An author since childhood, Melissa believes strongly in the empowerment that fills a person who practices the craft of creative writing. As founder of the iWRITE Literacy Organization, she now strives to instill this appreciation of writing in kids, so they, too, can enjoy the benefits throughout their own lifetimes.
By Sara G. Stephens
HFM: Tell us a little about your personal life.
MW: I am getting married in January in Maui. Deborah Duncan, the host of Great Day Houston, introduced me to my now fiance. We both had been guests on her show in the past. She set us up on her show, and a year later, Matt proposed on her show. We have a box shell turtle named, Spike and a Yorkie named Charlie.
HFM: Were either of your parents writers?
MW: My mother was a professional ballet dancer for the Houston Ballet, and she’s taught at HSPVA for 35 years, so she has a lot of choreography experience. Creating, writing, choreographing all use the same part of the brain that allows you to vision things into existence.
HFM: Can you remember the first story you ever wrote?
MW: The first full-length story I ever wrote was in middle school. It was about my pet iguana, Iggy. I later used that idea to come up with the foundation for my Iggy the Iguana chapter book series that first came out in 2008.
HFM: Your children’s books feature main characters consisting of a turtle, a lizard, and an iguana. Did you have all these animals as pets?
MW: Besides Iggy, my sister and I both had other reptiles growing up. At one point we had 16 turtles and 10 horned toads. Many of those reptiles found a place in my books.
HFM: Your published works are offered in both English and Spanish. Why bilingual?
MW: A majority of the schools where I speak and give creative writing presentations in Texas have a large Spanish-speaking population. As the students go through transitional years of learning English, it is important that they still feel connected to books in their language, especially if they experienced a connection to me as the visiting author.
HFM: Besides writing books, you also publish books from other authors, working closely with writers to see their creations published and distributed. Between writing and publishing, which effort do you find more rewarding? Which is more challenging?
MW: I find writing my own books to be more rewarding, mainly because many of my books require years of research and travel to the location of the story setting to do interviews and experience the area. The Turtle Town Series allowed me to research in Southern California, four of the Hawaiian Islands and the Gold Coast of Australia. The last book in the series is finally coming out at the end of the year. That one will feel like a three year research thesis completed. I definitely find publishing for others more challenging, especially when guiding someone to make decisions that will benefit their book. Having worked with and written for specific target audiences, I’ve learned from my own mistakes and try to make sure my authors don’t repeat mistakes that could have been avoided.
HFM: Starting from childhood, people latch onto the idea that writing is hard–something they’re not good at, and therefore something to dread–an idea that continues on through adulthood. What are your thoughts about the talent required to write? Can anyone do it?
MW: There are so many different types of writing styles out there, just like there are different areas of mathematics. I remember not being that great at Geometry but acing Algebra. Writing is the same way … someone may be better at technical writing as opposed to poetry. During the pivotal years of development, elementary aged students especially need to be given more creative options and exposed to different styles, so writing is not associated with something that you just get tested on starting in 4th grade. It should be associated to success and respect. If you are a good writer, you will immediately be given a higher level of respect in an email, grant request or of course a publishing submission. Writing is something that needs to practiced daily in order to get better at it, just like any other skill. I do wish there was more funding for educators to be trained on how to teach writing in the classroom. It’s the fear of not being good at writing that blocks so many. A few writing classes would fix that. I love watching the light bulb [switch on] when I teach creative writing to teachers.
HFM: Why is creative writing so important in schools today? Are there skills to be gained just going through the process, regardless of the outcome?
MW: Creative writing is therapeutic. It allows one to understand their thoughts and feeling before prematurely reacting. It also allows a person to feel like they’ve created something out of nothing. It’s a very liberating experience. You can literally see self-confidence emerge. During my graduate school program for professional counseling, I had the opportunity to run group counseling sessions at a psychiatric hospital. Writing was a huge part of therapy in order for people to get a better understanding of life. If students were given more opportunities to release their ideas in a creative way, emotional intelligence would increase. I believe this type of intellect is something we need to strengthen in today’s society more than ever.
HFM: You’ve published an interactive journal that motivates children to start writing. How does the book approach this challenge?
MW: The “i” The Guy Writer’s Journal addresses the fear of writing by introducing the child to a silly and fun character who speaks to them inside little comic speech bubbles. The kids get to read about “i” The Guy’s personality as he encourages the student to get to know themselves too. He guides them through the entire story writing process in a fun way. The goal of the journal is to create a positive association to reading and writing. They students forget that they are learning in the process because it is fun and the character is relatable.
HFM: You founded the iWRITE Literacy Organization, which hosts an annual writing contest for children–with a fantastic prize for winners. Tell us about the contest and the prize.
MW: Each year we publish short stories and poetry for 65 kid writers in the 3rd-12th grade. Our authors come from all over the U.S and now the world. The winning works are professionally published in the I Write Short Stories by Kids for Kids Anthology. We are entering our 8th year, so volume 8 will be coming out in November. All of our winners are invited to our annual luncheon and book signing where we honor them for their success. Many of our authors become iWRITE ambassadors and public speakers on the news or in schools, spreading the message that literacy is cool. www.iwrite.org
HFM: How do you choose which of the submitted stories you will publish?
MW: Each year we have a panel of judges who have backgrounds in reading, writing, education, and editing. They judge the stories and poetry on different areas of creativity, originality, and technique. Each grade level competes against others in their same grade level. Every year, the editor picks her favorite story and poem, and that author receives the Editor’s Choice recognition and gets to read their work at the big event.
HFM: As a writer, what words of advice do you have for kids who wants to enter the contest but don’t know how to get started with their stories?
MW: Many people, not just kids have this question, how do I start? The answer is, just start. Whatever is happening in your head at the start of your story idea, just write it down and keep going. The act of writing will give kids more and usually better ideas down the road, but we all have to start somewhere so we can get to where we need to be. Plan on creating a minimum of four rough drafts, that way the pressure of the work needing to be perfect in the beginning goes away. Stories are never perfect on the first try. I’ve had 12 rough drafts of my chapter books at times. Develop the character first. Once the writer brainstorms ideas for the main character, it is easier to come up with a setting, problem, secondary characters to help or challenge the main character and a resolution.
HFM: Where do you go in Houston for creative inspiration?
MW: I’ve lived in and out of Houston for many years, so depending on a specific time in my life, I’ve had different areas for inspiration. About ten years ago, I spent a lot of time writing at Agora, a Greek coffee shop in the Montrose area. I would also drive down to Galveston and sit in a cafe on the sea wall. There is something about being at the ocean that makes me feel creative. I used to live in San Diego, California, and I would take road trips up coast and not come home until my book was finished. Having to pay for a room each night definitely motivated me to finish after about a week. Today, I like bright lighted areas with lots of windows. I lived in the Hogg Palace Lofts in Downtown Houston for four years, and my entire unit was floor to ceiling windows. I got a lot of writing done at that place.