The Tale of Bubbles the Missing Hamster: a celebration of diary writing

 

Dear Diary….

A few days before our wedding in August, I stumbled across my old diaries whilst desperately (and rather frantically) searching for my Granddad’s cuff links. In a last ditch attempt to find the cufflinks for our special day, I ventured into the shed, where most unwanted items have ended up when we moved. I was shocked to see that, hidden away in a dusty cardboard box, were many of my childhood diaries. Rereading these diaries, which span almost eleven years and start when I was nine or ten, has been a wonderfully cathartic experience. I’ve laughed, squirmed in embarrassment (the ‘I love ?’, terrible spelling and ‘This diary belongs to Ian: Keep out!’ on every other page of my first diary are a particular treat!) and cried. My simplistic understanding of my Granddad’s cancer diagnosis (‘Granddad has been taken into hospital, Mum says he’s not very well) and death and my brutally honest recount of being bullied at secondary school due to my sexuality are difficult for me to read.

Within these six diaries, there are also short stories, vocabulary journals, terribly written poems and song lyrics, film reviews, doodles, lists, addresses of people I’ve met on holiday and promised to write to, post cards, notes from my first lot of therapy sessions at the age of seventeen and pages and pages of notes detailing my daily life from the age of 10 to about 21.

Perhaps one day I’ll share them but for now, at least, I wanted to consider how they might inform my own teaching. As an adult and teacher, they have certainly raised some interesting questions about my own relationship with reading and writing as I grew up and made me wonder who and what helped me along the way to love English and why these diaries were so important to me, both as a creative and emotional outlet and also as a means of finding a voice. This blog is therefore a mish mash of reflections and questions about my own reading and writing journey. It is also a celebration of all the messy, embarrassing, secretive writing that this genre seems to encourage.

The beginning of it all

diary 1

 ‘Being able to write is a gateway to empowerment’ (Cremin and Myhill, 2012)

A black Doc Martens note pad at Christmas. With a key. To lock it! I remember my big brother teasing me and saying, “Fine, but I can just find the key to open it and read it all anyway!” when I excitedly showed him how I could write in it and keep it private. But that didn’t put me off. I put the key around a piece of leather string and vowed to keep it on my wrist at all times. What a wonderful gift! I wonder how many children are given a notebook or diary in which to record their thoughts, hopes and dreams? Not a planning book or an exercise book but one of those very special, perfect, beautiful little books that you want to treasure and hold dear. I was lucky to get one every Christmas for many years and I am grateful to my parents for these small, but powerful gifts. When we have children, and I very much hope we do, I will continue that tradition of giving a notebook or diary at Christmas every year and hope that it will inspire my own children to write. These gifts, if nothing else, have certainly inspired in me a love of stationery!

The tale of the missing hamster

Finding something to write about was of course a problem. How many of us, as teachers, are faced with the age old defeated groan from the children in our class at the beginning of a lesson: “But I don’t know what to write!” Well, I certainly had no idea what to write about. My initial excitement over having MY OWN DIARY soon depleted. What was it for? What would I write in there? It was a special book, after all, and the first page (at least) needed to be special. So I waited, too nervous about the whole process to even attempt to write something.

My first diary entry (below) was about a momentous occasion in the Eagleton household. Bubbles the hamster had escaped! To get a hamster in the first place had entailed a persuasive military onslaught, carefully designed to break my parents down into saying ‘yes’ to a hamster. Placards (“I want a hamster!), chants (“What do I want? A hamster! When do I want it? For Christmas!) and pleading letters to Father Christmas and my parents eventually resulted in the safe delivery of a fluffy, brown hamster on Christmas day (the same day actually that I received the diary – what a Christmas!).

But something terribly exciting happened a few days later and Bubbles the hamster escaped behind the cupboard in my room. One hoover nozzle, lots of treats and two stressed parents later, Bubbles was deposited safely back into his cage.diary 2

What this event offered me was something, finally, to write about at the age of ten. Something that was special and terrifying and meant something to me. My rather simple recount doesn’t quite capture the sheer terror and guilt I felt at losing my beloved pet but I clearly wanted to write about it and detail the day the hamster escaped. That was what started me on my childhood journey of writing. I wonder how often we allow children to write about something that is completely ‘theirs’. Something which they have agency over – an event or life experience that is so important to them that they feel compelled to write about it? Of course it’s not possible to do this every day in school – I’ve certainly never managed it. There are curriculum objectives to cover and most schools have a long term plan detailing the genres, and sometimes class novels, that need to be covered in each year group. But maybe I need to allow more time for my children to write about what interests them or about their passion or real life events? Indeed, Donald Graves (1985) notes that:

All children have important experiences and interests they can learn to tap through writing. If children are to become independent learners, we have to help them know what they know; this process begins with helping children to choose their own topics.

