselves for our ability to stay connected with those places in ourselves, perhaps we should pause to ask a crucial question. Is remembering enough? 

Is the most intimate knowledge of our own childhood selves sufficient to create a connection with today’s young readers? Especially if it’s been a long time since we ourselves were young? Or is it possible that childhood itself has changed so profoundly that we are at risk of losing our ability to reach our audience? And when I say we, I mean mostly me  … and those other writers out there who are no longer young.

There are, of course, fundamental facts about childhood that don’t change with an evolving culture. Or they change so slowly as to feel constant. And the younger the child we are writing for, the easier it is to find a reliable empathy from our own experience. Very young children are connected primarily with families, and families have a certain sturdy consistency.

But smart phones and the Internet and video games and whatever the next innovation might be do, in fact, alter the experience of childhood. And the revolving landscape of movie actors, slang, and junk food has always been a plague for writers to sort through as they try to make their stories feel current without risking their being almost instantly out of date once they are published. Styles of parenting change. Schools do, too. And the world that seems to be tumbling around us at an ever accelerating rate impacts children as much, if not more, than it impacts us. But how? How do they experience their future as they witness the disaster our climate is sliding into? I came to consciousness during World War II, but that was a war that we all assumed would end one day … and it did. Or seemed to. What is it like to be born into an unending landscape of war? 

RuntOne solution, of course, to staying contemporary with our young people is to write about a future that lies beyond their reach and ours. Many do that these days. Writing historical fiction is another way to avoid missteps in portraying today. That’s what I’m doing in Blue-Eyed Wolf, the young-adult novel I’m working on now. Another solution for me is to write in an old-fashioned, classic tone set in no particular time as I did in Little Dog, Lost. Animal stories with almost no human characters such as Runt work, too. All those kinds of stories are mostly time safe.

I grow more aware every year, though, of the maneuvering I have to do to stay fresh, to stay in territory where I have authority, to stay publishable. And I’m aware, too, that I can no longer bring the boundless energy to my work that I see younger writers all around me bringing to theirs. 

But that last—all that young energy coming up behind me—brings with it a wholly agreeable surprise. I once was out there pushing the boundaries of the field I entered with such passion and such love. Now I settle back into the flow, knowing writers all around me are pushing the boundaries still, that their work is robust and daring and filled with a whole new passion and love. And those enthusiastic, hard working, young writers bless my work by keeping our field alive.

Norma Fox Mazer taught in the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts with me. And she said to me one day, “You realize, don’t you, that we’re grooming our own replacements.” We laughed because, of course, it was true. 

What better way to experience just a hint of immortality?