"I can't think without a pen in my hand!" - Me

"I can't think without a pen in my hand!" - Me

A Friendly Guide to Navigating this BLOG

If you have visited this blog before, you will notice I've made some changes. A Pen in My Hand is going to be dedicated to lighthearted anecdotes and whatever else I feel like writing. I have started another blog for topics that are more serious/spiritual in nature. See the link in the sidebar to visit that blog.

I sincerely hope you find something here worth reading; but if not, take heart. There are about six billion other blogs out there to choose from.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

A Tale of Two Siblings


"What is it, Addy? What do you want to say?"

The big brown eyes just got bigger as the little boy in the booster seat struggled to start his sentence. After about a five-second wait time, the conversations around the dinner table resumed; and whatever Addy had to say was drowned out by the louder and more insistent voices of his four older siblings.

"I'm really concerned about Adam's stuttering," our mom said one day.

"I think he's stuttering because he can't fit a word in edgewise in this family!" I said. "He is so nervous about  getting his words out before we stop listening to him that it's no wonder he stutters. Maybe if we stopped talking and just looked him in the eyes and listened when he talked, he'd stop stuttering."

It was a moment of sheer inspiration, and the reason I relate it is because I would love to take credit for unleashing the verbal expressiveness of my baby brother. My rational self knows that this is not the case, but indulge me…

As soon as the family implemented this eye-contact-with-no-interruptions policy, the stutter disappeared and Adam began talking with a vengeance. He not only talked to us, but he talked to himself. He talked almost constantly.  And most of what he said was in stories. He talked about "Big John Wayne" who lived in our back yard. He stretched our patience policy to the limits by weaving endless imaginative yarns. By the time that he was six or seven, he was writing Westerns and morality tales of all sorts. In the early years, he wrote with utter seriousness. But as he grew older, his story telling became much more imaginative -- even a bit crazy.

When he was ten, he shared a bedroom with his older brother Matt. As they lay in bed at night, they'd create stories together. Completely ad-lib and on the spot, they'd spin strings of dialogue that, when they related them to us later, would have us wetting ourselves with laughter.

Adam was homeschooled. When he was in seventh grade, he and I started meeting regularly for literature and writing classes. Among other things, we studied Great Expectations together and wrote numerous stories and essays. It was clear that though we were sixteen years apart in age, we were kindred spirits in many ways. We both loved a good story, and writing was in our blood.

Eventually Adam grew up, and we found ourselves interacting as peers. We shared our writing with each other, providing feedback on each other's work. We shared an obsession with old fashioned typewriters and with new-fangled technology. And, ironically, we both started college.

I had taken twenty years off from my education to have my five kids. But now, as I prepared to go back, I found the roles reversed. Adam was blazing the trail. He got his bachelor's degree one year before I did, and now he is a year into the graduate school program that I am just applying to.

So much has changed over the past two decades, but at the same time very little has changed. Adam is no longer a toddler who stutters. He is a budding novelist and short story writer. But we still love to read and write and share our ideas. We are also shameless members of each other's "Mutual Admiration Society."

We fantasize about teaching English at the same college one day, but for now we write together for a little fiction blog. If you care to check it out, go to zobelgrahams.blogspot.com and see what it looks like when a brother and sister who love writing together just have fun!!

Friday, March 16, 2012

A Plea to Ruin Books

Over the years I have met with high school students on a regular basis for instruction and "encouragement" in literature and writing. (I use the term "encouragement" because some don't need to be taught anything, really; they just need direction and prodding to stretch them in the kinds of things that they read and write about.)

Generally, I loan my students copies of my books and they return them to me when they are finished with them. From time to time over the years I've had a student who, instead of returning my book to me, would offer me cash -- apologetically explaining that they had "ruined" my book by highlighting and underlining all throughout it. When a student tells me that they have thus ruined one of my books, I give them a hug or a handshake and tell them that my work is complete. They have become "intelligent readers."

Last week one of my current students returned a book to me. I flipped through the pages, noting that they were as clean as new-fallen snow. I thought to myself, "This has got to stop!"

I went to my shelf and pulled off a book and showed it to her. She was aghast as I flipped through the pages. It looked as if a toddler -- no, a band of toddlers -- had gotten hold of it! Pink highlighter, pen scribbles in the margins, underlining everywhere, pages turned down, and sticky note flags splaying out from the edges in every direction. "Now THAT is a well-read book," I told her.

Perhaps it is because she is the oldest of several children, and she is programmed to think in "hand me down" terms. But this student had never written in a book in her life. As I handed her a clean copy of the book I had just shown her, with the command to  ruin it before she returned it, she almost asked me for a note to her mother to prove that this assignment was real.

Am I off base here? Is annotating a book (a fancy term for marking it up like crazy) simply the wonton destruction of property -- or is it (as I would argue) an important step in the process of becoming an intelligent reader? Margin scribbling has been a vital part of my self-education., but it's also more than that.  "A pen in my hand" is  more than  a catchy name for my blog. It's a way of life. Whether I am reading or shopping or listening to a the radio or in a class or driving down the road, I have the constant need to respond to what is going on around me. I have to make notes, write things down, capture thoughts, record questions. The absence of pen or paper to me is what duct tape over the mouth would be to some. It produces a feeling akin to panic. (I have actually been known to write on my steering wheel when paper was not available in my car. Thankfully, airbags make a nice large writing surface!)

I know that not everyone is like me in this way. Some people can go a whole day without writing anything down, and I guess that's OK. But when it comes to reading books, I would defend my belief that a pen in the hand is nearly as important as a lamp in the room. Just as light focuses the eyes, a pen focuses the mind. It forces the reader to ask the questions, "What is important here? What do I think about this? What do I agree with? What do I question? What do I want to know more about? What ideas do I want to keep track of so I can share them with someone else?"

Mid-week I got an exasperated email from my student asking, "Are you SURE you want me to ruin a perfectly good book?" I could picture her, highlighter hovering uncertainly over the page, battling her instincts. The mental image made me smile -- not because it was amusing to think of her stressing out over this assignment (although that thought did amuse me) but because I knew that this moment was far more important to her than she realized.

It would grieve me to see this generation grow up ignorant of the art of intelligent reading. So, (sorry, parents) as long as I am teaching, I will continue to pass along to my students my motto -- which is simply this:
Any book worth reading is worth ruining!