This project identifies the declining global interest in reading and writing and examines literature’s application to humankind processing disaster. History has shown that, when people feel isolated and abandoned by society, they act irrationally in the form of war, terrorism, and violence toward one another. It has also shown that a decline in the consumption and creation of literature contributes to this sense of isolation. Reading combats this apathy. It empowers people to process their problems with a sense of community, a sense that others have experienced their struggles. This project, perhaps more importantly, proves the importance of writing. Writing empowers people with a sense of voice. It is personal therapy to expel one’s emotions onto the page. The writer is, then, able to re-see the world with increasing clarity and share this with readers. It is in this new context that people can take on the disasters of the world. It is why a writing workshop was hosted at St. Mary’s Library and why a weekly creative writing club at Leonardtown High School was held. This community service sought to reinvigorate literature in the community. Workshop turnout was high and reviews were positive because people seek to understand humankind. Writers and readers such as these continue the craft and consume its works because people yearn for increasing connectedness to one another. Reading and writing, this project proves, are acts of empathy in the face of the misunderstandings, wars, arguments, violence, loss, envy: the things that seek to divide.
Writing and literature are subjects often paired with tiresome loads of essays and teachers forcing students to hunt for some elusive meaning between the lines. Society has taught its followers to dismiss, even demean, these cornerstones to human understanding. They are the antidotes to disaster and without their power to connect, to inspire empathy, the human race is doomed to tumble into apathy. The definition of disaster is not limited to roaring hurricanes or wars staining history books red. It is an assault on humanity’s societal and individual peace. People face disasters daily from global catastrophe to personal problems. Without the tools to share, to understand, to empathize with one another, loneliness grips the soul. As author and therapist Cynthia Bowman writes, a child wrought with the disaster of grief will do one of two things: act out or withdraw (Bowman xi). Humans are creatures of community and when people feel the cold bars of apathy locking them in disaster, they express their emotions irrationally. This means war. This means troubled teenagers turning terrorist groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). This means isolation. Studies like that of Dr. James Uleman prove that even an unfocused interaction with the page in a “stream of consciousness” empowers people to explore the depths of their subconscious and process their feelings (1989, p. 328). With polls in as of 2015 that one in three people do not read a single book a year and the United States Department of Education finding that the nation’s reading proficiency has been slugging since the year 2000 (Finn, 2015, p. 38), it is clear that the world is already leaving room for apathy to shatter its fragile peace. It is already stripping its citizens of the dictum that “all sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story, or tell a story about them” (Baraitser, 2014, p. 31). Writing and literature bind people as citizens of the world and unless society once again values their might, people are doomed to fuel disaster and lack the tools to process its sting.
The 21st century is home to smartphones and tablets and social media and a culture consumed by television but, consequently, it is home to a dip in interest in literature. Ed Finn, editor emeritus of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ The Monitor, found through 2015 Canadian and United States polls that one in three adolescents do not read a single book a year (Finn, p. 38). This is not a new problem or one confined to the United States or Canada. In 2007, the United Kingdom Bureau of the Census released the news that retail book sales had fallen by 3.1% since just the year before (Gable, 2007, p. 11). The Bureau tracked and compared 2006 and 2007 books sales from January to July of each year. No month was immune to a decline. July showed the highest crash in book sales with a decrease of 7.3% (see Appendix E) (Gable, 2007, p. 11).
The United States’ Pew Research Center echoes these declines. The Center conducted a survey from March 17 to April 12 of 2015 to track reading levels and found that 72% of adult Americans read a book of some sort that year. This may sound like a comforting statistic but not with the knowledge that it dropped from 79% since 2011, a 7% decline in only four years (see Appendix D). This decline is not limited to print reading, though adults who read in this format fell from 69% in 2014 to 63% just a year later. While e-book reading topped at 28% in 2014, it began its inevitable fall in 2015 (Milliot, 2015, p. 4). The United States’ National Endowment for the Arts reported that adults who reported reading “any book” dropped by 7% from 1992 to 2002 and adults who reported reading “any literature” was down 14% (Gable, 2007, p. 11). Young adults, age 18 to 29, do show promising signs of rescuing this loss in the interest of reading with 80% reporting they read a novel in 2015 (Milliot, 2015, p. 4) but it will take far more than this generation to rescue a decline the School Library Journal has been tracking since 1982. The United States’ literature reading population, according to School Library Journal writer Sven Birkerts and the National Endowment for the Arts’ 2004 report “Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America,” has dropped 10% from 1982 to 2004, from 56.9 to 46.7 percent. Despite the current spike in young adult reading, the percentage of young adults reading literature has fallen 17% in the 18 to 24 age group (Birkerts, 2004, p. 51).
However, the most troubling results come from the world’s children. The United Kingdom released a 2003 study showing that children from age 9 to 11 found reading “less enjoyable” than other media. A quarter of kids dubbed reading “boring” and 70% said they would rather watch TV or a DVD than read (Gable, 2007. p. 11). This disinterest is not only more prevalent in children but more troubling. Children are the future and products of their parents. The Kaiser Family Foundation explained in a 2005 study that the media environment of the home influences the lives of 8 to 18 year olds, “making it all the more troubling that parents don’t read as much these days” (Gable, 2007, p. 11). Adults are not only doing a disservice to their own understanding and emotional health but that of their children. In 1999, Kaiser Foundation researchers validated prior research that when children ignore literature for “screen viewing” they identify as “unhappy,” “sad” or “having gotten into trouble a lot” (Gable, 2007, p. 11-12). The same study found that two thirds of children ages 8 to 18 had a television in their room and spent more than six hours a day using media (Gable, 2007, p. 11). A 2006 study from Mediamark Research even found that children ages 6 to 11 were “twice as likely to choose math as their favorite school subject over reading or writing” and as they grew older, their interest in reading only declined. Every group valued math over reading and writing (see Appendix G) (Gable, 2007, p. 11), troubling news for a culture in need of these subjects, these builders of bridges, these warriors against apathy.
But, the question is why children are denying writing and literature even more so than their parents. It is why they are aloof to the value of these cornerstones. According to professor Sven Birkerts, children are the victims of instant access, of “a combination of new technology, new habits, and untold hours once available for books now given over to screen activities, such as surfing, gaming, e-mail, and instant messaging.” People, old and young, are trapped in a “high-speed, multilayered, response-active, enticing, distracting, essential-feeling, inescapable cultural now” that demands our attention. It demands the attention of all age groups according to the Pew Research Center’s 2006 study. Everyone studied preferred watching TV to reading books, magazines and newspapers (see Appendix F) (Gable, 2007, p. 11). Instant access has dimmed people’s attention spans. It is why “a great many people are finding it much less natural – even harder – to engage books as they are meant to be engaged, with full concentration, sequentially, slowly” “because our basic cognitive reflexes are being altered at a boggling rate” (Birkerts, 2004, p. 51). Birkerts notes the effects of this distraction in his own children, deciding “[t]he focus that reading requires is, without a doubt, stranger, harder, and likely less rewarding than it was for their counterparts in 1982” (Birkerts, 2004, p. 52). His children have lost imagination, “the seedbed of inwardness, of subjective depth,” and have succumbed to “seductively packaged, prescripted, per-imagined entertainments” (Birkerts, 2004, p. 52). Ed Finn’s 2015 poll (Finn, 2015, p. 38) not only notes the toll of instant access on reading interest but is one of a host of studies that do not bode well for the next four or eight or twelve years unless the world accepts and addresses this decline.
