Author Spotlight Series · partnerships · poetry

Death is My Writing Partner

Check out this post from Amy Ludwig VanDerwater. Then, leave a comment (below) to win a copy of The Sound of Kindness for both your classroom and your school’s library.

On the first day of spring this year, I wrote with first and second graders. One child wrote about a dragon flying with unicorn friends. Another wrote about the word “wish,” the way it rhymes with “kiss.” And yet another wrote about a mother who works hard at a desk to buy food and toys for her children. I received each poem line, story, and thoughtful expression as the enchanted surprise it was, and I feel grateful to have witnessed these poems being born.

I strive to live with my palms facing upward, ready to receive the words, stories, poems, and unexpected glories of each day. From a song sung in a public restroom to the story of a boy who sees his late grandmother in every bright cardinal, each encounter is a living, mattering spark.

Text of "I Heard a Lady Singing," a poem by Amy LV.
Click on the image to enlarge it. Source: The Poem Farm
Text of "He Said So," a poem by Amy LV.
Click on the image to enlarge it. Source: The Poem Farm

Because life is here and gone.

In the early 1980s, I fell in love with cemeteries. Full of mystery, the numbers and letters carved into stone remind me of my own death. (Read “For the Anniversary of My Death” by W.S. Merwin.)

Pondering my own death is not scary or sad; rather, it reminds me not to worry, to stop scrolling, to release grudges, to laugh. In this way, Death is a friend. Death says, “Give your attention to small things.” Death promises, “You’ll be dirt soon, Kiddo. May as well write something.”

My writing process is not one of strong habit and dedication. I do not use computer programs for planning and cannot claim to stick to elaborate or even simple writing rituals. I feel self-doubt, try not to compare my scraggly path to others’ bright success, worry that the last idea I had was the last idea I will ever have. But there is one positive thing I reliably do.

I choose what to tuck into my brain and heart. And I choose what to keep out. Death helps me prioritize.

As a maker, I believe that the ingredients I feed my brain and heart create the bread of my poetry. So I am a “no thank you” to violent movies and video games, a head shake to television programs and Facebook politics. As I cannot be trusted to exhibit self-control with Instagram, I now lock up my cell phone for several hours a day. I do not deny the existence of violence, television, games and memes, but I do not want these things to build my next generation of soul cells. In her poem “Valentine for Ernest Mann,” Naomi Shihab Nye writes, 

poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,

they are sleeping. They are the shadows

drifting across our ceilings the moment 

before we wake up. What we have to do

is live in a way that lets us find them.

As I revere Naomi Shihab Nye’s life and poetry, I take her advice, trying to live in a way that will help me find poems too.

And this is the most important part of my process. The life part. I wish to write poems about cuddling pets, collecting pinecones, and picking berries, poems about making jam and learning a language. To write stories about finding friendship in strangers and drawing when you’re sad and asking questions without answers. So I do these same things in my one 3-D life. My writing process begins with how I live. 

And then, notebook open, I hold out my hands, palms-to-sky, and receive the lines that find me, lines mixed from berries and pinecones, strangers and sadness, questions and kitties.

I write in notebooks. I burn notebooks. I write in more notebooks. Such jotting of the days – scribbling snatches of weather and overheard conversation – helps me discover what I care about, what I am learning. My weekly posts for children at The Poem Farm show me the meaning of my weeks. And sometimes, those notebooky musings and verses spill out of my notebook into published books.

This is not a pretty process, and it’s not linear. But I trust that there will always be more words, words growing from my lived days. There have to be more words; my days are numbered. 

I enjoy finding the threads between my lived life and particular book pages.

Read! Read! Read! and Write! Write! Write! are full of poem memories from my family’s reading and writing lives. I really did touch my son’s nightstand lamp bulb, checking for warmth when he read past his bedtime and in “Word Collection,” the rhyme Cinderella/mozzarella came from our toddler sharing a pair of rhymes she was proud to connect. And even though I may burn it someday, I believe my current notebook loves me.

That Missing Feeling mixes words I once heard a child say (“When I’m with my mom I miss my dad, and when I’m with my dad I miss my mom”) with my feelings about my parents’ divorce a decade ago. This book is a swirl of real-life moments twisted with fiction.

My forthcoming book, The Sound of Kindness, celebrates paying attention to the generosity of people, to the kind words they speak.  I adore strangers, the way they lift each other up: holding doors, complimenting good dogs, celebrating the win of a local team or a bewitching sunrise. Such interactions, it has been shown, change us. (Hear a podcast about this at Hidden Brain.)

When children ask what my favorite of my poems is, I hold up a blank notebook page and say, “This one. My favorite piece of writing is the one I haven’t written yet. It is my favorite because it will surprise me.” I hope to feel this way till my final day. Surprised.

When it comes to process, I first honor living and presence. I celebrate the riddles of life, death, relationships, and the wondrous surprise that comes from creating something new.

