Behind the Brevity Essay: Creative Writing for Suicidal Teens

May 18, 2011 § 6 Comments


Rob Lavender, author of “The Role of Fiction in Suicidal Ideations,” in the latest issue of Brevity (May 2011, 36),  is interviewed by  Sloan Smith about the 360WestProject– a writing workshop for suicidal adolescents at the psych hospital where Lavender is employed:

How many adolescents do you get in your class each year?

We get ten new adolescents a week at the psych hospital. Sometimes seven in one night. Around five-hundred a year. Their stay is short. Usually three or four days. But, still, they feel like lunatics, losers, the lost, the damned.

Can you describe your class?

Sure. It’s my job to build self-confidence. I’m basically the creative writing teacher. I started the class three years ago after earning an MFA. I propositioned the senior therapist about the class. I told him I would like to start a creative writing workshop that combined writing and counseling, focusing on what they are saying about themselves through the characters in their stories.

They gave me a three-month trial, to see if the adolescents would like such a class. It’s been three years, and the frequent visits to timeout for unbecoming behavior are down. They seem to be wired for creativity, as if depression and originality are the same.

So how do you conduct the class? Is it like a workshop you find in an MFA program?

Somewhat. I tailored it to fit the needs of counseling. But basically, I’ve taped pictures on a whiteboard in the classroom that I’ve cut from The New Yorker magazine and from the NY Times—pictures that illustrate the fiction written and reviewed within their pages. On the backs of the pictures, I’ve written a set of writing prompts. They choose a picture, and I set a cooking timer to twenty minutes and say, “Go.”

Instead of making comments about how they can strengthen plot, characterization, etc., I use their characters as a way to expose their inner feelings as a patient. There’s a fine line here. I try to never make them feel their craft is a by-product of a larger idea. Does that make sense?

Yeah, it does. You are more interested in them as a person than you are with their stories, right?

No…I’m not sure I would put it that way. Let’s just say I’m equally interested in both, never raising one above the other. But the hospital expects more self-confidence building. Each patient has a treatment plan that the hospital wants every staff member to execute.

So how does the counseling work? What’s the payoff, other than letting them get their feelings out and onto the page?

Well, I don’t try to figure out their lives, but I do point out the similarities between their stories and their real situations. I want them to remember their experience in the class, and someday, if things get bad again, I want them to say, “I’ve felt this before. I’ve written about how this feels. I’ve been depressed and gotten better.” I’m trying to build a reference point.

Each week you do a book launch, is this right? That’s a lot of work.

It is a lot of work. Thankfully the hospital gives me the time I need to focus not only on the workshop method, but also the publishing end of it. The book is more like a small chapbook.

Once the books are finished, we break the tables down in the classroom, leaving only one for our refreshments and completed books, then we drag in stacks of chairs. Create rows. then we invite hospital employees—nurses, techs, the front office—to attend the launch party. Each week, I hope they will come, that my fellow employees will support such an endeavor. No visitors from outside the hospital can come due to confidentiality, so you never know who will attend. But I’ve learned that if you serve chocolate, the nurses will attend. So I serve chocolate chip cookies. Cooked fresh by the cafeteria. Drinks, too.

I’d come for chocolate.

Whatever works, right?

Right. So what happens at the book launch? You call them, “book parties,” right?

I call them parties because it seems to define what we are trying to accomplish, which is celebrating the adolescents creative imaginations. And we make 40 copies of each issue–which by the way, has original artwork by one of the adolescents on the cover–and we give them away to the audience. Then they get up and read their stories. The audience–my fellow employees–do the rest of the work of clapping and telling them how much they loved their stories.

We do an autograph session at the end, which further supports each adolescent. You should see the proud look on each adolescent’s face as they sign autographs. This is my payoff. Remember, here are adolescents that just 24-48 hours earlier have mutilated their bodies or attempted suicide. Now they are authors. I can’t tell you the feeling I get at each book party.

After the autograph session, we take a copy of the issue and Velcro it to the wall in the classroom so it can be removed and read by future adolescents. We just completed Issue 129, so there are 129 issues on the wall in the classroom. So much pain and healing represented in the collection on the wall. Sometimes I sit in my class and relive an issue that I thought was excellent work. There’s so much to be proud of on the wall.

Thanks for the interview. I think what you are doing is wonderful. Keep up the great work.

Thanks. And go read a few of their stories at www.360westproject.com

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