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Vol.23, No.2, February 2007 - Meeting the self: Encouraging young children to read and write

Editor's Note: We are pleased to have a guest commentary this month by Sarah Porter, a teacher of creative writing in New York schools. Ms. Porter's essay provides a provocative perspective on the impact of writing and reading on children's development.
-Gregory K. Fritz, M.D.


What does imaginative writing do for the writer? If you ask the kids in our classrooms, most of them will tell you that we write to express ourselves. Adults keep on telling them so, in the tone they reserve for indisputable facts. Teachers repeat this formula whether or not they have any genuine feeling for writing and literature themselves. They say it, because it's what's said, and perhaps also because it conforms to America's ethic of confession: start talking, preferably about something painful, and continue until you hear the bell. Writing often seems to be regarded as a kind of emotional hygiene; the problem is that treating writing as hygiene makes it feel like a chore as tedious as flossing teeth.

What if writing offers the writer something profoundly different, even far more essential, than self-expression? There's a catch to the idea of writing as a vehicle for self-expression: it assumes that the writer's self is solid and distinct enough to be expressed. This is clearly an issue for child writers, caught up as they are in the roil of their own development, but I believe it applies just as much to adults. To be a writer means, perhaps, exactly this: surrendering the defined, expressible self to the wider possibilities of the page. It means giving up the belief that you know who you are, in exchange for a chance at discovering who you are, again and again; after all, the self that jumps up at you from your writing might exceed anything you had previously imagined.

In their special position, right in the thick of formation, kids are primed for the astonishment of meeting the self that stares back at them from the paper. Whether that meeting comes about through their own writing, or through someone else's, the surprise is the same: the self is created through its encounter with the word.

Gathering perspectives
In her wonderful book Invisible Guests, the developmental psychologist Mary Watkins writes that "the self is an organization of perspectives." This makes perfect sense, if you think of the wild call of children everywhere, "Look at me!" Every time a child asks us to look, she is at work on the crucial enterprise of gathering the perspectives that will let her come into fuller being. Once we turn to look, she will see us seeing her. She'll make the empathic leap ("How do I seem to him? How do I look at this moment, riding this blue bike, under these trees? Am I doing a good job? Is it fun to watch me?") that lets her assimilate our vision of her into her own self-image.

The way we see a child gives her a new dimension, a new facet of being, and this will happen anew every time we answer her call to look. With one glance we'll see her as delightfully silly; with another we'll see her as a nuisance, maybe because she's distracting us from our conversation; both looks will become part of her. Children bring the passion of great collectors to this work. Their demands that we look, and look again, sometimes wear on even the adults who love them best. But we should remember how dangerous and difficult their undertaking really is: kids rarely have sufficient defenses to reject wounding perspectives. They absorb every gaze they can get, whether that gaze is poisonous or thrilling. They bring it home to the self, because the drive to become will not let them rest.

Understanding the self in these terms offers us a revelation; suddenly the usefulness of imaginative literature becomes brilliantly apparent. Watkins writes, "the importance of the novel and newspaper is that they create the self by allowing the readers to adopt other perspectives." In other words, the novel, the poem, the character all look back at the reader from strange angles and the more they look the more the reader expands and ramifies to meet their gaze. That wonderful feeling, of loving the voice that speaks to us from a book, and even of being loved by that voice in return, isn't an illusion. By giving us a new perspective on ourselves, a new point of view, the words we read are helping to create us; they become part of our inner organization. They might even create us as people with flights and turns of feeling and thought we never previously looked for; they promise to make us bigger, freer, more authentic human beings.

The project of self-creation
The process of accumulating perspectives probably begins in infancy, when, as D.W. Winnicot observed, we first internalize our mother's gaze, and so gain the ability to be alone with ourselves. Certainly the work of self-creation is most pressing in childhood; children are painfully vulnerable until they acquire enough positive perspectives on themselves to give them a basic sense of security. But once it's been set in motion, this project has no set stopping point. With each new novel we read, with each story we overhear on a bus, even with each new voice that appears from out of nowhere in our own writing, startling us with tones we never heard before, new perspectives flock home. We become, and become again.

In childhood we clamor for people to look, because our effort to create strong, active selves is still freshly begun, fragile and anxious. But even in adulthood we can keep on gathering further complexities, unsettling our own established boundaries in communion with new voices. When we find a new writer we really love, we might let go of some of our old ideas about ourselves to make room for what this encounter can tell us. Self-creation continues, that is, unless we spurn the words that look back at us; unless we drop the book, refuse to empathize with the character.

By encouraging children to make reading and writing an ongoing part of their lives, we are proposing to them a lasting creative endeavor. We're telling them, in effect, that their selves will always be too busy gathering new furls of creation to sit politely still, as if posing for a school portrait. That is, we're telling them that their richly complicating selves might never be passive enough or static enough to be expressed.

At the very beginning of my teaching in the public schools, before I really knew what I was doing, I had a shy third grade student named Taisha. In session after session, Taisha wrote nothing. Her regular teacher told me not to bother with her; Taisha, she said, was at kindergarten level, incapable of real writing. Then, out of the blue, Taisha wrote a poem:

How the time goes:
Sometimes the clock goes fast,
Sometimes slow.
And at the door of the eye
When the clock goes fast
My eye blooms out of my face.
The clock goes faster, and
My mother says it's morning
When it's really dark.
The Taisha who wrote this was a new Taisha, one who didn't exist before the poem. If she created it, it's at least as true to say that it created her. It made her into a star writer, equal to the most talented kids in a very talented class; it made her into someone with a gift for imagery and language, with rich and powerful emotions. She was even more amazed than I was to meet the girl who emerged from these unexpected lines.



Sarah Porter teaches creative writing in the New York public schools. Currently enrolled in City College's MFA writing program and at work on a novel, Umber, she expects to complete both in 2007. She lives in Brooklyn. This commentary is an excerpt from an essay that originally ran in Teachers & Writers magazine, Fall 2006 (Vol. 38, No.1). www.twc.org

The Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter, February 2007
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