Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Bill Michalek: The Page is a Listener

I am going to start with a confession: I am not a writer.

I hear the word “writer”, and I equate it with “author”, meaning someone who has worked hard at developing their craft and, as a result, has their name on the cover of a book in a bookstore somewhere. That is not me. I have spent twenty-one years filling notebooks with writing, so I must be some sort of writer, but to call myself one seems a little too generous.

All My Notebooks (That I Could Find)

Maybe it’s my inner critic, the voice in my head, whispering, “You’re a fraud. The only books you’ve written are the incomplete kind.” (Is everyone’s critic as mean as mine?) Even as I write these words, the voice speaks to me again. I stopped writing a moment ago to pull out the notebook in the upper left corner of the above picture (the oldest notebook of mine I could find) to look at the date of the first entry (1991).  I wanted to figure out how long I’ve spent writing in notebooks so I could write the third sentence in this paragraph, and the voice spoke up to say, “Twenty-one years, huh? You should have been able to fill up more notebooks than that.” Man, I hate that voice.

The critic is tough, and it reared its head as I wrote this post. I tried to silence it by scanning through the other posts on this blog, to get an idea of what others shared and how they did it. It appears that most of the writers presented here use their notebooks to brainstorm, to flesh out, and to do sundry things with writing ideas. My notebooks rarely get used for such things.

They have two chief purposes:
1. Nature Journaling
2. Therapy 

My nature journaling is rooted in my fascination with natural history and my career as a naturalist. I was made to keep a nature journal as part of an undergraduate Field Ecology class, and I never stopped. To record my sightings and questions about the wildlife I find in any given place leaves me with a connection to that place. I see species in one place that I’ve found in another, and it’s as if I’m meeting an old friend. There are times that it’s hard to work up the motivation to stop a hike and take out my journal, to sit down and figure out what this wildflower is or what that butterfly might be, but I’m always glad when I’ve done it.

A Nature Journal Page on which I Took the Time to Make Sketches

Usually, My Nature Journaling Pages Look More Like This…
No sketches – mostly notes of what species are present, 
general field notes (what’s in flower or in seed, animal behaviors), 
and any questions that come to mind.

When I get back home after nature journaling in the field, I usually use my entries to guide my research into the species that I find. I try to answer questions like, “What was this plant used for in the past? What are its adaptations? How does it fit in to the habitat around it?” In the end, I try to get to know the stories that a certain plant or animal has to tell, to learn stories that I can share when I’m leading a group of children or adults through a natural area.  

The most important part of the process, though, is journaling in the field. I know that the act of filtering that information through my eyes and out through my pen or pencil, of getting it down on the page, helps me remember the nuances of a certain leaf, flower, or animal. It focuses and draws my attention to subtle details, conscious and unconsciously. 

It wasn’t until I started nature journaling that I realized that the striking yellows and purples of the dandelions and violets in spring are perfectly repeated in the fall with goldenrods and asters. It wasn’t until I sat down and tried to draw a katydid perched on a leaf that I discovered their habit of swaying – every so gently – back and forth - in order to mimic the swaying of a leaf. It wasn’t until I’d spent many sessions sketching red oak trees that I realized I’d learned how to ID them by sight.

Now, let’s talk about notebooks as therapy.

I was an extremely cautious child. I saw anything new or dangerous as something to avoid. I tried neither Chinese food nor roller coasters until I was well into my teens. As I got older, I overcame this tendency to a degree, but the cautiousness still manifests itself most in communicating with others. I take the adage “think before you speak” to heart in speaking and in writing. Even today, except for my closest friends, I say very little in conversations because I turn every phrase over and over in my head before unleashing it out into the world. This habit makes writing a lengthy process for me. If it’s something that will be viewed by the general public, such as this post, then every sentence is scrutinized, edited, scrutinized again, scrapped, and rewritten. That last sentence you just read? It took no less than fifteen tries before I arrived at something I could live with, and I’ll probably change it again on my final edit.

So at the end of the day (or often at the beginning of it), I try to find time to sit down and just write, and it releases a pressure valve. I write without having to weigh the consequences of my words. Unlike my spoken life, I write without having to find just the right phrasing. I let words come out without worrying that they will be something I might regret. The page is a listener without feeling or judgment. Sometimes the writing is gibberish. Sometimes it’s all lies. Sometimes it might be sentences full of whining and my petty jealousies, but usually, it’s just a record of the day, a rundown of events mundane and otherwise. If I’m feeling creative, I may add a sketch or two. I try not to put pressure on myself to set rules in my notebook, but entries that include a sketch will often bring more enjoyment than those without one.

I suppose that sort of writing falls more under diary-type writing, and since that type of writing makes up most of what is on the pages of my notebook, that might be the reason I fell disingenuous calling myself a writer. But it’s a silly distinction to worry about.

Looking back at the diary-type entries becomes more and more valuable the older they get. Looking back at yesterday’s entry or last week’s entry doesn’t offer much enjoyment – the content is too fresh, but let months or years go by, and those entries are time machines. Our memories are such fickle constructions – the blank spaces get bigger with each passing day, we remember things incorrectly, and the emotions of a moment can be dulled or disappear altogether. Looking back at a notebook entry from five, ten, or fifteen years ago is like pulling back the curtain of forgetfulness that inevitably settles over most of our memories. 

