Let’s get personal.

Koi at St. John's. Photo by Cheri Block Sabraw. All Rights Reserved. 2009

by cheri block sabraw

Good Evening.


My name is Mrs. Sabraw. We are going to be working together during the next three months to improve your writing.


How many of you like to write?

Two hands out of eight go up.

Oh wow. What am I to make of this response?


[Not much.]

When do you  care the most about the quality of your writing?

[Now I point at students and ask their opinions.]

When the teacher has heavily weighted the paper and I need an A.
When someone I care about is going to read it.
When it is going into the newspaper.

Oh, I see. What do all of these ideas have in common?

Someone else will read my words.

Are you talking about an audience?

So are you saying that unless there is an audience, the writing won’t be as effective as if there were a teacher, a boyfriend, or the junior class reading your words?

[Students nod in agreement.]

What about a diary, a compendium of daily entries about what’s going on in your life? Would a diary by its nature…an audience of one…have the best writing? Or do we need a bigger audience?

Let me tell you a story about a teenage girl who wrote every day for five years in her diary and then lost the small book on a BART train.

I happened to find this diary under the seat while on my way to Berkeley one day.

The faded gold words, My Diary, sat stoically in the middle of the cover.

The navy blue book, its cherished contents locked and protected with a tiny fastener that looked like a small belt, felt warm in my hands.  Click. The clasp opened dutifully and the private life of a 16 year old was about to be revealed.

I felt like a snoop.
A peeping Tomasina.
A voyeuristic sicko.

I told myself that I had opened this treasure trove of heartache, sexuality, rage, and idealism because I was looking for its owner, for a phone number, an address.

No one expects to lose her diary. I know that Hannah didn’t.

Did you read the whole thing?

Yes, I did.

And then what did you do?

I locked it in my safe at home where it has been resting for ten years until this moment. I have it in my purse. Would you like to hear the first entry? The author was 13 years old, flat as a pancake, and worried about her shape.

The apathy of the group was gone.
Heartbeats increased.
The room heated.
The several girls murmured, No!
The boys shrugged. It was getting late.

I tell you what. How about for next week you write the first entry.

About Cheri

Writer, artist, cable television host, grandmother to four!
This entry was posted in Writing and Teaching and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Let’s get personal.

  1. Christopher says:

    It used to be that girls (or at least some) were attracted to boys who wrote well, particularly poetry.

    I suspect this is no longer the case, else most boys would be practicing assiduously their writing, the better to write the exquisite e-mails to girls which set their hearts aflutter.

    Absent a reversion of the Zeitgeist to how it was, you may have your work cut out to instill in your charges a passion for the written word.

  2. Cheri says:

    You are spot on, Christopher.

    Cyrano, these boys are not.

  3. andreaskluth says:

    That’s a genius way of getting them into it. A pedagogic master-stroke, I would say.

    Will you ask them for permission to publish some of these “first entries”?

  4. Cheri says:

    This lesson works well in helping young writers understand how an audience of one (self) and an audience of one (boyfriend) and an audience of one ( The Queen) can be so different.

    I’m off until the end of September; this blogpost is one of my lessons.No students 😦 but also no papers 🙂

  5. Glorybelle says:

    I have to admit that if I were one of the students in the class, I would’ve wanted to hear the first entry!

    What is it about the real (and private) lives of others that is so interesting?

    I remember you once said something like the best writers are the ones who present their real lives/experiences as fiction. I know I’m misquoting you, but I can see how that would be true!

    Off topic… it’s been a busy summer and I JUST started reading The Scarlett Letter. It is so different than I remembered, but the last time I read it I was a teenager. 🙂 I can tell already that my understanding of it is very different from when I was 14 or 15. I can’t wait to read the entire book!

  6. Chourou says:

    Sounds exciting! I came to desperately want to be your student!

    True stories are so powerful. Paul Auster might know well that, as publishing “True Stories” .

  7. Douglas says:

    Interesting. My first response was that I am my own worst critic. So the quality must pass my muster first and foremost. As bad as much of my stuff is, what I reject is atrocious.

    My second thought was that it must be difficult to get teens interested in creative writing in these days of texting… wut u thk?

  8. Cheri says:

    Hi Douglas,
    Your second point goes both ways: some kids are dying to go creative, after years of formulaic blather and expository suppositories up the ying yang; others, can’t get away from texting.
    Remember this entry?

  9. Douglas says:

    Ah yes, tis true. But it started long ago. The people who put you on hold to take another call was preceded by the salesclerk who took a call while serving you, the in store customer, who was later succeeded by the cellphone carrier who interrupted your lunch with him/her to answer and chat with a caller.

    Rudeness is the natural state of human behavior, we are taught manners.

  10. Jag says:

    One of the few joys of texting (and twittering) is the resurgence in popularity of tis and thy.
    To thy own text be true.

  11. Deborah Bernard says:

    I’m going to use this if you don’t mind! What a hook for personal narrative writing! Brilliant!

  12. Cheri says:

    Well, stretching and arching and pulling and pushing to draw out that real soul can be a tuffy.

    Go for it!

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