Essay of the Week: My World to Paper by Caleigh Leonard


I ripped my notebook out of my backpack and emptied myself onto six pages. I don’t think I’d ever experienced something so cathartic; the paper wasn’t there to judge, only to listen. Last summer, after the first day of my internship at a teen-led mental health organization, I returned home to my Aunt’s Manhattan apartment. I quickly became overwhelmed by the thoughts and challenges of navigating a job in the city that I love. Would I mess up at work? Would I make friends? Would I get lost on the subway? I couldn’t call my parents for comfort because they were at work. So I pressed my ink into the page until I felt better. 

The following day, I expanded this exercise by writing poems. I discovered that the process of creating a well-written poem is like breathing, and when I’m overwhelmed that is exactly what I need to do: breathe. Today, whenever I am stressed, jealous, angry, or any other extreme emotion, I write a poem. It might only be four stanzas, but it is enough to calm me down. 

It isn’t a surprise that I found a solution in words and used it as a means of entering a new genre of writing. I’ve always been an explorer; I like to see and learn from what I do not understand. Freshman year I took a photography class on a whim; I’d never even handled a real camera, let alone a film camera. But I quickly learned how to roll and load the film canister, adjust the lighting and aperture, and develop in the dark room. It allowed me to see the world in new ways — more personal and meaningful than the lens an iPhone provides. The same concept applies to different styles of writing, which has encouraged me to explore.

When I first discovered my interest in writing in eighth grade, it was through essays and fiction pieces for English class. However, my passion for writing developed the summer before my sophomore year at The School of The New York Times, where I began learning the art of journalism. In an article about the Jackson House Restaurant in Queens, I found that in order to tell a story, I have to relay the bigger picture. I didn’t just write about the food being served or the attentiveness of the staff, I detailed the upbringing of the owner, a Greek immigrant, and how his experiences allow him to understand the people that frequent his restaurant.

And that’s the beauty of writing; where poetry allows for self-reflection and a place to explore my thoughts, journalism invites exploration of people and important issues that face the world. The combination of these two artforms revealed the power of writing in my life; it became an all-important medium for expression.

When I see injustices and a lack of necessary change in the world, my rage fuels my writing. On the one year anniversary of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Shooting, I took time to research and contemplate the lack of policy change. I was agitated; I’d attended protests, participated in walkouts, and signed petitions. Surely there was more I could do, so I let my fingers dance across my keyboard until an article was complete. Throughout it all I am on a journey to explain and explore different perspectives that might produce solutions. After all, for me, writing is action. 

Caleigh Leonard, a graduate of New Jersey’s Montville Township High School, will be a freshman at NYU in the fall. 

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