It's Tuesday morning, 9:30 a.m., and I'm leading a creative writing class for highly capable learners at Shuksan Middle School. The students are working on six-page stories and I've discovered a lot of them have chosen to write police dramas, or war epics, or mafia tales - stories with violence. Today I've decided to devote the entire lesson to the topic. We're going to compare media portrayals from video games, movies and TV that saturate our society with violence in real life.
I ask the class if any of them have ever witnessed an act of violence. After a pause, one girl raises her hand and tells about being at the mall when a gun was pulled by a man less than 100 feet away.
"What was that like?" I ask.
Another student talks about a time when his neighborhood was put on lockdown while the police searched for an armed suspect. We discuss Newtown. I talk about how I was held at gunpoint twice while living in Washington, D.C. and that my Grandpa likely suffered post-traumatic stress disorder his entire life after fighting in World War II on Guadalcanal.
The students are somber as they reflect on two truths that rarely get screen time in movies and on TV: violence is frightening, and violence leaves lasting wounds - physical and psychological - on both its victims and perpetrators.
Let's turn the page. It's Wednesday afternoon and I'm facilitating Kintsugi, a weekly writing circle for people with chronic medical conditions. A man, about my age, wants to share his poem. More than a year ago he was hit by a car while on his bike and has had to cut back considerably on his work ever since. In previous writings, he describes his neck as "a broken forest," one that seems to offer no way out. Today, however, he says,
"This is a gestation, like the baby in my friend's womb.
There are roots growing down from my neck and my sacrum,
growing down out of my coccyx...
...It's only once these roots are growing up through my neck,
and making it strong and wise like wood,
then, then I am ready for Spring."
A subtle yet profound shift has taken place here. I hear a note of hope and also patience, that his recovery will happen, but slowly and in its own time.
One more stop. It's Thursday afternoon and I'm leading a workshop for youth in the county juvenile detention center. Six teenagers enter the classroom in single file, each wearing matching blue jumpsuits and sandals. We write a story together. It's about Julius Caesar as a young man who goes off on a quest to find a magical potion hidden in Arabia that will allow him to overcome his adolescent wimpiness and beat Brutus in a gladiatorial battle on his 18th birthday. Let's call it historical fiction.
I tell them that in order to have a good story you've got to get your main character into trouble, lots of trouble. So much trouble that the only way for them to get out of it is to receive help from a friend, or to change in some way, or to face their fear and grow up. And that in the process of growing up, they hopefully won't have to get into the same trouble again. One of the young women in the class looks up and responds with a thoughtful smile, "Sounds kind of like us."
For me, these anecdotes illuminate the intrinsic value of creative writing. It provides the opportunity to examine the stories, metaphors and images that we live by and see how they compare to the actual world around us. It's my belief that if we can change the stories and imagery we choose for ourselves, we can open up new possibilities for our own healing and growth.
That's the essence of why I do this work, especially with those in the midst of extreme life challenges. Like in any good story, all of us get into trouble sometimes. Writing stories and poems - through tapping into the powerful inner resource of our own imaginations - can prove essential at times for helping to get us out.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Matthew Brouwer is a native of Whatcom County and been writing stories and poems since elementary school. Before working as a performance and teaching artist he managed the Downtown Food Bank in Seattle and the Community Anchors Project in Washington, D.C. He is the author of four poetry chapbooks including "Men Who Walk with Canes," which recounts his lengthy journey with chronic pelvic pain.
For more on Kintsugi Writing Circle visit kintsugiwriters.com. On Saturday, May 11, Brouwer and local poet Kevin Murphy will hold a benefit show for creative writing projects with youth in the juvenile justice system.