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Get Ahead Kids - Vol. 3, No. 3 - May/June 2011

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Value of Writing as a Form of Communication & Expression

By June Alexander

Besides providing pleasure and fulfilment, the written word can be a companion and a therapy. At every age, it can help make sense of our thoughts when we feel misunderstood, and fill us with a gratifying sense of accomplishment.

My love of the written word began when I was three. My earliest memory is of sitting cross-legged on the linoleum-covered kitchen floor of my parents' farmhouse, turning the pages of the daily newspaper and thinking: 'When I grow up I will read every word on every page'. Even the tiny print in the Birth and Death columns.

Words were fascinating. They were full of promise and possibilities. They could describe and express, reveal and reflect. Their shape, their look, big words, little words, the way they could mix and match to mean and convey different things - was mesmerising. They were friendly. They were also an escape and helped me make sense of a sometimes-confusing world.

They connected with me and when I wrote them, they belonged to me.

When given a small, soft-covered diary for my 12th birthday, this little book with blank pages quickly became my best friend. I have kept a diary every year since - and I am a grandmother now.

The process of setting aside time each day to write was important for, although not aware of this at the time, it helped me stay alive. I experienced mental illness from childhood and often felt isolated from others. Low self-esteem meant I had difficulty expressing myself verbally. My diary was a trusted friend, providing a vital link with at times a tiny thread of self. The written word provided assurance that a part of me was okay.

Initially, entries were mostly matter-of-fact observations. I collected 10 eggs from the chooks, and got nine out of 10 for an English test. Expression of emotion - happy or sad - was rare. As I entered adolescence, observations and reflections began to reflect my feelings. The word 'depression' was entered at age 15.

Many years on, when I summoned the courage to read my journals and write my memoir, A Girl Called Tim, I was rewarded with a heightened understanding of self, of the influences and environment that shaped my childhood. This was liberating in moving forward with my present. For decades my life had seemed like a jigsaw puzzle - there were pieces missing. My diary contained clues to help heal and fill those gaps.

At any age, writing is rewarding. A diary or a journal makes an excellent gift. Sometimes if I forget to pack my diary, I write on anything at hand - a serviette, a coaster or piece of scrap paper. It doesn't matter what we write on, or how we write, the main thing is to write.

Writing about one's life is like picking up a stone on a dusty gravel road and shining it to reveal the gem within. I enjoy helping people discover their gems. Holding writing workshops for senior citizens in parts of Victoria ravaged by the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires has been particularly enlightening and rewarding.

Nancy celebrated her 85th birthday by coming along to the first day of an 'I Remember When...' workshop. June, a great grandmother aged 84, caught a bus - she was not going to miss the class for the world.

Sons and daughters of WWI soldiers explore their childhoods, 'of when dad comes home from the war'. There is Norma, whose house was burnt to the ground in the bushfires. She had been a school teacher and loved to write. On Black Saturday, all her written works, together with photographs, were turned to ash. Heroically, two years later, at the age of 80, she has picked up a pen and is writing afresh.

John starts his story at the age of 10 when his dad heard him tapping in time to the music and said: 'I think we have a drummer here'. John describes how his dad made his first drum set, resourcefully using items from around the house. After all, it was during the Great Depression. Fifty years later, John was still playing the drums and giving joy to many people. His descendants, when they pick up his drumsticks one day, won't have to wonder about the man who tapped those sticks. They will be able to read his story.

Sometimes men and women come along to a writing class quite sure they won't write so much as one sentence. 'We haven't done anything special in our life,' they say. Oh yes, they have, and their stories are often the most amazing.

Imagine a Christmas tree before it is decorated with glittering streamers, baubles and twinkling lights. Such is the transformation of 70 and 80 year olds as they share memories, each seemingly sparking a long suppressed but equally exciting memory in the other. They become animated and excited as they relive moment after moment of their childhoods. Our elderly citizens are a treasure trove of social history at its best.

Some of these senior writers left school at age 14 to work on the farm or in a shop. Times were tough back then and they have done little writing since. But with a little encouragement, away they go. They are amazed at the result, as they hold their story and proudly read it to the class. 'I always wanted to do this. I didn't think I could, and now I have.'

Their great grand children will be pleased.

Everyone Has a Story to Tell Checklist

Reflect and create a pen picture of your life. All you need is a pen and paper. Here are some questions to help write your story:

Where were you born & where did you spend your childhood?
What is your favourite childhood memory?
Describe your favourite belonging & explain why it is special.
What path did your adult life take (marriage, family, career, sport, hobby, health or community organisations)?
Describe an event that had a major influence on your life journey.
Describe a person who had a major influence on your life journey - what did you do as a result of this influence?
What has brought you the greatest happiness in life?
Why do you live where you live today?
What do you enjoy most about this current stage of your life?
What wisdom would you like to share with the next generation?

June Alexander writes about the value of writing as a form of communication and expression for everyone from age 5 - 95 years.

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