It brings to mind the words, “The book was better than the movie.” It’s a phrase that’s hard to argue with because it is almost always true. How can any movie’s budget, no matter how inflated, compete with the immediate, limitless creativity of our own imaginations? A movie requires less mental effort on our part, but the payoff pales when compared to what we can create in your own heads. That’s why I’m taking the idea one step further and saying this: “The notebook version is better than the video/photo.” I have stacks of photos in bins under my bed, some of them decades old, displaying yellowed images of my parents and grandparents as adolescents or toddlers. I have VHS tapes of me goofing around with high school friends in my basement and a hard drive full of videos from my daughter’s first year, but none of those things compares to the entries I have in my notebooks. Looking at pictures and watching videos is a wonderful way to open a window to the past, but when I read through an old notebook entry, I not only have access to the visuals, but the words on the page also provide the often-forgotten, internal stories. I know just what I did and how I felt the first time I was dumped, and exactly what I was thinking when I found out that my wife was pregnant.

In this age in which we’re obsessed with documenting everything, it seems funny to say, but so very true: Whether you consider yourself a writer or not, the best method for capturing a moment is still a pencil, a blank page, and a little effort. 

Bill Michalek is a second grade teacher in the Iroquois Central School District and a lecturer at UB in the Environmental Studies Program. Prior to that he was director and naturalist at the Buffalo Audubon Society's Beaver Meadow Audubon Center, and he got his start as a naturalist teaching with Earth Spirit. He continues to volunteer with the Buffalo Audubon Society, conducting field programs and bird banding research. In addition, Bill blogged his daughter Violet's first year of life from 2010-2011 at Daddled.  He is currently writing a book of natural history hikes in Western NY.

In honor of Bill's interest in and close attention to nature, I (Amy) will give away one of his favorite books - SHARING NATURE WITH CHILDREN by Joseph Cornell - to one commenter on this post.  Please leave your comment by Tuesday, August 28 to be entered in the drawing!  Then, just return here on that date or check The Poem Farm Facebook Page to find out if you won.


  1. "Looking back at a notebook entry from five, ten, or fifteen years ago is like pulling back the curtain of forgetfulness that inevitably settles over most of our memories." This is a beautiful thought that resonates with me! I love to go back and reread old journals and diaries. Bill is so right about reading those memories rather than simply looking at/watching them. Although I love to reminisce by browsing through baby books and scrapbooks, nothing can compare to reading entries from the journals I kept from my children's first years of life!

  2. I definitely journal for therapy, for meditation and prayer, and to keep all of the "gibberish" from making my husband go cross-eyed listening to me. I love his sketches. I really need to draw more.

  3. I know that inner critic...it comes to me when I'm at my worst, usually. It discourages me, tells me I'm no good. Journalling defenitely helps me to make sense of things around me. I reflect, analyze....etc. At this moment (having a holiday) I try to write more stories (the real stuff...my inner critic says..and I suck at it) and I neglect my diary a little. Feelings of frustration. I simply HAVE to write to survive in this world.

  4. Bill, what a treat it is to get a peek inside the teacher I thought I knew! Thanks for sharing your sensitive thoughts! I can't believe your inner critic is that loud! I hope the voice of at least this fan is louder....I think you ARE a writer, a fresh, engaging one at that! Keep filling those notebooks!

  5. I've been reading one of Katy Wood Ray's books today about teaching children writing through pictures and so much of what you have written resonates with what I have been reading. Drawing SO helps us tell our stories and is an important form of communication. You have to work on silencing that inner critic since you most certainly are a writer and your words are important!

  6. "real" writer or not I loved reading this. :)
    My notebooks are for whatever topic i'm interested at the moment as well as for documenting everyday life.. I don't really write out events in "dear diary" fashion, but I tend to write down things friends & family say as well as snippets of conversations... things that would get lost & forgotten.

  7. Bill, and other notebook readers - I love the dual purpose found here –-- for perception and reflection (looking out and looking in). I especially value your comments on the inner critic and the perfectionist editor, because I have such a time with mine!

    In _poemcrazy_ by Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge, http://www.susanwooldridge.com/, Wooldridge comments on the meaning of the journals she has kept since high school, when a memorable teacher inspired that door to awareness and shadows as a daily practice. She says, "All these years later the journal is still my entrance. It seems dark the way a grove in the woods is dark. It's cool, safe, private, wide, and free. It's green. In it there are iridescent beetles, wild roses, emus and other strange but real creatures, like me. All I needed to begin writing was freedom and white pages hiding in the dark of two covers."

    I also love the way teachers are found everywhere, and carry the message of what it is to live – our best life. Writers are all teachers, carrying this message across space and time through the written -- and electronic! -- word. Second graders are just at the beginning of their discoveries beyond and within themselves through language. What a benefit for your students to have a teacher with such awareness of the process.

    (Don't ask through how many edits this post went!)


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