National Writing Project

Why I Write: Ashley Hope Perez Writes with Her Students in Mind

Date: October 17, 2011

Summary: NWP teacher-consultant Ashley Hope Perez started writing with her students, and they challenged her to write a novel. She published that novel, and now has a second one on the way. She writes while thinking of what would make her students—especially her reluctant readers—turn the page.


How did you become a novelist?

By aspiration—and by accident. The aspiration was always there; the accident was that it actually happened, in spite of all my fears of not being good enough to write a novel.

When I started writing with my students, they challenged me to set a goal for myself that was as ambitious as the goals I set for them. My first novel, What Can't Wait, was written with and for my students at Chavez High School in Houston.

What are the things you're most proud of having written, from any time in your life?

As weird as it may sound, I'm still very proud of the application essays I wrote for college and scholarships. I paid for school with scholarships, so I wrote A LOT of these essays, but it was never easy for me. I felt I had to put so much of my private self on the line for strangers. It was like applying for a bank account wearing nothing but my pajamas from fourth grade.

I'm also proud of writing one very important word on my own body. I tend to be very cautious, so getting a tattoo was a bit out of character. The one I got has been a private reminder of how I want to live ever since. You'll have to find "The Tattoo Story" on my blog for the full scoop.

Writing is a way of discovering worlds, both the worlds around us and the worlds within us.

How would you describe your writing process? That is, how do you usually research, write, revise, edit? What routines help, and what challenges do you regularly face?

My writing process is hybrid: I work between notebooks and index cards (mostly for prewriting and idea generation), the awesome writing program Scrivener (mostly for drafting), and actual print manuscript pages that I revise longhand.

Putting my butt in the chair is always the biggest challenge, which I think is true for most writers—certainly for writers who are also moms and teachers. I set a very small daily goal (some days as little as 15 minutes). I find that once I've met that initial goal, I often stick around and write more.

What's the strangest or most interesting thing you've ever written about or researched for a writing project?

I loved researching street writing (commonly known as graffiti) for my second novel, The Knife and the Butterfly. Before learning more about it, I tended to think of graffiti as straight-up vandalism. That's part of it, but I discovered that it had more in common with my own work than I realized. That, for some youth, it is a way of making a mark, announcing themselves to the world, making it listen. I also learned how to "read" street writing, both in terms of interpreting intricate scripts and symbols, and in terms of recognizing something of value.

How do outside forces influence or shape your writing? (For instance, your audience, editors, the market, things you read, etc.)

While mostly I write what captures my imagination, I do think a lot about my students. In general, I write with my most reluctant readers in mind. What would make them want to turn the page? What would make this the "gateway drug" book that would get them into reading?

Why do you write?

Because writing is a way of discovering worlds, both the worlds around us and the worlds within us. It's one of the few aspects of my daily life that is both risky and reassuring. I love that writing still surprises me—and that a project can take on a life of its own if I let it.

For more on Ashley Hope Perez's books and writing life, go to her website.

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