Pixar’s Animal Abuse Short ‘Kitbull’ Will Break Your Heart and Put It Back Together — Watch
July 20, 2016
By Patricia A. Dunn
When people are overly self-conscious or frustrated, they don’t learn well. Whether they are new drivers or new writers, rattled people need to calm down. The feedback they receive can make things better or worse. I used to teach driver’s education, which taught me much about how people learn. I’ve been teaching writing for a long time, and I see many parallels. Sometimes new drivers or writers who have the most need of improvement are least able to absorb multiple commands. Here are some suggestions for how to give more useful feedback on written drafts—and what to avoid.
What to Avoid in Giving Feedback
Screaming at brand new drivers to “Check your blind spot!” does little good to those who have never been taught what a blind spot is. Barking at them to “Brake smoothly!” may not help either—they would if they could. Sometimes developing writers encounter multiple marginal comments from their teachers to “Fix commas!” or “Write in complete sentences!” But these angry-sounding commands may not work. Disheartened writers have no doubt heard all this before, but they may be too confused, frustrated, or disengaged to learn.
Therefore, driving—or writing—instructors should take care not to engage in criticism overload. I’ve seen new drivers, frozen with fear, struggling to coordinate what experienced drivers do without thinking: signal at the right time or brake smoothly without throwing passengers into their seat belts. I’ve learned that yelling Don’ts at them can sometimes make things worse: “Don’t signal too early!” “Don’t stare in your rearview mirror so long!” Some new drivers are already so stiff and nervous that they’re not thinking clearly. They need to take a breath, gain a bit of confidence, and think about what’s around them—as do writers. It doesn’t work to tell new drivers or new writers how terrible they are and then demand that they stop being so bad.
Two scenes: a driver education teacher and a writing teacher yelling at terrified learners.
How to Give Better Feedback
Say something positive: “You stepped on the gas a little more smoothly just now!” “Your hands are certainly placed firmly on the steering wheel!” This praise, small as it was, would calm their frazzled nerves. They had succeeded at something. Shaky writers, like shaky drivers, need to be handled with similar tact. Like some student drivers, student writers may come to a new challenge overwhelmed, discouraged, perhaps, from repeatedly being told how bad they are. They, too, are afraid. They may have a litany of good (and bad) advice playing in their heads. They face a blank page or screen with the same frozen self-consciousness that blocked the clear thinking of the trembling drivers.
Try an Alert Noticing of Positive Features in Writing
Writing teachers, like driver education instructors, also need to notice what’s going well. However, many instructors do not know how to notice or name what developing writers might be doing right. So focused are some teachers on error, or perhaps on justifying a bad grade, they may not know how to find in a very rough draft some aspects to praise (an active verb, a complex sentence, some vivid details, a lively snippet of dialogue, a helpful transition, the legal use of a semi-colon, etc.) When teachers can name specific things a writer is doing well (as Nancy Mack shows how to do with color coding), that writer is more likely to remember to continue to do those things in the future. What’s more, this confidence boost can provide motivation needed to address the many aspects of the draft that undoubtedly need to be fixed.
Of course it’s true that writers “in the real world” will surely have their writing criticized, sometimes brutally. It’s possible—in fact preferable—for instructors to provide a balance of response to a writer: an alert noticing of effective rhetorical moves as well as a focused analysis of how the piece could be improved. It’s this alert noticing of positive features that many of us who write comments on student writing need to learn how to do better.
Address First Things First—Mostly
New drivers and new writers often need to fix much, but first things first and not all at once. Regardless of the number of big and small things drivers and writers need to improve upon, they can’t fix everything before the next block, or before the next draft. Instructors must learn to prioritize. What needs addressing now? What can wait until next time? With beginning drivers, I’d let them build their skills gradually, both for their own development and my own safety. I’d start them off in empty parking lots, dead-end streets, or cemeteries. As their steering and braking improved, they’d begin looking further ahead than the hood of the car and start to process events unfolding in the coming blocks.