These stark statistics are not a matter of the United States measuring its reading comprehension scores against rivals like China, but, according to Tufts University professor Maryanne Wolf, a loss in the “deep reading” that fosters “the highest forms of thought in society, from novel thinking to the deliberation of virtue” (Finn, 2015, p. 39). The Seybold Report writer Gene Gable questions whether “you [can] really enjoy reading a complex novel with the TV on?” (Gable, 2007, p. 12). Author Ursula Le Gain’s 2008 essay in Harper’s Magazine has an answer:
[Once you turn on the TV] all you have to do is sit and stare. But reading is active, an act of attention, of absorbed alertness… A book won’t move your eyes for you the way images on a screen do. It won’t move your mind unless you give it your mind, or your heart unless you put your heart in it. It won’t do the work for you. To read a story well is to follow it, to act it, to feel it, to become it—everything short of writing it, in fact (Finn, 2015, p. 39).
The world is not making a conscious decision to dismantle these fundamentals but our appreciation of writing and literature is slipping. This quiet disease is consuming our culture and unless we want rising generations, in particular, to lack the necessary tools to understand, to process, their world, society must takes steps to abridge its wrongs.
“Without words,” learning theorist Lev Vygotsky explains, “there could be no thoughts and the more words a person has at his or her disposal, the bigger that person’s world” (Bowman, 2000, p. xi). The importance of the act of writing and reading of literature should not be confined to higher forms of thinking or artistic skill. Counterintuitive as it may be, words are the base level on which we process the world. As Robert Russell writes in his introduction to Hellen Keller’s autobiography The Story of My Life,
Without language, we could not describe the difference between an elephant and an egg. Without words we could have no clear conception of either elephant or egg. The name of a thing confers identity upon it and makes it possible for us to think about it. Without names for love or sorrow, we do not know we are experiencing them (Bowman, 2000, p. xi).
Russell proves that emotions, communication, thoughts, the most basic of human thought processes hinge on people’s handle on words and when they lack these building blocks to understanding, their world closes in on them. Hellen Keller, without sight or hearing, highlights this law of language at an extreme. She writes:
…my failures to make myself understood were invariably followed by outbursts of passion. I felt as if invisible hands were holding me, and I made frantic efforts to free myself…After a while the need of some means of communication became so urgent that these outbursts occurred daily, sometimes hourly (Bowman, 2000, p. xi).
She proves Vygotsky’s assessment of words in its purest of forms, a girl “only capable of operating at an emotional level” (Bowman, 2000, p. xi). However, the bulk of the world is not cut off from the sights and sounds of their environment. People experience the Hellen Keller principle in varying degrees. The world quietly suffers from the disease of ignoring the merits of language and has for some time.
The record of time has proven that when people lack writing skills or have been distanced from literature, disaster is not far behind. In World War II Germany’s case, it was the Holocaust. According to researcher Matthew Fishburn, it “took less than four months before books were burnt across” Germany (2007, p. 223). American journalist Heywood Broun wrote an article on Austrian censorship in 1938 insisting that “Books have been burned, and yet they live. Nor can fire or flame, humiliation or torture make an end of liberty” (Fishburn, 2007, p. 226). The grim state of Nazi Germany complacent with hunting the nation’s Jewish community and tossing them into concentration camps to rot says otherwise. Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief wades through a Germany without books. He chronicles young Liesel Meminger’s struggle to survive the collapse of Germany under Hitler’s iron rule. He narrates her story from the perspective of death, a powerful symbol of the death of humanity during Hitler’s Holocaust. Death explains:
The Germans loved to burn things. Shops, synagogues, Reichstags, houses, personal items, slain people, and of course, books…At the end of an afternoon that had contained much excitement, much beautiful evil, one blood-soaked ankle, and a slap from a trusted hand, Liesel Meminger attained her second success story. The Shoulder Shrug…When she looks back, Liesel was not ashamed to have stolen it. On the contrary, it was pride that more resembled that small pool of felt something in her stomach. And it was anger and dark hatred that had fueled her desire to steal it. In fact, on April 20—the Führer’s birthday—when she snatched that book from beneath a steaming heap of ashes, Liesel was a girl made of darkness (2005, p. 84).
Liesel Meminger steals her first book in memory of her brother but discovers that she needs to read. Learning to read becomes her relief from the cruel demands of her adoptive mother and her bond with adoptive father Hans. It evolves into her bond with Max, a Jewish man Liesel’s family harbors in their basement. It becomes her means to process a life wrought with disaster. She grows from an awkward girl refusing to speak after the loss of her brother and abandonment of her mother to writing an autobiography of the disaster she faces titled The Book Thief. She writes:
I try to ignore it, but I know this all started with the train and the snow and my coughing brother. I stole my first book that day. It was a manual for digging graves and I stole it one my way to Himmel Street…Papa sat with me tonight. He brought the accordion down and sat close to where Max used to sit. I often look at his finger and face when he plays. The accordion breathes…When he looks at me and smiles and breathes, I hear the notes…I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right (Zusak, 2005, 526-528).
Liesel’s growth in literacy mirrors her newfound understanding of the disasters of the world, enough to rebel against her homeland, and newfound strength to process and accept disasters of her own. She proves the power of language to isolate and awaken just as Hellen Keller when she learned to break through illiteracy. Heywood Broun is right that it is impossible to scrub a nation of all literature but the few who quietly rebelled did not stop the Holocaust. They did not stop their fellow Germans from becoming puppets to Nazi propaganda. They did not stop the inhuman treatment of Jewish people. They did not stop book burnings. Words free the mind and soul but the Holocaust shows that the efforts of Liesel’s family, for example, are not enough to rescue the world unless everyone agrees to read and write, to grow and understand.
The Hellen Keller principle was not invented in the Holocaust. It has been alive through all of human history, particularly American slavery. James McBride’s Song Yet Sung, like The Book Thief, is a work of fiction but as Pablo Picasso once said “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth” (Picasso, 1966, p. 168). McBride captures the history of slavery through the fictional lens of main character Liz, the Dreamer. His piece captures secret language, the “code” (McBride, 2008), slaves from plantation to plantation use to communicate with one another, to remind each other that they are not alone in disaster. Slaves were forbidden from learning to read but McBride captures the unique language they developed with one another such as hanging laundry as a sign of foreboding news. They refused the isolation of illiteracy and developed a language of their own to survive.
Words expand the mind. They bind humankind. Our history underscores the folly of allowing their absence and the power accepting them brings. They not only improve the emotional health of the world and limit disasters like war and intolerance but empower people to process and accept the disasters they do face. Without the words of novels like The Book Thief or Song Yet Sung, we cannot appreciate the gravity of our history and we cannot ensure that we do not repeat our mistakes. Words are salvation in a world of chaos.
“Why do I have to take the same class every year” my brother groans when he steps through the door with assigned novels to read and essays to write. He wants to know why he must take writing and literature classes every year of school and he is not the only one. Schools are swimming with the question. Despite the obvious answer that English curriculum does indeed change every year, it is daily bibliotherapy. Bibliotherapy, stemming from the prefix biblio, book, and suffix therapeia, to serve or heal, is the use of reading to solve personal problems (Baraitser, 2014, p. 58). It is “the guided reading of written materials in gaining understanding or solving problems relevant to a person’s therapeutic needs” and “allows the reader to identify with a character and realize that he or she is not the only person with a particular problem” (Bowman, 2000, p. 157). It teaches people that we are not alone in personal disaster. It teaches people that the world is not apathetic to their struggles.
