Recently, at one of my favorite gatherings of teachers, the Long Island Writing Project, I enjoyed a presentation by one of my favorite mentors, Kathleen Sokolowski. We all know her as one of the co-authors of Two Writing Teachers, but I am lucky enough to occasionally see her in person. In true Writing Project fashion, she read aloud a wonderful book, What Do You Do with an Idea? by Kobi Yamada, and then asked those of us who were present to respond to the reading by writing down our thoughts for about ten minutes.
Unexpectedly, the reading was like an arrow to my heart. You see, for much of my earlier life, I never felt like I had any original ideas. As you will soon see, from the words I wrote during the workshop, this feeling of “emptiness” tormented me for a long time.
Kathleen’s Writing Prompt: What Do You Do with an Idea?
My written response:
This reading blasted right through to my core. Growing up as the eldest of 8 siblings, amidst all the busyness and clamor that results from so many children in one house, my parents had no time to encourage ideas. So I just sat in my room, as often as I could, and read anything I could get my hands on. It was my way of escaping my life, reading about the lives of others.
I was a very accomplished student in high school, but back in the 50’sand 60’s it was enough to memorize and regurgitate what you had learned. I was like a sponge, so I easily absorbed information. It was easy for me to do well on tests that rewarded me for having a good memory and an ability to reassemble what I had learned in coherent writing.
By the time I reached college, I knew something was missing. I continued to be a Dean’s list student, but always felt inadequate when it came to discussions;I lacked confidence. Toward the end of my college years, one of my professors told me, “If you have an idea, no one can take that from you.” I knew he was right, but I still lacked ideas.
I soldiered on through a year of graduate school, but then finally reached my endpoint. One of my professors told me he thought my writing wasn’t good enough to stay in the program. I was devastated; though I knew he was right, his words and criticism felt cruel. I left grad school and went West with a boyfriend where I began a whole new life, not as a student.
Life happened. I married, had children and then, finally, twenty years later, I had the urge to return to school. Having children had grounded me and given me more confidence. After taking a few courses, I began to realize I had lots of ideas, but I still didn’t have a voice. Finally, in one of those graduate classes I found a teacher who thought I had something to say. His feedback on my papers, and in conversations, encouraged me to feel more confident, which in turn led to me finding my voice. (End of my writing response.)
Fortunately, I eventually did begin to have ideas…BIG ones. But this would not have happened without the help of a wonderful mentor who encouraged me. Because I personally suffered from this deficit for so long and because it affected my self confidence, I urge all teachers to consider that perhaps there may be some students in your own classes who perform well academically but are somehow “blocked” when it comes to sharing ideas. All they lack is someone who cares enough about them to encourage them to nurture their ideas.
Now, three decades later, and acting on as many of my ideas as I could during those years, I can’t imagine a life without ideas. Yes, it is important to have a “voice;” but you can’t have a voice without first thinking you have an idea worth sharing. And until you feel enough confidence in that idea, you won’t be able to find that voice.
Thank you, Kathleen, for reading that lovely book to us, reminding us how important it is to nurture an idea. It’s never too late to learn that lesson.