Here’s where my driver/writer analogy breaks down, however. Developing writers should not be made to slog around in the dead-ends of grammar exercises or mind-numbing five-paragraph themes. In addition to developing their skills, these wary writers also need to develop their engagement in writing—to see it as both doable and empowering. They need to write about things they care about, in real-world, authentic writing situations, for reasons more important than a grade.
Use a Strategic, Customized Balance of Praise and Critique
Another caveat is that not all writers—or drivers—need the same proportion of praise and critique. In fact, some overconfident new drivers often require candid commentary on their perceived skills. While their wisely under-confident peers often need gentle encouragement coupled with well-placed, prioritized direction (“Nice signaling—now brake gently here for that right turn coming up”), these Grand Prix wannabees often need clear, immediate, and unfiltered correction: “Stop speeding!” “Don’t pass here!” “Pull over now!”
Likewise, some writers, accustomed to getting As on well-edited but vapid school writing, can handle a less-cushioned response from an alert reader who sees their potential to challenge themselves: “Support your claim here with a more respectable source.” “Consider deleting some unnecessary throat-clearing in your introduction.” “You seem to want to say more about this.”
Feedback on writing, like feedback on driving, should be informed, balanced, and tailored to the individual learner. There should be well-placed, solidifying praise when it is warranted and needed, and insightful, prioritized suggestions for what can be improved. Having teachers who can balance their responses strategically for these learners will make our students’ writing better, and our highways safer.
Patricia A. Dunn is a professor of English at Stony Brook University (SUNY), where she teaches current and future teachers of English and writing. She is a former high school English teacher and two-year college instructor who has written several books on the teaching of writing, including Grammar Rants: How a Backstage Tour of Writing Complaints Can Help Students Make Informed, Savvy Choices About Their Writing (2011), with Ken Lindblom. She has contributed several other posts at this blog: the role engagement plays in writing, how bad “grammar” instruction can impede a young writer’s progress, and what learning to play a ukulele taught her about teaching writing. She has a new book, Disabling Characters: Representations of Disability in Young Adult Literature (2015). She is on Twitter as @PatriciaDunn1.
AUGUST 1, 2014
Trina is an eighth grader trapped in her own prison. She has every excuse in the book and is often referred to as just unmotivated. But I don’t buy that story. Not at all.
To a five-year-old, learning is exciting. While some are academic naturals, others lag. Well-meaning educators intervene, and praise, rewards, and external incentives surface. Thus, we can see the sixth component of reading — motivation. But what of the adolescents who deflect their inability to keep up by throwing a pencil when you aren’t looking, or by bullying others? Enter the “unmotivated” adolescent.
Learners are motivated by three factors: desire to learn, incentives, or fear of failure. As we grow, most of the early curiosity is tested away, and school becomes work. Obstacles increase, desire to learn decreases, and incentives and/or fear of failure move to the forefront. Jack Canfield, self-esteem expert, reports that 80 percent of first graders posses high self-esteem, but by high school graduation, this drops to a staggering five percent.
But certainly you aren’t reading this blog for that bleak truth. So now what?
University of Minnesota instructor Martha Farrell Erickson, PhD, (2003) identifies the “critical ingredients for healthy child and youth development” as the Three C’s. In my opinion, they are critical for educating any child, and most importantly, for reversing the earlier damage done to self-esteem, which can cause blocks in motivation.
Brain research reveals that if students feel happy and comfortable, they are more apt to retain learning. Connecting with our kiddos helps us to build trust and to educate the entire child. Dr. Ross Greene, psychology professor at Harvard University, wrote in 2007 that all children would perform if each possessed the necessary skills to complete the task. If we can pinpoint and support students with skill deficits, they will succeed. It is our job to know them, and to empower them to know themselves. Here’s how:
- Reader Self-Perception Scale: Determine which students need more encouragement and how to approach each one individually.
- Learning Styles Assessments: Learning your students’ preferences and making them aware will empower them to learn and produce.
- Multiple Intelligences Assessments: Show your students theirstrengths and then allow them to reflect, gain power, and proceed carefully.