However, long before bibliotherapy became a mainstream counseling practice, human cultures understood the healing power of language. The door to the ancient Greek library of Thebes was inscribed with the words “The Healing Place of the Soul” (Baraitser, 2014, p. 58). The value of writing soon found its place in rudimentary medicine. The Romans encouraged patients to “read orations to improve their mental health” (Baraitser, 2014, p. 58). It was not until the 1700s that using reading as a treatment entered asylums under the name therapeutic reading and it was not for another couple hundred years that hospitals prescribed books for patients to discuss with a facilitator after Samuel Crothers published an article on the subject in the Atlantic Monthly (Baraitser, 2014, p. 58). But, by the late 1940s, this therapeutic reading was “standard nomenclature” for addressing people’s problems.
Marion Baraitser, professor of English in London, showcases this therapeutic power of language to inspire empathy. Baraitser sat down with Nomif, a young boy who fled South Africa for the United Kingdom. The two read Bessie Head’s When Rain Clouds Gather, the story of a girl fleeing South Africa to seek asylum in Botswana. Nomif realizes he is not alone in his personal disaster:
NOMIF: He is like me, coming to a strange place. Not knowing who to trust. This man is in the same position as me.
FACILITATOR: Yet he makes friends, he changes his view. When he was in prison, he was ‘a wild man.’ He didn’t know how to control himself.
NOMIF: Yes, I felt the same when I was in prison. I felt helpless until I learned to control myself. It was up to me.
FACILITATOR: You picked yourself up, you showed determination and courage (Baraitser, 2014, p. 65).
Literature holds a mirror up to our personal narratives. People often struggle to face their “personal self-narratives,” the everyday happenings of our lives that compose a single storyline of emotions and goals and self-understanding (Baraitser, 2014, p. 43), but when they see themselves in the actions of the characters of a novel, they can “confront their past…so that they may face the future” (Baraitser, 2014, p. 32). It offers people the “symbolic universe” they need to examine themselves (Baraitser, 2014, p. 33). Nomif’s counseling session is one of many where the patient learns they are “not the only person with a particular problem” rather than “giving them a book that focuses directly on a psychological issue they’re dealing with” (Bowman, 2000, p. 157). The idiom “misery loves company” is not isolated to people dealing with depression but realizing they are not alone in their suffering. Literature not only inspires empathy but proves that people depend on the empathy of their fellow man.
Authors publish books that people consume not as a waste of time but as a means to process the world through the conversation between author and reader. Reading, therefore, is constant bibliotherapy between the reader, the patient, and the author, the facilitator. Cynthia Ann Bowman echoes the understanding Nomif found in literature. Bowman was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and was often bound to a wheel chair. She writes:
It was in school where I found refuge, a place where I could be successful, I place where I was known for something other than walking funny…In school I could be smart, not handicapped. I became a voracious reader, hungry to live vicariously for a few hours without pain, without feeling awkward or different. I devoured biographies of famous women, convinced I could make a difference some day (Bowman, 2000, p. 28).
Bowman could have allowed the grim prognosis for her condition rule her life but found not only an escape in literature but a purpose. Literature expanded her mind. It taught her she could be whatever she wanted to be. Her relationship with the authors of the novels she treasured inspired her to throw off the shackles of apparent limitations and strive to help others through disaster just as authors helped her through her own. Reading may have been the spark that inspired her to become a professor and to compile Using Literature to Help Troubled Teenagers Cope with Health Issues.
Even poetry, a form of literature, fosters the empathy people crave. Mererid Hopwood, former Chair and Crown of the National Eisteddfod in Wales, suggested that “poetry, like music, can communicate emotion, regardless of whether people ‘understand’ it or not” (Sizmur, 2008, p. 29). Juliet Sizmur, Senior Researcher at the National Foundation for Educational Research, studied “Year 6 teacher, Trevor White” as he instructed his students to perform Selwyn Griffith’s “Off to the Moon,” a short poem about a trip into space (Sizmur, 2008, p. 30). Seeing himself as the “learning facilitator,” White allowed his students the freedom to perform that poem in whatever form they pleased. Some students put on a puppet show, others a solo recitation, some played spacemen, others retired astronauts at a bar reminiscing about their younger days. There was a total of “13 different renditions” of the same poem. Trevor worried about the tedium of sitting his students through so many renditions of the same piece but found that it “helped pupils to appreciate the innovative ideas of others.” He claims it “revealed to pupils the variety, the validity, of different personal interpretations of a poem, in contrast to considering a single, standard perspective” (Sizmur, 2008, p. 31). Trevor White’s exercise not only proves that literature is a conversation between facilitator and patient, teacher and student, but its power to inspire empathy. His exercise proves literature is the abridger of apathy.
Disaster takes many forms, each unique to the victim, but what Nomif and Bowman and White’s class show is that literature taught them how to process their problems. It taught them they were not alone in their struggle. It taught them possibilities of the world they may never have experienced in a lifetime. Without literature, Nomif may have continued to isolate himself as an outsider of the land to which he fled. Without literature, Cynthia Bowman may have accepted the limitations of her condition and never edited the novel in which she writes her story. Without literature, Trevor White’s students may have struggled to empathize with their peers. Literature is the ultimate anthology of life lessons. It is constant counseling teaching us how to survive a world wrought with disaster. When everyone embraces words as these three have, solutions are possible.
People often question the importance of reading but, even more so, the importance of writing. They question what possesses an author to curl up with a laptop or notepad and spill words on the page and why they should do the same. Back to the example of patient Nomif, the boy spoke only Arabic and Italian when he reached the United Kingdom and struggled to learn English. However, his progress in writing in the language made him confident “he can take part in life here [in the UK]” (Baraitser, 2014, p. 64). Writing is not only important to communicating as a citizen of the world but processing one’s own emotion. Baraitser recorded a striking conversation with her patient Amina:
AMINA: When you write and you are writing about you, you sit here and read and you think, all those words are me. The words make me…When you are there, this is your mind and everything is pouring out and you think: how did I live it? ...You sit and think, and things come out, but when you have written it, you realise you have never thought about this before – for that tiny moment, I was this person.
FACILITATOR: You are finding yourself…
AMINA: I am really enjoying it – seeing that Amina in Africa – that was me, I used to walk barefoot – and look at myself here now, walking, wearing shoes in London. Sometimes I think there are two of me. The other one in Africa, I really want to bring her out (2014, p. 42).
Amina is the benefactor or writing’s power to process emotions. Amina emphasizes that she had considered her time in Africa but never addressed her feelings about her homeland until she had the space to put it into words on the unjudging page. People construct their identities from “the stories [they] tell about [their] life experiences or write about them. It is [their] way of exploring themselves” (Baraitser, 2014, p. 44). Writing is an endeavour in self-exploration and without taking the time to process inner disaster, people cannot escape emotional illness.
