Transcript from an interview with Mary Amato

Notebooks and diaries

I grew up in Illinois, in a small town, and when I was in elementary school, I was a really anxious kid. I was afraid of a lot of things, and writing really made me nervous because I was afraid of making mistakes, and I felt as if every time I wrote, I was going to be making mistakes. I also felt as if I just didn’t have an imagination, so when it was time to write, I would get very nervous.

My mom noticed that I was having trouble, and so she really encouraged me. She got me a little notebook, and she told me to keep a record of the things that we saw when we were going on vacation, and that seemed like a really simple kind of task. So I was able to do it, and what I found was that I really enjoyed recording the things that I saw.

That little experience of keeping that notebook made me then want to write a little more, so my mother gave me a diary, and that diary really encouraged me to write down the things that happened to me in my life. And even though I was making mistakes in that diary, what I was writing was meaningful to me, so it was really motivating.

Writing in those little journals absolutely changed my life, and I didn't think at the time that I would become a writer because I had never met a writer. I lived in a small town that didn’t even have a bookstore, so becoming a writer wasn't an attainable goal in my mind. However, I always wrote when I needed to, so whenever I felt something big, whether it was sad or happy, I wanted to write it — about it.

I wanted to record it, and I think that that motivation never left. So as I grew older, in high school, I used my journal to process all the crazy things that were happening to me emotionally, and as an adult, I still keep a journal.

Expressing big emotions

When I was in fourth grade, my mother had become very sick, and she died when I was a fourth grader, and that had a huge impact on my life. I didn’t know how to deal with all of the emotions that I had. I felt scared, and I felt anxious, and I felt sad, of course, and I didn’t feel as if I could talk about it with anyone.

So I kept all of my feelings inside of me, and for about a year, I didn’t know what to do, and then when I got to be a fifth grader, I came home from school one day, and I picked up this little notebook. It was not a fancy diary. It was just a little notebook, and I started to write again, but I wrote in a different way. I didn’t write what happened to me. I wrote how I felt.

And what I discovered was that as I was expressing my emotions, I would begin to feel better. Writing is a wonderful way of trying to let out some of the things that are inside of you that are huge, and for a child, it can be a wonderful way to learn about how to express these big emotions that are really too big to talk about sometime.

So once I started writing like that, I never stopped, and I just kept filling up notebook after notebook after notebook.

Capturing memories on paper

One of the things that my mother said was that if you write something down, you'll never forget it, and that really helped when I was struggling to remember my mother. One of the things that I think a lot of people don't realize is that when they lose something, they also lose the — they start to lose the memory, and so I would write down things about my mom that I wanted to remember.

And capturing those memories on paper, knowing that I had those memories forever recorded was a great comfort to me, so that when I felt sad, when I missed my mother, I could open up my little book, and I could read about her, read one of my memories, and know that I had captured that for all time. So it was really a wonderful way to make sure that I was keeping her in my life.

When I grew up, we didn’t talk very much, and I think the idea was that you should be quiet and soldier on, and so there wasn't a lot of encouragement for expression. I think also a lot of people assume that children will talk when they need to, and that's simply not true.

Children often feel as if they don't have permission to say what's really going on because they look around them, and the adults in their world are not talking either and not really allowing the kinds of honest conversations to happen, so providing a child with a journal and giving the child permission to write in that journal can be a way to enable that child to have some power over the ability to express.

Writing to find meaning

Writing is a way of finding meaning in life, in the ordinary things of life. So when I take the Metro, I take my writer's notebook with me, and something will happen on the Metro that will really feel like an ordinary experience that is somehow extraordinary, and I'll want to capture it.

So just the other day, I was riding, and there was this wonderful moment. It was rush hour, and everyone was in a bad mood and very quiet, not speaking, and this lady baby was on the train, and this little baby took off her shoe, and she threw it, and the shoe went sailing across and landed far away from the parent.

And there was something about that moment that just opened up this joy, and everyone on the train started to laugh. All of these people in their gray and black suits were suddenly bending over to pick up this little shoe, and it was a very ordinary moment, but I wrote a poem about it. And that's what a writer does. A writer sees something ordinary and wants to write about it and find what the meaning is in it.

So as a writer, I'm never bored because I'm constantly looking around the world and finding things in it that I think I want to both acknowledge and appreciate.

One of my favorite books as a child was Harriet the Spy about a little girl who keeps a spy notebook and writes down conversations that she hears, and that book made a huge impression on me. I immediately began a spy notebook when I was in the fifth grade, and yes, I still think that every writer is a spy of sorts. I am always on the lookout, and my ears and eyes are always open for, again, what is ordinary and yet extraordinary about life.

