I was in an old wooden church recently, way up in the north country, and by chance I got to talking to a girl who told me she was almost nine years old. The way she said it, you could hear the opening capital letters on the words Almost and Nine. She had many questions for me. Did I know the end of my stories before I wrote them? Did my stories come to me in dreams? Her stories came to her in dreams. Did the talking crow in one of my books go to crow school? Where did crows have their schools? Did the crow’s friends talk, too? Did they have jokes that only crows know? Did I write with a typewriter like her grandfather? Did I use a computer? If you write on a computer, do the words have electricity in them? Is it too easy to write on a computer? Do you write better if you write slower? She wrote with a pencil. She was about to start writing her third book. Her first book was about bears, and her second book was about her grandfather’s fishing boat. Her grandfather still owned the boat even though he was too old to go fishing. He would go sit in the boat sometimes when it was at the dock, though. It took him a long time to get into and out of the boat, but he wouldn’t let anyone help him in and out of the boat because he was a Mule-Headed Man. He let a young man go fishing in the boat, though. The young man wanted to buy the boat, but her grandfather wouldn’t sell it no matter what. So the young man paid her grandfather in money and fish he caught when he used the boat. Her family ate an awful lot of fish sometimes. She thought her third book was going to be about a mink. She wasn’t sure yet. Could you write a book if you didn’t know what would happen in it? I said yes, you could. I said that, in fact, it seemed to me that the writing was a lot more fun if you were regularly surprised and startled and even stunned by what happened. I said that maybe one way to write a good book was to just show up ready to listen to the people and animals and trees in the book, and write down what they said and did. I said that I supposed you could know everything that was going to happen, and even draw yourself a map of what should happen, and then try hard to make that happen, but that didn’t seem as much fun as having a rough idea what might happen and then being startled quite often by what did happen. I said that I rather enjoyed that the people and animals in my books didn’t listen too much to what I thought should happen, hard as it was sometimes for me to watch. I said that I wasn’t saying one way was better than another way, and that probably you could write good books in all sorts of ways, certainly I was not particularly wise about how to write good books, because I only wrote one book at a time, and very slowly, too, and whatever I learned while writing one book seemed to be utterly lost the next time I wrote a book, because the books were as different as people or animals or trees are, and whatever you think you know about a person or an animal or a tree because it is a certain species or color or nativity is probably egregiously wrong, because assumptions are foolish, as far as I could tell. She said that one of her ambitions was to someday write a book with a really good pen, and I said that, by happy chance, I had a terrific pen on my person, in the shirt pocket where I always carry pens with which to start books if book-starting seems necessary, and that one thing authors should be with each other is generous with good pens. So I gave her my pen, observing that it might have a very good book in it, especially if the book was about minks, or otters, which are fascinating animals, as everyone knows. She accepted the pen gingerly, with great care, with a look on her face that I wish I could express in words. But even excellent words like astonishment and joy and gravity and awe and reverence do not quite catch the wonder of the look on her face.
* Illustration by Lauren Braun
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