Divorce, surviving a mass shooting, discovery of cancer at 24, and a walk on the wild side in California. Students enrolled in my Magazine Writing course often want to learn more than catchy leads, pitching stories, dealing with grumpy editors, and the Inverted Pyramid. They’re turning to writing as a form of therapy, closure, or a way to chart a life transition.
Many participants are going through divorce, coming out, bored with their jobs, looking for purpose, or seeking validation of unconventional choices. Passive voice does not come up as a writing issue in these cases.
One of our warm-up exercises is a version of that job-interview chestnut: Describe a difficult situation. How did you respond? What did you learn? However, the answers are rarely what you’d expect in an interview.
When I first tried that exercise, I thought a failed recipe or a forgotten anniversary would be the limit of a student’s openness to a room full of strangers. But it turns out that the process of writing somehow gives people the license to share their most intimate feelings and personal experiences.
“They’re turning to writing as a form of therapy, closure, or a way to chart a life transition.”
In her piece, Camille* wrote the most moving opening line I’ve ever read: “Mom, I have fucking cancer. I’m a jobless, degreeless, broke 24-year-old that’s going nowhere in life.”
Camille developed that lede into an article published by the Huffington Post, along with some of her unusual tips to other cancer survivors. Her responses to falling ill included throwing dishes,exploiting her boyfriend’s pity to get a Prince Charles Spaniel, and showing her scar to a club doorman to get in for free. “Go shopping, rock it with a Hermes scarf for your hair loss,” she advised. “And stay true to your emotions. Don’t cover them up.”
Camille emailed me recently with the latest chapter of her life. Four years on she has things under control and is living happily with her boyfriend, a new baby, and the dog. Less happy was Ingrid, a survivor of the 2011 massacre by a right-wing extremist that left 77 Norwegians dead, including dozens of teenagers at a summer camp. Ingrid escaped death by hiding behind a boulder but left Norway for Canada to put distance between herself and the tragedy. Her writing revealed a young woman trying to deal with the apparent meaninglessness of life, after a horrific experience and the loss of friends.
When she joined the class she wrote she was at Stage Five of Grieving (acceptance). However, I’m not sure how much meaning she finds in reports that the convicted shooter recently won a human rights case against the Norwegian government about his prison conditions. (He had previously complained that his PlayStation was outdated.)
Nicole, on the other hand, had no illusions about the meaning of life: it was to blast her husband, who’d left for a younger woman. Despite gentle suggestions that other topics were worth writing about, Nicole shared reports each class about the weight gain and balding of her ex, plus the styling challenges of his mistress.
Other class writings have included an account by one student who woke up at the minority end of a complex threesome after a wild party. Another wrote of baking hash brownies, forgetting them on the kitchen table, and coming home to find her peckish parents “stoned out of their tree.”
Sometimes a class exercise changes lives, and here I credit Hemingway’s creation of the Six-Word Story. His ‘saddest short story in the world’ (For sale: baby shoes, never worn) reputedly won him a bar bet and spawned dozens of websites devoted to flash fiction.
“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
I use the Six-Word Autobiography as a variation on the original concept for an exercise on writing headings. It can produce some telling results when people try to summarize the main theme of their life into a bumper sticker.
There’s regret (Found true love, married someone else), contentment (Painful nerd kid, happy nerd adult), the search for meaning (Tried it all, but still looking), or resignation (Turning into Mom without being one).
Some months after the end of one course I received an email from Pamela saying the six-word exercise had made her sit down for the first time in years to think about what she was doing and where she was going.
“When I saw what came out on the page, I decided to leave my life in Montreal and move to California,” she wrote, leaving most details to my imagination.
Pamela, if you’re reading this, I hope you’re still writing. Please send me your latest chapter and let me know what happens when your story is:
Been good, time to be bad.
Richard Andrews is a freelance journalist who teaches Magazine Writing at McGill University. firstname.lastname@example.org
*All names have been changed
Photo credit: FlickR