Don't sell short the power of the pen

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 March, 2015, 6:07am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 March, 2015, 6:07am

In advocating literacy, we have mostly discussed the importance of reading aloud with children. But there's a second part we haven't addressed as deeply: writing.

Writing is powerful. Consider this: history happens, but the one who writes it down becomes the arbiter of its future understanding. The writer shapes public opinion, provides context, persuades and inspires. We would know virtually nothing of the past were it not for writers. Time changes everything, but in books, it will always look as the writer wishes.

Writing has to be nurtured. Like reading, writing instruction in Hong Kong sometimes unintentionally prioritises performance over pleasure and the need to develop a deeper insight into the world. Learning to write is so much more than cultivating beautiful handwriting and perfect spelling. In fact, those skills are somewhat beside the point.

The process can be therapeutic for teenagers who are trying to figure out who they are and what they believe. It allows one to express frustration, to explore connections and relationships and to develop consciousness. Writing works only when it is truthful and honest, and the process itself often helps the writer determine what they think about a topic.

Deborah Wiles, an award-winning American author of children's books, spent nearly two weeks in Hong Kong working with students and teachers at both Hong Kong International School and Chinese International School this month. She demonstrated how fiction can convey ideas, inform and convince as powerfully as non-fiction. "Think of the power you have if you hold the pen," she says. People become what you can imagine. For example, three crotchety aunties who had always reminded Wiles of chickens feature prominently as such in her award-winning book, Love, Ruby Lavender.

Wiles' books are deeply personal, but you wouldn't necessarily know it, as the creative and fanciful stories are every bit as imaginative as pure fiction. Her history takes the form of young adult fiction, picture books and what she calls a documentary novel.

"I write so I can say I was here, so I can find like-minded souls to share the road with," Wiles says. "You must tell the whole story of your whole life with your whole heart because that is how we create life."

Writing is about paying attention, making connections and asking questions. It helped Wiles through the grieving process during a particularly difficult year. "I learned to carry my grief. You do not ever get rid of it, but you learn to carry it," she says.

The good news is that, in one form or another, we are all writers. We write every day. Emails, term papers, business communications, thank-you notes and the occasional one-off essay, we write to communicate, to persuade, to express gratitude and to inform.

In a column in The New Yorker magazine this month, acclaimed author Andrew Solomon wrote, "What I'd really like, in fact, is to be young and middle-aged, and perhaps even very old, all at the same time - and to be dark- and fair-skinned, deaf and hearing, gay and straight, male and female. I can't do that in life, but I can do it in writing, and so can you. Never forget that the truest luxury is imagination, and that being a writer gives you the leeway to exploit all of the imagination's curious intricacies to be what you were, what you are, what you will be."

Creative writing is as important a skill to cultivate in adolescence as are all the traditional communications and persuasive tools. Parents, your child's fanciful stories are a path to one of life's most essential skills and must be nurtured and celebrated.

Gweneth Rehnborg is a board member of Bring Me a Book Hong Kong a leading advocate for family literacy