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Writing as Sanctuary
By Susannah Sheffer

Helping teens learn to write fiction can also provide them with a safe place for exploring and making sense of their experiences.

Writing as Sanctuary by Susannah Sheffer
Photo (c) Tomas Mikula/Shutterstock

Rafael and I are looking at the story he’s writing. This is only the third time we’ve met, and by Rafael’s own account it’s the first time he has tried to write something that he has come up with himself, rather than something that someone else has assigned to him. Rafael is fifteen.

The scene he shows me is about some boys getting into trouble. Its factual account is clear enough, but it is not yet particularly vivid in its sensory details or its access to what is going on inside the characters. I begin to ask questions: What did that sound like, what were the boys seeing, what were they feeling at that moment?

Rafael tends to keep his head down and speak in careful phrases, but as he takes up these questions and tries to describe more and more of the scene, he grows animated and looks right at me.

“You know the feeling in your stomach when you realize something’s going to happen?” he asks in response to one of my questions. Because we’re talking about a scene of boys getting into trouble, I understand that he means when something bad is going to happen, and I nod. I’m excited that Rafael is now working from the inside out, struggling to describe the gut-level foreboding that is as much a part of the scene as the boys’ external actions. Rafael laughs as I suggest that this feeling can go into the story. The words are coming quickly now, and I start typing as he talks.

For several minutes I type quickly, getting down the story Rafael is telling. Suddenly he interrupts himself to announce,

“I’m getting that feeling right now!”

“Which one?”

“The feeling in my stomach.”

A crucial moment! I feel as if we’ve been striding along together and are suddenly stopped short by what he has said. I know I have to step carefully now.

“OK, I have two thoughts at once here,” I begin, and I see that he’s listening. “One is that it’s so important for you to trust your gut feelings, and if you get a sense that something isn’t right or that a bad thing is going to happen, you should trust that.”

He regards me and waits to hear what I’ll say next.

“But the other thing,” I continue, “is that – well, this is really new, right? What we’re doing here right now?”

Now Rafael nods emphatically. “Yes! I never trust adults.”

Writing can provide a refuge and place of safety, set apart from the rest of life for that purpose, holding and containing and then making possible a greater than usual amount of risk, challenge, and depth.

“Right,” I agree. “So maybe, maybe, it’s possible that that’s what the feeling in your stomach is now: a feeling that this is new and unfamiliar.”

I’m taking a chance here and I know it, so I’m relieved when Rafael says slowly, “I think so, yeah. I think that’s it.”

A strange thing about safety is that if you aren’t accustomed to it, the unfamiliar sensations that it engenders can also feel like risk. I couldn’t be sure what Rafael’s gut was telling him, but I was glad that he could allow for the possibility that the sensation he was experiencing was a sensation of newness rather than only of danger.

So much about the situation was new for Rafael. As he had admitted, trusting an adult with his real feelings and experiences was new, and so was the kind of writing he was now doing. He had completed writing assignments before, but he hadn’t discovered that the things that he thought most about, or that were most vivid in his memory, could be his subjects.

This newness was strange enough to evoke that feeling in the stomach and unsettling enough to cause Rafael to be tentative at first in his embrace of it. What Rafael was doing required a particular kind of space: a sanctuary, we might call it, in the sense of refuge and safety, set apart from the rest of life for that purpose, holding and containing and then making possible a greater than usual amount of risk and challenge and depth.

I’m interested in how writing itself offers this kind of sanctuary and in how one person – in this case, assisted by writing – can offer it to another. How has writing, engaged in as part of a specially set aside time with another person, helped some of the young people I’ve worked with to risk exploring more about themselves and their emotional experience?

Rafael wanted to write a good story, which is to say, in part, that he wanted the story to be vivid and interesting, even if he wasn’t yet sure how to make that happen. He was initially open to my questions about how things looked and felt because, I think, he already had enough of an instinct that these were the kinds of things worth adding to a story – or he was at least willing to consider my suggestion that they were.

Writing invites us to go deeper, look further, say what has been hard to say. It asks for more, as Rafael found when he struggled to describe the scene that he had in his mind. But writing’s paradox is that what it demands it also makes tolerable, because it offers a way to manage and hold all that it is calling forth.

Sixteen-year-old Rosie tells me that while she often feels anxious about writing, writing also has the ability to still her anxiety. “I have this feeling of bees buzzing in my brain a lot of the time,” she says, “and writing is like a beekeeper blowing smoke into the hive. It calms the buzzing.”

How does this work? Part of it, I think, is that writing offers a form for what might otherwise feel formless and overwhelming. Instead of just thinking and feeling, and even instead of just talking, you can focus on making something out of what you have experienced. Writing can offer a place to put it, or a way to carry it.

Just as writing invites us to get closer to our experience by asking that we describe and show, it also offers a tolerable distance, or even, some might say, a reasonable excuse. From what I knew about him and his interactions with adults at that point in his life, I suspect that Rafael would not as readily have engaged in a conversation about feelings and motivations if the goal were to talk explicitly about himself, with no buffer and no written story in service to which I was asking, and he was reaching inward for answers.

For more about the idea of sanctuary, see Bloom, S. L. (2013). Creating Sanctuary: Toward the Evolution of Sane Societies, 2nd Edition. New York: Routledge.

When he wrote about his pseudonymous character getting into a fight with another guy, for example, and I asked questions about why the character had gotten into the fight and how he felt during it, the story gave us a something else (other than Rafael himself) to focus on, and allowed me to adopt a tone of more detached curiosity than I might have had – or than he might have heard me as having – if I had directly asked, “Why did you do that? How did you feel?” The safety of an ostensibly fictional character, written or talked about in the third person, seemed to allow Rafael to respond to my questions with more animation and engagement and less obvious anxiety than he ordinarily had when responding to adults’ questions.

