When Wolves Sing Mozart

Not long ago, I arrived at an elementary school to spend some time with fourth- and fifth-grade writers. Alas, there’d been some sort of crisis in the kindergartens that morning—bursting water mains or escaped gerbils or something—and 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 that’ll hold them.”

I wasn’t entirely sure.

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 writer is?”

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 won’t 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 couldn’t 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 couldn’t 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 beside me.

The truck driver looked a bit alarmed. “Why do you carry that thing around with you?” he asked. “I’m 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 Mozart’s 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 didn’t 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 we—children or adults—set 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 writers—whatever they are—might 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.

Once upon 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 Yaga’s 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.

Suddenly 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.

Chip flew 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 don’t 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 that’s 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 don’t believe the children thought consciously in metaphor: Amanda’s 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 Mozart—even only in the context of a story—we are strengthening in ourselves a habit of pluck to help us through when luck is in short supply.

These remarks 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 Children’s Publishing Division, New York, 1999.
Copyright ©2002 Gregory Maguire









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