The hard middle

I think the hardest part of writing is the middle, just as with a climb, a journey, a rafting trip ... When you're starting, it's very exciting. There's a lot of energy. You don't know exactly what's gonna happen. When you're ending, you get to put all the finishing touches on. When you're in the middle, you're trying to make it all fit, and you don't necessarily see the end yet.

So the middle is when it's the most grueling, and when you also can lose faith, writing takes a huge amount of confidence, and so you just have to trust that you're gonna make it to the end. So that writing, figuring out the climax of the book, figuring out how everything fits together is the hardest.

Ideas come from the world around you

I never get a good idea when I'm sitting at my desk, and I always tell that to students when I visit schools because there they are, sitting at their desks every day, expected to come up with great ideas. I get ideas when I'm in the world. I carry my writer's notebook with me everywhere I go, to the grocery store, to the movies, to the park, to my friend's house. I would never leave home without my writer's notebook.

And I'm constantly finding things that interest me, that surprise me, that move me, and I do not wait to come home to write. I stop and write those things down because by the time you come home you will be thinking about all kinds of things. So I show students my writer's notebook. I make sure to read from my writer's notebook, the kinds of things that I'm writing down, show them a rough draft of a poem that I've put in that writer's notebook, and then how I've made it into something different.

With stories, I get a lot of ideas in the library. I read a lot in the library, and reading other books will give me an idea for a book. So, many of my story ideas have come from the world around me, and not my own imagination, and I think that's an important message to students too because they often think that a writer is just born with all of these great ideas ready to go, and that's just not true. You need constant inspiration.

You do need to be out looking, and you need to be thinking like a writer, and that's one of the fun things about it, to carry that little notebook in your pocket and act like a spy and imagine that you're out there trying to discover the next great idea. It's a really fun way of being in the world. You can never be bored while you're looking for something exciting to happen.

Rejection is an opportunity

Rejection is an important thing to talk about. A lot of times students don't hear about rejection. They just see the finished product, and they don't see all the failures that existed before that product came out into the world. So it's important to talk about rejection, to acknowledge that it happens, to acknowledge that it doesn't feel good when it happens, but also to make the connection that if you do really have a good attitude about listening to criticism and feedback,

that rejection will teach you something. And you can take whatever you learn from that rejection and really absorb it and use it to make sure that you nail that next book or that next draft of that book. So rejection can be an opportunity, if you have a good attitude about it.

Finding time to write

I go into a lot of schools all around the country. I do big assemblies, and I do classroom writing workshops. One of the things that I hear from teachers is that there's not a lot of time for creative writing, and so there might be one opportunity in an entire school year for the students to write a story. It's the story writing unit, and there's one story to write, and the problem with that is that it puts a lot of pressure on that one project.

Students feel as if they have one chance to write this story, and it's very difficult to do. So I think that not having a lot of opportunities then makes it harder when it comes time to actually do it, so I would say that's the biggest problem that teachers talk to me about.

Dreaming and writing, no grades

You know, human beings have been wired to need story. We know this. We know that story is the thing that really helps us to understand the world and to communicate important things to one another, and yet we don't give a lot of time to the dreaming up of stories and to the writing of stories.

So I think that it would be wonderful if there were more time to allow children to make up stories, write them, and not even grade them. Just allow them to do it.

The WOW

So my primary mission is to remind kids that writing has power, and that writing is something that they can do, and the way that kids can get at this in a more natural and fun way is to get away from the page, and that sounds a little odd because we think of writing as putting words on a page, but really, writing is about having ideas, about having an idea in your head, in fact, that is so exciting that you want to share it with the entire world.

And so one of the things that I do is I teach kids this very simple process of making up a story. Not yet writing a story, but making it up, and I call it the WOW, and it's very simple. There is a character in the beginning who wants something, so there is a want in the beginning of the story. That's the first W of WOW.

If the character gets what he or she wants too easily, it's not an exciting story, and so there has to be an obstacle, so that is the O of the WOW. But if the story ends with the obstacle getting in the way, it's not a satisfying story, so the character has to win in the end in order to make the story feel like the kind of story that we all know. This is the classic story.

This is what Aristotle told us thousands of years ago about what makes a story great, and I've just made up the simple way for kids to remember it, W for want, O for obstacle, W for win. So I will encourage kids to think of these kinds of stories, to act them out. I'll do it with them on the spot, and what they find is that they are not having to come up with the story all at once.

