Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Visiting Author

I wrote this story for the children at the International School of Tanganyika who I visited last week and who were full of curiosity, just as writers should be.

‘Why have you got such a big bag?’ a boy in the first class asked the visiting author.
She was a little surprised. She usually got questions like, ‘Where do your ideas come from?’ or ‘How many books have you written?’ Was her bag really so big, she wondered. She peered inside it to try and find the answer.
‘It’s because I have to carry so many characters around with me,’ she said. She counted on her fingers: ‘There’s the girl who’s fantastic at listening but is afraid of swimming, and would really like some more friends. There’s a boy who’s very good at shouting because he’s captain of the school Football Team, and a girl with bright red hair who likes to cause chaos. And that’s just in one story,’ she said. ‘There’s already an idea in there for another character.’
‘Who’s that?’ All the children were goggle-eyed.
‘It’s a large stripy cat with very sharp teeth but only half a tail. What do you think its name should be?’
While the children talked about the cat’s name, she picked up her bag and weighed it.
‘It’s heavy with characters,’ she said.
The class nodded and let her go now that they understood.

While the author was speaking to the second class sitting on their carpet, she saw out of the corner of her eye a little girl peer into the bag and then put her hand inside it. The girl suddenly snatched her hand back and sat with it under her arm as if she had been bitten. The author stopped speaking and looked at the girl.
‘What did you find?’ her classmates asked.
‘I saw some beautiful shells in there, lined with silver,’ said the girl. ‘And sitting in each one was a bright butterfly, each one with wings together like hands in prayer.’
The class gasped.
‘But when I put my hand in there, I felt some things squirming like slugs and they had horns like twisted branches and they smelt like mouldy old socks.’
‘Disgusting,’ the class said.
‘I think perhaps you came across my imagination,’ said the author. ‘You have to be brave to let your imagination go. It can bring things to life that you’d rather were asleep.’
The class looked at her. ‘But we are very brave,’ they said.
‘In that case,’ she said. ‘Close your eyes and ask yourself, “What if I found a big egg under a tree in the school garden…?”’
When they opened their eyes again, their imaginations had made eggs with spots and stripes and inlaid with gold. They had scrambled up trees and down drains and leapt between the stars to invent whole stories as different to each other as fishes in the Indian Ocean.
‘See how enormous your imagination is,’ said the author. ‘You need a very big bag to carry it around in.’

In the next class, the children couldn’t take their eyes off the basket, woven in red and purple. It seemed to have grown nearly as tall as the smallest pupil.
As they seemed unable to concentrate on what she was saying, she stopped and asked: ‘What are you all looking at?’
They giggled a bit, and a boy pointed at the bag and said, ‘Why’s it so big?’
‘Ah,’ she said. ‘That’s because I have to carry so many places around with me.’
‘Places?’ asked a boy.
‘She means settings for the stories,’ a girl corrected.
‘There’s a long white beach on an east African island in there,’ she said. ‘Hermit crabs scuttle across it, and if you listen hard, you might be able to hear a coconut falling from a tree.’
‘Where else?’ they asked.
‘There’s a snowy mountain-top in Ecuador at night-time; a tunnel under a Scottish mountain with rails running into the dark; a café by the sea in winter where you can eat special ice creams. It’s crammed with settings, you see.’ She held up the bag.
‘Will you need to get a bigger bag?’ someone asked as she left the room, struggling to lift it onto her shoulder.

At the end of the visit to the last class, she noticed the children were looking puzzled.
‘You brought a huge bag in with you,’ a girl said. ‘But you never took a single thing out of it.’
‘Ah,’ she said. ‘That’s because we didn’t have time to get to the end of the story. There’s plenty of endings waiting in there to jump out and attach themselves to our stories. They have strong pincers, just like crabs.’
‘Does it matter which one jumps out?’ asked a boy at the back.
‘Yes it does,’ she said. ‘Sometimes you have to pull one off so that you can try out another one and see how it fits.’
‘Ouch,’ the class said. ‘Why does it matter?’
‘Because we might disappoint our readers if we choose the wrong one, or if we don’t choose one at all, and say “then she woke up and it was all a dream”. If there’s something missing at the end, it will feel incomplete.’
‘Like a cat with half a tail?’
The children were getting restless now, worried about getting this right.
‘But how do you choose?’ asked a girl at the front, straining with her hand up.
‘If you trust the story, it will know its own ending,’ the author said. ‘It feels right. In here.’ She pointed at her stomach.

When she stood up to leave the classroom, the children saw that she was struggling to lift the bag onto her shoulder. They were a little afraid to offer help in case they ended up inside the bag as characters for her stories.
But as they watched, a stripy cat skulked out from under a bookcase, lowered its stomach to the floor and put its back under the bottom of the bag. Its very short tail poked out at the back. The children heard tapping sounds, and realised that four crabs had scuttled from the edges of the room. Each one took up position under a corner of the bag, lifting it off the ground. The author stood tall, and she, the bag, the cat with half a tail and the four crabs all processed out of the room.

No comments: