This leads me back to some of the things I have been thinking about over the past two years:
- How do we judge if someone is simply being creative with a dark edge, or sincerely needs help?
- How do we deal with traumatic/confessional writing?
- Who gets heard in a world covered with writing?
- Why do we make students write about the "purely academic" and separate themselves from the real world?
These questions immediately lead me back to Chris Anson's short piece, "What's Writing Got to Do With Campus Terrorism?" Essentially, the piece is a dialogue between two characters, Nothing and Everything. Nothing believes that writing has nothing to do with campus terrorism. Writing isn't a marker for crime or suicidal intentions. It's simply an outlet for imagination, and we cannot tell from what someone writes whether he or she is mentally unstable. Everything, of course, takes the opposite side, believing that writing is responsible for and a marker of terrorist behavior. Most of us find ourselves caught in the crosshairs, not fully believing either side of the argument. The dialogue doesn't offer answers. It simply brings the conflict to light.
Richard E. Miller, perhaps, comes closest to unpacking these questions in his book, Writing at the End of the World. As I mention in an earlier post, Miller explains that writing is everywhere these days. Everyone can write and publish, but no one quite knows what to do with that writing. He rips into the idea that writing (and reading) is cathartic or transformative. He uses Ted Kaczynzki, the Unabomber, as evidence for this claim. Much like Holmes, Kaczynzki wrote and publicized his violent plot ahead of time. Neither piece of writing was able to stall the horrible events that would take place after the writing was done and sent.
We can also look at the recent media attention given to the teen suicides caused (in some way) by bullying incidents. Many of those teens-- Phoebe Prince and Tyler Clementi, for example-- were writing. But nobody was listening. And even if they happened to hear, Americans are trained to "mind our own business" and "not get involved." It doesn't seem like anyone really knew what to do, or knows what to do, with writing that reflects trauma. If it's literature, we enjoy it.
I've spoken about all of these things before, but I am still trying to come up with answers.
"See something; do something"I've begun to draw few conclusions. I'm sure they don't apply in every case, but I have noticed some patterns. People, typically, do not just leave written records in private corners when they're in distress. They push them out into public places-- letters to friends, statuses on Facebook, editorials, blogs, graffiti, tweets, etc. I don't want to become an advocate for the "see something, say something" policy that surrounds our culture's obsession with preventing terrorism, but I do suggest a similar remedy: "see something, do something."
If you notice that someone is constantly left out, reach out to them. It takes a bit of effort, but being willing to listen to another human being can sometimes make all the difference.
As to traumatic, confessional, and/or disturbing writing, if someone's writing seems to reflect mental disturbance, you can talk to them about their craft, rather than assuming something is wrong or nothing is wrong. Through those conversations, you can assess the situation.
I'm not saying we should be nosy and pry into people's private lives, and I'm certainly not saying to continue pushing people to speak when they have clearly chosen to remain silent, but I do think that we need to be willing to have more conversations, even if they are uncomfortable at first. In our worst moments, many of us just need someone to acknowledge our struggles, to say that we are worth a few moments of their time, which is probably the most precious gift one can give. Those few moments can be the difference between healing and breaking.
Furthermore, I think mentorships are incredibly important. This is a role educators can play. We all need someone to look up to, someone who is genuinely interested in our well-being. Many of us who consider ourselves successful, or at least on the path that we want to be on, have mentors to thank-- coaches, family friends, teachers, neighbors, older siblings or cousins, etc. How many of us pay it forward, though?
Specifically, for those of us in our 20s, I think we have a powerful position. We really can make changes in our world. We are about to be the generation of leaders, those taking over companies and political positions, but at the same time, we are close to our youth. We are not parental-looking figures yet, so teens look up to us as the cool adults. We have a responsibility to pause and take the time to interact with them. For instance, if a fellow 13-year-old was to scold another 13-year-old for a mean Facebook comment, the end result would probably be that the other scolder would end up bullied, as well. Few 13-year-olds would attempt to bully a 21-year-old, however. Likely, instead, they would instead see their actions as immature (which bullying is). Rarely, however, do 20-somethings step in. We think, "hey, they're just kids" or "they've got parents to deal with this" and move on with our busy lives.
We clearly cannot read everything in a world covered with writing, but we can at least read more carefully.
Connected LivingI think what I mean to say, more broadly, is that we need to stop "minding our own business." It's not really only our business anyway. We do not live in a vacuum. Our actions affect others, and their actions affect us, as we are all part of one larger ecosystem, whether that be a family, a local community, or humanity as a whole global system. We could all put forth a little more effort to remember that we are living in a networked community, even in this hyper-individualistic society.
It's true that most of us are not psychologists, psychiatrist, social workers, or trained counselors. We shouldn't try to fix problems that are beyond us, but we can still help people find help or simply want to find help. Sometimes, people need to feel like they deserve help before they will even bother to seek it.
Honestly, I still haven't really answered my questions, and I'm sure they will continue to bother me and drive my studies. There seems to be something inherently wrong when we live in a world where people have access to more public writing than ever before, but crimes and other tragic incidents that result from feelings of isolation and desperation still take place. Clearly, the approach that we have been taking isn't working. Something needs to change. I think starting small and remembering that we are all connected is a step in the right direction.