Marion Bauer, author of over 100 books, is out with a new book The Stuff of Stars. She was kind enough to answer my questions about cultivating creativity, having the courage to become a writer, and what she loved about making this beautiful book — illustrated by the impressive Ekua Holmes.
I am blown away by her answers! They are so interesting and honest. This Q&A with her will leave you thinking about so many different things. I hope you enjoy this interview with her. I love it!
What did you love about making The Stuff of Stars?
I loved learning more than I had ever known before about the creation of the universe. I am not a scientist of any stripe, but I grew up with a chemist father. And while he was never able to fathom—or appreciate—my made-up world of stories, I learned to honor his weighed-and-measured world. But even more than honoring my father’s very solid world, I have come to love finding language—my language—to bring that world into meaning. That is, after all, the business of stories, making meaning. And so what I loved most about writing The Stuff of Stars was taking facts, fascinating facts but just facts, and making them beautiful . . . and meaningful.
What is it about writing and creating for children that calls to you?
Childhood itself calls to me. What happens to us as children shapes us forever. We grow and change, of course, but that growth, that change always begins from the foundation of the child self. And because that child self is the core of all we are and can be, speaking to children directly is a great privilege. I’m not just entertaining, providing a time filler, I am touching and even in small ways shaping souls
As a creative person, what do you find nourishes your creativity? (How do you keep that part of yourself filled?)
It would be difficult to name a part of my daily life that doesn’t nourish my creativity. Preparing beautiful food, having deep conversations with friends, taking my little dog for a walk through the neighborhood, living in a loving relationship, all of it feeds me and thus my work. But I am probably nourished most deeply by two things: the natural world and the work of other writers.
I return to the natural world again and again in my novels and my picture books. It is our foundation and it is fascinating and magnificent beyond any speaking of it.
In the same way, every day of my life I turn to the work of other writers for inspiration. Nothing thrills me more than to discover writing that is so fine I know I could never touch it. Writing that is penetrating and lyrical and challenging tells me, again and again, that assembling words into story is a holy task, and I am both honored and humbled to be sharing this good work with masters.
How do you have the courage to be creative and to share your work with others? (Do you have a great support system? Do you have a role model/role models? Etc.)
I have the greatest role models anyone could have, every person before me who had the courage to send their words out into the world to be both enjoyed and judged. At the beginning of my career Madeleine L’Engle took me under her wing, as she did many other young writers. And her encouragement helped me know not just that my work was worth doing but that I, myself, was worth being. No one else in my life valued this curious process of making up lives and bringing them to paper, and since that work stood at the center of my life, I needed another writer to give not just my dreams but my daily effort validity. For some time now I have been in the fortunate position of being able to offer that validation to other writers coming behind me—and leaping past me!—and I find mentoring to be a privilege that sustains my own ongoing work.
How do you persist when being creative gets difficult? (Is there something you tell yourself? Is there a group of people you spend time with? Is there a movie you watch or a book you read? What do you do?)
When I’m stuck, I step back, turn away. I carry the conundrum my work has come to be into the natural world, even the natural world of my city neighborhood. I walk. I think. I set the work farther aside and make a good dinner. Then I let it flow back into my mind to see if anything is changing. I do this and I read. I read and read and read. I read until I encounter one of those writers who inhabits my soul. And from that writer—often someone whose work is very different from mine—I find renewed energy and new commitment to my own work.
Beyond that turning away process, though, there comes a time to do something more concrete. I pass the manuscript to someone I trust. I am fortunate, because of my years of teaching at Vermont College of Fine Arts, to have accomplished writer friends living all over the country, and I am equally fortunate to have access to instant communication with them through the Internet. I send a manuscript off and get a response. And then I go back to work. And then I probably send it for another reading. Nothing feeds inspiration more reliably than a good, honest critique.
What’s your creative process like? (Is there one? What’s been helpful for you?)
My creative process always begins with an idea. The idea can come from just about anywhere, from something I read, something I see or overhear, an incident from one of my pets or from my past. In the case of The Stuff of Stars, the idea began years ago with a talk I attended at my UU church. The speaker was Michael Dowd, and his topic was “Death through Deep-Time Eyes.” He spoke eloquently of the way life comes out of death, beginning with the birth and the destruction of our stars. I was fascinated and, in an intriguing way, comforted. I went home knowing I would write my own version of death-into-life one day. It took years, however, to decide how I wanted to approach the topic for the very young and more time to gather my research on the birth of our Universe and more time still to find the language to gather what I wanted to say.