They're just taking it step by step. So as soon as you think of a character who wants something, a cat who wants a saucer of milk, then it's pretty easy to think of an obstacle. You could think of ten different obstacles. So there's a mean dog that gets in the way, and then as soon as you think of that obstacle, you can start to imagine how could the cat get around the dog? And there are lots of different ways.

So I'll ask kids to give me five different ways, and then we'll choose one. We'll act it out first, and acting it out is a great way for kids to understand that writing is not just about putting words on paper. Writing is about making something so fun and so lively that it is entertainment. And so then, after it's all over, what I find is that kids will often be eager to write that story down.

They love it so much they want to write it. They want to write it because they understand that writing it is the way of both remembering the story, being able to read the story and enjoy the story again, and being able to share it with other people.

The WOW in action

I teach the WOW concept in large school assemblies with 200 kids at once, as well as in small classroom workshops with 20 kids at once. It works both ways, and I do ask for volunteers from the audience, so I'll get one child to come up and be the main character. I will ask for ideas from the audience about who could this character be, and what could the character want?

Every hand in the room will go up with ideas. It's very easy to come up with ideas when you're not looking at a blank page. It's very hard to come up with ideas when you're staring at a blank page, so the students will get ideas. We will decide on an idea. Then we'll bring up an obstacle character, and that obstacle character will have some reason to get in the way.

I will be the writer of the story, so I will say the story as it's going along. We'll have dialogue. The characters themselves will have personalities. Children are amazing at acting. They love it, and so they will begin to act it out and just naturally give their characters personalities.

When they talk, they are using voice. Many teachers wonder how do you teach voice? How do you get at that concept of voice in writing?

So if you give a child a character, let's say that child is a grandfather, and the grandfather is really frustrated and wants to get an ice cream cone, it can be something really simple like that, that child will start to talk like a frustrated old man. It's amazing. They will use a different voice. They'll use different word choice than they would ordinarily.

They're illustrating all of the things that a writing teacher wants to see, and it's coming very naturally, again, because they're not looking at the page. So when the story goes along, we have this wonderful flow because they remember that there is an arc to the story. There's the want, there's the obstacle, and there's the win. They don't have to wonder what's coming next because  they know that there's this formula. So it's not a recipe, necessarily, or a strict rule, but that W-O-W is more like a guide that helps students through that process to keep it from being scary and to allow them to have fun with all those extra things that they add to it, like word choice, like character traits.

And by the end of the story then they have something that is both familiar because it's like the stories that they've read, and yet it's brand new because we just made it up on the spot.

The natural flow

So if I'm working with a really large group, I will encourage them to go back to their classrooms and write either the story that we just did, or if they wanted the story to go a different way, to write that story, or to write a brand new story of their own. I

If I'm in a classroom with a writing workshop, we will write on the spot, so I will have students get out their writer's notebooks. I will get out my writer's notebook, and we'll start with a very simple three-step process. First, write down your character. Write down what your character wants. Write down your obstacle, and write down the win. Three sentences. That's it.

That is really what teachers call pre-writing. That's what you do before you're really writing the story, and it's a nice way of liberating yourself from having to think on the spot. Once you have those three sentences written down, then I ask students to close their eyes, to not look at the blank paper, and to imagine that story, and to have fun imagining that story. Writing is a lot like acting. You get to feel things from the inside out.

As soon as they've had some time, some quiet time to imagine the story then we open our eyes, and we write the story, and for a lot of students, it's the first time that they really feel a flow in their writing. That's what we're always hoping for, is that the writing flows. This helps the student to have a sense of things before they're actually beginning that first sentence.

Writing is like sports

Writing is a lot like sports, and being a writer is a lot like being an athlete, and I love to make that comparison. Kids know how much it takes to be good at playing baseball or basketball or ice skating. Any kind of activity that requires some skill is going to require a lot of effort, and so I make the connection that doing exercises and learning those skills are not necessarily the fun part.

The fun part is playing the game, and the skills and the exercises help you to get to the point where you are gonna play a great game. Kids understand that. What they haven't always thought about is how that's similar to the writing process, so all the things that you learn about writing are — the skills and the exercises that you're doing, when it comes time to actually writing something like a story or a poem or a song, that's like playing the game.

And so what you need to bring to that is all of your energy. So I make the connection that it's great to get yourself psyched up before you're about to write, so I have kids do this exercise where we stand up, and we imagine that we're Olympic athletes about to do a big trick, a big event, maybe going down the ski slope or diving into a swimming pool.

