Jack Gantos has never shied away from sharing his own life in books—to great effect. He won the 2012 Newbery Medal for his autobiographical novel Dead End in Norvelt, and Hole in My Life, his young-adult memoir, received Michael L. Printz and Robert F. Sibert honors. In Writing Radar: Using Your Journal to Snoop Out and Craft Great Stories (Farrar Straus Giroux, Aug.), Gantos again mines his past, sharing his experiences as a developing writer and his passion for his craft, to encourage aspiring authors to build confidence and establish good writing habits.
Based on the key role that his boyhood journal played in igniting his own writing career, Gantos urges kids to keep journals and to use them to find story ideas in their own lives. He began writing as a sixth grader, after he surreptitiously read his older sister’s diary, and was less than impressed. “I always thought my sister was twice as clever as I, so I was sure that her diary would contain world-shaking news. But when I snuck into it—it just had an insignificant little lock and key, so it wasn’t like I was breaking into Fort Knox—I was disappointed that what she had written was so vacuous and saccharine, and that she’d written nothing about me!”
Certain that he could do a better job, Gantos persuaded his mother to buy him a journal, but when he first sat down with it, his self-expectations plummeted. “I was so sure a talent would blossom inside of me and I’d become a literary magician, but nothing blossomed but the world ‘loser,’ ” he said. “I’d open my journal, stare at the pages, and close it—over and over again. It was a soul-crushing moment when I realized I was a blank slate!”
But not for long. Gantos explains that he “got lucky in a couple of different ways.” It occurred to him that “maybe my dad’s off-color, dinner-table stories might be interesting to write down,” and he also came across a copy of Harriet the Spy while shelving books at the library. “I saw on the cover that Harriet had a journal,” he noted. “As I read the novel, a lightning bolt hit me in the pen. I realized that all you have to do is snoop around and write down everything you see. So I put a pad of paper into my bike basket, and rode around the neighborhood, drawing pictures of the houses and writing down everything I saw. It was kind of like walking into a darkroom, and watching a photo come to life.”
Though journaling was Gantos’s “jumping-off point, for both confidence and finding raw material,” he realized he “still had no clue as how to organize the material. I knew that a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end, but I had to learn what happens at each stage, and how to find the action and the emotion. It would not have hurt me if I’d had more creative writing instruction in school.”
He recalls that he did pick up “some good creative writing tips,” in high school, but it wasn’t until his college years that “I really started to understand the essential tasks of writing and refining my process. That’s when I began to get traction.” And a considerable amount of it—Gantos published his debut book, Rotten Ralph, illustrated by his friend Nicole Rubel, in 1976, when he was a college sophomore.
Gantos has taught writing at the college and graduate levels and has, over more than three decades, visited 1,000-plus schools, working with children and helping educators shape their writing programs, which has cemented his reputation as “a teaching author.” He took a year’s hiatus from fiction writing to distill his teaching and writing experiences into Writing Radar, which, he said, “represents a good part of my life’s work.”
Fans will be pleased to learn that the author filled his writing guide with “Gantosian add-ons,” in the form of humor and personal stories. Knowing that “if a book about writing is strictly mechanical, it’s not going to engage kids,” Gantos set out to write “a purposeful book, but one that had my personality in it—I think Writing Radar is a handshake between the two. I hope that kids like me, who are totally clueless about writing, will say, ‘Really? All I have to do is listen at the dinner table? Really? All I have to do is eavesdrop and learn other people’s business? I can do that!’ ”
As he has done so successfully in his own career, Gantos advises young writers to reach inside themselves for inspiration. “I try to empower kids by telling them to write about themselves, in the first person, which will help them get both action and emotion,” he said. “At the end of my school visits, I always tell kids, ‘One of these days, I’m going to walk into a library and see a book with your name on the cover, and I’m going to read it.’ And their faces always brighten, realizing that this is, in fact, a real possibility.”
An earlier version of this story appeared in PW Show Daily, June 1, 2017.