What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic. –Carl Sagan, from “The Persistence of Memory” http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Carl_Sagan

Among my very earliest memories is a vivid image of my best friend and next door neighbor, Monica (then known as Mickey) and me drawing pictures of cats. In order to draw a cat (the way I first drew them as a child), I started with an M. The M was its ears.

The point is, I knew what an M was.

We must have been about three at that point, maybe four. I know I was less than five, because when I was five, we moved away.

This means I could write an M before I could draw a cat, and though this fact may not be enormously surprising (as my name, after all, begins with an M), it does emphasize the point I’m trying to make, which is that writing, in my life, has such early roots that I don’t remember learning to do it.

Similarly, I don’t really remember learning to read. I can’t recall a time when I couldn’t. As an only child, I often found books to be my best company, and from the time I could read by myself, I read everything I could get my hands on. Books, to me, were windows into worlds I would never see. Worlds their authors saw and wanted to share. Some of my favorites were Carolyn Hayward’s “Little Eddie” series and all the Beverly Cleary books in the third grade; Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret along with all the Walter Farley and Marguerite Henry books in the fourth, which was also when I scandalized the PTA by doing a book report for school on Arthur Hailey’s Airport; and Sid Fleishmann’s, Joan Aiken’s, and Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s books in the fifth.

And the more I read, the more I wanted to write. Not just physical writing–printing or cursive–but writing as the transmission of ideas and the creation of worlds.

It was my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Harrow, who got me started. Her specialty, fortuitously, was creative writing, and every Friday, she would post a full-page photo from Life Magazine on the board, folding it over to hide a crucial detail, and have us write a story that would complete the picture. In another exercise, she once provided a long list of items and asked us to pick three of them and write a story about how we would survive on a desert island with just those items. I recall one that I picked was a hubcap, which I proposed to use as a plate.

I may not remember much of anything else from fifth grade (so I’m probably not smarter than a fifth grader), but I do remember the writing assignments.

Mrs. Harrow liked my stories a lot, but found them frustrating because they rarely had endings. I had such trouble with endings in those days that she called my mom in for a conference to discuss it, thinking there must be some deep-seated psychological reason for it. I don’t remember if there was, or what solution they came up with, but my first complete story—a ten-page mystery-suspense short titled “The Intruder”— was the product of it. It was the first story I’d ever finished. Mrs. Harrow was quite pleased with it, and so was I. Being a pack rat, I probably still have it here somewhere, still buckled into its navy blue folder.

I still have trouble with endings—and sometimes beginnings and middles as well—but if I’m patient and keep my mind open, the ideas come.

Where do they come from? Where does writing come from? As I write the words on the page right now, what intellectual or imaginative force is at work to create a sentence, to transmit an idea?

I don’t know. It must be magic.