Desktop Menu

Mobile Menu

Middle School English's John Pennisi: Published! (Again!)

Middle School English's John Pennisi: Published! (Again!)
Tutt Stapp-McKiernan

Mr. John Pennisi took on an epic challenge last February in addition to the already-demanding work of teaching Middle School English at Wakefield—he accepted a friend’s request to co-author a book with her. In short order, he had invited Wakefield then-junior Callie Rector into the project to create the future book’s artwork. And now—voila!—that book is a reality, newly printed and ready to be ordered on Amazon.

The book is Believe, Live, Think: Two Feet In, by renowned women’s college basketball coach Heather Macy and, yes, Wakefield’s own Mr. Pennisi. As its title implies, the book draws on principles developed through Coach Macy’s years of successful leadership and mentoring—but in an interesting twist, focuses specifically on her use of metaphors relating to cars and driving to explain her philosophies on life, living, and basketball: roundabouts become the unifying image for how we all—basketball players as well as the rest of us—need to learn to yield rather than stop when we come to the inevitable moments of change and challenge, in a game or in life.

Mr. Pennisi met Heather Macy when he was a freshman at Lenoir-Rhyne College signed up to manage the women’s basketball team, of which she was an assistant coach—her second coaching position at the start of what has become an elite and highly successful career. The two became fast friends and have remained close for over 20 years now. When she contacted him last year and asked him if he would collaborate with her in writing her second book, he was thrilled at the unique opportunity.

Also unique is the book’s structure—it contains chapters that explain Coach Macy’s philosophies, and interspersed with them, sections that switch off into a fictional narrative that illustrates the ideas the book is articulating.

For a writing teacher to write a book opens many intriguing questions. Mr. Pennisi is no stranger to being published, having had poetry of his included in published collections—but writing a book was a whole different thing, he says. I asked Mr. Pennisi to describe his actual process of collaborating with Coach Macy and Callie—especially how the methodologies he evolved in this new writing challenge compare with the writing habits he encourages in his students.

Mr. Pennisi:

Heather lives in Greensboro, NC, so there were a lot of phone calls at first, where she was talking and I was writing notes. Sometimes I would ask a follow-up question, and sometimes she would just talk and if I didn’t have a question I wouldn’t stop her…I was just furiously typing.

Then Heather had a coaching clinic in April in Fredericksburg, so after six weeks of conversations we met up in person. We met at a restaurant, and we were there for six hours, and at the end of the night she said, “I think we can write this book now,” because we had done all the brainstorming, and really the outlining at that point, too.

After that in-person meeting was when the draft happened, over the course of about three months. I would send her a little bit, and she’s old school, so she would print the pages out and then hand-write comments on them and scan them back to me, and I would make revisions. I’d send her 40-50 pages at a time, and then work on the next part while she was reviewing what I had sent her, so we were each working on different parts of it simultaneously.

For the illustrations, Callie came into the process pretty early (Heather asked if I had anyone in mind who could do the artwork, and I said YES I DO!). We gave Callie some ideas about some of the characters [in the fictional story], and some of the object illustrations like stop signs and bricks, so she got started with them first. It was probably about mid-summer when we [discussed the cover]. Heather knew she wanted a roundabout on the cover, and Callie came back with a couple of ideas. We went with one we particularly liked, and then there was just an incredible amount of work that Callie did. I would send a version of the cover from Callie to Heather, and she would write back and ask if Callie could tweak this or this or this, and I would tell Callie, and she would do it and send it again. Callie's work on the covers and artwork was absolutely incredible, and she has a career ahead of her in graphic design if she wants it!

Front to back the draft was done I would say mid-August—and then it was revising, and revising, and revising. It was a lot. To your question about my process and whether it matched what I teach my students: I find myself telling them all the time, “Revising and editing is going to set you apart from your peers.” And here I was living it!

It was two months of revising, and just tweaking this little bit, and you tweak one thing and then you have to change every other part where you mention it. So there was a lot of find-and-replace, and also just reading for continuity, to make sure it made sense from front to back. It’s sort of a genre-busting book in a lot of ways [because of having both fictional and non-fiction components], so that added a layer of complexity to the editing, to make sure that all of the tenets of her philosophy in the first few chapters were illustrated in the fictional story.

And then we worked with another coach, Jamy Bechler, who has written books and also helps people with their manuscripts, getting them to look the way they want them to look, and so he was part of our team in getting it to lay out on the page the way we wanted it to, especially because the book has artwork. So that whole process of revising and editing the draft and working on the layout took about two months, and the book was ready to be printed in mid-October.

[Writing the book] was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Last year was a mess in my personal life—my dog had died in April, and my best friend, Patrick Behan, was diagnosed with ALS two weeks later. And I was in the middle of writing this book. So the book was so hard, but it was also an escape for me [from what I was sad about]. I dedicated the book to my friend Pat.

I always tell my students that good writing takes time. I feel like our process was pretty accelerated—from concept to publish it was eight months—and yet we didn’t ever feel rushed. Heather never gave me a deadline—it was all very organic, just a when-it’s-done-it’s-done kind of thing. It was a very different process than being published as a poet, which for me was a much shorter, more efficient process.

I’d wake up, and [the book] would be the first thing I thought about, and it was the last thing I thought about before I went to bed. And there were days when I hated doing it! It’s very hard. But there’s also a sense of accomplishment when it’s done—you wrote a 150-page book, and it’s published and you can order it on Amazon! That’s a big thing.

A dream of mine is to write a bestselling novel, and go on a book tour—I’ve been dreaming that since I was a little kid. And now it’s like, well, you’re kind of on your way—you can say you’ve published a book. It was an opportunity I definitely could not have turned down, and I’m excited for what comes next, for publishing something I’ve written on my own. We’ll see!

You can read more about Mr. Pennisi’s and Coach Macy’s book Believe, Live, Think: Two Feet In (and order your own copy!) at

You can learn more about Mr. Pennisi’s friend Pat and his life, and about the challenges of living with ALS, at @BehanStrong and at the website