It’s Just Material: Writing as a Coping Strategy

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My Room with a View (in Tuscany where I practiced writing in the third person)

 

A decade ago, when I was in my son’s room folding laundry, he told me about an experience he was having on a school sport’s team. The exact details don’t matter – all kids deal with some sort of challenge in the middle school years. But if I had to name this one it would be life is not fair on a middle school basketball team.

He’d been quiet the prior few days and now I knew why, and I struggled to think of a helpful response. Something wise to say that would make the situation tolerable; something inspirational to make him feel like of course he could carry on and not let this get to him. Nothing came to me. Instead I was trying to manage my instinctive and protective parental response – call the coach! The school!  But the more I thought about it the more I knew there was really nothing I could do.

The only advice I could think of was prompted by his overflowing bookshelf. I knew it was a long shot.

“This would be a good opening to book,” I said. “Or a scene! Imagine yourself as a character. Try to think of the dialogue in the locker room. You could write an op-ed for the newspaper.” He remained quiet while I kept up my energetic brainstorming.

Eventually I went downstairs to start dinner. Later on, before I went to bed, he surprised me by handing me a two-page accounting of the basketball drama. His mood was lighter. And after that night he didn’t complain about basketball again.

For years I have tried to pin down why writing about basketball helped him. It has become clearer as I experience my own sense of liberation through writing. Choosing the words to detail an experience puts the recipient in charge of the experience. An amorphous feeling is nailed down and becomes tangible.

Once, when I was on a writing retreat, our assignment was to turn a true-life experience into fiction by writing it in the third person. This straightforward exercise freed me to view my own travails, my ruminating thoughts as something separate from me. It was mind-opening to hand them over to another character and see the situation as a witness. I viewed myself more compassionately.

And, in my various writing group meetings, we critique each other’s work. I’ve learned it is standard to refer to someone’s writing, even if it is memoir, in the third person. “This character’s reaction to her father is confusing,” someone might say, and even though we all know the “character” is right in the room with us, this reference to the third person is a reminder that it is about the writing details – of whether they are clear — rather than the personal situation someone is experiencing.

My meditation practice has furthered my understanding of why this third person approach is effective. Suffering comes from protecting the ego. Our internal chatter (“monkey mind”) is often a series of judgements or concerns about keeping egos intact. The ultimate goal of meditation, letting go of this sense of self, is about finding freedom, witnessing situations with curiosity — instead of with judgment. Zen practitioners refer to as “beginners mind.”

I’ve used this understanding when teaching – both five-year olds and teenagers. With the younger set it is often in the context of story.

“Why do you think the troll is in such a bad mood?” I asked my class when we discussed the Billy Goats Gruff. In the original, oral telling version, it’s not addressed.  He is just a bad character.

“Maybe he thought the bridge would break,” someone offered.

“I think his mother was mean to him.”

“He was grumpy.”

“Why was he grumpy?” I pushed back again and then asked

“Do you think maybe the goats woke him up? Maybe he likes to sleep late.”

I asked them another question:

“How could the Billy goats figure out what was wrong without just knocking him into the river?”

“They could talk to him,” someone offered.

“Yes!” I said, “They could arrange a meeting!”

“I have meetings with my parents all the time,” a student reported.

“You do?”

“Yes! At breakfast!”

“When telling a story, there are options. You can decide how you want the story to go,” I tell them.

My work with teenagers — specifically in helping them brainstorm ideas for their personal statements – requires me to help them see themselves with a fresh perspective. After being alive for seventeen years, they think they know all there is to know but they have lost their objectivity, their third person.

They come to me as strangers, we’ve never met. I am authentically using “beginner’s mind” when I follow the same protocol each time — taking out my notebook and asking questions. “What did you play with when you were little?” is often one of my favorite ones to begin — even quiet teenagers are willing to discuss the nuances of how they built with blocks, took apart Legos, or spent hours watching dog training videos. They can reflect on their childhood with no judgment and as an observer; there were no grades on what they played. It was how they enacted their true curiosities. I listen for clues. Asking them to write for ten minutes about how to make their favorite sandwich is also revealing and gives us lots material. When I read aloud a list of hobbies, I ask which they’ve tried. I teach them to be a witness of their history. They are reporting the facts.

Inevitably there is a thread of something in the answers to record. They connect the dots; they start to see the picture. Not good, not bad, just as it is. They see the choices they have made, how the choices reflect them, how they are in control.

And this, I think, is how my son felt when he returned to basketball practice the next day. I imagine that he saw things anew, maybe even as a journalist of sorts, and noticed details that he could add to the story. If nothing else, it was just good material.

 

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