Robert Hedin’s Old Glory: American War Poems from the Revolutionary War to the War on Terrorism chronicles people’s need to express the disaster of the world, in this case war. The sheer wealth of poems prove humanity’s need to process and vent its frustrations but a few poems in particular showcase this human need. Emily Dickinson’s “My Triumph Lasted Till the Drums” (see Appendix B) discusses the glory of war (Hedin, 2004, p. 83). She challenges soldiers’ blind dreams of glory, warriors for their beliefs, and how it only leaves the men left behind to continue these empty gestures at honoring their fallen. She attacks the bloodshed tearing through America during the Civil War. This critique of war was not dead by World War II. Poet Edwin Rolfe’s “No Man Knows War” echoes Dickenson’s assault on the glory of war (see Appendix C). It is why he explains it is “needless to catalogue heroes;” there are no heroes in the sickening brawl of war where “your comrade is struck dead beside you” (Hedin, 2004, p. 179).
These poets capture disasters of the old world definition of war. But, the Civil War and World War II have come to an end. The war the world faces today is the elusive terrorism of groups like ISIS. Following the inhuman attacks of ISIS on the city of Paris in 2015, civilian Antione Leiris wrote the letter “YOU WILL NOT HAVE MY HATRED” (see Appendix A) to terrorists in a Facebook post (Leiris, 2015, p. 1). The brutal attack robbed Leiris’ son and himself of Leiris’ wife but he vows not to let the terrorists paralyze him from living his life, from trusting in his fellow Frenchman. He vows not to let the terrorists disrupt the peace of his life like they intended. Leiris may not be a well-known writer like Rolfe or Dickenson but proves the therapeutic power of writing. He proves the value of “inner-personal story-telling,” the telling of traumatic narratives to heal through social support and validation of the experience (Baraitser, 2014, 43). Antione Leiris proves that the act of writing binds him to his readers and empowers him to process and heal from disaster.
What Amina, Rolfe, Dickenson and Leiris demonstrate is the “stream-of-consciousness” (Bargh, Uleman, 1989, p. 328). The stream of consciousness is flow of thoughts and memories in the mind and when people write in an uninterrupted and unfocused manner, they unleash these thoughts on the page. It is this unencumbered writing and reflection that empowers writers, the citizens of the world, to process their lives and their disasters. St. Mary’s College English and creative writing professor Jennifer Cognard-Black describes it as “a form of self-discovery, such as when someone keeps a journal” (J. Cognard-Black). It is why people find comfort in writing; it is their chance to vent and examine themselves. In one study, for example, 80 undergraduates wrote in a stream-of-consciousness for 15 minutes and spoke into a tape recorder for 5 minutes on 4 separate occasions over a 2 month interval. Independent raters discovered that this act of writing and reflecting increased emotional awareness and bore higher levels of thought (Bargh, Uleman, 1989, p. 331). It is proof that writing has a profound effect on the way people think and their emotional health.
Writing and literature are the antidotes to a world wrought with terrorism and war and intolerance but their importance lies in every individual learning the means to process their lives. It is why the disaster of apathy is relevant. When people feel alone, without anyone to understand or listen to their problems, they will act one of two ways: “either by acting out or by withdrawing” (Bowman, 2000, p. xi). It is this lack of emotional health that cripples people, that cripples communities and that; therefore, cripples the world. The benefits of writing and literature start at the community level and ripple to the rest of the world.
It is at this community level that people realize the importance of the act of writing and reading of this writing to process their lives. Scott Russell Sanders’ “Signs” captures how primordial writing is, how writing empowers people to feel they have control over their environment. He digs through society through the many signs littering our lives from the outlandish names we slap on maps—“Gnaw Bone, Possum Trot, Buddha, Tulip, Mount Healthy, Story, and Surprise” (2006, p. 219)—to the clashing signs for and against abortion—“Always Choose Life…Choose Choice!” (2006, p. 222). We are, as Sanders explains, but “cave artists” leaving marks “that say of us: Here I am, the one who sees, the one who shapes” (2006, p. 223). People are desperate to take an active role in their lives, to feel they are more than fish washing through the stream, and the act of writing gives us this necessary semblance of hope; “naming our grief gives us leverage over despair…[and] voicing our confusion gives us a grip on chaos” (2006, p. 223). Words make people’s disasters, “the unspoken world,” “speakable” (Sanders, 2006, p. 223). They give people a voice when they are so sickened by the grief and intolerance and war and loneliness of the world that they open their “…mouth[s] to vomit, /But all [they get are] words” (Sanders, 2006, p. 223).
St. Mary’s County’s citizens, like all citizens of the world, need language to understand themselves and better handle their lives and it is up to teachers, therapists and librarians to empower people, particularly students, with words to navigate the loneliness they feel as teenagers. I, myself turn to creative writing and the reading of literature, to process my frustrations and struggles through a lens other than my own thoughts. It is a sort of out-of-body experience empowering me to understand myself through the fictional characters about which I read and write. Studies have proven that the act of writing increases emotional understanding (Bargh, Uleman, 1989, p. 331). They have proven that children like Nomif find understanding and acceptance in the literature they read (Baraitser, 2014, p. 65). They have proven that without language, people operate irrationally because they feel disconnected from the rest of the world. Though the problem has a local solution, the disaster of apathy has global implications.
Literary magazines are not a mainstream source of entertainment (On Writing 132) but that does not devalue their significance to inspiring empathy and understanding. There is more to these anthologies than people give credit. Harper’s Magazine, for example, has been around since 1850 when Harper & Brothers decided to start the magazine. The magazine printed 7,500 copies and “within six months circulation reached 50,000). It has sported literary greats like Stephen A. Douglas and Mark Twain. It followed Herman Melville’s release of Moby Dick, Thomas Edison’s discoveries and the movement for women’s rights. It published Woodrow Wilson and Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt. In 1980, the magazine broke from parent company Harper & Brothers and has received nineteen National Magazine Awards since then (Harper’s Magazine). Harper’s Magazine has ballooned from initial press run of 7,500 copies in 1850 to 186,839 copies in 2013 (Harper’s Magazine) because of people’s need to read and write. The magazine’s staying power shows that people crave a platform to express their views and find understanding in the views of others.
It is why Leonardtown High School is in need of a literary magazine. People, students in this case, need a platform to have a dialogue about their thoughts and feelings without the pressures of a real conversation. As Stephen Grosk says “The most important stories sometimes can’t be talked about directly. People don’t have the words” (Baraitser, 2014, 31). The mission of my service is to fight the disaster of apathy through the local creation of a literary magazine at Leonardtown High School and through class events at St. Mary’s Library where students will explore the importance of such literature. The literary magazine will serve as a “tangible medium for presentation” (Wogman) where students have the space to explore their differences and their struggles and class events will prove that the act of writing and the reading of this writing has a noticeable impact on people’s sense of connectedness and tolerance. I plan to have participants read a short story; write a response; whether in the form of a short story, poem, or essay; and discuss how the activity broadened their horizons. This two pronged service will verify the importance of writing and literature in processing disaster and make a noticeable difference on the community starting with Leonardtown High School. It will prove that the war against apathy starts on a small scale, as small as a high school literary magazine, and ripples through a species in need of community.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs explains this phenomenon, this need for connectedness and belonging. Abraham Maslow, the first of seven children born to Jewish immigrants and University of Wisconsin graduate, developed a hierarchy of human needs. Through observing and studying monkeys, Maslow discovered a pattern in the monkeys; the more needs that were met, the more complex the monkey’s behavior became (Poston, 2009, 348). He extended this study to mankind. Once a person’s basic survival needs are taken care of, they seek a sense of belonging. Children seek approval from their parents. Teenagers seek approval from social groups. Maslow found that people’s self-esteem is based on their sense of belonging, their sense that they are understood, and when this psychological component is missing, people develop “society anxiety and may withdraw” (Poston, 2009, 350). Literary magazines fulfill the belongingness and esteem needs of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (Poston, 2009, 348) (see Appendix H). They offer people the sense of community they need to be healthy individuals, mental health that ripples through all facets of life as wholly as tragedy.
