Explorations in Storytelling

On Writing

Writing about writing

Shhh ... please don't write (talk) about that.

I had a wonderful conversation with Alan Levine and Barbara Ganley the other day at Barbara's house overlooking an expansive field and the Vermont countryside. It was amazingly focused given the surroundings and the three of us and the Turkish coffee kicking in. I'll revisit our discussion later, but one thought was rattling around my brain on the way home:

More and more youths are diving into amorphous, anonymous creative bursts in niche sites. 

Young Writers Project has always sought to go against the current, to get kids to linger, explore, create together and reach a more substantive level. Elaborate and collaborate. We firmly believe that kids yearn for this -- yes they love the momentary, the fun, the whacky, the immediate -- but they also seek to be challenged. They want to make sense of things, too.

That got me thinking about one of the things that happens on youngwritersproject.org -- writing about taboo subjects. Freely. Like cutting or weight or sexuality or sexual preference or bullying or drugs or suicide. Kids can't write about these things -- or even share much depth in conversations -- in school. They'll be marched down to the office. And, I might add, that's good, in some cases. But over the years, youngwritersproject.org has been able to be a resource for kids trying to figure out their thoughts around dicey issues that are absolutely guaranteed to float in and out of teens' brains. And it is why we appreciate it when they write when a friend or a schoolmate takes their own life.

Our first experience with this came in the spring of 2009 when high school freshman Aaron Xue died of self-inflicted wounds the first day of spring vacation. More than 25 students reacted with posts, more commented. The posts were read by parents, school officials, mental health officials, politicians and, even, Xue's parents and sister. It was cathartic. And heart-rending. To the right is just one sample of what was written.


There will be
an empty seat in
every classroom,
an awkward silence
in every conversation,
and a hollow space
in every slowly-beating

You flew South
for the winter,
I suppose,
your wings
brushing the gray sky
like eyelashes.

We will write
notes to you,
paint words on the
and on the brick walls.

Then in January 2011, on successive days, a 16-year-old girl in Brattleboro and a 15-year-old boy in Underhill took their own lives. They did not know each other. The actions were unrelated. But again, classmates wrote and discussed and tried to make sense of it.

YWP had published one of the girl’s poems in 2009 as part of its Newspaper Series. Reading it after the tragedy was eerie and heart-breaking. A classmate read the poem in her class several weeks later as her friends still tried to make sense of it all.

Looking through the Window

I won’t have to care
Everything will be behind me
I will be there
Where I want to be

I should not go
The time is not right
Why, I do not know
I’ll just have to wait for another night.

I will stay
I will not go
I will just sit here everyday
And look though my window.

Through the window
My mind can wander
I want to just go
Not sit here and ponder.

I want to run free
Break through these thick walls

I think you would agree
Nobody likes when reality calls.

But where would I go?
My bare feet would lead me
I would just know
That I will be free.

And this spring there was another suicide, again by a high school student, and what one classmate wrote eventually made its way into the local newspaper. ome lines:

"People clam up about suicide. They do. No one wants to talk about it. Some   people are suspicious or skeptical of psychology. Some people are afraid to be judged. Some people don't want extra attention and some are afraid that it will look like they're trying to get attention. Some people just can't think of anyone to talk to. ...

I'm going to ask a favor from you all now. I want you to contact someone. Maybe it's someone estranged, or someone you know to be depressed. Maybe it's just someone you think you ought to know. But I want you to call them, message them, post on their wall, Skype them, text them, bump into them or visit them— whatever you do. Ask about their life. Relive some old times or admit you'd like to be better friends. You don't need a cheesy flatter-fest or a theatrical speech. Just make sure to tell them before you hang up, log off or walk away that they mean something to you.

It is a widespread belief by professional counselors that talking, sharing, opening up helps students – and adults for that matter – cope with sudden, tragic events. They also counsel kids to not assume that they are OK, but to reach out and talk with anyone. So I guess this advice from a 17-year-old to her peers is spot on.

And that is why YWP advocates that kids write about their dark thoughts. Freely.  Writing helps bring clarity and understanding and voice and strength.