Confession: For a long time in my life – longer than I care to admit – I had no idea what FAQ meant. This is true. I also assumed that one must pronounce it phonetically, which means that when I did so, I got some pretty funny looks from people.
Anyway, it was suggested to me that I might want to dedicate a page to frequently asked questions. One of my favorite things about visiting classrooms is listening to the questions that the kids have for me. They are simultaneously pointed and obtuse, realistic and surrealistic, pertinent and impertinent. I love them. Here are the questions I have been asked, and the answers I should have given:
Q: Are you a real person?
A: No. Actually, I mean yes. Wait… I can’t remember.
Q: Is it really true that you were a teacher?
A: It really is. I taught high school in Oregon and middle school in Minnesota. And now I teach kids and grownups about writing – which means I have to un-teach a lot of what they have already learned. Part of making art is breaking down what you thought you knew and shattering what you have always believed in order to get at the heart of the matter.
Q: Were you a good teacher?
A: It depends on who you ask. Principals said I was impertinent. And impatient. And insubordinate. And I had a difficult time holding my tongue. But I loved my students very much. And I trained an entire team of seventh graders – 120 in all – to spend an entire school year referring to me as Princess Barnhill. Which is pretty much the best thing ever.
Q: What’s your favorite book that you ever wrote?
A: Oh, I can’t answer that one. When writers write, the only book that exists is the one that we are working on this second. The one that spins in their minds even when they are away from their desks. That is their favorite one.
Q: But if you had to pick one?
A: I can’t. It would be like picking a favorite child.
Q: Is The Wee Book Of Pee secretly your favorite?
Q: Is it hard to write a book?
A: Very. Every day I sit at my desk, and every day I must ask the characters in my head, what do you think you’re doing? And every day they look at me coyly and they refuse to answer my questions. To be a writer you must be part detective, part interrogator, part friend, part lover, part nosy neighbor. We must cajole, insinuate, castigate and woo. I have written letters to my characters, drew them pictures, wrote messages in the sand. Sometimes they indulge me. Most of the time, they make me work for it.
And so we work. Very, very, very hard.
Q: Is this your handwriting?
No. Like all books, this one has been word processed with a computer and then typeset with – okay fine, I don’t really know how typesetting works – and then sent to a far-off land (like Thailand or Korea or Canada) to be printed and bound. Then they are shipped back here and put in stores and libraries and read by children.
In truth, my handwriting is a scritchy, scratchy smoosh. It loops and wobbles and blots. It is, quite frankly, embarrassing. My kids make fun of it. Every day. I asked my son what he thought my book would look like if it was in my handwriting. He shook his head. “Mom,” he said sadly, “if this book was in your actual handwriting, it would look as though a ferret had dipped its paws in ink, and then wiped the ink off onto a bunch of sticks and dry grass and then lit it on fire, and then spat and peed on the fire to put it out and then accidentally let its tail drag in the sticky, gooey ash, and then used its tail to write the story. Accidentally.”
So. Again, to answer your question. No. This is not my handwriting.
Q: Did you make this story up, or is it real?
A: I made this story up. And it is all real. Let me explain:
One time, when I was a kid, I was sick with pneumonia and had to stay home from school. My breath rattled in my chest and my body hurt and my fever raged and raged. At one point, it got so high that I started to hallucinate. Now the word hallucinate means that your brain can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality – what it sees and what it imagines. Normally, you see, your brain is constantly churning out distinctions. Since it is always imagining and always seeing it is always having to tell itself whether a thing is real or not real. The chair: real. The dragon under the chair: not real. The refrigerator: real. The stuff inside the refrigerator……hmmm. That’s a tough one.
Anyway, as I was lying at home, feeling terribly sick, I started seeing things that were not real. My brain, you see, was so busy allocating resources to fight the infections in my body, couldn’t bother itself with all of this real vs. not real nonsense. It decided, you know what? It all seems pretty real to me. I’ll just let you see the lot. And so I did. There was my living room, as it had always been….and yet not. There were trap doors, and brightly colored primates having tea on the mantlepiece and an ocean crashing against the north windows of the house and pushing its way in. And then it wasn’t my house at all, but a three-masted schooner that was sinking somewhere in the South Pacific. The water was warm and the sharks were hungry for the pretty primates, which they saw as brightly colored appetizers , and for the crew and the passengers on board – which they saw as the meal. The floor wobbled and listed, the water lapped closer, the cabin boy – a slippery fellow – tried to convince me to sneak off with him in the only lifeboat, and leave the others to their doom. We can’t all survive, he told me.
