Teachers Write 7.8.16 Follow your Curiosity with Michelle Cusolito

Happy Friday! Be sure to start the day at Gae’s blog for Friday Feedback. Give some feedback, get some ideas on your own work, and learn strategies for offering helpful, thoughtful critique! 

Our guest author reflection here today is from Michelle Cusolito, whose debut picture book FLYING DEEP will be released in 2018. She’s sharing her journey with this book, along with some thoughts on following curiosity wherever it leads…

inside Alvin

Curiosity: It’s good for Students, Teachers, and Writers

When I was teaching, if my students asked me a question I couldn’t answer I’d say, “I don’t know, but let’s find out!” This would sometimes send us on wild investigations together.

Now that I’m a writer, I’m often asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” Most authors get some version of this question. For me, the answer is, “My curiosity.” I don’t subscribe the old saying, “Write what you know.” I prefer, “Write what you’re curious about.” Follow your curiosity. Follow your passions.

I’m primarily a non-fiction writer, but I believe the same applies to fiction writers. Most people write about topics they want to delve into more deeply; topics or themes they are curious about. Some folks investigate a theme by writing fictional stories in which main characters grapple with that theme. I mostly write non-fiction on the topics I love. My curiosity about the world drives me.

Let me give you some examples.

Back when I was teaching fourth grade, my friend introduced me to his friend Don. During the usual “get to know you” chit chat, I learned that Don used to pilot Alvin, a deep-sea submersible that dove to previously unheard of depths. The naturalist in me was fascinated by Don’s description of black smokers (underwater geysers blasting toxic hot water), clams as large as dinner plates and tube worms 6 feet tall.

But I was also fascinated by the people who would take on that job. How did they survive the crushing pressure two miles deep? How did Don, who is 6 feet 4 inches tall, pretzel his frame into a sphere that was roughly 6 feet in diameter? How did they last down there all day without a toilet? I wanted to know more. I knew my fourth graders would be fascinated, too, so I invited Don to visit our classroom to tell stories and share pictures. We were mesmerized. We learned new and excited science (All food chains DO NOT start with the sun!) along with interesting tidbits about the lives of pilots and scientists who dive in Alvin (They pee in a bottle!) My lessons on ecosystems, food chains and the lives of scientists were forever changed by Don’s visit.

Flash forward many years. I was writing books for children. I had an agent, but we hadn’t sold anything, yet. I was still following my curiosity and writing books on topics that fascinated me. The manuscript that landed me my agent, a picture book titled Frog Frenzy, investigated the annual migration of wood frogs. I had spent four springs, out in the field, watching migration and taking notes. I researched in books and on-line. And once I had a manuscript that I felt good about, I consulted with one of the premier experts on the subject who fact-checked it for me. I spent five years researching, writing, and revising that manuscript. That’s a long time. But I never got bored with my subject. I loved what I was learning.

I have many other examples, but I’ll skip to the manuscript that will be my first published book: Flying Deep. It was November of 2014 and I had decided to participate in PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month). The goal of PiBoIdMo is to generate 30 picture book ideas in 30 days. I came up with 32, mostly terrible, ideas.

But one of my notes said, “Hydrothermal Vents- Scientists in the Field? NF, Don C, WHOI”


 Write about “hydrothermal vents”- those black smokers I mentioned earlier.

 Perhaps write it for the “Scientists in the Field”

 “NF”-means it will be non-fiction (some of the ideas I listed were fiction).

 “Don C” means try to interview Don-the pilot I mentioned earlier.

 “WHOI”- means research on the Wood’s Hole Oceanographic Website and visit WHOI.

On December 1, 2014, I was out for a walk. I normally carry a small notebook and pen on my walks, but on this day, I forgot. Of course, the first line of a picture book about Alvin popped into my head.