- Skill Deficit Assessments: The problem usually lies in the fact that we never seem to dig deep enough. Answers are most often not the most obvious. Assess formally and informally to be thorough.
- Inventories: Getting to know your students’ interests allows you to pair them with good-fit reading material. You could quite possibly find a book that not only matches what a student is capable of managing, but is also on a topic that he or she enjoys!
- Types of Learner Questionnaire: A U.S. Army study by Dr. Valerie Rice divides learners into four different types, depending on their approach (or non-approach) to learning new material.
In the book Bridging Cultures Between Home and School, Elise Trumbull et al. discuss collectivist cultures. Adolescents of families from all over the world grow up with a sense of collectivity, and parents emphasize cooperation and community. Our job is to support each student individually while honoring those who also need to feel like they are contributing.
This is just as much an engagement philosophy as it is one of esteem building. The more you use a variety of discussion strategies, the more engaged your students become.
Erickson’s third C is the heart of intrinsic motivation. Many of these kiddos have faced so much failure that success seems unattainable. To rebuild, give your students a feeling of mastery, even on little things. Clear routines allow transitioning from activity to activity with confidence until strugglers feel classroom-savvy.
Providing specific and constructive feedback is another way to build competence. Rick Wormeli, educational author and speaker, says that to give our kiddos a true feeling of success, we must observe, honor, and reflect on their work, and help them to set goals to improve on it. For example: “Trina, I noticed that when we read the first few chapters of your novel, you asked questions on your sticky notes. This shows me that you are really wondering about your reading. Have you found answers to any of these questions? As you read the next chapter, let’s make a goal.” Suggest a few ideas if she’s stuck, and let her choose an attainable goal, promising to reconnect in a few days to monitor her success.
And succeed she will. If even one of Trina’s teachers meets her with the attitude of, “I’m going to get to know you, kid. I’m going to give you a chance to be a part of this community and to feel successful,” she will respond. The biggest challenge is changing our mindset so that she can change hers. There are no kids who are “just not motivated.” They do not exist. Each one of them has a story. It’s our job to read it, learn it, and help them to use it as power, not as a prison.
What success stories about building intrinsic motivation in resistant learners can you share?
I remember the reading logs well, my brothers hastily whipping them out Sunday night asking my mom to sign off that they had read x number of minutes. My mother never checked, she did not want to be the reading police, after all, she knew my brothers read. She didn’t care how many minutes or which book, all that mattered was that at some point their eyes met something to read. A great post by Angela Watson got me thinking, how do I know my students are reading if I don’t check their reading log? How do I know that at some point their eyes meet a text? There are many ways actually.
- I watch their reaction. Kids who read want independent reading time. Kids who are in a great part of a book want time to find out what will happen next. Kids who slowly get their reading bin, who distract others on the way; those are the kids I need to check in with and help.
- I keep an eye on their book bin. A whole book shelf in my room is the proof that my students read. Periodically I go look through their bins, noting which books a kid has and whether those book have changed. If they haven’t, I check in with that child.
- We recommend. Another favorite in our room is the speed book dating. We quickly rattle off a book we love and why it should be read while the listener has their “I can’t wait to read ” list in their hand.
- We show off our reading. I have my reading door outside of the room so that my students always know what I am reading and my students can recommend books on a bulletin board. Our reading is visible.
- We discuss. Reading should not be a solitary endeavor so we make time to discuss our books and why they are the best or the worst book ever.
- We reflect. I often ask students to tie in today’s teaching point with whatever they are reading right now. Whether it is in our thoughtful logs or on a post-it, students take a moment to think and apply and once again lets me see what they are reading.
- We do monthly reading reflections. This year I really wanted to have a open dialogue with the students in regard to their reading life and although I do constant one on one or small group instruction, I wanted something more formal that I could file away and look at when needed. My students know they are not judged on what they write but rather that I use it as a way to start a conversation with them. I always appreciate their honesty and my actions show that.