After the idea, the next step for every picture book is words singing in my head. When finally I had that opening line, “In the dark, in the dark, in the deep, deep dark, a speck floated, invisible as thought, weighty as God,” I was up and running. I knew I had found my way to speak the mystery that is our universe, the mystery that is us.
Do you have any advice for your past self on being creative? (Just in case time travel becomes a thing and your past self is reading this.)
Only the advice I always followed . . . trust your own deepest instincts. Create what feeds you. If it feeds you in a substantive enough way, others will be fed, too.
What steps did you take to go from doing art as a form of expression/”just for fun” to becoming a professional?
For years I wrote in the cracks of time, poems, journals, letters, an occasional story. One day, though, my youngest child began first grade, and my then husband came to me and said, “You know, it would be awfully nice if you went back to work and earned some money.” He was a clergyman, so he had good reason to ask. Money was always pretty tight. I suddenly had a vision of myself lying on my death bed saying, “But wait a minute! I want to write! No one ever gave me time to write!” And I realized in that moment that no one would ever give me the time to write. I had to make it for myself. So I said to him, “Give me five years to work seriously, professionally full-time at my writing, as though it were a job someone is paying me to do. If I can’t achieve something you and I can agree is success in five years I won’t give up the habit of writing, but I will go back to other work.” (I’d been an English teacher once.)
He agreed, and I found myself sitting in the corner of our bedroom in front of the 1956 manual, portable Smith Corona typewriter that had been my high school graduation gift facing the blankest sheet of paper I had ever seen. My children were young and I was filled to the brim with picture books, so that’s where I began. I discovered pretty quickly, though, that I didn’t know how to write a picture book, so I moved on to novels. I found novels less technical, easier to discover by instinct. (I came back to picture books years later.) And I was fortunate. My first novel was published in three-and-a-half years, my second a year later. I still wasn’t bringing in much money, but there was no talk of my going back to work.
As to what steps I took, once I realized I was the only one who could give me permission, I simply sat down and started doing it. But because of that agreement, I began by treating my writing as my work, going to it every day as I would have gone to a school or an office.
At that time I lived in Hannibal, Missouri. In Hannibal we had a Mark Twain Roofing Company and Mark Twain Fried Chicken, but if there was another writer in town we never met. Lacking any other support, I found the library and came away from each visit with armloads of books, first picture books then young people’s novels. When I stumbled upon a shelf of Newbery Award books I didn’t even know what the Newbery Award was. I figured someone liked these books, though, and so I began to choose from that shelf. From those books, books such as The Slave Dancer and Sounder, I found the permission I needed to write deeply and honestly. I began by writing Foster Child, drawing from the experience of children I had fostered, and though my story included profoundly challenging material, I was fortunate enough to find an editor, James Giblin at Clarion Books, with the courage to take it on.
The door that early reading opened to my soul became the foundation for my career as a children’s writer.
Tell me about picture books you loved as a child. Do you remember why? What it was about them that drew you in? When was the last time you read it?
One book stands out over all the rest. I don’t remember the title, and I don’t know the author’s name, and I haven’t seen it for nearly three-quarters of a century. I can tell you, though, that the jacket was pale blue and there was a fuzzy, pink lamb on the cover. I never owned the book, but each time my mother and I went to the library I searched it out. (I was incensed on one visit to find it missing. Someone else had dared take out my book! I remember my mother and the librarian soothing my tears, encouraging me to try another book.)
That lamb lost his mother, and on every page I stroked his pink fuzz, consoling both of us. At the center of the story, though, in a Leer-like moment of booming thunder and flashing lightning, one entire spread turned to monotone grays and, what was even more alarming, the pettable, pink fuzz went away. How clearly I remember sliding my finger over that smooth lamb on that smooth gray page, grieving over his lost mother, grieving over his lost fuzz. I don’t remember how he came to be reunited with his mother, but I know they found one another, and the pink fuzz returned, too. But the Aristotelian purging of pity and fear in his moment of loss has never left me.
It’s what reminds me, every single day, that this work I am doing is the deepest kind of art, because it can move my readers in the deepest kind of way.
How can people learn more about you and your work?
Go to my website: www.mariondanebauer.com. I’ve published more than 100 books, and you’ll find information about them there. You’ll also find my blog, which I post twice a month. I write about many topics, but often about writing and about children’s books. On the intervening weeks I post quotes that intrigue me.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions! Your story is inspiring and insightful — and so fantastic! Thank you again!