It sounds simple but, as English teacher and creative writing major Amy Wogman explains, it is the difference between connectedness and isolation. She defines a literary magazine not only as “a place for people to express themselves through the written word” but as a means to “cope with tragedy and painful memories as a purging of emotions takes place.” It is not only a home for writers but for readers, for everyone. Literature is “a place where time stops. Where for one single moment we are focused on these anecdotes – these stories – these tales of others and the beauty that they ultimately add to the world” (Wogman).
Her work on literary magazines and her help in my service as creative writing club sponsor, serves as a powerful model to design my own literary magazine for Leonardtown High School. She discusses the unspoken relationship she had with her fellow creative writing majors at Susquehanna University. They bonded through the freedom to design a product “from scratch” together, yes, but it was through their sharing of writing that they learned to understand one another. Wogman stresses that she did not make her best friends “based upon the conversations [she] had, but instead, through what they wrote - what they shared - what they speculated about…” (Wogman). Writing was act in understanding and community for this band of writers.
However, the benefits of literary magazines are not confined to writers. They are for readers like Nomif who found peace in reading the experiences of those who shared his disaster. Writer Marion and Sheila Melzak, Consultant Community Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and director of the Baobab Centre for Young Survivors in Exile, had Nomif read When Rain Clouds Gather, the story of a girl fleeing South Africa to seek asylum in Botswana, to teach Nomif that he was not alone in the struggling of immigrating to a strange new place (Baraitser, 2014, p. 65). They are for readers like poet Michael Rosen who remembered reading Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations with his father:
As the book, and my father’s reading of the book, and my feelings about the book developed, I felt from him a sense of yearning…The scenes became part of our daily language…I’d say that there is an added dimension, when books leave the page and become spoken out loud in a room full of people; of course they become live and vivid, but they also become social, they end up belonging to everyone in the room…at that moment (Baraitser, 2014, 61).
Reading is community. It is about plugging into a global network of thoughts, feelings and experiences. Literature “gives us access to range of emotions and events that it would take years, decades, millennia, to try to experience directly.” It is “the greatest reality simulator, a machine that puts you through infinitely more situations than you could ever directly witness” (Popova). Literature serves writers who need to vent, to purge their emotions but it serves all of the human race need the sense of belonging and understand it provides.
Amy Wogman corroborates the benefits of writing and literature in her own classroom setting, experience that is vital to my plans for Leonardtown’s creative writing club, the organization through which I am building a literary magazine and hosting a few classes. She finds that
Too often students think that they cannot connect to something because they haven't gone through it. Just because you weren't in the Vietnam War does not mean you cannot connect to the beautifully articulated language of the horror war creates within the pages of The Things They Carried. Just because you aren't living in a dystopia does not mean you cannot relate the character of Winston in 1984 - a character that feels lost and confused in a world that he does not understand. Just because you are not taking a pilgrimage in London during the late 14th century does not mean you cannot find solace, humor, and artistry in the tales of those woeful sinners in The Canterbury Tales. Too often we think we can't relate, or maybe we are just too afraid to try. By allowing students to write about these topics, to think about them, and to connect to the world around them they tackle some of these issues (see Appendix N) (Wogman).
She has seen that the more literature people encounter and the more opportunities they have to write and evaluate, the more open-minded and the more understanding people become. She proves that the benefits of writing and literature are not limited to writers or those you read recreationally. The written word is vital to everyone’s emotional health, to feeling a sense of belonging rather than the apathy that inspires disaster and incapacitates people from processing it.
However, Harper’s Magazine and Amy Wogman are not the only ones to have success in proving the power of writing and literature to expand the heart and mind. Nancy Gorrell exemplified this property when she introduced to her eleventh and twelfth grade students Peter L. Fischl’s poem “To the Little Polish Boy Standing with His Arms Up” (see Appendix J). It was a reaction to “Warsaw Ghetto Boy,” a photograph of a Polish boy raising his hands in 1943 (see Appendix I) when a revolt erupted as the “Nazis attempted to raze the [Warsaw] ghetto and deport…70,000 inhabitants to Treblinka concentration camp.” Gorrell asked her students to imagine a survivor seeing the photograph years after the Holocaust. Her students speculate that the survivor may relive horrifying memories or not want to see the photograph at all and she explains that this is what happened to Holocaust survivor Peter L. Fischl when he “saw the photograph of the little Polish boy by accident, when he was browsing through old Life magazines in a bookstore.” Days later, at “2:00 A.M. and, although he was not a poet, wrote a poem to the little Polish boy” (Gorrell, 2004, 76). As Wogman said, Fischl was able to “purge” the horrific memories from his mind.
Gorrell then asked her students to write poems about the photograph like Fischl did. Student Cormisha wrote “The Woman’s Cry” from the perspective of a woman in the photograph she took as the boy’s mother (see Appendix K). She was able to link the importance of family to the scene (Gorrell, 2004, 80). Student Amanda writes “Numb” (see Appendix L) as a victim trying to “understand the Nazi soldier’s behavior” (Gorrell, 2004, 80). These students, though they had never experienced concentration camps, were able to empathize with these victims.
Gorrell continues this lesson when she asks her students to write more ecphrastic poems, poems in which the writer responds to a work of art like a photograph (2004, 84). Student Lily chooses to “‘enter the terrain’ of human suffering, pain, and grief” (Gorrell, 2004, 84) when she writes “Morning Coffee, 7:42 A.M.” (see Appendix M) (Gorrell, 2004, 86). Lily writes that she cannot drink her morning coffee after witnessing the image of a buried skull in the war in Kosovo. Gorrell proves that there is no “weapon more important to combat violence, prejudice, and hatred than the heightened sensitivity of our young people to the plethora of horrific images of inhumanity in the media today” (Gorrell, 2004, 87). As Wogman declared, these kids were able to step into the shoes of a life they never experienced and share the feelings of others. Wogman and Gorrell’s experiences strike down the misconception that a person “cannot connect to something because they haven’t gone through it” (Wogman).
Sage Burch showed the importance of words through her own Capstone service project in 2015. Working through Leonardtown High School’s creative writing club and St. Mary’s Library she worked to prove the spoken word’s power to inspire empathy. At Leonardtown High School, she recorded discussions the club had on spoken poetry, discussions that are available on her website http://projectempathy.net. As a member of the creative writing club at the time, I remember Sage facilitating group discussions about the poetry she presented. Each poem the group heard inspired wild debate. Everyone had a different opinion about the message of the piece and whether this message was valid. But, the more opportunities the group had to communicate and critically assess the pieces they heard, the more empathetic the group became. Members evolved. They were not as quick to dismiss the opinions of others but open to new ideas and opinions. It was a lesson in the belongingness level of Maslow's Hierarchy. Sage continued this blueprint through her service at Lexington Park Library. She presented poetry, offered participants the time to discuss what they saw and the space to write their own poetry in reaction (see Appendix O) (Burch). I plan to learn from Sage’s success and follow a similar plan at Leonardtown High School and St. Mary’s Library. Sage’s project proves the importance of direct advocacy and the empathetic powers of the written word.