- We have great books. If you want kids to read, have great books. I do not know how much money I spend a year on books, I know it is a lot, but every time I am able to booktalk a book and see the reaction in my kids, it is worth it. Couple that with an incredbile librarian and my students are pretty lucky in the book department.
- I lose a lot of books. Because I encourage my students to take our books home to read, I inevitably lose a lot of books. While it is hard to think of it from a financial standpoint, I also know that hose books are being read by someone. So yes, it is hard to constantly replace books (and expensive) but it is something that goes along with being a reading classroom.
So yes, while my district mandates a reading log, it is not the treasure trove of information that I need. What I need is conversation, observation, reflection, and interaction. So how do I know my students read? I ask them and listen.
I am a passionate (female) 5th grade teacher in Wisconsin, USA, proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children. I have no awards or accolades except for the lightbulbs that go off in my students’ heads every day. First book “Passionate Learners – Giving Our Classrooms Back to Our Students” can be purchased now from Powerful Learning Press. Follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.
DECEMBER 1, 2014
Round Robin Reading (RRR) has been a classroom staple for over 200 years and an activity that over half of K-8 teachers report using in one of its many forms, such as Popcorn Reading. RRR’s popularity endures, despite overwhelming criticism that the practice is ineffective for its stated purpose: enhancing fluency, word decoding, and comprehension. Cecile Somme echoes that perspective in Popcorn Reading: The Need to Encourage Reflective Practice: “Popcorn reading is one of the sure-fire ways to get kids who are already hesitant about reading to really hate reading.”
Facts About Round Robin Reading
In RRR, students read orally from a common text, one child after another, while the rest of the class follows along in their copies of the text. Several spinoffs of the technique offer negligible advantages over RRR, if any. They simply differ in how the reading transition occurs:
- Popcorn Reading: A student reads orally for a time, and then calls out “popcorn” before selecting another student in class to read.
- Combat Reading: A kid nominates a classmate to read in the attempt to catch a peer off task, explains Gwynne Ash and Melanie Kuhn in their chapter of Fluency Instruction: Research-Based Best Practices.
- Popsicle Stick Reading: Student names are written on Popsicle sticks and placed in a can. The learner whose name is drawn reads next.
- Touch Go Reading: As described by Professor Cecile Somme, the instructor taps a child when it’s his or her turn to read.
Of the thirty-odd studies and articles I’ve consumed on the subject, only one graduate research paper claimed a benefit to RRR or its variations, stating tepidly that perhaps RRR isn’t as awful as everyone says. Katherine Hilden and Jennifer Jones’ criticism is unmitigated: “We know of no research evidence that supports the claim that RRR actually contributes to students becoming better readers, either in terms of their fluency or comprehension.” (PDF)
Why all the harshitude? Because Round Robin Reading . . .
- Stigmatizes poor readers. Imagine the terror that English-language learners and struggling readers face when made to read in front of an entire class.
- Weakens comprehension. Listening to a peer orally read too slowly, too fast, or too haltingly weakens learners’ comprehension — a problem exacerbated by turn-taking interruptions.
- Sabotages fluency and pronunciation. Struggling readers model poor fluency skills and pronunciation. When instructors correct errors, fluency is further compromised.
To be clear, oral reading does improve fluency, comprehension and word recognition (though silent/independent reading should occur far more frequently as students advance into the later grades). Fortunately, other oral reading activities offer significant advantages over RRR and its cousins. As you’ll see in the list below, many of them share similar features.
11 Better Approaches
1. Choral Reading
The teacher and class read a passage aloud together, minimizing struggling readers’ public exposure. In a 2011 study of over a hundred sixth graders (PDF, 232KB), David Paige found that 16 minutes of whole-class choral reading per week enhanced decoding and fluency. In another version, every time the instructor omits a word during her oral reading, students say the word all together.
2. Partner Reading
Two-person student teams alternate reading aloud, switching each time there is a new paragraph. Or they can read each section at the same time.
The Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies (PALS) exercises pair strong and weak readers who take turns reading, re-reading, and retelling.
