Thursday, January 30, 2014

Alumni Voices: Tracy Maurer


Word Girl (l) and Tracy Maurer (r)
This last weekend, I volunteered to assist with the national launch of the PBS Kids Writing Contest  at the Mall of America. Word Girl was there. Do you know of her? This animated superhero (AKA 5th-grader Becky Botsford) from the planet Lexicon uses her “mile-wide vocabulary” to conquer villains. Every episode features a single word, such as “encouraging” or “ploy.” And when Word Girl zooms off to save the day, she pumps her fist and says, “Word up!”

Right on, Word Girl! She finds power in words. Her character-description page notes that “knowing the right word for the right moment is priceless.” More than once, I have jumped out of my writing chair and fist-pumped when I finally found that word—that one word—that saved my day.

The right word can hold its power for a moment, a day, a year, and—when strung together with other just-right words—a lifetime.

For the past three years, instead of making New Year’s resolutions, I have chosen a single-word theme for the upcoming year.
Patience (2012).
Connections (2013).
Forward (2014).

Like Becky Botsford, these words seem ordinary. It’s a clever disguise! They have great power when they’re used the right way. I apply them to my life, especially my writing life, as touchstones for setting goals, making decisions, and reflecting on my progress. They help frame my perspective to see where I’m at and where I’m going.

In 2012, “patience” meant slowing down, taking a breath before I barged ahead. I started the year super-excited for my revisions on a picture-book biography about Noah Webster. “Super-excited” as in: I’m sending this manuscript to my agent RIGHT NOW! Then I remembered—word up!—patience. So I spent another three months working on the right words to strengthen the narrative voice. Patience paid off. It won the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Nonfiction Work-In-Progress Grant in July that year and my agent, Kendra Marcus at BookStop Literary, sold it to Scholastic a week later (its 2015 publication date ensures that I continue to practice patience).

That’s the thing about choosing the right word. It’s powerful beyond your expectations.

When I chose “connections” last year, I was thinking about the many ways writing and books could bring me closer to my family, friends, and community. Social media is about connections, too, and I made it a goal to become more active online. I also considered ways to strengthen my alumni connections to the Hamline MFAC community.

During the year, Ann Matzke (MFAC July 2009) and I researched and developed a three-part intensive session about integrating nonfiction trade books in the history classroom for a graduate program at Nebraska Wesleyan University. How did we find that opportunity? Ann’s connections through a librarian organization in Nebraska. She and I also combined efforts to submit an article on back matter for the Horn Book, which was published online.

Another alumni connection came just when I needed it most. MFAC graduates were invited to submit unpublished manuscripts to the first annual Frances and Kermit Rudolf Nonfiction Scholarship Award. That deadline pushed me to hunker down and polish a draft about John Deere, which later won the award and an invitation to visit Claire Rudolf Murphy’s lecture at the January 2014 residency. Celebrating, honoring, and sustaining connections has created experiences and opportunities I couldn’t have anticipated.

Now I’m excited to look forward, to move forward, to BE forward. It’s the right word for 2014.

Do you have a touchstone word? You don’t need a mile-wide vocabulary to find them. Even simple words hold great power, as Theodore Geisel eloquently proved when he put the right ones together and changed reading for generations of children. It’s all about how you use those words. That’s their power. Use them to do good, as Word Girl does. Use them well.

Word up!

Tracy Nelson Maurer is a summer 2009 graduate of the Hamline MFAC program. To learn more about Tracy and her writing, visit her website.


  1. Tracy, I love the focus that choosing one word for your year forces, um... encourages. Truly, though, there's so much distraction, so much complication in the decisions we make, having a touchstone word sounds as though it couldn't help but be soothing and clarifying. And good news to hear it doesn't only seem helpful, but it works, too! Thanks so much for sharing this excellent strategy. I'm going to try it out!

  2. A bunch of writer friends and I have gone that one-word route for resolutions for a couple of years. The problem is, we get to February and can't remember the word. I'm not poking fun, I'm just saying it's not as easy as it sounds, which makes the choice that much more powerful. Hm...if it's not too late for 2014, I'll choose "focus."

  3. I love this. It's so focused, like taking a strand of the book you are working on and paying attention to just that strand. So cool.

  4. Just got it, my word for 2014 is Marvelous! thank you, Maam, for your wonderful word idea!