Models like that of Sage’s workshop show how the reading and writing of literature give people the tools to lessen a world rapt with apathy. They are particularly important to the teenage audience, to people garnering the tools to address disaster all through their lives. It is important that, when people begin facing the problems of the adult world in their infancy and when they have adequate control of language, that they learn to use language as a means of therapy. It is why my service targets high schoolers like myself who are at the proper age to use language as a source of therapy and to face that challenges that need such attention. The workshop setting will provide fellow writers a sense of community and the continued tools to process their emotions, their personal disasters and all the instances of apathy that riddle their lives.
Harper’s Magazine, Amy Wogman, Marion Baraitser and Sheila Melzak, Nancy Gorrell, Sage Burch; they all exemplify and teach the importance of the written word. Harper’s Magazine and Amy Wogman showcase the importance of literary magazines, of having the space to write and the opportunity to read. Marion Baraitser and Sheila Melzak show the therapeutic powers of reading. Nancy Gorrell and Sage Burch show the effect the teaching the written word has on people’s sense of tolerance and understanding. They all corroborate the effectiveness of my twofold service of forging a literary magazine and holding events at St. Mary’s Library. They prove that the war against apathy and for empathy is one fought one person at a time with the uniting touch of the written word.
Writing is about connection, connection to one’s self and connection to the human collective. It is why my service is direct, a one-on-one discussion between fellow readers and writers. My service is two-pronged. The first half is at Leonardtown High School. Through its creative writing club, I am starting a literary magazine now dubbed The Leonardtown Lexicon. Over the course of two months, members will have the chance to write and workshop their pieces to produce two issues of the magazine. These issues will be posted on Leonardtown High School’s online newspaper The Imprint and, in my post as its editor, I will advertise this new fixture of the newspaper. My service is about opening people up to the uniting power of the written word.
The second half will offer students beyond Leonardtown High School’s creative writing club a platform to write, workshop and share their talents in a literary magazine. Through St. Mary’s Library, I will conduct a writing workshop for high schoolers, grades 9 through 12. The library and I will advertise the workshop titled Drafting Disaster; A Teen Writing Workshop to students across the county. Unlike Leonardtown High School’s creative writing club, the workshop will not be held every Tuesday afternoon. It will not stain busy students with a long-running commitment but offer them a chance to discuss literature and share their own. It will engage students through Susquehanna University student Megan Ross Rodriguez’ short story “Counting” (Rodriguez). Discussion of the text will activate and inspire participants to write a short story, poem, or essay as a response to its themes or as an emulation of its style. After discussing the value of editing and how to constructively do so, participants will swap and edit until they are ready to share they work aloud and compile their pieces as an issue in the Leonardtown Lexicon. The literary magazine, therefore, is the common denominator in my plans for the community. If the event is successful, the library is poised to make this into a staple in their library programs.
The problem this direct service project seeks to solve is that teenagers and people of all ages lack a platform to express themselves and draw advice. This sense of isolation often drives people to express their frustration irrationally (Bowman xi). It is why my service at St. Mary’s Library has two tiers: the reading tier and the writing tier. It is important that people have all the opportunities they need to connect to their world whether it mean finding comfort in reading the suffering and mistakes of others or venting their own frustrations to the world. It is why each half of my service focuses on publication. Publication is an opportunity both for the writer to feel their work has a life beyond themselves, that others are responding to their words, and for readers to find more work with which they relate. As On Writing Short Stories contributor Michael Curtis writes, “don’t let finished stories collect quietly in a desk drawer somewhere, out of misplaced modesty” (Wolff & Bailey, 136).
Each prong of my service targets teenagers because they are the most accessible to lessons of the act of writing and reading of it. While people can accept the healing powers of the written word at any stage in their lives, the teenage years are the most formative. John’s Hopkins University reports in The Teen Years Explained: A Guide to Healthy Adolescent Development that the teenage years are some of the most formative. Teenagers experience a time, “of concentrated social, emotional, and cognitive development,” making it, “a time of opportunity, not turmoil” (John’s Hopkins 2). It is a time when teens are highly influenced by their “surroundings and experiences” but “are not simply passive recipients of experience” like their younger counterparts (3). It is in this critical junction between childhood and adulthood that teens are young enough to add new skills to their emotional and cognitive foundations yet old enough to appreciate the healing properties of the written word.
The teenage years, specifically on the matter of writing, are when people come into their voice. The Pew Research Center reports that teens, “take great pleasure in developing personal informal writing styles as a way to express and distinguish who they are now – teens who do not yet need to be adults.” 93%, in fact, write for themselves. One might ask how, then, there could be a lack of interest in writing. The problem is that much of this writing is done through social media with a minority of recreational writing taking the form of, “poems, plays, journals, songs, raps and multimedia pieces.” Most teens enjoy writing on a superficial level, the kind that does not inspire self-reflection and expanded thinking. They write merely, “to make something happen” and to satisfy the “writing expectations placed upon him/her by school, family, friends and other social sources.” Unfortunately, only 49% of teens report they enjoy personal writing “a great deal” (Lenhart).
Part of the problem is school. The Pew Research Center reports that, “high school students are seldom offered writing instruction that spans their curriculum, is authentic and tied to their lives…” It is why only 17% of teens enjoy school writing, why 22% report they enjoy their writing “not much” and why 10% enjoy it “not at all” (Lenhart). School not only does not engage students in the art of writing but distances them from it.
It is a situation Mrs. Brenda A. Hager, Leonardtown High School librarian, remembers from her own struggle to find the written word. She admits that, unlike “most librarians [who she assumes to have been] big time readers growing up” she struggled with reading and dreaded reading aloud in class. She actively avoided reading. That is, until she “had a friend that influenced [her] reading” and inspired her to read, not for school, but for the enjoyment of “not actually doing something but actually reading about the lives of others or about the experience of others whether it is fiction or biography or nonfiction.” She realized that it is easy to “identity the well-read students” and that she wanted to be informed like her friend. She read and wrote and grew. It was not only her friend that drove her but a high school English teacher that “inspired” her and “gave [her] a lot of confidence” when she praised her research paper to her class. It is why she has made it her mission to “bring that story of struggle” to the students with which she works, admitting that it is the influence of her teacher students “probably see…in [her] when [she] work[s] with [them].” She hopes she “can be an influence, then, for students that already love to read and students that don’t,” to ensure they feel the “confidence and [the] drive to be informed, to experience great literature, [and] great stories” because it “influences what [people] do [at] school and in [his or her life] and [his or her] relationships with others” (Hager). She has been such an influence because she was not always confident in her reading and writing and understands the impact a person experiences when they welcome these vital tools. Reading, to her, was paramount to healing her fear of reading, to finding her calling, and to understanding and communicating the experiences of others. Hers is a story vital in the discussion of the merits of the written word because she is a living reminder of how reading and writing “can truly change your life” (Hager) (see Appendix P).