I also wrote lots of film reviews – I was at the age where I was beginning to go to the cinema more and loved reading and writing film reviews. For me writing about a real event that was entirely mine, that I was an expert on and writing it in the style of my own choosing was the opportunity I needed to begin to write.

Who’s it for?

“For whom, it suddenly occurred to him to wonder, was he writing this diary? For the future, for the unborn? For the first time the magnitude of what he had undertaken came home to him. How could you communicate with the future? It was of its nature impossible. Either the future would resemble the present, in which case it would not listen to him: or it would be different from it, and his predicament would be meaningless…” (George Orwell ‘1984’)

Perhaps another reason why it took me so long to write in my diary was my lack of understanding about its purpose. Would my brother really read it? How embarrassing if he did! What would someone think if they picked it up? Would they be able to read my handwriting? Would I have to write in it every day? What if I had nothing interesting to say?

diary 3However, after that first story, the more I wrote, the better I became and the more selfish I became. Sometimes I wanted to write neatly, to savour the physical act of writing and enjoying the chance to see my handwriting improve. But I also began to realise that these diaries were for me and about me. It didn’t matter that my handwriting was scruffy, it didn’t matter that my spelling was often incorrect, it didn’t matter if I darted from one topic to the next without any cohesion (much like this blog!).  Usually I wrote in my diary every day, sometimes (if we had been on holiday, for example) long stretches went by without me writing. My preoccupation with my handwriting ceased entirely in my teenage years. I was often writing in a hurry, fuelled by anger. What mattered was getting my thoughts and emotions down and not the neatness of my handwriting.

Indeed, the National Literacy Trust’s research ‘Children and Young People’s Diary Writing in 2015’ found that nearly half (46.8%) of the children interviewed said they do write something in their free time and that they don’t share it with anyone else. In a world where we can sometimes mistakenly feel that our worth depends on the number of followers or ‘likes’ we acquire, there is something uplifting and liberating about writing for yourself and no one else. Encouraging children to write for themselves, without fear of having their work marked or commented on or given ‘a next step’ is vital if we want to inspire our children to enjoy writing and to write for pleasure.

Illustrations

diary 4Drawing, doodling and illustrating my diaries was an incredibly important part of the process. I often experimented with new stationery, stamps, stickers and different styles of drawings. Sometimes I would draw in the style of an illustrator and sometimes I would illustrate original accompaniments to sit alongside my own words. My drawings often reflected my mood too – sometimes colourful and full of cartoonish glee and at other times moody and sullen. Poring over my childish drawings once again has reminded me that drawing and illustrating is a huge part of writing and makes me wonder how often I allow the children in my class to draw as a way to create settings and characters before they write. Do I give them enough of a chance to illustrate their writing afterwards and bring their words to life? CLPE’s ‘Power of Pictures’ project (2017) has some very interesting key findings about the importance and impact of drawing and sketching as a tool for expression and creativity. It was certainly a vital part of my writing journey.

The impact of reading and vocabulary

Now I have mentioned in a previous blog that as a child I hated reading. I had no interest in it at all. I could do it, but didn’t see the point of it at all. Indeed, (Woods, 2001) states that whilst reading can inspire and motivate, it can also have a negative effect:

“Reading that is forced on you in a mechanistic way and formally assessed may have the reverse effect, the major purpose becoming pleasing the teacher and passing tests, and a preoccupation with form rather than substance.”

Reading was certainly something that was forced on me up until Year 6 and I hated it. However, recently, as I leafed through my diaries it became quite clear again just how important reading was in inspiring me to write. Teresa Cremin has written extensively about the importance of reading for pleasure (2007, 2012) and its impact.

