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  • Writer's pictureCharlene Holkenbrink-Monk

Why I Write

I stood trembling in a library. I gripped the small, blue book tightly. Surveying the entire library, family members were present, awaiting the start of open house night. Mr. M came over, asking if I was ready. My sweaty palms would not budge from the book; I could feel myself sweating, and I quietly whispered, “No.” Barely able to choke out no, I knew there was no way I would be able to share one of the most vulnerable moments of my life with an entire library full of people, all of whom I had never met aside from my own parents and a few of my other 7th grade classmates.

Supportive and understanding, Mr. M shared with the audience that he would read the memoir I had written. In our open genre unit, I had chosen to write about my grandmother, so at that moment, there was no way possible that I would be able to squeak out the words that expressed such deep pain.

Open Genre book, edited & bound by Mr. M, compiling and showcasing his entire 7th-grade pieces.

In Fall 2000, Mr. M bound copies of our short pieces, and 23 years later, I still have mine, reminding me of why I write. For this piece, which I simply titled, Grandma’s Death, I opened with the line, She died of lung cancer.

This was my “hook.” I noted how my grandmother stated while in the hospital, “Well, I’ve lived a good life,” something that rings in my ears still at age 35. I explored resentment, pain, and fear. I talk about heartfelt discussions, watching my grandmother fall in and out of sleep in her hospital bed that was stationed in their living room, and I recollect the moment that we received the urgent message to return a call.

On Thanksgiving Day, November 27, 1997, my grandmother died. In my memoir, I explain how I was “weeping as I ran into my bedroom. I just laid on my bed and cried.” I detailed the visual of my now lifeless grandmother, where I wrote, “There I saw her, so pale, motionless, eyes closed, not breathing, my grandma. I couldn’t believe my grandma was gone.” I detail the emerald, green blanket that they covered her with, and the ways that her son* took a saw to her rings, desperate to get them off her now cold finger.

I captured what I saw during her viewing, when I wrote, “On the viewing, I couldn’t believe how my grandma looked. She was just lying there, in the [casket,] as if she were just sleeping, taking a nap or something. The makeup was a little heavier than what she would usually wear. The clothes she was wearing were the type of clothes that she would wear on church days.” I would later go on in another piece, entitled, Dear to Me, in yet another bound, blue book, to write, “I’ve written about my grandmother’s death, which helped me get out anger and grief. Writing lets me get out issues or problems I have in life, like my grandma for example. Writing lets me observe with more detail on what’s around me… When I think about these, or I do these things, like writing, I feel good about myself.” It was here where I documented how I have liked writing prior, but it was truly in the 7th grade that I developed a deeper love of writing than at any other time in my life.

The intention of this is not necessarily to discuss the important role teachers play, though I would not be doing justice to my life of writing if I did not, at least briefly, make note of this. Mr. M played a significant role in my middle school academic trajectory, and quite honestly, even my life as a teacher. His encouragement and support allowed me to see opportunities and possibilities of writing, how it can shape entirely new worlds, to reflect, express, articulate, grieve, and, as 7th grade Charlene would say, “Have fun.” But instead to explain why I write and what influenced my path in doing so.

Though 7th grade Charlene was not so eloquent, I remember thinking then how important writing was not only to my soul but to the world. It allowed me endless possibilities to imagine a world better than what I was facing. I could run away from struggling relationships with family, I could create situations that helped me admit my feelings to my crush because that wouldn’t happen in real life, I could picture world experiences, moments where I could come out of my shell, or hell, people could fly. Writing was my escape and reimagination.

