Marion Dane Bauer is one of our industry's greats: She's written more than seventy books covering the gamut: fiction, nonfiction, early readers, novels, picture books, novelty books. She can do it all beautifully.
The same was true for her keynote, which not only silenced us (in the good way), but it made many of us cry. She not only talked about her work, but about her life and how her struggles have shaped her stories and understanding of what it is to be human.
She began her speech explaining the three-point trajectory that stories follow:
- Where does every story begin? With a character's desire
- Where does every story move? Toward a climax.
- Why write or read a story? To be able to feel the resolution of a desire.
"What I know when I begin to write a story--any story--is what a resolution is going to feel like. I may not have much of an idea of how I'm going to get there, but I know what it's going to feel like when I'm there," she said.
That's what she needs to get the first sentence on the page. She "feels her way" into an idea, even though her books tend to have a pattern to them. To find our stories, we have to look to our own experience. Most stories, she explained, begin in neuroses: "anger, fear, unfulfilled longing so deep it never leaves you, even in your sleep."
She explained how she shaped her story THE VERY LITTLE PRINCESS (which is now dedicated to Jon Sciezska, the princess-hater).
Marion spent a year and a half on a 65-page manuscript, and sent it off. She knew it wasn't quite right, but it was as close as she could get. Three weeks went by--no phone call. Marion got nervous. The editor finally called and they had a hard discussion.
Afterward, Marion pondered their conversation and realized that all this time she had been writing about her son's death. Her son died about a year before she started. At forty-two years old, he was one of the youngest people ever known to get a degenerative disease that first manifests itself like Parkinson's. Then comes dementia, then hallucinations that become psychosis.
"We lost him by inches. He spent his last 14 months in a nursing home, and left three small boys behind," she said.
During this long process, she didn't cry. The death was just so protracted. She realized the story was about her need to cry, and that question we all live with every day: the question of mortality.
It's the "same old story," she always writes, she said, but it's entirely new. "It's new because my life is new. Struggle will always be there. That's why we read stories, to write, as well as to read."