“Imagine you’re the pilot of Alvin, a submersible barely big enough for two.” I recited that line over and over in my head, afraid I would lose it before I got home. But then I realized I had a new-fangled tool in my pocket: a smart phone with a “Notes” app. I sat down to type that first sentence and more came flooding in. I typed wildly with one finger, trying to capture everything. Thirty minutes and 500 words later, I looked up.

I had a first draft. A terrible, inaccurate and wonderful first draft. There were so many gaps and errors in my knowledge (Alvin fits 3 people, for example). BUT I had a structure and I knew how my book would flow. All I needed to do was complete enough research to write it.

 I called Don and interviewed him over the course of about 4 hours.

 I read every book I could find- both kids’ books and adult books. (Turns out, there was already a

Scientists in the Field Book on the topic, but it didn’t matter. My approach was different).

 I watched films.

 I scoured the WHOI and NOAA websites (Two reputable, reliable on-line sources).

Through all of this, I revised, researched more when my knowledge fell short, and revised again. By the time I visited WHOI to see their model of Alvin, I had a pretty solid working manuscript. Then I was connected with Bruce Strickrott, Manager of the Alvin Group. He talked to me for more than 3 hours during August of 2015 and took me inside Alvin. I left both energized and aware of places my manuscript was inaccurate. I revised again. The revisions and research would continue all through the fall of 2015.

In February of 2016, 1 year and 3 months after my original idea, I received an offer on my book. But I’m still not done. Just a few hours ago, (I’m writing this in mid-May) I sent Flying Deep to my critique group so they can read the latest version which includes changes based on notes from my editor. There will be several more rounds before the text is complete.

Start to finish, this book (700 words plus back matter) will have taken me nearly two years to complete. And that’s less than half as long as Frog Frenzy and many other manuscripts I’ve written. Despite that, I’m still not bored with the topic. Why? I am infinitely curious about the natural world and people who study it.

So, how does this apply to you, dear teachers, who are writing with us this summer? I encourage you to sit with your notebook or laptop right now and make a list. What are the topics you love? What are your passions? What fascinates you? Challenges you? Intrigues you? What puzzles you or bothers you? Write quickly. Get everything down.

Then, examine your list. What ideas tug at you the most? Which topics can you imagine exploring for the next month or two or twenty-two? Ponder them for a moment. If something comes to you right away, like when I was walking, write it down. If not, take a bath. Take a walk. Take a shower. Go for a bike ride. Stare into space and let your mind wander. No matter what you do, bring a notebook and pen so you can write down whatever comes to you. Write a terrible, (possibly) inaccurate and wonderful first draft.

Get it down in all its messiness. Read it.

What tugs at you now? Follow your passions and write more.

39 Replies on “Teachers Write 7.8.16 Follow your Curiosity with Michelle Cusolito

  1. Thank you for this, Michelle. I’m forever curious too, so love the fact that you justify the fact that we don’t necessarily have to write just what we know. Seems easier to research things you want to know about. Hopefully will see you soon! Congratulations on your new book!

  2. Congratulations on your new book. I also believe that you don’t have to write what you know because you can know a lot about something and have no passion for it. And isn’t it passion that keeps us writing? Best wishes to you and thanks for sharing.

  3. Good morning campers. I’m posting from my phone, so please forgive any errors.
    I will be without internet until mid-afternoon ET. I’ll check in with you all then.

  4. Michelle,

    Wow. I have put FLYING DEEP on my school library wishlist.Thank goodness for curiosity. Curiosity is the single activity that I want to bring alive in students.
    As a librarian I am able to foster and nurture curiosity. It\’s my favorite job second only to parenting yet.

    I also appreciate the way you describe your process. Three years ago when I started to write daily and with more purpose than in previous … uh, decades… I thought: \”OK, I write…now, how do I publish?\”


    Now I\’m learning that the journey is the win…publication…I may or may not have what is needed to make it to that level of activity in my life. But, if I decide to pursue it, I want curiosity to be the foundation the work to be built on.

