Ironically, I don’t believe my love for the art of writing started with books. The very first poem I remember reading was Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” in sixth grade. What clicked for me, at least at first, was how that poem in my elementary school anthology was printed over a watercolor of a snow-filled forest. Growing up in New England, I was quite familiar with such scenes. The luminous blue glow of snow by starlight caught my imagination, opened wide the door of Frost’s poem, and let me enter its subtle magic. It was a memorable moment for me, one that pulled together my love for nature and my then vague but growing sense that words could do some amazing things in the hands of a gifted writer.
Challenges and Opportunities
Some students today, unfortunately, are growing up amid circumstances that don’t promote quiet moments like the one I had as a sixth-grader, in 1973, before the Internet, before instant messaging, streaming, Snap, Xbox, and Quentin Tarantino. These relatively new diversions have prompted me as a teacher and parent to ask myself some difficult questions: Have some of our students failed to become readers because we have never demanded that they cultivate within themselves the patience that makes reading and writing possible? Has our own material abundance robbed our children of the sense that life is an adventure, not a theme park built for their own amusement? Do our homes have more video games in them than books?
On top of these issues, there is the increasingly pressurized nature of college admissions, prompting more questions: Does the selectivity of colleges today have more to do with the pursuit of superficial prestige than real learning? If so, do we promote this attitude in our children? When our students do learn to read and write with skill, have they become so driven to jump through the next academic hoop that their primary motivations for learning are lost along the way? Have our students at times lost the sense that the liberal arts are not subject to any “method” but a love for the truth and the desire to live a good and noble life?
Though we’re certainly not aiming to make all our students strive to become professional writers, all of our students need to develop the skills necessary to use their language with competence and clarity. In fact, the more our world becomes wired for levels of speed that transcend anything we know today, the more we need to think at the more human pace of a turning page. But with so many competing and, let’s face it, destructively alluring pastimes available today, this is without doubt a difficult task. Where do we begin?
Frankly, we must begin with the proper formation of our sense of what to love. As Saint Augustine said, at the end of our lives, we will be judged not by what we know, but by what we love. What we have here, therefore, is a question of loves, of their right ordering, or their proper objects. Moreover, since no one can reasonably deny the importance of early childhood and adolescence in regard to the development of the conscience and habits that will facilitate moral and intellectual growth, the relevance of the proper use of cable television, DVDs, and the Internet becomes obvious. Some families can navigate these waters with a considerable degree of freedom and do fine. Some families prefer to banish them altogether from their households.
Most of us, I suspect, fall somewhere in between, and use these gadgets with restrictions and some trepidation. The absolutely worst thing to do, in my judgment, is to give your children free rein on the smart phone. Simply put: to do so will imperil not only your children’s chances for getting into college but will endanger their immortal souls as well. Prudence and love should compel all parents to guard their children’s innocence on a daily basis, with heroic fortitude, if necessary. But the best protection of your child’s innocence is proper formation, i.e. teaching them what and how to love so they will flourish and become mature adults.
A Comprehensive Approach
What does all this have to do with writing? Actually, quite a bit. One of the things living in a highly technological society can do is diminish a sense of how long it takes to master a skill on one’s own, thereby exaggerating the importance of utility and convenience in life. The gadgets we use today—including the computer on which I am writing this essay—were invented and developed by geniuses. Growing up with all these conveniences can lead a young person to take not only them for granted but much of life as well. His own development might suffer, even stagnate, because of this superficial outlook.
Becoming good at something takes—for most of us—an awfully long time. Playing a video game, watching a DVD, or surfing the Internet hardly demands such time or dedication. Most especially, though these technologies are not bad in themselves, they can become harmful in that they can diminish our capacity for the silence and composure and patience needed to master skills that demand our total attention over a period not of days or months, but of years. Learning to read well, with sensitivity and insight, and to write well, with clarify and style, are two such skills.
While an early acquaintance with books is fine, our approach should be more comprehensive than that. We must encourage an attitude towards life that involves a contemplation of what is. So let your children have as many firsthand experiences of the world as prudently as possible. Let them sweat to plant their own garden, push themselves to fill their bug jars with butterflies and bees, struggle to obtain an athletic skill, play a musical instrument, hike a mountain, make a pilgrimage, and learn certain prayers and poems by heart. Acquaint them with your own struggles to be kind, patient, charitable, or hopeful about something in your life (again, prudently so). Let them see that great things never come easily, whether in terms of knowledge or virtue. Our age of celebrity pretends that few achievements ever come by hard work. But there’s scarcely any other way to do something worthwhile.
Secondly, teach your children the value of sacrifice. From both a human and supernatural perspective, this is key to their proper development into adulthood. On the human side of the ledge, this is simply a matter of priority. Some things have to be given up so that other things may flourish; gardens need continual weeding if they are to bear fruit. Learning to focus on the minutiae of the printed page—in reading or writing—demands a focused, ordered attentiveness that is only obtained by repeated effort and practice. Every turning to means a giving up.
Ultimately the question of sacrifice should go beyond this moral ordering of the person and embrace the good of what Pope John Paul II has called the “nuptial meaning” of every human life. This means nothing less than a total giving of one’s self—either in marriage or the single life—to the God who has created us out of the depths of his infinite love. What greater motivation could there be than this for cultivating a hopefulness that can endure the setbacks and suffering that are ultimately woven into every life?
As many of my friends know, I was not weaned on Dickens and Thackeray from my earliest years. For the first eighteen years of my life, I hardly read for pleasure at all. While a boy, I spent much of my time pursuing such Huck Finn-type activities as building tree-houses, raising rabbits and ducks, trapping muskrats, and trout fishing, albeit all within the relatively sheltered suburban neighborhoods where my family and friends lived. As an adolescent, I no doubt spent too much time watching television and neglecting my Latin and math homework to an unconscionable degree.
But I thank God not only for the fine college professors who later awakened in me a desire to discover the world of books, but also for those early childhood experiences that gave me a sense of how any world that could hold such marvelous things in it as beautifully iridescent mallard duck must be a world that is, first and foremost, a gift. And that expression of praise, as many know, is one of the themes running through great literature over the centuries. As Goethe says, ever impossible seems the rose. And, I would add, Frost’s snowy woods. Some things are just too good not to be a gift.
So as I look back on how I discovered that writing is important to me, I must say again that it didn’t start with books. While I wouldn’t want to make my life prescriptive for anyone, I think my own children know that books are treasured in our house because the world itself is a vast, adventure-filled treasure, and was so before the first book was ever written. So if you really want to get your children to become good readers and effective writers, start with the basics: help them to understand that the world has been given to us by an infinitely generous Creator. In doing so, they have a better chance of seeing for themselves that great literature is really a hymn of praise that, in eternity, and with God’s grace, we will sing forever. For what is poetry, after all, but singing, and what heart in love does not want to sing?