The disaster of apathy is one that, Mrs. Hager’s story proves, has a local solution but that has global impacts. Each individual should take it upon themselves to solve their isolation through the written word and when they do, people will not only have the tools to process the problems pervading the word but to limit them altogether.
My service project requires careful time management and public speaking and literary skills. I must be able to coordinate with the librarians at St. Mary’s Library. I must be able to compile resources both for my service at Leonardtown High School and my service at St. Mary’s Library. I must be able to lead both workshops through sound presentation skills. Participants, particularly at St. Mary’s Library, need me to present my own writing to invite them to comfortably share their own and need my presentation of a short story to inspire them to write at all. I am responsible for all preparation and execution. It is a large undertaking but words have been responsible for helping me and countless others through life and I am responsible for advocating their power.
My service is twofold and each workshop setting requires its own resources. The creative writing club workshop requires writing utensils, paper, laptops, writing prompts, the advice of club sponsor Amy Wogman, cooperation with Leonardtown High School’s online newspaper The Imprint, and the club’s weekly meetings from 2:45 to 4:00 every Tuesday. The St. Mary’s Library workshop is far more involved. The workshop requires paper, laptops, a projector, a PowerPoint presentation, a short story, a reserved space in the library, snacks, tables, chairs, participant writings and their input into the value of the workshop, the help of librarians like Teen Services Coordinator Elizabeth Davis and the cooperation of Leonardtown High School’s online newspaper The Imprint to publish the work produced at the event.
When I first approached St. Mary’s Library and proposed my teen writing workshop, library workers cautioned me on the difficulties of attracting the teen audience. They, historically, had more success in younger demographics. Library Teen Services Coordinator Elizabeth Davis reports that “Getting teens to show up for a library program is always hit or miss (mostly miss)” (Davis). But, I was determined to serve the problem my findings noted among teenagers. Much to my surprise along with library services, my turnout “was spectacular” (Davis) (see Appendix Q). Nine students, not including myself, from schools across the county attended the workshop, one of them homeschooled. It was a large enough group to hold a proper workshop but small enough for participants to learn each other’s names. A small group was necessary for everyone to feel they had a voice in group discussions.
The workshop succeeded in giving to the teenage audience a voice in a time when they are highly influenced by their “surroundings and experiences” and are no longer “simply passive recipients of experience” like their younger counterparts (John’s Hopkins 3). It is the reason I targeted this demographic. The teenage years are formative ones in which people set the foundations on which they will build for the rest of their lives. My goal was to encourage reading and writing in these foundations, skills that, my research has shown, are important to emotional health, growth and recovery.
In this time of concentrated growth, teens, “take great pleasure in developing personal informal writing styles as a way to express and distinguish who they are” (Lenhart). My goal was to nurture interest in writing beyond the only 49% of teens that enjoy personal writing “a great deal” (Lenhart). I wanted to show the merits of the creation of and reading of literary writing, not the writing on social media that 93% report enjoying and not the meager 17% that enjoy school writing (Lenhart).
It is why nine teenagers attended the workshop. They found it important to have the time to write and share their writing. They found it important to garner lifelong writing skills outside of school and the expectations of friends and family to participate in social media. They appreciated not only the time to write but to edit. Workshop attendee Katharine Anne Cognard-Black found it “really great and really helpful” that I addressed constructive editing in my presentation (K. Cognard-Black).
It is perhaps why the workshop received such praise. The nine students from the St. Mary’s County region that attended the workshop filled out class evaluation forms. In two of the questions, they selected whether they agreed with the question’s statement on a one to five scale, five being total agreement and one being total disagreement. Six participants assigned a five to the statement that they found the workshop’s information helpful. Two participants responded with a four and one assigned it a one. Five participants assigned a five to the statement that they would attend other writing workshops at the library, three assigned it a three and one assigned it a one (see Appendix R). These results met and exceeded my expectations. I did not expect such a large turnout or such wonderful reviews, an indication that people need more programs to invigorate them, support their writing, and connect them.
English teacher Mrs. Amy Wogman also attended the workshop to observe my lesson and illuminates why participants were so pleased with the platform I provided to write and grow with fellow writers. As both an English teacher at Leonardtown High School and graduate of Susquehanna University’s creative writing program, she has experienced many writing workshops. She reports that they empowered her to, “connect with the people around [her]” in college and as she, “continued to grow into adulthood” (Wogman). She goes on to say that
Too often we think we can't relate, or maybe we are just too afraid to try. By allowing students to write about these topics, to think about them, and to connect to the world around them they tackle some of these issues…We begin to challenge our own opinions, to be open to the opinions of others, and to critically and strategically form our points of view in a way that is not only convincing and engaging, but that is stylistically profound and perceptive as well (Wogman) (see Appendix N).
Writing, then, was an opportunity for workshop attendees to begin a dialogue, through the act of writing and the reading of writing, to tackle the difficult life questions they are beginning to encounter as they near adulthood. These positive impacts are sustainable as the participants can use the skills and connections they garnered throughout their lives. After being introduced to the workshop method and encouraged to continue their writing, there is no limit to the viability of these skills and no limit to its uses.
But, the workshop was not only a success in turnout and premise. It was a success in connection. St. Mary’s Library and myself were able to connect with the community and garner a wealth of aspiring writers. I advertised through Leonardtown High School’s daily broadcast, through Leonardtown High School’s newspaper The Imprint, and through emails to the St. Mary’s County’s English department heads. St. Mary’s Library’s advertised both on their website and in local newspapers.
Connection was not only about informing the community. After the workshop, many participants exchanged phone numbers and email addresses. The experience not only invigorated their writing but their sense of connectedness. Stories bring people together and the experience of reading a short story, creating a piece of writing in response, editing such writing, sharing it and preparing to submit it to my literary magazine empowered participants to connect to the author of the short story, themselves and each other. Such connections will only continue as these aspiring writers share their work and advice with one another.
The last of the successes of the St. Mary’s Library half of my service, was the reading of a short story. Rather than giving participants a prompt that confined them to a genre or scene or style, I used the short story as the prompt. By this I mean, I told attendees to take something from the story; its style, subject matter, symbols, messages, etc.; and use that element as the seed for some form of writing in whatever genre they pleased. Cognard-Black reports that “what helped [her] most was [my] selection and also the prompt being based off the selection.” Cognard-Black was inspired to write a short memoir; I was inspired to write about a kid growing up feeling confined by a new culture; Hannah Timmons wrote about a day on the road. Everyone had the space to take their writing in whatever direction they felt most comfortable.
Cognard-Black has perhaps the most telling of all the stories produced, at least to the crux of this project. While many of the writers, like myself, preferred to mask their memories in fiction she wrote a short memoir about the evolving relationship between her parents and herself as she has grown. The inclusion of “Counting” allowed her to examine, understand and share her experience growing up. As she told me, reading is a way
of you realizing your emotions through empathy. You can create a character in your head based on what this author picks up and writes down…[People] can use that to build off of and then start to imagine themselves as that character…They can help you feel emotions that you haven’t felt because you could relate to that character…It’s the idea that they wrote something and now you’re reading it and even if you’ve never met you have a connection (K. Cognard-Black).
She was able to connect with “Counting” and its author, to imagine herself as a character in the story, and write about her own experiences in a similar situation. Her experience epitomizes a successful experience with the reading and writing of literature.