And you know that athlete is getting ready right before that, so you can see the athlete psyching himself up, psyching herself up, talking it through, getting the muscles and the energy going in the body. So I'll do that with students. We'll stand up, we'll get the energy going in our bodies, and I have them actually say to themselves out loud, "Come on, baby! Dig deep! Go big or go home!"

And we say it with all of this energy. There might be 20 of us if it's a classroom. There might be 200 of us if it's an assembly, and then I ask them to stop and to check in and to feel how they feel on the inside, and it's amazing because their bodies are tingling. Their minds are alive. They feel so energized.

And I say that's what you need to bring to your writing so that when you write, you have as much energy as when you're about to play that basketball game, and it really gets kids excited. I would love it if teachers would bring that into the classroom and have kids stand up before they write and really get psyched up so that when it comes time to write, they actually have that energy inside of them.

Making mistakes is liberating

Writing is scary. It's scary for almost everyone, and I think one of the reasons that that is the case is because we see examples of perfect writing around us all the time. Think about it. Books, magazines, newspapers, signs, everywhere you look, there is perfect writing. And I think what happens is a little bit like imagine walking into a baker, and here is a pastry case, and in the pastry case are croissants and petit fours and tarts and beautiful ganache-covered cakes.

And what we say is, "Okay, there's a poem. There's a story. There's a song." Now make that. Go ahead. Make that. Here's a bowl. Here's a spoon. Here's some ingredients, and we all know that it would be really difficult to make one of those beautiful pastries. Well, we see these beautiful pieces of writing in the world, and we are saying to students, "Make that."

We don't often see examples of writing that are messy, that are problematic, and so one of the things that I do is encourage teachers to make mistakes. Making mistakes is liberating, and watching an adult make a mistake is not only liberating, but it's very informative.

So I encourage teachers to write with their students, to make mistakes and to share those mistakes out loud with students, to talk about that process, to let them see their own handwriting, to let them see their own mistakes, to actively look for pieces of writing that aren't perfect, and to understand that that whole process is nothing that is magic.

Improv revision

So I will often read a little bit of a rough draft and, on the spot, show kids what I don't like about it. What did I not quite get the way I want to get it? And I think that what happens with kids is they judge themselves really harshly for not getting something right the first time, and they think that revision is a way of proving that they did it wrong.

So if they need to revise something, it must mean that they did a poor job, and what I try to show them by giving them examples of my own rough drafts and my own revision is that it is a process that actually can be fun if you think of it as a way of making your work better. So one of the things that I do is an improvisation game.

So I will ask students to think of a story that we all know, let's say a story of the — little Miss Muffet sitting on the tuffet eating her curds and whey, and we'll act it out first the way it normally exists, and then I'll say, "So, you know, in Hollywood, they never expect to get things right on the first try. It's always take one, cut. Let's do this again and see if we can make it even more dramatic or more humorous or more suspenseful, and then we'll do a take two."

And as soon as they've done a take two on acting that out again, they see that they made it better, and then they think of other things that they wanna make better, so we'll do a take three, and they've learned through that process that that is a revision, and thinking of it instead of as work or as a correction, instead of thinking it in those terms, they're thinking of it as an opportunity to make it better.

So kids relate to that because they love movies. They love Hollywood, and so I will say that revision is like a take. You're not gonna get it right on take one. You're gonna wanna do a take two, and then you're going to work a little harder and figure out how to make it even better, and that's a take three, and I'll show them my revisions and how it's not just one or two revisions that go into a book.

It's 12 or 20 revisions that go into a book, and they start to understand that that's just part of the process.

Two strategies for reluctant writers

Reluctant writers or kids who really have a lot of trouble writing are kids that need to understand how meaningful and how fun writing can be. None of us want to work at something that is difficult, and so it has to be fun for them, and I think that a lot of times, if they're given the chance to write something that might, to an adult, seem to be silly, if they're given that chance, they will want to write about it.

So that's one thing, is allowing students to write about what they want to write about. A boy might want to write a story about Superman having an adventure, and instead of saying, "No, that's already been done," or "No, that's — try to think of a different story," allowing that student to write about Superman can be the best gift to that student because he already has the motivation.

So I try to really meet kids at their own interest level and figure out what it is that they're really passionate about and can we write about that. That's one thing. Another thing is to encourage kids who really can't write to make up stories and tell them to someone else and see if that dictated story can be a jumping off point. As soon as they discover that writing has meaning, that making up something and passing it on so that it can be shared, as soon as they discover that then they're going to want to practice those skills.