    I\’m so glad you stopped in today. A majority of my students are ELL s. I desperately need books with low numbers of words but highly interesting topics

    FLYING DEEP already fits the bill by your description of not just the book….but how the book came into being.

    Bravo, take another Friday bow!

    1. Oh, Linda, thank you. I’m honored to think of you reading my book with your students. I hope you will find the book is perfect for the students you serve.

      And, oh, yes, nurturing curiosity in kids is a wonderful way to spend a career! Thank you for your work with children.

      That desire to publish can be a tricky thing, can’t it? I wish you luck as you look inside to see if that’s what will be right for you. If you do decide to pursue publication, hold onto your curiosity and joy of writing.

      Thank you so much for your comments.

  5. This was a very interesting and helpful post Michelle. Congratulations on persevering and seeing publication!

    I wonder who/how in the process the use of illustrations or images came into play and what role you had in that?
    Thank you for your time, greatly appreciated.

    1. Thank you, Rob!

      An illustrator has not been chosen, yet. That will likely happen over the next few months. (I’m at the tale end of my edits, now). I don’t get to choose the illustrator, but I will get to see the short list my publisher creates and give my thoughts.

  6. Michelle, so interesting to hear about how FLYING DEEP originated, grew and developed. It’s also enlightening to know how much work goes into one manuscript.

  7. Good morning, Michelle and TW Campers!

    As I read your post this morning, I kept thinking about the post that I read yesterday (by Nancy Castaldo). I agree that curiosity needs to drive us as writers (and even readers). Even when writing fiction, the story plot needs to be real to the reader (the setting needs to be accurate, the conflict needs to be sensible and real).

    Congratulations on your first published book! I find that many of my ideas come to me from my students. Like you, I often tell my sixth grade students that question topics and information “to go find out.” By the middle to the end of the school year, they are pretty good at researching in books, reference books, and the Internet (on reliable sites). In the summer, I practice what I preach with my own reading and writing.:)

    Good luck on your future research and writing!
    Thank you for a thought-provoking post to start my Friday.
    Happy writing!

    1. Thank you, Andy!

      I’m sure you get great ideas from your students! Great ideas are all around us. I love that you guide your students to find answers to their questions. That’s such an important skill. (And really what I’m doing when I’m writing- finding out what I want to know more about).

      I hope you came up with a great list this morning to get you started.

  8. Congratulations on the book, Michelle! What a great back story your picture book has. Thank you for sharing this great adventure!

  9. Good morning!
    Michelle, your story inspired me to remember to enjoy the process of creating a piece of work. I think that your story is also a powerful one to share with students because it shows that writing requires curiosity, effort and tenacity. I was fascinated by the process and look forward to reading Flying Deep in 2018!

    1. Thank you so much, Jennifer. I’m so happy to know my post inspired you.

      Once FLYING DEEP is out in the world, perhaps I could Skype with your students (or use whatever tech is popular then!)

  10. Thank you! I found that some of my lists were very similar and it was harder for me to differentiate which i liked better that were my passions vs. what fascinated me.

    1. Jennifer, I’m not sure I understand your meaning. Do you mean that you’re feeling stuck because you have so many ideas and you’re not sure where to begin?

      Perhaps I could offer a suggestion or two that might help.

      Or have I misread your comment?

      I’ll pop back in over the next few days to see your response and possibly offer suggestions.

      1. Not that I am stuck, but it was harder for me to break down a difference between my links, passions and what fascinates me. I noticed a lot of the topics were the same.

        1. Ahhh… so you have some definite topics to explore, then? I hope that’s true!

          I don’t think those distinctions are necessarily important, as long as thinking about it gets your juices flowing.

          Happy writing!

  11. I love the idea of writing what you’re curious about. If not, how can you have the passion to sustain your interest to the many revisions? 32 PB ideas in 30 days is amazing!

