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Maybe Stories Do Matter: Some Writing Lessons from Kate DiCamillo

Author Kate DiCamillo remembers being on a plane shortly after terrorists toppled the World Trade Towers on Sept. 11, 2001. She was in the early stages of working on a children’s novel called The Tale of Despereaux.

The man sitting next to her on the plane turned to her and said, “Scary times, huh?”

She said yes.

Sometime during the flight, the man asked her what she did for a living.

She told him she was a writer.

When he asked her what she wrote, she flushed. It seemed wildly superfluous to tell a stranger she was working on a fairytale about a mouse who falls in love with a princess, days after thousands of lives were lost in one of the most brazen acts of terrorism in history.

“It doesn’t matter,” she finally said. “Stories don’t matter now.”

This is how DiCamillo introduced herself in Deadwood, SD, recently, at the annual South Dakota Book Festival. She read from an essay she had published in The Washington Post three days earlier, marking the 20th anniversary of her bestselling book, The Tale of Despereaux. The essay recounted her story of setting out to write a fairy tale, on the request of her friend’s 8-year-old son, about “an unlikely hero with exceptionally large ears.” About 50 people gathered in a low-ceilinged basement of a hotel on Main Street to hear her speak and ask her questions about writing.

The Tale of Despereaux begins this way: “The world is dark and light is precious. Come closer, dear reader. You must trust me. I am telling you a story.”

Light has everything to do with writing for DiCamillo – and for her audience: children and their parents. According to a recent profile on the author in The New Yorker, DiCamillo turns on a porch light every morning before sitting at her writing desk. The light lets her early-bird friend and neighbor know she is awake and at work on her writing.

“I feel like we all have to push against the darkness however we can,” DiCamillo told writer Casey Cep for The New Yorker piece. “For me, it’s doing my work, writing stories that let children feel seen and to know they’re not alone in whatever they’re going through.”

There is no light in the sky when DiCamillo begins her daily writing routine. At her talk in Deadwood, she told the audience that she gets up at 4:30 every morning to write. This is a method for beating her internal critic to the punch: she writes early in the morning before the critic – and the world around her – wakes up. She commits to writing 2 pages per day.

“I found that if you sat down and wrote 2 pages a day, you would have a novel in a year,” she said.

Her novels, she readily admits, are always smarter than she is.

The seed of her first novel, Because of Winn Dixie (published in 2000), came to her quite simply one night shortly before she fell asleep; she heard a girl’s voice in southern accent: “I have a dog named Winn-Dixie.” And the muse led from there.

DiCamillo says she doesn’t know where a story is going when she starts. She likens the writing process to walking down a dark hall with a slit of light at the end, beneath a closed door.

As she was working on The Tale of Despereaux, she kept a timeline above her desk about Despereaux, which she referred to often. Even so, “I was so afraid as I was telling it,” she told us, “because I didn’t know where it was going.”

And there was a time, early on in the creating of Despereaux, that she almost gave up. The twin towers had crumbled and so, too, had the souls of thousands on American soil and beyond. How could a thing as trivial as a story have any meaning after that?

But that man sitting next to her on the plane pointed her back to the light. At baggage claim, he tapped her on the shoulder. As she recounts in her Washington Post essay, he said, “Hey, good luck with your mouse.” ‘Then he said, “Maybe you’re wrong. Maybe stories do matter now. Have you thought about that?”’

To date, DiCamillo’s books have sold more than 44 million copies.

The Tale of Despereaux is this year’s Young Reader’s One Book for South Dakota. Each year, the South Dakota Humanities Council selects one book for young readers across the state to read. Copies of the book are given to third graders throughout the state.

Today, at book events, DiCamillo often instructs children to “go home and read to your adult.”

“When you write for kids,” she told us at the event in Deadwood, “I feel like I need to end each story with hope, because hope is what kids need.”

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