Sunday, October 10, 2010

One Writer’s Process: Marion Dane Bauer

“For almost as far back as I can remember,” says Marion Dane Bauer in her memoir, A Writer’s Story, “I ‘wanted to write.’ Or at least I wanted to make stories. It is almost as though I was born with my head stuffed full to overflowing with stories that waited to be told.”

Bauer’s pen has, indeed, overflowed with stories for children ever since she published her first novel in 1976. Since then she’s become one of the most prolific and popular authors writing for children today, having written more than seventy books for children, from picture books and early readers to middle grade and YA novels, as well as three writing books for young people, all of which have earned her raves from reviewers and praise from the children who seek out her books for the pleasure and comfort that they provide.

From the start of her career, she sought out the stories that she alone was meant to write, the ones that were waiting for her deep in her heart and which she struggled on occasion to find. “Once I have my character and my character’s problem and know where I'm headed—the climax and its emotional resolution,” she has written, “I carry it all around until the language begins to form, and I'm ready to begin writing. Only then will I know it’s my story to write.”

“Write. Write and write and write,” she advises writers, many of whom have studied with her in the many workshops that she offers in Minnesota, where she now lives, and in the classes that she taught at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she helped create its highly regarded MFA in Writing for Children program. “And of course, read. Read and read and read. And then return to your writing. Don't think of revising as fixing something you didn't manage to get right the first time. Think of it as taking something you already love and making it better.”

Loving what you write is at the heart of the advice that she offers writers, and it’s the dictum that she has tried her best to follow throughout a long and productive career that has earned her numerous awards for her work, including the Newbery Honor Award for On My Honor, a Jane Addams Peace Association Award for her novel Rain of Fire, and the Kerlan Award from the University of Minnesota for the body of her work.

One of the crucial aspects of writing that she’s had to learn and teach over the years is that conflict is an integral part of any story. “Conflict is a perfectly good word, but I prefer the word struggle,” she explains. “I have seen too many writers attempt to write stories in which the main character sits around all day long and looks at, thinks about, considers the conflict before him without ever doing anything about it.”

She advises, also, that writers don’t worry too much about voice. Instead, she suggests trying to focus on writing the best that you can write. “Voice will simply be part of the package,” she says, reassuringly. “You will know you have fallen into the voice that is right for you when you can feel the energy behind the words. When on revising you know, without having to ask yourself why, what should stay and what should go, when there is a flow that carries you.”

She attributes a good part of her growth as an artist to her ability to find ways to explore new territory, and she advises writers to push themselves past the limits of their comfort and abilities. “Stretch yourself and read work you would never think of writing yourself. Ask yourself which authors you love and why their work appeals to you. If something doesn't work for you, stop to consider why. Learn to read critically. Learn to read the way a writer reads, noticing how other writers accomplish what they do.”

And beyond that?

“Beyond that,” says Bauer, “write what you love.”

Recently, she was kind enough to take time from her many projects (while moving into a new house) to share her thoughts on writing with wordswimmer readers.

Wordswimmer: If writing is like swimming... how do you get into the water each day?

MDB: Writing is what I wake up in the morning to do. It's a form of breathing for me. I don't ask myself if I'm going to write; I just sit down to the computer--once upon a time to a typewriter--and begin. People often say to me, "You're so disciplined," but it doesn't feel like discipline at all. When I exercise, that's discipline. When I clean the house, that's discipline. When I write I'm just breathing. I start, always, by reviewing what I've done the days before. Sometimes that's all I do, review, polish, rethink. When I'm moving forward, I review and polish to get myself started and then propel myself onto the blank page, into new work.

Wordswimmer: What keeps you afloat...for short work? For longer work?

MDB: Some short work--picture books, board books, essays--I can do in a single sitting, so I'm not thinking about staying afloat. I'm just moving through it. Sometimes, though, even a very short a piece doesn't come together right away, and so I will set it aside and keep returning to it for weeks or even months. If it has power for me--or if there is someone out there wanting it--it keeps pulling me back.

Longer work requires that I be immersed in a character, living the story through another's sensibility, and it's that sensibility, that character's consciousness that holds me in. The character is playing out something that's in my psyche, that comes directly from my life in a way I may not even recognize when I'm writing except for the energy of its pull on me, and it's that pull that keeps bringing me back.

I've just finished a young novella, however, written in verse, called Little Dog Lost. It's very different from anything else I've done. It has three different story lines and very little character immersion. What held me in this time was partly the puzzle of keeping the three stories moving toward the moment when they would intertwine and partly the emotional tug of each different story line and partly the pleasure of working in this new form.

Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells?

MDB: When I can't write, I read. I read and read and read until suddenly I can't read another word, and at that moment I'm propelled back to my own work. When I'm reading I'm always looking for something that is so good, so far beyond my reach that it honors everything I'm trying to accomplish in my own writing, and that energizes me to return to this wonderful effort myself . . . once more.

Wordswimmer: What's the hardest part of swimming?

MDB: The hardest part for me is the moment--which sometimes stretches into weeks--when I emerge from a major project with no other piece ready to go. It's the place where I am right now, and it's like stepping off a cliff. It's like having no reason to get up in the morning. It's almost like running out of air.

Wordswimmer: How do you overcome obstacles, problems, when swimming alone?

MDB: By reading and discovering those writers who share my vision of story and move beyond it. By asking a good friend to read what I'm working on and tell me what they like or what is missing. By simply talking about my story to another person who cares about stories. Mostly the solutions to the problems come, though, not from insights another person can offer, but from hearing myself name the problem. Close upon the naming, the solution is usually waiting.

Wordswimmer: What's the part of swimming that you love the most?

MDB: Just doing it, day after day, year after year. Having the time and the freedom to write--and that's what being published and being paid for what is published gives me--is one of the deepest gifts of my life.

And what will I do when I wake up tomorrow with no piece of writing in front of me? I'll go exercise. I've found that exercise is not just a discipline I must enforce but a promise to myself I must keep to remain whole. I'll read. I'll poke around at a picture book or two, stuck in my computer. I'll go grocery shopping and I'll cook, because I love planning and preparing food. I'll take Dawn, my cavalier, for a long walk. And I'll begin gathering the next story in my mind.

For more information about Marion and her work, visit her website:

To read additional interviews with her, take a look at these sites:

And for more information on Marion’s books on writing, visit:

WHAT’S YOUR STORY? A Young Person's Guide to Writing Fiction:

A WRITER’S STORY: From Life To Fiction:


No comments: