Author Shows SPMS Students Messy, Glorious Writing Process


“Don’t think too much!” — an unusual idea to hear in a school setting, but that was one message author Mary Amato brought to South Pasadena Middle School last week.   Her visit was the culmination of a year-long school-wide celebration of her music-themed book, Guitar Notes. Amato taught a writing workshop and a songwriting workshop, autographed copies of Guitar Notes in the library, and spoke (and sang!) to two student assemblies.

For the third year in a row, South Pasadena Middle School received funding from the South Pasadena Educational Foundation to buy 150 copies of one title. This “Read It Forward” program idea is simple: the library distributes the books to anyone who wants to read it, and each book is then passed on to someone else. Over the course of the school year many SPMS students, teachers, and staff read this outstanding book, as well as enjoying other music-related activities. Library visitors created jewelry and sculpture out of used guitar strings, listened to student- and teacher-recommended music playlists on an iPad, and enjoyed a new collection of music related books, also funded by SPEF.

Amato got the message early on that writing things down helps you remember them. During her assemblies she showed students a series of notebooks she wrote in as a child, including a memento of a bloody piece of tissue she saved upon the momentous occasion of losing a tooth in third grade. After a tragic and unexpected loss at a young age, that advice about writing became a lifesaver as she used it to help her sort out her buried feelings, and eventually connect with her creative side. She found her own real, honest voice, and her journals became a source of personal power.

Amato compared the discipline of writing to that of an athlete. Each requires one to train, exercise, stay fit, persevere, endure rejection and loss, find powers of focus and concentration, and be willing to put yourself out there even when it is hard. Amato emphasized that she is a “terrible” first draft writer, and showed a slide of a towering stack of paper that represented the many notes and drafts of her latest book, Get Happy.

When it is time to write lyrics for a song, Amato advised, “Don’t sit and stare at a blank piece of paper – that would just freak me out!” She took the students through a “messy” brainstorming process for her song Money, which is part of the plot of Get Happy. She threw out ideas and then went to work at playing with them all in order to find rhymes and connections. The assembly audiences then enjoyed hearing Amato sing, accompanying herself on her tiny travel ukulele.

In middle school sometimes we think it is all about getting the right answer, but Mary Amato says that it’s important to keep asking questions. That’s good advice for any age.


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