Now, none of this was real, of course. And yet, to me, it was terribly real. My fever was real. My fear was real. The forces attacking my body were real. My loneliness and singularity were real too. I was a child, a teenager, and setting a course for adulthood. I was in a ship that I did not know if it was seaworthy. I was afraid. And lonely. And there was only one lifeboat.
You see what I mean? Real. Or perhaps we should say true. So stories that have adventures and dragons and short, merry gods and magical beings that live underground? They are true. Mostly.
Q: My uncle read your book. Do you know him?
A: It’s possible. I know a lot of people. The real question is whether I met him in real life or if I met him while dreaming. If I met him in real life, I could walk right past him a thousand times, and never recognize him once. I have terrible facial memory. But if I met him in a dream – if I, which is to say my dream self, went on a quest or mission or voyage or whatever with his dream self – well, I’d know him in a heartbeat. I have been known to fondly embrace perfect strangers on the bus because I had met them once in a dream. And then, one time, I didn’t know my own neighbor. So it goes.
Q: I like your book.
A: That’s not a question, but thank you.
Q: Did you write the whole thing?
A: Well, yes and no. I sat down, over months and months, and wrote a story. Then I erased that story and recomposed it from memory. Then I erased it again, and recomposed it again. The story lived in my eyes and my fingers. It lived in my messy hair and my wool socks and my fuzzy slippers. It lived on my skin. It lived in my mouth. It lived in my ears. And then I sold it to a publisher, and the publisher said, “I love it! Let’s change everything!” And so I did. It’s called the editorial process, and it is a magic thing. Editors are people who have eyes made of titanium and tongues made of steel. Their hearts are carefully built of the most delicate and complicated clockwork gears in the world. They never sleep. They never eat. They are fed on starlight and birdsong and the dreams of children. And they are almost always right. So I changed lots of things and rewrote lots of things and the story I wrote became the story it could be, and that has made all the difference.
Q: Do you have to be a good speller to write a book?
A: No. Thank god! In third grade, I got a terrible report card. I didn’t want to show it to my parents. At my school our grades were as follows: V, for Very Good; G, for Good; S, for Satisfactory; N, for Needs Improvement; and U, for Unacceptable. In third grade, I received an S in Gym, a V in Music, an N in Language Arts, an N in Math, a U in Organizational Skills and a U in Spelling. I regret to say, that while I improved in the rest of my subjects, I remain to this day at an Unacceptable level in both Organizational Skills and Spelling. So it goes. It hasn’t stopped my book-writing though. So that’s good.
Q: I wrote a book!
A: That’s magnificent!
Q: Will you publish it?
A: Alas, that is not my job. I, my darling, am the same as you: I live in the world, I care about people, I love all things beautiful and strange, and I am curious about the things I do not know. And that living and caring and loving and insatiable curiosity all come together to build a story. I do not publish books. I send my books to other people who publish books. Publishers, if you must know, are people who love books so very much that they want more of them in the world. And they want to share those books with other people. And they want to make sure that people know about the books that they publish. It is a magical job that I will never understand, not really, but I’m glad that they do what they do. Firstly, because I have a family to support, and secondly because I want to share my stories with readers. Because when we read books, we make them new again. And that is a powerful thing.
Q: Is Being a Writer your only job. Did you do something before?
A: Being a writer is not my only job now, nor was it ever. Right now, I also have the job of Mom – which is a hard one, let me tell you – and I have the job of teacher. Before that, I worked as a janitor for a while (which trained me for the art of polishing and smoothing out the rough places), and I worked as an activist for a while (which taught me to fight for people who were too beaten down to fight for themselves), and I worked as a bartender for a while (which taught me to listen to people and that everyone has a story that is just itching to fall out of their mouths), and I worked as a park ranger for a while (which taught me everything I ever need to know about revision), and I worked as a secretary and receptionist for a while (which taught me the art of lying). I don’t know any writers who started out being writers. Every writer I know has been on a scenic route, a convoluted path, a dark and winding road. And that’s a good thing. Because you need to pack a lot of life into stories. And life is long.
Q: Did you only write this FAQ to avoid working on your current book?
A: Yes, my darling. Oh, yes.