“A notebook can be a clearing in the forest of your life, a place where you can be alone and content as you play with outrage and wonder, details and gossip, language and dreams, plots and subplots, perceptions and small epiphanies.” (Ralph Fletcher)
Whether I am writing in cursive on lined paper with a fine black pen, coaxing ink from the scratchy, well-worn nib of my calligraphy pen, tapping intently on the metallic keyboard of my netbook computer, or one-fingering it on my iPhone while commuting, I am immersed in the world of creation and connection. I am, most often, creating and connecting with myself and others. Nothing satisfies, integrates, and grounds me more.
Although I am a social person who is energized by spending time in meaning-filled conversation with like-minded and –hearted people who are socially conscious (but unapologetically and irreverently human), I am seduced by the transcendent power of reflective dialogue. I believe in the enduring power and potential of the more thought-full pace and presentation of written dialogue reminiscent of Rilke’s famous Letters to a Young Poet.
Unlike faster-moving spoken conversation in which both parties may be easily distracted and give limited attention to one another’s ideas while anticipating the need to provide a response, there is always the possibility of going deeper and extending the conversation longer in written dialogues. As research shows, written dialogues are often revisited and replayed many times over, allowing for deeper processing and more reflective thought. The fact that this is often carried out over greater expanses of time and space (very often leaving a digital or paper trail that spans generations) helps too.
For the past two decades, I have spent all my available time and much of my money creating opportunities for youth to engage in a written reflective dialogue with the humanistic belief that this is expansive, engaging, creative, encouraging, and above all, expressive. Starting with drawing, scribbling, and scribing and moving along naturally, it is my contention that learning to read and write can and should be as joyful and easy as the way in which a toddler learns to speak. With the exceedingly rare instance of a profound learning disability, it is not rocket science. If we communicate with a child in print at an early age with excitement, interest, modeling, meaning, expectation, and reinforcing feedback, proud and purposeful readers and writers emerge as if by magic. While we have an ever-increasing number of wonderful programs, books, and technological tools designed to inspire, teach, and assess this now ancient process, they are supplementary. Powerful reading and writing can be taught with sticks in the sand.
As a bibliotherapist, I am forever inspired by the realization that society’s young are very much a product of their internalized perceptions of experience and reinforced familial and societal expectations. So innocent and so very impressionable, children deserve our very best. In keeping with the quotation at the top of this post, they deserve a life-long supply of journals or anything that serves as a “clearing in the forest” of the human heart, mind, and soul.
Human beings need a safe place to think, feel, reflect, and express—to internally process and externally manifest the ruminations of the mind. Especially in these fast-paced modern times, they need a place to deeply assess the applicability and merit of the multi-layered and often conflicting messages society expects them to know, understand, and believe. Whether this is the latest “news” or advertising headline, the latest research study (so very different from a contextualized meta-analysis), or the latest family gossip or community story, the ability to think critically, compassionately, divergently, and creatively in later life will be paramount.
So innocent and impressionable, children need a safe and encouraging place to express the marvels, suspicions, and deep truth of their own hearts and minds. For children (and inner children of all ages), it is essential to have a safe place for the expression of internal dialogues. Given that this may not emerge without guidance and modeling, it is so important for young writers and readers to have a positive mentoring relationship with a patient, experienced, and non-judgmental model.
With the knowledge that we weave our individual and collective stories with threads comprised of values and beliefs that may expand and strengthen (or, unfortunately, constrict and weaken), it is essential that we learn to read, write, record, and share our deeply internalized stories in ways that move us beyond the disconnect from ourselves and others. We need to be able to challenge the constricting and weakening negative and uphold the expansive and strengthening positive.
On a personal level, writing has been my raft through life’s waters, whether eerily still or stormy. No matter how precious my family, friends, colleagues, and clients are, there are so many moments in life that I am alone and instances when I may feel “alone in a crowd.” As the saying goes, “wherever I go, there I am.” To help young people befriend themselves and have a safe, creative place to explore the wonders of mind, heart, soul, and worldly experience is so important. They need to process, assess, filter, and ultimately integrate thoughts, feelings, and experiences in a deeper way than daily life affords.
Sadly, reading, writing and many other types of creative expression are taught and measured as decontextualized skills. Stripped of deeper meaning and their link to true humanizing potential, they are clinical, lifeless, dull–so unpalatable that even the most capable reader or writer may choose not to engage in them or ever experience their long-term transformative power.
As the most cultured civilizations have always known, the stories we tell ourselves, whether the same or different from the stories we tell others, determine who we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re going. They are the narrative of our individual and collective lives. However rudimentary or exquisite, it is the ability and willingness to express thoughts, feelings, and experiences and tell our stories in a meaning-filled way that preserves, extends, and enhances life. A richer and more nuanced understanding can always liberate us from the mundane and mediocre. In the words of Carol Shields, “This matters, the remaking of an untenable world through the nib of a pen; it matters so much, I can’t stop doing it.” Me, either.