I was very lucky in Year 6 that I had a teacher who loved reading and read to us every day. At the start of my diary writing, I think I had pretty much given up on reading and certainly didn’t read for pleasure. It was a chore to read to an adult I didn’t like and revolved entirely around the dreary exploits of Jennifer Yellow Hat. However, my Year 6 teacher, Mrs Perry, read to us every day and allowed new words, characters and stories to wash over us. No questions asked. No written comprehensions to answer. She definitely adhered to the Mrs Phelps’ school of reading:

“A fine writer will always make you feel that,” Mrs Phelps said. “And don’t worry about the bits you can’t understand. Sit back and allow the words to wash around you, like music.” (Matilda by Roald Dahl)

diary 5I began in my diary to keep a note of all the new words that had washed around me. As well as language I’d heard from being read to, I also recorded words that I heard when listening songs. What did they mean? How could I use them?

And this was why reading to me every day was so important – it allowed me to access vocabulary I would never have experienced in my own mindless, phonics driven books. It also allowed me to enjoy books and I still remember to this day laughing hysterically during Mrs Perry’s dramatic reading of Rebecca’s World by Terry Nation.

Mrs Perry also spent an awful lot of time recommending books to me. I was initially hesitant to read what she recommended, convinced it would be too difficult or would take up too much time. So Mrs Perry let me read every Roald Dahl book and every Super Gran book in the classroom. She didn’t push me to read ‘more challenging’ or ‘more interesting’ books. Gradually I became more confident and I began to step outside my reading comfort zone and try new books – the cartoonist and writer Gene Luen Yang calls this ‘reading without walls’. Tentatively, I began to read the books recommended to me and spent hours exploring our local library. There I was free to browse, pick up and put down books and explore this new world without any pressure at all.

My diary writing began to change. I began to use all the new words I had heard and didn’t let spelling bother me. Instead I wrote out the word and underlined it as a reminder to myself that perhaps I needed to find out how to spell that particular word in ‘the real world’.

I began writing short stories and imitating the authors I had read. I created my own ridiculous characters, wrote about them, drew pictures of them and became immersed in their world. Of course, all of this was sub-conscious – I was not aware of the impact reading and learning new vocabulary was having on my writing. As an adult, I can now look back through my diaries and see the style of my writing change from very simplistic, basic sentence structures containing limited vocabulary to more complex sentences with a wider range of daring vocabulary and ideas. For example, after reading the Supergran series, I began to write short adventure stories where I saved the day with almost superhero strength. After reading ‘Old Mali and the Boy’ by D.R Sherman in Year 8 or 9, I was inspired by the story’s main relationship and the tender way in which it is handled. Soon after I gave a name to my diary: Mali.

The importance of reading as a gateway into writing has long been documented, researched and discussed. Moore (1995) found a high correlation between good readers and good writers and vice versa. Langer & Flihan (2000) also state that “reading like a writer allows one to actually become a writer”. Certainly the impact of reading and enjoying books can be seen in my own diary writing and reminds me as a teacher how important it is that I continue to champion reading for pleasure and that, just like Mrs Perry, I am able to recommend a wide variety of engaging, challenging, life-affirming books for my children that reflect their experiences and build their ability to empathise with others.

Grief and loss

“Writing seems to help the brain regulate emotion unintentionally. Whether it’s writing things down in a diary, writing bad poetry, or making up song lyrics that should never be played on the radio, it seems to help people emotionally,” (Dr  Matthew Lieberman, 2009)

My teenage diaries are agonisingly personal. As I got older, my diaries certainly began to change shape and form – and drastically too. They became messier, written in fragmented note form and ‘text speak’. I often wrote with such force and anger that the pages became scored and crumpled. They now dealt with typical teenage issues – I no longer recorded stories of missing hamsters or film reviews. I wrote about feeling fat and unattractive, the woes of being single, feuds and arguments with friends, the embarrassment of crushes, anxieties over going to parties, ever changing friendship groups and of coming out. Writing a diary also allowed me to reflect upon some upsetting times in my life – the death of my Granddads, my mum’s breast cancer, my struggle with depression and being physically, verbally and mentally bullied at school.

In Orwell’s ‘1984’, the act of writing a diary is illegal. Diary writing is a form of self-expression, a ‘ThoughtCrime’ banned by the state. At a time when my very self was being eroded through a daily onslaught of bullying and a school system that did not acknowledge the presence of a very toxic, deep seated homophobia, diary writing became an almost rebellious act. Throughout most days at school I would be told that I was disgusting and should fancy girls and I would be spat at, tripped over and hit. However, those in power and supposedly charged with looking after me would tell me that I was not being bullied and just to get on with it. I would be told that I was unworthy and that who I was was unacceptable. I was very scared and I was very alone.