Eventually, that escape blossomed into a passion, something that nourished my soul, even if it was dark at times. I remember writing a short story in 9th grade for my physics class, though I’m not quite sure what the assignment was. Two women had traveled to another planet. It was overrun with foliage. One of the women had to use a machete, and I can still visualize the scene how I imagined it as 15-year-old Charlene. She led her friend through this mysterious planet until they were quickly attacked and held hostage. The people there were speaking a language they were unsure of, and they were swept off and carried through the leaves and bushes. Later, they do find somebody who can translate for them, but I’ve crafted him as a “neutral” party, though his neutrality was in favor of the “leaders”. The land was difficult and rough, violent, and oppressive. They had minoritized people, separated and segregated them, and pretended as if it was in the name of equity. Except, the “leaders” had stripped people of their options to choose and foster their own paths and experiences. The two women were questioned, and the “leaders” looked down on them, both because they were women and romantic partners. Over the 15 Microsoft Word pages, the two main characters are disgusted, sad, angry, and ready to return to their planet. One of the women, shocked, says, “What the hell kind of planet is this?” unsure of how anybody could create a world like this. The “leader” they had been interacting with chuckles and responds in his own language, at which point, the “neutral” translator smiles with a grin, translating what was just said, “Welcome to Earth.”

This was intentional. I watched a lot of Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock as a kid. At the time, my mother was using drugs (and has been clean and sober for 26 years now.) I would stay up late, worrying about her as there were some nights she wouldn’t come home. While my dad was asleep, I would sometimes creep back out and into the back room. There was a green armchair against the sliding glass door, and with my legs over one arm, and my head leaning on the other, black and white TV would appear on TV Land. I consumed these shows, including other ones like Gilligan’s Island, Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, and a variety of other shows, but few things stood out to me like Twilight Zone. (Though, in hindsight, my first TV crush was the professor on Gilligan’s Island. I find this ironic and hilarious now as a professor.) Twilight Zone, though, allowed me to truly question the world around me.

The Twilight Zone also pushed me to reflect on my own writing. Though it wasn’t until 7th grade that I started writing heavily, my childhood interactions absolutely informed how I thought about the world. Mr. M would introduce us to deep conversations in 7th grade, discussing themes that I would later discuss (and essentially research) around equity. One book that will always stand out to me is Alexander Key’s The Forgotten Door. This book inspired many discussions in our classroom on the importance of equity, but perhaps not in that language. But the ability to see and imagine worlds differently, and to speak against injustices, grabbed me. I wrote a lot after that time.

Later, without going into major detail, I’d go on to write more in high school. Story after story filled my floppy disks, and I can still find stacks of stories lying around in my basement in Illinois or in my keepsake bin. But the commonality in all of these is that I poured my heart into them and they, in turn, helped bring me joy, express frustration, and reimagine the world. Academic research has encouraged similarly for me, and this is why I write.

Something I am writing academically is about the importance of positionality in your research. This is essentially how we are connected to our research, but I also go further and say it’s what informs us, influences us, and motivates us to research. I do believe that part of the hang-up for many PhD candidates (many, not all) is that folks are disconnected from their research. Perhaps influenced by their advisors, colleagues, or what may seem “important” and hot in the field, our positionality is pushed aside, and instead, we cling to the latest data set or research question. This does not mean that we shouldn’t explore possibilities or different avenues, or that we should feel set on something because it merely aligns with our identity, but we must explore and research things that light fires under us, motivate us, and help us reimagine a better future. This is true of all research - looking for a treatment for a rare disorder? Navigating the latest pedagogical tool? Want to know how to build sustainable and supportive prosthetics? We can generally identify a moment (or so) that inspired us to pursue that research.

Of course, I’m not saying that everybody should be able to identify the exact moment that their career path was paved or always know what caused their research to bloom. But I know for me, my dissertation was influenced by my time teaching secondary humanities during a global pandemic and the other social issues that arose and were highlighted, though not new. My research methodology was shaped by a prior attempt to approach research in the way my former school director wanted, rather than staying true to myself and using the approach that best aligned with my philosophy as an educator. Truly embodying who I am as a researcher, teacher, and scholar was what allowed me to write my dissertation as quickly as I did. I cranked it out, and while I would never tell others they should write as quickly as I did, I believe that connecting to our research can only positively influence the research trajectory and writing process.

Being true to myself, research, and students allowed me to see hope and progress and to know the power of research. Like my fiction writing, I was able to reimagine the future more positively, centering students and their imaginations, and to challenge systems in a way that does not foster despair but fosters that hope.

This is why I research, but more importantly, I write.

*My grandmother was my step-grandmother. My father’s biological mother died when he was a baby, so this woman, my grandmother, was the only mother he knew and grandmother that I knew. But she was my grandma.

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