PEN In The Classroom Community Interview with Amy Wallen

Amy Wallen is a writer, editor, teacher, PEN member, and beloved PEN In The Classroom instructor. For the past two years, Amy has taught a PITC residency to students at Ocean Discovery Institute, a nonprofit organization in San Diego dedicated to educating urban and diverse youth through ocean science. Here Amy discusses how PITC's creative writing workshops improve students' abilities to express themselves, whether they're writing fiction, personal reflections, or scientific reports.

You have worked with the students at ODI for several years, and you are also a member of PEN Center USA and are active in the PEN writing community. At what point did you find out about PEN In The Classroom and what about PITC and ODI seemed complementary to you?

I had been volunteering for ODI for six years, helping the students edit their personal essays about their five-week scientific excursion to Bahia de Los Angeles each July. Upon their return, the kids do a presentation to the San Diego science community, an audience of about three hundred people. They report on their scientific findings and they also present their personal “reflections” on their time in Baja. It became clear that the writing of their reflections was stronger after just one week of tutoring. The reaction to the personal side of the students’ experiences was so emotional that ODI and I wanted to add more writing exercises or lessons to their curriculum.
 
When I read through the application for PITC, I found so many aspects that were exactly what ODI needed or that we could build on: Ten weekly writing workshops would give the students advanced lessons on how to write creatively before they went on their sojourn to Baja. Then, to offer a published book to a group of college-bound high schoolers who could include this bonus in their applications, and to wrap up each year with a public reading—all of this complemented everything ODI sets out to do with the students, to widen their perspectives and develop their self-confidence.
 
What we found out was that it meant so much more to the kids than just improving their writing. The new curriculum of creative writing practice showed them how to open their minds to the creative side of science and simultaneously learn to work through their personal issues on the page. We expanded their writing from just the one essay a year to at least four completed pieces—essays or poems or short stories or whatever they are inspired to write—in the final book published by PEN. 
 
Both ODI and PITC have the same goal of helping underserved students express themselves and discover more about our world. They both hand over the keys to their freedom. Together, ODI and PEN open up both the left and the right sides of students’ brains. 
 
How do the weeks of PITC writing instruction prior to the ODI students’ trip to Baja affect the quality of their scientific reports and their personal reflections?
 
The Bahia de Los Angeles experience is so tremendous and often overwhelming for these students. I teach a class based not on rules but on how to approach a blank page fearlessly. PEN supports the First Amendment’s freedom of speech, and I believe and see repeatedly that learning the freedom to write without rules often allows the author to put the truest part of his or her story on the page first, and then they can shape it. This applies to their science essays as well. They learn to trust their thoughts and put them on the page first. After the essay is on the page in draft form, then all the rules learned in English class can be applied. But you can’t apply the rules of writing to a blank page. So the students learn to have one less thing to be fearful of in this already tough world. 
 
Science students rarely learn the finer parts of writing, and so I believe that PITC complements ODI by integrating this important skill (writing), even if the student does not want to become a creative writer. It provides the means to communicate more articulately. Maybe the best that will happen is these students will grow up to make science more accessible to us laypeople. But many are naturally talented writers, and they may grow up to be the next Oliver Sacks. I believe one day I will see some of these students’ essays in Best American Essays.
 
How do you think the PITC creative writing workshops complement the students’ overall experience at ODI?
 
Science is not just facts and data and research. Science requires a creative mind open to discovery and the imagination to develop innovative ideas. DaVinci used his artistic talents to open his mind for his medical experiments. Once the students see and believe that they are creative writers, that they articulated what goes on inside themselves, they realize they fit into to a much bigger world than they ever imagined. Many of these kids want to grow up to be molecular biologists, pediatricians, ecologists, and engineers. Science with a heartbeat uncovers the most important discoveries.
 
Last year’s PITC residency at ODI was a tremendous success. This year’s residency sounds like it also will be a huge success. Can you explain what “whirly love” means and how that meaning has changed or deepened over the years?
 
“Whirly love” has become a very special expression for me. It came originally from one student’s essay, which was about how her grandmother rescued her from the Karan refugee camp in Thailand. She expressed what she felt for her grandmother as “whirly love.” It’s not an expression that I’ve ever heard before, nor had anyone else. We chose to leave it in the essay because it just sounded so perfect. Within the context of the story, the expression “whirly love” seemed to say everything about how she felt about her grandmother’s love for her. It’s the whirl of both their loves—I don’t know. It’s not literal, it’s literary. But today whirly love is what I feel for this program. PITC and ODI are whirly love. Whirly love means putting your heart on the page. It means being who you are. I visualize it as two entities coming together in a dance. 
 
What is your favorite part of the PITC residency?
 
The whirly love it gives me. Seriously, seeing the big leaps the kids are willing to take. How honest they are both on the page and with their fellow students. How they learn not just the freedom to express themselves, but the freedom that comes with writing. How daring they are in their home lives and their education. I don’t think anyone could read their stories and not feel these kids will change our world with more than just science
 
Have you had any important writing mentors in your own life?
 
I’ve had many wonderful teachers who have taught me all about finding details and drawing a picture on the page, and so much about craft and about finding freedom in my own writing: Janet Fitch, Judy Reeves, and others. Mary Gordon blew me away when she gave me permission to write the way I write and not the way anyone else does. Marilynne Robinson taught me to believe in myself beyond a reasonable doubt. Just this summer Allan Gurganus reminded me to find what I’m good at, work on making it even better, and don’t focus on what I’m doing wrong.
 
Who are your favorite authors? Favorite books?
 
I don’t suppose that it’s ironic I work with high school kids and my all-time favorite book ever is Catcher in the Rye. I read it every year during Banned Books Week and I read everything about it that I can get my hands on. Inside it touches on that desperate part of us that struggles to find authenticity, how we constantly feel it slipping away from us just when we think we may have found it.
 
I just finished reading Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. LOVED IT. Everyone needs to read this book. It’s a statement about our American society, and it’s an example of how to tell a story, how to understand that we all make choices and decisions in life based on who were are at that moment. Just read it. It’s funny, poignant and all those other requirements a good book should be, but it’s also brilliant.