I didn't wake up one morning when I was in fourth or fifth grade and say, “I know, I know! I'm going to be a writer!” That never happened to me. I think the reason I'm a writer is because first, I was a reader. I loved to read. I read a lot of adventure stories and mystery books, and I have wonderful memories of my mom reading picture books aloud to me. I learned that words are powerful.
I also watched what was going on around me. I thought about what others were thinking and feeling. When a waitress would bring my family our meal at a Howard Johnson's restaurant as we traveled east to vacation in Maine, I wondered what her life was like. But did I write about the things I was observing and wondering about? No. Writing has always felt like hard work to me. It's still something I have to make myself do. Which is a good life lesson, don't you think? Just because something doesn't come easily for you does not mean that you can't get good at it.
I had a high school English teacher who made me really work at writing. And once when I got an assignment back, she'd written: “This is so good, Andrew. This should be published!” That made a big impression on me. Then in college I began to write a little on my own — instead of only when I had an assignment. I wrote mostly poems, and I started writing songs, short pieces about big ideas. I was an English literature major, so I wrote a lot of papers about books I had read, and my professors would sometimes comment that I wrote well. So I started feeling like I was a good writer, started feeling like I should be writing more, writing all the time. But I didn't, because, as I mentioned, writing feels like hard work.
After college I took an extra year of study to prepare to be a teacher. I taught in the public schools north of Chicago for seven years — two years in fourth grade, three years teaching eighth-grade English, and two years teaching high school English. My favorite part of teaching was getting to know all the people — kids and teachers and parents. So many people to learn about and wonder about. I didn't know it at the time, but that classroom experience would become the foundation for my writing career, an endless supply of ideas and characters and situations, some funny, some scary, some heartbreaking, and all true and real and powerful.
About two years after I stopped teaching, I went to work in the publishing business. My boss figured out I could write, and little by little, writing jobs came my way: important letters to our sales people; advertisements and marketing letters; catalog copy and author biographies. And then one day I was asked to try to write a picture-book story for a wonderful illustrator named Yoshi. She wanted to illustrate a story about something that happens underwater, and I wrote the story of Big Al.
That happened in 1987. Other picture books followed. Then in 1990 I got an idea about a kid who makes up a new word. (You can read about the development of this idea on my Web site, Frindle.com. ) The book became Frindle, and it was finally published in 1996, and it became popular and successful. The publisher asked me to write more stories about kids and teachers and school, and I did. I think one reason these books have been popular is that school is where we spend a lot of hours during important years of our lives. School matters, and it matters all our lives.
Sometimes kids ask how I've been able to write so many books. The answer is simple: one word at a time. Which is another good lesson, I think. You don't have to do everything at once. You don't have to know how every story is going to end. You just have to take that next step, look for that next idea, write that next word. And growing up, it's the same way. We just have to go to that next class, read that next chapter, help that next person. You simply have to do that next good thing, and before you know it, you're living a good life.