    1. Oh, don’t be too impressed, Theresa. 😉 I feel a bit like a fraud for even saying I had 32 ideas because most were truly awful, or weren’t nearly enough to sustain a book, or any number of other reasons they’ll never see the light of day.

      But all of that brainstorming did get my juices flowing and helped me come up with this one good one and another I am working on now. Maybe something else from that list will turn into a book, but I doubt it. Sitting here now, I can’t tell you what most of those ideas were, so they clearly weren’t tugging at me enough. But who knows, maybe I’ll pull the list out one day and smack myself upside the head wondering why I let the idea sit for so long.

  12. Michelle – I cannot thank you enough for your suggestions and examples. This lesson/idea, as well as your post will be shared with my students! So many time kids do not know what to write but they are always curious about something. I do feel this will work for fiction as well as non-fiction and I can’t wait to try it in the classroom. I also think it will help those students that don’t care for writing. Thank you again, my list is growing as we speak and I look forward to purchasing your books to use in my classroom.

    1. Oh, that’s wonderful, Sheila! Yes, have your students try this out, too.

      If you use writing folders or notebooks, you could have them keep a running list stapled to the inside cover so it’s always handy. (I don’t know what grade you teach, but I think the “I can’t find my list” statement is kind of universal. Stapling it will keep it handy).

      Perhaps your students would like to email or Skype with me next fall. Ping me if you’re interested. FYI: I’m moving in August, so best to wait until October or later so I have time to settle in. (Remind me you’re from Teachers Write if you do).

      1. Michelle – I will keep that in mind, thank you. I am a 5th grade teacher and I know the students would love it.

  13. Hi Michelle, So excited to “go deeper” with you into your process of writing your break-out debut on ALVIN! Love your language in this post, too. How Don “pretzeled” himself into the contraption. Great verb. It was an honor that you shared your draft w/me at NESCBWI. We will have you on the GROG to celebrate when it’s time! Here’s to curiosity!

  14. Michelle:

    So enjoyed meeting you last summer. The title alone of your book is intriguing. Kids and adults will love it. Your persistence and work ethic are amazing. I find I am drawn to writing about people who fascinate me. So excited for your success!

  15. I find myself most curious about food — about history, cooking, recipes passed down through generations, chemistry behind it, and most of all the most healthy foods to eat. I love looking up and trying new recipes, especially ones from around the world. I love reading food books and watching food documentaries. I get frustrated at people’s lack of knowledge, so it is on my heart to help educate people about food. The tricky part is to be sensitive to others. I don’t want to come across too strong as to put people off. Obesity is clearly a problem in America, and somehow I would like to help. How that will pan out through writing? I have no idea. I am even more clueless as to why anyone would want to read what I write. I guess it’s tough for me to find motivation when I don’t know that anyone wants to hear what I have to say.

  16. While writing my comment to Sheila, above, I had a brainstorm. I’d like to give a little more to this community, so if any of you who have already commented would like me to email or Skype with your students, get in touch with me next fall (preferably October or after). I’ll do a free 20-30 minute Skype with you or an email exchange (we’ll work out the details together. Perhaps you could email me questions from your class and I’ll send a response, or something like that).

  17. I really enjoyed your post, Michelle! It’s so neat to hear the story behind the story.

    I did the exercise: made two separate lists, one called “Things I love/like/am good at/am curious about/am fascinated by” and the other called “Things I don’t love/am not good at.” I didn’t write very fast, but I did write down every single thing that came to mind–no filter. So glad to see that my + list was much longer than my – list.

    Funny anecdote: I asked my 18-year-old son to tell me something I don’t like or am not good at. He immediately said “hook shots.” Haha! We shoot baskets most evenings after dinner, and he always laughs that I try hook shots more than anything, but nearly always miss. To keep a good balance, I asked him to think of something I like or am good at, and he said “books, taking naps, and sitting in the tub.” All three of those were on my list. :o)