When authors visit schools, we are likely to hear many of the same questions. What inspired you to become a writer? Where do you get your ideas? What’s your favorite book? How much money do you make?
I am generally prepared for these kinds of questions, and I love the resulting interactions with young readers. But, occasionally, a child (and it’s usually a very young child), asks something that floors me. This happened recently, after I’d done a Zoom presentation focused on Juneteenth with students at an elementary school in Potsdam, New York. After my visit, students from a first grade class sent me lovely handwritten letters, and one child—I’ll call her Madison—asked me this:
“How do you think of your words?” Madison had also drawn a crown that was inscribed “Queen of Words” followed by a little heart. My heart did a little skip and my mind spun for a moment.
This was my response to her:
I’ve never been asked this. It is an amazing question. Sometimes I think of a word to describe something and I write that down. Then maybe, when I read it over, I decide it’s not exactly the word that I want to use because it doesn’t quite say what I want, so I scratch that one out and I think of a different word. Often, I use a book called a thesaurus that is filled with words called synonyms. Synonyms are different words that mean the same or almost the same things. A thesaurus can give me ideas for other ways to say what I want. I always keep a dictionary and a thesaurus close by when I’m writing. Sometimes I try many words before I am finally happy with my choice. I like to see just how beautiful I can make my sentences. Choosing every word carefully is important. The words you choose and how you put them together are what make up your personal style as a writer.
I sent this off to her teacher with replies to other students’ questions and moved on—or I thought I did. But I couldn’t. It wasn’t over for me and isn’t still. I can’t seem to shake Madison’s letter. Her crown haunts me. At first I was simply amused and flattered by being called “Queen of Words”. I felt honored and, to be honest, a little puffed up. A part of me told myself I shouldn’t place much stock in the opinion of one first grader with limited experience with wordsmiths and ‘smithing’. But I do. And the more I think about Madison, the more I feel I need to honor her expectations of me.
I never want to get lazy or complacent with my words. I take pride in the efforts I give to finding just the right words and arranging them in just the right way to try to make my sentences as beautiful as I can. Madison has given me a gift—a little kick-in-the-pants reminder, a renewed responsibility to my readers. I want to live up to Madison’s image. I want to be a queen of words.
Now, in the future, if I ever find myself looking at a word and thinking ‘that’s good enough’ or ‘I think that says it’, I will remember Madison’s crown and will pick up my dictionary or thesaurus just in case there is a better way to say what I’m trying to say. Just in case there is a way to move from ‘good enough’ to wonderful or stunning, magnificent or glorious.
I do love words, and I hope that little heart Madison added at the end meant not only that she loves me but, even more, that she loves words, too.