But I could still write. Writing became a transformational tool for resisting what was happening to me – in my own private space I could still create and write and dream and hope. I think writing a diary also gave voice to my feelings – it reassured me that, when everyone else seemed to be ignoring what was happening to me and I was too ashamed to tell my parents, that it had actually happened. I wasn’t dreaming it. I had written proof, there in front of me of just what exactly was happening to me and what I was being subjected to.

Writing made me feel better and enabled me to express my anxious feelings. Indeed, Professor James Pennebaker (author of Opening Up by Writing it Down) has carried out a wide body of research into the health benefits of writing a diary. His research indicates that recording your feelings and reflections can help battle depression and also strengthen the immune system. During this time I wrote ferociously and constantly. Perhaps I hoped that my brother would read my diary this time and save me from what was going on. I don’t know. But writing certainly offered some sort of outlet; a way of documenting and making sense of a brutal, senseless, frightening time.

Finding a voice

“When we translate an experience into language we essentially make the experience graspable.” (Dr James Pennebaker, 2010)

The benefits of writing a diary are indeed numerous. Keeping a diary can improve your memory and communication skills, help you focus and achieve goals, unlock creativity and help you make sense of traumatic experiences.

In addition to this, data collected by the National Literacy Trust suggests that pupils who keep a diary are almost twice as likely (27.1%) to be writing above age related expectations as those who do not (15.5%).

But beyond this, diaries undoubtedly also offer a platform for expression – they allow you to record your thoughts and feelings and make sense of the battles you face every day. They allow you to experiment and find a voice and practise writing, without fear, until you are fluent. In an interview with the BBC, the children’s author Jacqueline Wilson said that keeping a diary ‘increases your fluency and helps you become more comfortable at expressing yourself’ (2016).

Diaries can help you make sense of the big things and also rejoice in and savour the little things – delicious meals, first kisses, captivating books and trips away. For me, they offered a way to make sense of a difficult time. They allowed me to create, explore and delight in the written word. They gave me a chance to remember and cherish important people. They galvanised my thoughts and gave me focus. Looking back on them has also offered me a rare chance to relive and review many experiences that I had previously forgotten or blocked from my mind. It’s reminded me of my strength and that, despite everything, I’m still here.

So, what started as a simple story about a missing hamster has turned into something else entirely. That first recount was the gateway to writing I so desperately needed. It offered me the chance in later years and in times of devastating depression and illness to take some control, to understand what was happening to me, to think and reflect and shape my own narrative through the written word.

As a teacher I will continue to reflect upon the process of writing and keeping a diary and how it can help me in the teaching of reading and writing. I will certainly encourage the children in my class to keep their own diaries so that they too can use them to construct their own identities and hopefully, one day, look back on the journey with  with fondness, relishing the chance to explore their past.

Finally, I am pleased to say that I found my Granddad’s cufflinks and, rather tearily, wore them on our wedding day. They were nestled dustily in the bottom of the vediary 6ry box that contained my diaries; a box full of unexpected treasures and memories that had sat waiting for me for all those years.

 

diary 7

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

by Ian Eagleton, @ieconsultancy

 

 

Further reading

1984 (1949) by Orwell, G

All Children Can Write (1985) by Graves, D

Children’s and Young People’s Diary Writing in 2015 (November, 2016) by National Literacy Trust

Creative literacy (2001) by Woods, P

Creative Teachers in Primary Schools (1995) by Woods, P

Keeping a diary makes you happier (2009) by Sample, I

Old Mali and the Boy (1964) by Sherman, D.R

Rebecca’s World (1975) by Nation, T

Revisiting reading for pleasure: diversity, delight and desire (2007) by Cremin, T

Power of Pictures Project (2017), CLPE

Supergran (1980), Wilson, F

Writing to Heal: A Guided Journal for Recovering from Trauma and Emotional Upheaval (2010) by Pennebaker, J

Writing and Reading Relationships: Constructive Tasks (2000) by Langer, J and Flihan, S

Writing Voices: Creating Communities of Writers (2012) by Cremin, T and Myhil, D

 

 

One Comment Add yours

  1. Liz says:

    Absolutely captivating reading, Ian. Such a lovely insight into your life’s journey in reading and writing. Thank you for sharing 💙.

    Like

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