4. Silent Reading
5. Teacher Read Aloud
This activity, says Julie Adams of Adams Educational Consulting, is “perhaps one of the most effective methods for improving student fluency and comprehension, as the teacher is the expert in reading the text and models how a skilled reader reads using appropriate pacing and prosody (inflection).” Playing an audiobook achieves similar results.
6. Echo Reading
Students “echo” back what the teacher reads, mimicking her pacing and inflections.
7. Shared Reading/Modeling
By reading aloud while students follow along in their own books, theinstructor models fluency, pausing occasionally to demonstrate comprehension strategies. (PDF, 551KB)
8. The Crazy Professor Reading Game
Chris Biffle’s Crazy Professor Reading Game video (start watching at 1:49) is more entertaining than home movies of Blue Ivy. To bring the text to life, students . . .
- Read orally with hysterical enthusiasm
- Reread with dramatic hand gestures
- Partner up with a super-stoked question asker and answerer
- Play “crazy professor” and “eager student” in a hyped-up overview of the text.
9. Buddy Reading
Kids practice orally reading a text in preparation for reading to an assigned buddy in an earlier grade.
10. Timed Repeat Readings
This activity can aid fluency, according to literacy professors Katherine Hilden and Jennifer Jones (PDF, 271KB). After an instructor reads (with expression) a short text selection appropriate to students’ reading level (90-95 percent accuracy), learners read the passage silently, then again loudly, quickly, and dynamically. Another kid graphs the times and errors so that children can track their growth.
With Fluency-Oriented Reading Instruction (FORI), primary students read the same section of a text many times over the course of a week (PDF, 54KB). Here are the steps:
- The teacher reads aloud while students follow along in their books.
- Students echo read.
- Students choral read.
- Students partner read.
- The text is taken home if more practice is required, and extension activities can be integrated during the week.
I hope that the activities described above — in addition to other well-regarded strategies, like reciprocal teaching, reader’s theater, and radio reading — can serve as simple replacements to Round Robin Reading in your classroom.
Tell us your favorite fluency or comprehension activity.
The re-title classics are fantastic! –but may not be suitable for middle school.
High School for Technology and Communication
English 12 Syllabus
Read the following poems (also posted to your instagram, twitter, tumblr, snapchat, tinder, apple watch, hoverboard, wifi hotspot, $300 headphones, etc.). Tweet, snap, gram, or mind-beam your thoughtful, text-based responses to each piece.
“8 Squad Goals You Should Get Rid Of RN” by Gwendolyn Brooks
“The Relatable Reasons Why I Literally Do Not Have Time For Death” by Emily Dickinson
“5 Ways To Complicate Your Decision-Making Process” by Robert Frost
“Dis Fruit Ain’t Loyal” by William Carlos Williams
“Confessions Of An Angst-Ridden Sailor Who Took Out His Emotions On The Wrong Bird” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
“13 Ways To Have No Chill When It Late At Night & You Lonely AF” by Edgar Allan Poe
“This Tyger Is Way Too Turnt” by William Blake
“3 Foods You Never Knew You Could Compare To Your Dreams” by Langston Hughes
“You’ll Never Guess Why This Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou
“An Anthem For (deleted for inappropriate content for middle school)” by Andrew Marvell
“This Reason Why Money Can’t Buy You Happiness Will Destroy You” by Edwin Arlington Robinson
“Why You Should Turn Up On the Regular” by Dylan Thomas
“26 Lit Words You Didn’t Know You Needed In Your Life” by Lewis Carroll
In this day and age, where anyone with access to the internet can create a website, it is critical that we as educators teach our students how to evaluate web content. There are some great resources available for educating students on this matter, such as Kathy Schrock’s Five W’s of Website Evaluation or the University of Southern Maine’s Checklist for Evaluating Websites.
Along with checklists and articles, you will also find wonderfully funny hoax websites, aimed at testing readers on their ability to evaluate websites. These hoax sites are a great way to bring humor and hands-on evaluation into your classroom, and test your students’ web resource evaluation IQ!
