When Wolves Sing
Not long ago, I arrived
at an elementary school to spend some time with fourth- and fifth-grade
writers. Alas, thered been some sort of crisis in the kindergartens
that morningbursting water mains or escaped gerbils or somethingand
the principal asked me: Would I mind stopping off at the library on my
way upstairs and talking to the kindergartners for fifteen or twenty minutes?
Tell them about the average day in the like of a writer, she
said grimly. Maybe thatll hold them.
I wasnt entirely
However, I made my
way to the library, where about forty little kids malingered in various
stages of hysterical homesickness for their classroom. The librarian and
teachers calmed the little ones down, and said, Now this nice man
is going to talk to us about being a writer. Can anyone tell me what a
Well, no one could,
not that day anyway. Lower lips wobbled dangerously. Since it seemed to
me that telling them the story of an average day in my life would provoke
tedium and amnesia at best, and maybe turn some of them off the alphabet
for good, I decided my charge would be exercised well enough if I told
them about one specific day instead of about a prototypical day. Do
you want to know where I went last week? I asked them. Enough kids
nodded politely for me to take this as a mandate to continue.
First, I got
in my car, I said, then I turned the keys and the car went
BROOM BROOM, because it needs a tune-up. Then I got on the highway and
headed toward the mountains in upstate New York. I wont take
up twenty minutes telling you everything I told the kids, but I did make
interesting sound effects to show them how the bad right rear tire went
PUP-PUP-PUP- and then PUPUPUPUPUPUP and then PDDDDRRRR and then blew out,
leaving me without a spare on the side of the Mass Pike. My car at the
time was old and couldnt lock, and this being before the days I
had converted to a computer, I was carrying with me my $950 secondhand-but-trusty-IBM
Selectric II typewriter. I had to thumb a ride to the next toll booth
to call for help. When a truck slowed down and pulled off the road ahead,
I ran up to it, and I told the driver I couldnt leave my valuables
in my unlocked car at the side of the road. Then I ran back and collected
my typewriter, as he waited, and I hoisted the heavy thing onto the seat
The truck driver
looked a bit alarmed. Why do you carry that thing around with you?
he asked. Im a writer, you never know when you might need
to write something, I answered, perhaps a bit flippantly because
I was so relieved to get a ride. For instance, I added, I probably
should write you a thank-you letter for bringing me to the tollbooth.
Well, that was the
end of that conversation. But there were other interesting people and
exchanges to tell the kids about as I got my tire replaced and jumped
back into the car and at last made it, hours later than planned, to the
mountainside chalet I had rented for the week in Indian Lake. I carted
my luggage and typewriter into the house, and then strode out onto the
deck. Across the deep, sweetly scented valley, a range of pine-forested
mountains disappeared in hazy outlines. As it began to descend, the sun
made the mountains turn pinkish. Back and forth on the deck, chipmunks
skittered, looking like rolled-up pairs of socks sent bowling along. I
was so happy, I told the kindergartners, so relieved to be there at last,
that I opened up my mouth and sang at the hills the opening melodic line
of Mozarts Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, that famous broken tonic
chord: La, la la, la la la la la laaaa....
Now, there were some
wolves who lived in the hills across the valley. They heard me singing.
They threw their heads in the air and howled back the second line: Rrr,
rrr rrr, rrr rrr rrr rrr rrr rrrrrr....
And we kept up an
antiphonal chorus, for as much of the Nachtmusik as we could all
remember. Then I went in and opened up my sleeping bag and lay down and
drifted off to sleep. And that was one day in the life of a writer , I
told the kids.
Now, writers pay
attention to the world, I said; all artists do. Being an artist means
looking, and seeing, first and foremost. But sometimes to make things
sound better you change them. Most of what I told you was true, I said;
but there was one part that I made up, one part that didnt really
happen. Can you tell me what it is?
As if with one voice,
they chorused back at me: That the chipmunks looked like socks!
