In The Wild Girls, a children’s novel, Joan and Sarah learn how to find their own answers. Part of the process is taking a creative writing class from Verla Volante, an unconventional instructor. In this excerpt from Chapter 8, Sarah describes the first class.
In that first class, Verla asked a lot of really strange questions. Not like most teachers, who ask a lot of questions that they know the answers to. Verla asked weird questions and she said stuff like: you’re the only one who knows the answer to this question. Questions like these don’t have right or wrong answers. If you don’t know the answer, make up an answer. Later on you can figure out if it’s true.
Here are some questions she asked.
- “What was the first thing you heard when you woke up in this morning?”
- “If you got to take one thing from your bedroom before a meteor hit your house and destroyed everything, what would you take?”
- “What does your room smell like?”
- “What would you most like to eat for breakfast? Why?”
“What’s your favorite color?” (Verla’s favorite color is ultraviolet. She says that ultraviolet is an invisible color, just outside the range of colors people can see. But bees can see ultraviolet even though people can’t.)
Verla was always moving around, pacing up and down in front of the class. She wrote questions on the blackboard—as if we needed more questions.
- “What scares you? Why are you afraid of that?”
- “If you had ten thousand dollars and you had to spend it all in the next hour, what would you buy?”
Once, when Jose was looking down at his paper doodling, Verla threw an eraser at him and smacked him on the head. After that, no one doodled. We all kept an eye on her.
You’ve got to pay attention, she said. When you write a story, you want the person reading to see and hear and smell the world you make up. Pay attention and describe what you see. She told us that some people say you should use words to paint a picture of the world. But Verla said that painting a picture isn’t good enough. You need to open a door that people can walk into your world. When they walk through that door, you want them to see the world, smell the world, hear the sounds of the world. To do that, you have to pay attention to all those things yourself. You have to learn the truth about the world.
When she looked at me, I got the feeling that she could see what I was thinking. Her hair was wild and her eyes were blue and intense. She looked more wide-awake than anyone I’d ever met. She was paying attention, all right.
It was exciting. It was exhausting. You had to keep thinking, thinking, thinking. The writing was the least of my worries. She didn’t care how you wrote down the answers. She just wanted you to think of the answers and write them down in your notebook.
The first thing I had heard in the morning was a mockingbird. This mockingbird liked to sit on our chimney and sing. The song echoed in the chimney. Sometimes the mockingbird sang the songs of other birds, but sometimes it imitated a ringing cell phone or a car alarm. My father hated that mockingbird because it woke him up on Saturdays and Sundays, when he wanted to sleep late. He said he was going to shoot it with a bb gun. But no one could find Mark’s old bb gun. That’s because I found that bb gun and hid it in the back of my closet the first time my father said that he wanted to shoot the bird. I liked the mockingbird.
If a meteor were just about to hit the house, I’d grab my notebook and the quilt that my grandmother gave me when I was six years old. My gramma made that quilt. I didn’t know I even cared about it, but it was the second thing I thought of.
My room didn’t smell like anything that I could think of. I made a note to spend some time sniffing when I was in my room to see what it smelled like.
I wanted to eat pancakes for breakfast because my mom used to make pancakes for breakfast on Sundays when we lived in Connecticut. She hadn’t done that since we moved, and I kind of wondered why.