Check out these 11 example hoax sites for use in your own classrooms:
- All About Explorers
- Dihydrogen Monoxide Research Division
- California’s Velcro Crop Under Challenge
- Feline Reactions to Bearded Men
- Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus
- Aluminum Foil Deflector Beanie
- British Stick Insect Foundation
- The Jackalope Conspiracy
- Buy Dehydrated Water
- Republic of Molossia
- Dog Island
Of all of these, my favorite is always the Dihydrogen Monoxide website, which aims to ban dihydrogen monoxide and talks in detail about its dangers. Only after a few minutes did I catch that dihydrogen monoxide, is after all, H2O!
Middle School Teacher to Literacy Coach
Posted: 23 Mar 2016 01:44 PM PDT
To any teacher out there reading this post, I think we can all give a big “Amen” to the statement, “Being a teacher is hard.” On any given day, a teacher could be asked to do a million different things, none of which may be on their perfect, little “To Do” list. I realize I am a little Type A, but one of the worst feelings to me is when I look down at my to do list at the end of a day and realize that things that “suddenly just came up” prevented me from doing what I had planned for my day. The multitude of tasks that can potentially take up time during a school day is immeasurable. Which is exactly why teachers need to be clear on what tasks are worth the time and what tasks are worthless time stealers. Below is a diagram where I have clearly laid out what I believe the four most important tasks on any teachers to do list should be. I will also propose tasks that should go last or be eliminated all together at the end of this blog post.
1. Prettiness: There’s an upcoming door decorating competition or you found the cutest bulletin board on Pinterest that you want to bring to reality? Just stop. Organize your classroom the way you want it at the beginning of the school year. Keep up with anchor charts, display student work, make sure the room stays organized, but don’t engage in who can have the prettiest classroom competitions.
2. Student Behavior: Here’s a big newsflash! If you’re truly spending your time on the four areas above, you are going to spend WAY less of your time contacting parents, writing referrals, and dealing with the aftermath of poor student behavior because your students will be engaged in what they’re learning in your classroom.
3. Teacher Small Talk: I know this is a bit harsh, I apologize, but how much time do you waste making small talk with other teachers? If you truly want to maximize your time, have the necessary conversations at the meetings you inevitably have to attend, and try to maximize other parts of your day without 15 minute conversations that suck away your precious time.
4. Making Copies: Get a notebook system in place with Reading and Writing Workshop and forget about all the time you would spend at the copy machine, the jams, the waiting line, etc., etc., etc. I don’t need to go any further with this one. Forget the worksheets, and stay away from the copy machine.
5. E-mails: The best thing I ever did this year was disable the pop-up message preview of each e-mail I get. Instead, I check my e-mail every couple of hours and respond as necessary without getting bogged with big group reply alls or unnecessary back and forth e-mail exchanges. Not to mention I’m not playing the “start-stop” game by being constantly interrupted with e-mail messages.
This year my students are writing in a Writer’s Notebook. I was delighted to find this article in support of keeping a journal. Thank you Brain Pickings! ❤
by Maria Popova
Reflections on the value of recording our inner lives from Woolf, Thoreau, Sontag, Emerson, Nin, Plath, and more.
“You want to write, you need to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you,” Madeleine L’Engle counseled in her advice to aspiring writers. W.H. Auden once described hisjournal as “a discipline for [his] laziness and lack of observation.”
Journaling, I believe, is a practice that teaches us better than any other the elusive art of solitude — how to be present with our own selves, bear witness to our experience, and fully inhabit our inner lives. As a dedicated diarist myself, I’ve always had an irresistible fascination with the diaries of artists, writers, scientists, and other celebrated minds — those direct glimpses of their inner lives and creative struggles. But, surely, luminaries don’t put pen to paper for the sake of quenching posterity’s curiosity — at least as interesting as the contents of those notable diaries is the question of why their keepers keep them. Here are a few perspectives from some of history’s most prolific practitioners of this private art.