I say “ostensibly fictional” because the relationship between the fictional characters and the young people themselves is often interesting, as are the various ways that we come to acknowledge that relationship together. A teen will declare that he is writing fiction and then sometimes very quickly thereafter acknowledge how closely the story parallels his own life or how fully he identifies with the character. Could we not have skipped that intermediate step and simply declared the writing “memoir” or “personal essay” or just “my own story”?

Some teenagers I’ve worked with will do just that, or will seem to require only the smallest amount of fictionalizing in order to feel safe enough to explore previously off-limits areas of their experience. Fifteen-year-old Sonya, for example, figured out a way to articulate aspects of her family life by writing a series of short pieces that had no disguise other than the use of “she” rather than “I.” Yet even that construct was significant, because it allowed her to talk of a character, rather than herself, when describing or reading the writing to others, and I suspect that the form and structure of each carefully crafted piece served the same kind of “holding” function that I referred to earlier.

For others, the seemingly circuitous route of calling the writing fiction and then writing largely from their own lives seems an essential or at least very important part of what creates the feeling of sanctuary. Rafael started out referring to his story as fiction and then gradually – perhaps as he grew more accustomed to the idea of it – switched to calling it “a story” while openly acknowledging to me that it was based on his own experiences. The use of the third person and, in his case, the use of a fictional name eventually seemed to offer as much safety as he needed.

Just as talking about a character’s feelings and motivations may be easier than talking directly about one’s own, going deeper because the story would benefit from it may be easier or less threatening than going deeper for explicitly personal or even therapeutic reasons. When a line in sixteen- year-old Craig’s story said that his character realized he was playing video games in order to escape his daily life, I suggested that it would be interesting to see the character realizing that, rather than just hearing a one-sentence summary of the realization. Craig agreed, saying, “Yeah, that would be a good place for a scene – I can write that in.” Because Craig understood me to be asking for something that would strengthen the story, he was able, I surmise, to tolerate an invitation to greater depth and amplification more easily than he would have otherwise. (Like Rafael, Craig seldom offered this kind of self-reflection in other situations when adults pressed him for it.)

A bit later in our work together, Craig was willing to acknowledge his identification with his story’s main character, but again it was the context of a writers’ discussion that seemed to make this tolerable. After including in his story phrases like “there was an emptiness in him” and “he was trying any way he could to ease the pain,” Craig was quiet for a few moments and then said, “I think what writers do is, they write about themselves but they put it into fiction.” While this might not have been a particularly original observation about writers in general, it was striking for what it meant Craig was willing to acknowledge to me about himself.

For this use of fiction to feel safe enough for young writers, I have to let them be the ones to determine how explicitly to make the connection between the story and their own feelings and experiences. Sonya, writing those short pieces about her family, soon gave me clear indication that she wanted us to be able to acknowledge that the stories were about her, even as she also seemed to savor the protection that the third person offered when she shared the work with others. Rafael and Craig, as I’ve said, eventually wanted to make the identification explicit in our conversations, though each had started out declaring very firmly to me that he was writing a fictional story. Ted, another fifteen-year-old, chose a two-step process as he brainstormed a prospective story that he wanted to write: first telling me about his proposed character’s situation and feelings and then adding, “Because, you know, I’ve felt that myself.” Again I could ask: why not just write it about yourself, then? But what seemed to be required for the feeling of sanctuary was for me not to press that point and simply to keep talking primarily about the scene in question.

With sixteen-year-old Damian, in contrast, it was very clear to me that any resemblance between his story’s narrator and himself should not be acknowledged openly between us, at least not while he was in the midst of writing, and that if I could abide by that rule and talk only about the fictional tale, I would be helping to uphold the conditions that would allow Damian to express some things about himself.

Damian spent a lot of time thinking about and designing his story before actually writing it, so for several meetings we talked rather than wrote, and yet the talking was very pointedly about a story that Damian was planning, and thus quite different – on the face of it – from a conversation in which Damian was telling me about his own feelings. He spun an intriguing tale of characters living in fantastical circumstances, so he had the opportunity to construct a lot of plot details that were clearly imaginary. But at the center of the story was a family with a boy who “feels very different from the others” and whose real feelings are not too visible to the adults around him. “They think because he seems fine, he is fine,” Damian said to me when explaining this part of the story, and the feeling of the moment, coupled with the few things I knew about Damian’s life during this time, infused our exchange with a personal resonance that I absorbed but did not call overt attention to.

I’ve been contrasting these writing conversations to ordinary conversations, suggesting that the writing offered a sanctuary that more direct or explicit conversation would not have. Yet it also seems clear that the writing was a communication and that it offered a way for us to be in conversation with each other. Whether the young person writes at home and brings the material for me to read, or composes during the time we are meeting and then shows it to me right away, or dictates as I type, or thinks aloud to me about the story, these are all ways of creating a shared experience. If writing itself offers a kind of form and a holding structure, so too does meeting regularly with an attentive listener who wants to hear what that writing is trying to say.

Writing all by itself can be a sanctuary, and just meeting with an attentive listener can be one too. When the two come together, so that the story-making and the trusting-an-adult are woven into one experience, the result can be doubly powerful and can make new kinds of exploration possible.

Susannah Sheffer, a former editor of Growing Without Schooling magazine and author of several books and articles, works with teenagers at North Star: Self-Directed Learning for Teens in Hadley, Massachusetts. For more about Susannah and her work, visit www.susannahsheffer.com.

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