By Garth Sundem, author of Real Kids, Real Stories, Real Challenges: Overcoming Adversity Around the World
Think about your assignments. How many ask kids to look outward—to research another culture or another time, to describe another person’s life and achievements, to imagine another world with another heroic protagonist, or to dissect the plot, feelings, and meaning of a book that is another person’s thoughts? It makes sense: One aspect of teaching is helping kids come in contact with knowledge and influences they would never stumble across on their own. But another aspect of teaching is helping students know and value themselves. We can help students take in experiences and ideas, but then what happens to these experiences inside each student? Like rock tumblers, students toss and transform the things we teach them, polishing the knowledge into unique aspects of who they are. And the only way to discover the unique shine of these ideas is to ask kids to look inward. One way to do that is to ask kids to write about themselves. Instead of looking out to gather ideas, they look in to discover meaning.
There are a million reasons to have kids write from their memories. Here are three for you to describe, or print and distribute, next time your schedule allows for a few minutes of guided introspection.
3 Reasons to Write About Yourself
1. You’ll write better.
A huge part of good writing is in the details: A character drinking a Pepsi is very different from a character drinking a Fanta. It’s much more powerful to describe a character surviving in a forest by gathering miner’s lettuce and quickweed than it is to say that a character ate plants. There are different ways to get these all-important details. A nonfiction writer might get details through research and interviews, a historical fiction writer might get details by visiting museums and historical sites, a fantasy writer might get details by training his or her imagination to deliver things no one else has come up with yet, and a memoir writer might get details from memory. Let me tell you, memory is by far the easiest place to go for details. In your memory are stored things you know that no one else knows—for example, the rock under which you buried special baseball cards in a jar when your family moved to a new house—and, importantly, how you felt about these things. Think precisely about how you felt after striking out in the ninth inning of your last baseball game. Or about that time you got up in the middle of the night to get a glass of water and found your mom crying at the kitchen table. Use your memories as the best, easiest, richest source of details—both physical and emotional.
2. Writing about yourself helps you understand who you are.
Living your life can feel like driving a speedboat through rough seas—most of the time, you just do your best to miss the big waves and try not to capsize. In other words, things happen to you and just keep happening. Maybe once in a long while, you get to talk things through with a friend or trusted adult, but mostly you’re caught up in a world of doing. Writing about your life forces you to take a closer look at who you are. That’s because even the most straightforward description of an event can’t help but include your perspective and your interpretation. Putting words on a page can be like yelling your memories in a cistern: The echoes keep coming back. And each time they do, you have another opportunity to discover what your memories mean and how you fit into the fabric of your experiences.
3. Writing helps you remember.
By now we’ve all read enough post-apocalyptic fiction to make nightmares for at least the next millennium. You know, The Hunger Games, Divergent, and all the rest. But now imagine a truly terrifying future: Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, and Facebook all cease to exist! And suddenly you can’t remember that awesome vacation you took last summer. It’s not long before you can’t even remember your own name. Like posting a picture on Instagram, writing about the events in your life can help you remember them. But rather than just keeping track of events in a diary as a way to spark your memory, when you write about your life, consider writing in a way that could help readers other than you experience this same memory. Ask yourself what readers need to know in order to interpret and experience these memories in the same way you do.
Maybe you haven’t climbed Mount Everest or fought a dragon or saved the world from a network of super spies. But your experiences are no less important! There are things you know that no one else on Earth knows. And there are things that you could know more about if only you took the time to explore them more fully. Writing is your chance. Instead of looking out into the world to find something awesome to write about, look in at yourself, your experiences, and your feelings. Tell the story of you.
Garth Sundem is a TED-Ed speaker and former contributor to the Science Channel. He blogs at GeekDad and PsychologyToday.com. He has been published in Scientific American, Huffington Post Science, Fast Company, Men’s Health, Esquire, The New York Times, Congressional Quarterly, and Publishers Weekly. Garth grew up on Bainbridge Island, Washington, and currently lives in Boulder, Colorado, with his wife, two kids, and a pack of Labradors. He is the author of the books in the Real Kids, Real Stories series and STEAM In a Jar®.
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