Anaïs Nin was perhaps the most dogged diarist in recorded history — she began keeping a diary at the age of eleven and maintained the habit until her death at the age of 74, producing sixteen volumes of published journals in which she reflected on such diverse, timeless, and timely subjects as love and life,embracing the unfamiliar, reproductive rights, the elusive nature of joy, the meaning of life, and why emotional excess is essential for creativity. In a 1946 lecture at Dartmouth, she spoke about the role of the diary as an invaluable sandbox not only for learning the craft of writing but also for crystallizing her own passions and priorities, from which all creative work springs:
It was while writing a Diary that I discovered how to capture the living moments.
Keeping a Diary all my life helped me to discover some basic elements essential to the vitality of writing.
When I speak of the relationship between my diary and writing I do not intend to generalize as to the value of keeping a diary, or to advise anyone to do so, but merely to extract from this habit certain discoveries which can be easily transposed to other kinds of writing.
Of these the most important is naturalness and spontaneity. These elements sprung, I observed, from my freedom of selection: in the Diary I only wrote of what interested me genuinely, what I felt most strongly at the moment, and I found this fervor, this enthusiasm produced a vividness which often withered in the formal work. Improvisation, free association, obedience to mood, impulse, bought forth countless images, portraits, descriptions, impressionistic sketches, symphonic experiments, from which I could dip at any time for material.
It was also her way of learning to translate the inner into the outer, the subjective into the universal:
This personal relationship to all things, which is condemned as subjective, limiting, I found to be the core of individuality, personality, and originality. The idea that subjectivity is an impasse is as false as the idea that objectivity leads to a larger form of life.
A deep personal relationship reaches far beyond the personal into the general. Again it is a matter of depths.
In her extensive meditation on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, found in the altogether absorbing A Writer’s Diary (public library), 37-year-old Virginia Woolf speaks to the value of journaling in granting us unfiltered access to the rough gems of our own minds, ordinarily dismissed by the self-censorship of “formal” writing:
The habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses and the stumbles.
I note however that this diary writing does not count as writing, since I have just re-read my year’s diary and am much struck by the rapid haphazard gallop at which it swings along, sometimes indeed jerking almost intolerably over the cobbles. Still if it were not written rather faster than the fastest type-writing, if I stopped and took thought, it would never be written at all; and the advantage of the method is that it sweeps up accidentally several stray matters which I should exclude if I hesitated, but which are the diamonds of the dustheap.
A diary, she observes at the age of forty-eight, also builds a bridge between our present selves and our future ones, which are notoriously cacophonous in their convictions. She writes with a wink:
In spite of some tremors I think I shall go on with this diary for the present. I sometimes think that I have worked through the layer of style which suited it — suited the comfortable bright hour, after tea; and the thing I’ve reached now is less pliable. Never mind; I fancy old Virginia, putting on her spectacles to read of March 1920 will decidedly wish me to continue. Greetings! my dear ghost; and take heed that I don’t think 50 a very great age. Several good books can be written still; and here’s the bricks for a fine one.
Henry David Thoreau was among history’s greatest and most lyrical diarists, as evidenced by The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837–1861 (public library) — that endlessly revisitable compendium, full of Thoreau’s timeless meditations on everything from the true meaning of success to the greatest gift of growing old to the meaning of human life. In an entry from October of 1857, Thoreau considers the allure of the diary not for the writer but for the reader:
Is not the poet bound to write his own biography? Is there any other work for him but a good journal? We do not wish to know how his imaginary hero, but how he, the actual hero, lived from day to day.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, a close friend of Thoreau’s and a keen observer of the human experience, illuminated the question of diary-writing with a beautiful sidewise gleam, observing in The Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson (public library):
The good writer seems to be writing about himself, but has his eye always on that thread of the Universe which runs through himself and all things.
For someone like me, it is a very strange habit to write in a diary. Not only that I have never written before, but it strikes me that later neither I, nor anyone else, will care for the outpouring of a thirteen year old schoolgirl.
I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.