The hardest thing is if you're asking them to practice skills without any context for why that can be a fun or meaningful thing.

Collaborative journals

A collaborative journal is a journal in which more than one person gets to write, and I have two books that are collaborative journals.

They're novels, but they're written as if they are the collaborative journals of students in a classroom. The first book is called Please Write In This Book, and it begins with a letter from a teacher saying, "Please write in this book," and as the book continues, all of the students in the classroom write in it.

So you're hearing ten different voices, and the students in the book are all relating to each other, and one thing that one student writes will inspire another student to write something else. It's a great way to show point of view because each child is writing from a different point of view. It's also a great way to show character traits because student has a very strong personality.

So for a teacher, a wonderful writing project is to get a blank book, to write on the first page, "Hello, boys and girls. This is our new journal. Anyone can write in it. Please write in this book," and to find a spot for it in the classroom and allow students to come and add to it.

That can be a great way of showing students that writing has meaning, that writing can be fun, and a wonderful way to see how one thing can inspire another.

Exploring characters through writing

One of the best compliments that I ever received was from a reader, a parent, who asked if the students’ work in my collaborative journal novels was really the work of students. In other words, she felt as if it sounded so real, I couldn’t have made it up. I loved that compliment. I try to get into character when I write, just the way an actor does, so I spend a lot of time pretending that I am a third grader or a first grader or a fifth grader.

And I can do that because I am able to really imagine things from the inside out. The way that I develop that was by thinking like a writer, so whenever I am in the world, I see someone, and I am trying to imagine myself as that person. It becomes a habit of being to allow yourself to become someone else and to feel the world from that person's point of view.

Children understand this on Halloween, and they have a fantastic time putting on a costume and putting on a persona and being that other character. We need to give them much, much more time and many more opportunities to have that experience, and writing is a great way to do it.

Songwriting about science

When I teach songwriting, I often start by having the kids do research, which might not seem like a usual way to write a song, but often if you decide on a topic and then you do some research on that topic, you will begin to have more ideas than you had originally. So one of the things that I've really been enjoying lately is bringing other kinds of disciplines into the writing, so I will teach a songwriting workshop that is really related to science.

So we'll chose a science concept. It might be biology, and perhaps in the school they are studying the behavior of bees, so we'll do some research on bees and jot down all the interesting things that we can think of about bees, and then I'll help them to look for what in all of that pops out as good material for a song?

We'll look for metaphors. We'll look for symbols. We'll look for concepts that have real potential for rhythm, for rhyme, and we'll write a rough draft of a song around that, that gets at those science concepts but in a really creative way. So I love doing those cross—discipline kinds of workshops where students are learning another topic, like science, but they're also using all of the great literary elements.

They're using their writing skills to put together something that really is exciting to them and that enables them to share and show what they've learned.

Why we read

One of the most rewarding parts of being a writer is hearing directly from readers, and over the years I've gotten the most extraordinary letters from readers. I get two kinds of letters. One is the type from a very young reader who will say to me in a letter, "I didn’t like to read until I read this book," and that is a huge thrill to know that a student was really motivated to do something that must have been hard.

And so it's a great chance for a new reader to be able to share that joy by writing a letter to an author, so I very much encourage parents and teachers to have kids write letters to the authors that have helped them to become readers. It's a joy to receive a letter like that, and it's a joy to write a letter back. You know that that child is really excited to get a letter back.

The other kind of letter I receive is from an older child who has read one of my more serious books and who has said that the book helped him or her to understand something that was previously very confusing or very difficult to understand. So I had a letter from a girl who said that after reading my book The Naked Mole Rat Letters realized, for the first time, that she wasn't really talking honestly with her father.

That's a big part of the book, and the book inspired her to try to have the courage to have an honest conversation with her father, and she said that it changed their entire family. And the reason that I think that happens is because books often will tell a truth that students don't have a chance to hear.

So giving a child a book that really speaks to that child is not just a way of building up their reading skills. It can be a way of opening up a window on some area of that child's life that really needed some light, and if the child is able to internalize that, to really understand her or his problem from that character's point of view, that's a huge leap.

And it enables that child to then take action in a positive way in life because they've seen the character do that. So that really is why we read and why we write. It's to try to understand our own lives better, and to try to find a way forward in a more positive and really alive way.

"Children are made readers on the laps of their parents." — Emilie Buchwald