Author Headshot of Amy Ludwig VanDerwater
Amy Ludwig VanDerwater

Amy Ludwig VanDerwater is author of books for children and teachers including Forest Has a Song, With My Hands: Poems About Making Things, If This Bird Had Pockets: A Poem in Your Pocket Day Celebration, and Poems Are Teachers: How Studying Poetry Strengthens Writing in All Genres. She has blogged at The Poem Farm ( since 2010 and lives with her family and pets in a whimsical old Western New York farmhouse. Find her online at


  • This giveaway is for a copy of The Sound of Kindness by Amy Ludwig VanDerwater for both your classroom and your school’s library. Many thanks to Magination Press for donating two copies of Amy’s book for one of our commenters
  • For a chance to win this copy of The Sound of Kindness, please leave a comment about this post by Saturday, April 29 at 6:00 p.m. EDT. Stacey Shubitz will use a random number generator to pick the winner, whose name she will announce at the bottom of this post, by Thursday, May 4. You must have a U.S. mailing address to enter the giveaway.
    • Please leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so she can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.
  • If you are the book winner, Stacey will email you the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – AMYLV. Please respond to Stacey’s e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.

Comments are now closed.

Congratulations to mstiger15 who will receive a copy of Amy’s new book.

16 thoughts on “Death is My Writing Partner

  1. Amy, I love your books. Used your resources to craft a mini unit for second grade readers of poetry. You are amazing.


  2. What a wonderful post! I love the point about your favorite poem being the one not written yet. I’m reminded, too, that I should probably burn a few journals. Thanks for sharing the power of kindness especially through the words of strangers. Very insightful post and I appreciate the links!


  3. I love the idea of poetry beginning with living our lives. This inspires me to think about the experiences I help my students have and pay attention to. Thank you for encouraging me to take note of life in 3D.


  4. Amy, you put into words some of the very feelings that I have regarding what we take in. My mom used to tell her ten children, “Garbage in, garbage out.” That stuck with me all these years and I wish that more people could feel that, or at least realize the impact violence and gore has on young children. (and all of humankind for that matter!)
    Your death partner title had me wondering in so many directions and you truly are a shining example of how to live by sharing all of the goodness inside of you. Thank you for that. Shine on, Amy!


  5. There is so much goodness in this article, and so much I want to capture in my notebook. Amy is always so inspiring and generous in what she shares with others in the world! The Sound of Kindness and Amy are synonymous. Thank you for featuring her here this week.


  6. Thank you for sharing about your writing! I am struck by the line “Death says, “Give your attention to small things.” ” This is exactly how I feel. Death reminds us how much the present matters, to be ‘in it’ and aware. I love that both of the poems you shared above reveal a sweet connection you received with others, unexpectedly. The idea of seeing a cardinal and now always thinking of that one boy, who taught you to think of loved ones…this is especially dear.


  7. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I know how important it is for my students (and myself) to filter the unnecessary. I know how important it is to give my students time to write poetry. I find myself pushing it to the back burner so many times. This is just what I needed! Going to get those books NOW!


  8. I am running to get these books now! I want to do a better job of giving my students time to write poetry. I think it is so powerful, but I always push it to the side. This encourages me to do better! My mind is already racing with ideas of how I can incorporate poetry NOW in my room! Thank you!


  9. Death is my partner pulled me right in! Love that you have write in notebooks, burn notebooks and avoid computer programs! Every writer has their own unique way which can and does vary! Thanks for sharing and enlightening!


  10. I’ve been a fan of The Poem Farm for years. When I sat in my first poetry session with you at All Write, I was entranced. And I’ve continued to be entranced by your poetry through the years.
    Your title intrigued me because I couldn’t think of anyone who is less alive than you, Amy. Now I understand that having death has a writing partner keeps you in the here and now, present to all that life offers and aware that it is fleeting, so there’s a need to embrace it and love it.
    I never managed to get you to come to my classroom/school, so now I’m hoping to make it happen for my grandsons’ school someday! I’ll share the books (if I win them) with grandson’s classroom and school library


  11. Amy’s words are so inspiring. I weave poetry into my teaching throughout the year and don’t save if just for April. I love how she focuses on the positive and lovely things in life. It’s a message we can all take to heart.


  12. Inspiring as always! I’m wrapping up my poetry unit for first and second grade right now but they have certainly been bitten by the bug and keep finding and making poems everywhere. Your books are some of my favorite mentor texts! Thanks for helping us all live in ways that invite the poems we want to experience.


  13. I love your philosophy of tuning out the unnecessary negatives in our world and focusing on the positives, along with holding your palms up to receive words to write, which is a great visual. When I read your book title, The Sound of Kindness, my mind was already taking off thinking about my own sounds of kindness. Next time I’m in a school library, I am looking for your books…hoping I’ll find a couple to share with my classes.


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