In a 1957 diary entry found in Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963(public library) — the same volume that gave us Susan Sontag on marriage, life and death, the duties of being 24, and her 10 rules for raising a child — 24-year-old Sontag writes under the heading “On Keeping a Journal”:
Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one’s private, secret thoughts—like a confidante who is deaf, dumb, and illiterate. In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself. The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood. It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent. Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather — in many cases — offers an alternative to it.
There is often a contradiction between the meaning of our actions toward a person and what we say we feel toward that person in a journal. But this does not mean that what we do is shallow, and only what we confess to ourselves is deep. Confessions, I mean sincere confessions of course, can be more shallow than actions. I am thinking now of what I read today (when I went up to 122 B[oulevar]d S[ain]t-G[ermain] to check for her mail) in H’s [Sontag’s lover ] journal about me — that curt, unfair, uncharitable assessment of me which concludes by her saying that she really doesn’t like me but my passion for her is acceptable and opportune. God knows it hurts, and I feel indignant.
Of course, a writer’s journal must not be judged by the standards of a diary. The notebooks of a writer have a very special function: in them he builds up, piece by piece, the identity of a writer to himself. Typically, writers’ notebooks are crammed with statements about the will: the will to write, the will to love, the will to renounce love, the will to go on living. The journal is where a writer is heroic to himself. In it he exists solely as a perceiving, suffering, struggling being.
Sylvia Plath like Nin, began keeping a diary at the age of eleven and penned nearly ten volumes, which were posthumously edited and published as The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (public library) — that vibrant and bittersweet compendium that gave us Plath on life and death,wholeheartedness, and the reverie of nature. She saw her diary as a tool to “warm up” her formal writing, but perhaps the most ensnaring passage from her published journals is one of strange synchronicity two literary legends of staggering genius and staggering tragedy meet across space and time through the pages of their diaries. In February of 1957, six years before her suicide, Plath captures the role of the diary as a lifeline for the writer with poignancy utterly harrowing in history’s hindsight:
Just now I pick up the blessed diary of Virginia Woolf which I bought with a battery of her novels saturday with Ted. And she works off her depression over rejections from Harper’s (no less! – – – and I hardly can believe that the Big Ones get rejected, too!) by cleaning out the kitchen. And cooks haddock & sausage. Bless her. I feel my life linked to her , somehow. I love her – – – from reading Mrs. Dalloway for Mr. Crockett – – – and I can still hear Elizabeth Drew’s voice sending a shiver down my back in the huge Smith class-room, reading from To The Lighthouse. But her suicide, I felt I was reduplicating in that black summer of 1953. Only I couldn’t drown. I suppose I’ll always be over-vulnerable, slightly paranoid. But I’m also so damn healthy & resilient. And apple-pie happy. Only I’ve got to write. I feel sick, this week, of having written nothing lately.
But perhaps the most important meta-point on the subject comes from Woolf herself, who considered the impact of reading a writer’s diaries on how we experience his or her formal work, an impact the magnitude of which she argues is ours to decide on:
How far, we must ask ourselves, is a book influenced by its writer’s life — how far is it safe to let the man interpret the writer? How far shall we resist or give way to the sympathies and antipathies that the man himself rouses in us — so sensitive are words, so receptive of the character of the author? These are questions that press upon us when we read lives and letters, and we must answer them for ourselves, for nothing can be more fatal than to be guided by the preferences of others in a matter so personal.
Indeed, if there is one thing I’ve learned about diaries, both by having read tens of thousands of pages of artists’ and writers’ journals and by having frequently revisited my own from the distance of time, is that nothing written in a diary is to be taken as the diarist’s personal dogma. A journal is an artificially permanent record of thought and inner life, which are invariably transient — something the most prolific diarist in modern literary history articulated herself in her elegant defense of the fluid self. We are creatures of remarkable moodiness and mental turbulence, and what we think we believe at any given moment — those capital-T Truths we arrive at about ourselves and the world — can be profoundly different from our beliefs a decade, a year, and sometimes even a day later.
This, perhaps, is the greatest gift of the diary — its capacity to stand as a living monument to our own fluidity, a reminder that our present selves arechronically unreliable predictors of our future values and that we change unrecognizably over the course of our lives.