As writer Tobias Wolff says, short stories, “speak of such scenes as we would of our own memories…it imitates memory” (Wolff & Bailey, xi). Wolff goes on to explain that, “When our friends die we gather and recall them in stories, and that is true recalling, for in telling their stories we call them back to speak and move among us again” (Wolff & Bailey, xii). It is the short story’s power to relive memory that made “Counting” such a successful tool in the workshop. After reading, participants considered the elements of their lives the story reflected on them, as if looking into a mirror. It was the story’s power to inspire self-examination that bore the stories I posted at http://www.lhsimprint.com/litmag/2016/06/11/3208/ where the Leonardtown Lexicon has and will continue to be published.
Publication, as St. Mary’s College English and creative writing Professor Dr. Jennifer Cognard-Black says, is the purpose of writing. This is not to say that writing is about the fame or funding. She explains that, for many, “writing is about art and truth—about taking the stuff all around us every day, transforming it into a creative form, and asking others to re-see it, to see it anew.” This writing cannot accomplish its purpose unless it is published. As Dr. Cognard-Black aptly states, “The whole point is to change how others understand the human, and to do that, the words must circulate” (J. Cognard-Black) (see Appendix S). Katharine Cognard-Black, for example, might not have been inspired to rediscover her past had she not reading “Counting.” None of the workshop participants might have produced the work they did without the new perspective “Counting” provided. Without the publication of the writers from the workshop, even one reader may not find some new understanding they need to work through their problems. It is why the Leonardtown Lexicon will remain online to continue to give writers a chance to change minds.
However, the workshop was not without its struggles. I did not anticipate the amount of time my activities required. While participants like Katharine Anne Cognard-Black “appreciated the time…allotted to…read,” they expressed their wished they had more time to finish their edits and read aloud (K. Cognard-Black) (see Appendix R). I planned for reading aloud to be a vital part of the workshop process where participants would grow more comfortable and confident in their own voice, something teenagers are trying to do as they search for identity (Lenhart). Cognard-Black said she wished the shyer of the group had more of an opportunity to feel included and reading aloud was my planned solution (K. Cognard-Black). However, due to poor timing, I was unable to include this component. Though the library service was effective, as participants reported (see Appendix R), I would extend the workshop from two hours to three if I had the chance to do it again.
With another chance to solve the downfalls of the workshop, I would have worked to advertise to the male teen audience. The Pew Research Center found among the teen audience, males have the lowest interest in writing. I can attest to this with the workshop being composed of entirely females aside from myself. 55% of females reporting enjoying writing “a great deal” while only 43% of males feel the same (Lenhart). It is important to inspire writing among all teenagers in these formative years, not one gender exclusively.
As for the half of my service concerning Leonardtown High School’s creative writing club, I would and plan to change far more in this continuing service. Though members of the club had positive discussions on writing, had much time to write and present their writing, and enjoyed this time to explore their writing, as evidenced by their commitment to attend every Tuesday afternoon, I was unable to put together an issue of the Leonardtown Lexicon from this club. Once other clubs such as theatre began, many members did not have the time to attend. I continued advertising through Leonardtown’s daily television broadcast but only two to four, often only two, people attended each week. In the 2016-2017 school year, schedule changes are occurring that will allow more students the opportunity to attend. So long as there is still a teacher sponsor at Leonardtown High School willing to host the club every week, aspiring writers will continue to find support and community in one another.
My two-fold service project, while it encountered areas in need of improvement, succeeded in energizing the community to write and provided a platform for the teenage demographic to read, write, and re-see the world. It provided teenagers the tools to process the disasters of the world, whether those concerning their immediate family or all of human society, as they grow and encounter them.
Human life is riddled with disasters: war, death, a marital tiff, a kitchen fire, unfavorable test scores. They vary from person to person and everyone struggles to process them, some more than others. The reading and writing of literature is a tool to process these daily disasters. It is a means of interacting with the world and finding comfort in a community of shared experiences and feelings. The disabled might struggle to find hope in their handicaps if not for stories like that of Hellen Keller who was able to overcome not being able to see or hear. Refugees might feel alone in having to leave behind their lives and their cultures if not for stories like that of When Rain Clouds Gather teaching them that there are others like them (Baraitser ). Literature holds up a mirror to our personal narratives. These symbolic universes empower people to re-see their lives with insight they can readily gather from the experiences of others.
The study of literature is, then, but a study in empathy, for people’s compassion for their fellow man. It is why Hitler sought to destroy books during his reign in Holocaust Germany. As The Book Thief’s Liesel Meminger can attest, books empower people. They give them insight into lives they have not lived and ground themselves in the universal human heart. Books empower Liesel Meminger to reject Hitler and the notion that Jewish people were responsible for all the country’s woes. She harbored and befriended one who lived in her basement. The Book Thief, in its existence and profound effect on people, is the antithesis of Hitler’s movement. It not only tells the story of the power of literature to heal the soul but it has gained worldwide popularity for the effect it continues to have on people. Few people alive experienced the Nazi Germany yet Markus Zusak’s novel has moved the hearts of readers. It is because they have found a story of compassion they can apply to their own lives.
People have read novels like that of The Book Thief because they seek to understand themselves and their fellow man. When people don’t have access to answers, rather to the feeling that there are those who understand their circumstances, they act out (Bowman, 2000, p. xi). This sense of isolation, of feeling disconnected and abandoned by the world, has driven wars like the Civil War and World War II, even the assaults of ISIS as disheartened people band together to act irrationally. Literature, then, is paramount not only to people finding some peace in these disasters but preventing their frequency.
On a more individual level, people write. Antione Leiris wrote the letter “YOU WILL NOT HAVE MY HATRED” after the ISIS’s 2015 assault on Paris. Poets Emily Dickinson and Edwin Rolfe wrote about their disappointment at the Civil War. People write because they have a need to be heard. It is why they produce the literature that can heal people. They need for people to understand them, to understand themselves, and to change minds. Emily Dickinson, in particular, wrote for herself. She never published her work; it was her family that did so. She wrote because they needed to be heard by the unjudging page. She needed to work through her thoughts and language gave her some of the solace she craved.
It is why I held a writing workshop at St. Mary’s Library and why I led a weekly creative writing club at Leonardtown High School. I found, from the impact reading and writing have had throughout history, that people need a platform to experience understanding both of themselves and those around them.
It is why, in my plans for future study, I will continue to host Leonardtown High School’s creative writing club, will hold at least one workshop at St. Mary’s Library, and will continue to post the work of students involved at Leonardtown High School’s online newspaper The Imprint and at my website, the product I built to encourage such service as this in the community. My product option lends itself to continued advocacy. The website not only discusses the importance of encouraging literature and showcases the literary magazine I produced but offers directions as to how others can replicate the success of the workshop. It is important that progress not stop when I am no longer hosting workshops.
Progress comes in the form of hosting more workshops but, perhaps more importantly, in publication. It is important that student work continues to have a place where others can reach it; student’s messages deserve to be heard and people deserve a chance to hear them. It is only through this quiet, yet global conversation, that people can find a sense of connectedness, of belonging, in their culture. In a global community where interest in reading is on the decline, it was vital for me to produce a project to protect this therapeutic art and it is vital for people to appreciate its power to bring human society together in the face of disaster.