An Acceptable Mess: On Behalf of Private Writing

By Laurel Snyder

There’s a wooden trunk in my office, where I keep the things that matter, and if you dig around in it, root through the faded photographs and brittle corsages, you’ll find some mismatched journals at the bottom. Not a single one of them is entirely full, and plenty of pages have been torn out. If you were to read these books, you would not be especially impressed by anything you found in them, but as the years go by, they feel like they might be some of the most important objects I own.

As a children’s author, I do a lot of school visits, which means I spend a lot of time talking with kids about how I became a writer. Not unrelated, I spend a lot of time talking with teachers about what they can do to help kids become writers. Of course, I talk about my lifelong love of the library, as well as the terrific teachers who encouraged me when they saw a spark in my poems. I talk about the importance of letting kids choose the books they want to read.  But I think, at the end of the day, the most important piece of the puzzle—the real reason I became a writer—lurks in those scruffy journals.

The truth is that I became a writer because I discovered how writing could help me process and understand my life and the world around me. Not just because it could help me communicate with others, but because it could help me communicate with myself.

I had, as many kids do, some hard years, years that continue to work their way into my writing today. If you’ve read any of my middle grade novels, you can probably guess at some of what I went through. Now that I’m a grownup, the instinct to write about my challenges feels like such an obvious thing—the idea that if I’m struggling, I should probably write about whatever hurts.  But it isn’t that basic at all, is it? Most kids don’t know how it feels to let everything out, lean into their emotions, and pour their thoughts onto a blank page that nobody will ever see.

The same goes for the joys of my young life. It was no easier, in middle school, to gloat about the things that made me happy than to talk about the things that caused me pain. The boys I liked, or new friends I made. The grades I worked hard for, or the rare days I thought I looked almost pretty. I couldn’t speak those thoughts, but I could write them down.

It was an incredible stroke of luck that I developed this habit, when I was too young to understand what was happening, and I credit the teachers who demanded I write about my life, but then (and this is the key, I think) never said a word about anything I shared. I’ll never know if they read the things I wrote and chose to stay silent, or if they simply thumbed through the pages and gave me a check mark for completion, with no clue about what those pages contained. What I do know is that as the weeks went by, I became bolder, more willing to share. Through their silence, my teachers taught me that the page could keep a secret.  I had teachers who taught me to trust the process of scribbling.

We want to think that when our kids are experiencing anything—when they’re struggling or confused or joyful—they will come to us, but of course that isn’t always the case. Sometimes they’re scared to open up, and sometimes they simply aren’t ready. They need to think about what’s happening to them and process it, before they can speak out loud, make the events in their stories feel real. Scribbling is a safe way to do that. But how do we encourage it?

Recently I asked some educator friends on Twitter how they handle this in today’s landscape, and the replies varied widely. Some folks count pages but never read their students’ entries, and some make it clear that kids should never write about anything sensitive. I understand that mandatory reporting makes it hard for kids to have precisely the experience I had, for reasons that help keep them safe.

But I find myself wondering if it might not be possible to somehow facilitate private writing in and around those requirements. Perhaps kids could free-write in class, and then shred their stories together. Maybe they could be encouraged to journal at home, then use the pages to make some sort of art project that obscured the text. I’m not sure how to make it happen, but it feels essential.

Because in a world that focuses so much attention on our kids doing things correctly, there needs to be some small amount of time for them to do things incorrectly, to make an acceptable mess.  It feels more important to focus on the fact THAT they write than HOW they write. Looking back at my journals, it feels clear to me that if I’d always had to think about writing well, or for an audience, I wouldn’t have learned the profound power of simply spitting out words.

Now, decades after the events of my childhood, I’m so grateful for my journals. I reach into the trunk, dust off their pages, and remember the girl I was. I feel so grateful to the teachers who didn’t read those pages I wrote, who didn’t mark them up with red ink or compliment me on my work. Who instead gave me the greatest superpower I have—the ability to take what’s inside me, set it on the page, and feel better for having done so. Knowing I can always come back to it later.

Or not come back to it.  Since only the page will know.