We do not always
know from where we set out when wechildren or adultsset out
to invent, to create, to imagine. However reflective we may become in
maturity, we may never be omniscient about ourselves and our world. We
can only have a limited experience of our times, our selves, our physical
and spiritual and moral and psychological contexts. Our limited experience
is shaped like a piece of pie, with ourselves at the point and the world
in panorama as the crust beyond, out there. To the kindergartners, the
world that included dying gerbils and visiting writerswhatever they
aremight well include wolves conversant in the literature of late
eighteenth-century chamber music. For those little kids, comparing chipmunks
with balled-up socks was the most crucial imaginative leap, the challenge
of a new way of thinking.
Later in the season,
I went into a first-grade class in Niskayuna, New York. There was again
some sort of a schedule problem; this time it had to do with a classmate
who was sick but who had been brought in to the classroom, for the first
time in weeks, to meet me, the guest author. The sick child wore a bandanna
because her head was partly shaved following an operation on a brain tumor.
During the excitement of community creation, the bandanna slipped off.
The other children were too well prepared by their teacher to comment,
and too involved in our story even to notice, or so I thought at first.
The teacher had read
the children a book called Bony Legs, and I told the class another
version of a Russian fairy tale with Baba Yaga the witch in it. We discussed
the shape and elements of a fairy tale. Then we wrote a quick story together,
with me calling for suggestions and providing a basic framework, and the
kids shouting out ideas, which I scribbled on the board. In slightly bowdlerized
form, here is The Story of the Poor Potato.
a time there was a poor little potato named Chip. The potato was two years
old and by now he was brown as a bear. But he felt sad because he was
poor and he had no snowpants. Without snowpants, he thought he might get
cut, and peeled,and eaten like a snack.
One day Chip
decided to find Baba Yaga the Witch and ask her for some help. So he rolled
and rocked, and he rocked and rolled, and sang himself a little song to
soothe his soul as he went along. Then Chip saw the skeleton bones of
Baba Yagas fence. The eyes in the skulls shined like diamonds in
the foggy forest. Who is knocking on my door? said Baba Yaga.
Chip is, said Chip. Come in, groaned Baba Yaga.
So Chip hopped in. Whadaya want today, ya lousy vegetable?
snapped the hungry Witch. I need snowpants, said the potato,
to keep me safe and sound from slicing and dicing. If
you jump into the fire and stay there and then jump back out, I will give
you snowpants, promised the Witch. But she really wanted some potato
stew, and went to the ocean for some clams and lobsters, and Chip sat
down and cried and prayed and rocked and rolled and went a little nutso.
a rain of diamonds came through the chimney and landed in the fire. When
Baba Yaga got home she said, Jump in, I see the fire is ready for
roasting, because the hearth twinkled with light.
into the fireplace and landed on the silver, white, gold, and orange diamonds,
and the Witch thought that they were fire. To trick the Witch, Chip said,
Yikes, ouch, I'm frying! Then he jumped back out. Huh,
I dont know how you did that, you should be dead by now, said
the Witch. But she had to give Chip some snowpants and Chip ran home.
The snowpants protected Chip for ever and ever, until they fell off. But
thats another story.
It was only later,
on my way home that afternoon, that I put together what had been written
by the children with what they had been seeing: The shaved skull with
its scars looked quite a bit like an Idaho potato. I dont believe
the children thought consciously in metaphor: Amandas head looks
like a raw, unpeeled potato. But when you remember their story, you see
what the children are doing, consciously or unconsciously. With the little
material they have been given, they are shaping a version of experience
in which the much abused potato is seen, for a time, to weather the adversity
of fate, through a combination of luck and pluck. The story reveals what
they are hoping for Amanda, and for themselves.
Writers tell strange
things about the world. And it may not be that diamonds will ever pour
in our chimneys, or even that chipmunks will ever remind us of rolled-up
socks. But if we can occasionally believe that the wolves of the world
sing Mozarteven only in the context of a storywe are strengthening
in ourselves a habit of pluck to help us through when luck is in short
were made at Image and Word: Patterns of Creativity, CLNE at Mount
Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts, in 1994. The essay was then
published in Origins of Story: On Writing for Children, edited
by Barbara Harrison and Gregory Maguire, Margaret K. McElderry Books,
an imprint of Simon & Schuster Childrens Publishing Division,
New York, 1999.
Copyright ©2002 Gregory Maguire