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Learning at its Best

Fiction As an Act of Healing

“We have to sing a song about the wheels on the bus going round and round and it’s a stupid song,” Micah tells me.

“Why do you feel that way?”

“They go around and around,” he says with heavy italics.  “But most of the time, they do nothing.  Most of the time busses just sit there waiting for kids so that they can finally move again.”

He says that he likes to sing until he has to sing.  Then he doesn’t like it anymore.  I’m watching him carefully, working out the mystery of which kind of school will work for him.  A friend of mine thinks he might thrive in a Montessori school.

It’s bringing up memories for me.  Small acts of shame for not getting my hand movements right when we had to perform (is it any wonder I still cringe at the word “performance objectives?”) for the parents.  I had great teachers along the way.  I learned to read and write and think better about life.  I had two teachers who pretty much saved my life in eighth grade.  They worked with my on a massive project and in the process, taking genuine interest in who I was and not just what I was working on.

It’s mixed.  It’s messy.  And it won’t be resolved with shouting matches and dogmatic statements about what is right or wrong.

*     *     *

I wrote a book that few educators have read called Drawn Into Danger.  It’s a fictional memoir of a superhero.  Despite good reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, I can’t figure out how to navigate the publishing industry.  At some point, I might learn how to get an agent and interact with the complex system of publishing corporations.  For now, though, it’s an indie book that’s sold a few hundred copies.

And I’m okay with that.  On an economic scale, the book has been insignificant.  However, for me it has been an act of healing.  I had a hunch that the superhero metaphor would allow me to process the pressure of “being gifted” and not being a “high achiever” in school. I knew that I could craft a story about losing your voice and feeling like someone else’s project.

What I didn’t expect was the power of the process.  I’ve written personal narratives before, but I always stopped short.  It felt too real and thus too close and too distant.  I couldn’t think about it.  I could only re-experience it.  I’d get really angry and then feel guilty for my anger, because I felt like I was betraying the really good people who had been compassionate toward me.  I knew my anger was toward a system of straight lines and grades and sit quietly in the cafeteria or so help me I will have you stand at the poll during recess.

In fiction, though, I get to take a step back and yet get into my own mind.  I write without worrying about the debates and discussions and the feelings that might be hurt.  I focus on story.  I think about emotions. I’m re-living it without experiencing it.  There is a nuance to narrative that allows me to see multiple perspectives and forgive those who were acting out of fear or conformity or what they thought was best for a kid they perceived as lazy.

I’m doing a piss-poor job explaining the process.  However, there is a healing that happens from the shaming of school. I leave the experience different.  Perhaps more whole?  Perhaps more in touch with my wounding?  Definitely less angry.

The shocking part for me has been the conversations it opened up with my students, both from last year and from years past. What felt like a deeply personal process became a relational, social journey.  Students asked to borrow it and then blog about it.  They pulled me aside on the way to lunch so that they could share their own stories.  We grew closer through tiny acts of redemption.

I didn’t write a novel with the goal of healing.  I had a story in my head and hoped that someone else had written it.  When I realized that it hadn’t been written, I wrote the kind of book that I wanted to read.  Except somewhere along the line, I began writing, not for myself, but for that kicked-around, bullied, scared shitless eighth grade self of my memory.

About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


11 thoughts on “Fiction As an Act of Healing

  1. Thanks for such an honest story, John. While fiction wasn’t my savior, poetry was. If it hadn’t been for my voracious scribblings of emotion onto paper I probably wouldn’t have made it through middle and high school. In fact, I wrote in my journal nearly every single day until about age 22. It was healing for sure. It helped me cope, it helped me reflect and while my poetry never named names, it was often less fiction than reality played off as fiction. It was a way for me to explore myself and the way I felt. Which is why Kevin Washburn’s piece I just read is so powerful. You might like it, too:

    Posted by marybethhertz | September 2, 2011, 1:16 pm
  2. Story-telling is often lauded and seldom supported as a model practice. It’s less often invoked as something worthwhile for students to do while at school. As ascendant as digital story-telling seems, I worry that much of it is re-telling of content. Huzzah for story-tellers like you and yours and You Media.

    I think there’s also a lot of totemic and narrative significance to doodling, as well. “The Story of My Doodles” would be an awesome one for a student to tell – and perhaps it would be a bridge into understanding others across times and cultures by looking at their doodles.

    May I ask what you’re writing next?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | September 2, 2011, 4:15 pm
  3. I like your point about stories as often re-telling of content and as a doodler myself, I find myself drawn toward that art (though not as publicly as my writing) as a way to convey a story.

    You’ll laugh at the next one 🙂

    I’m writing an alternative narrative to the Zombie Apocalypse by telling the story of the zombie genocide (with zombies as a culture rather than as monsters). I’m telling it as a first person narrative with a father, son and anthropologist. I want to demonstrate how story-telling and popular mythology create the initial impulse of genocide and that the collective failure of imagination is often the most staggering element of it.

    You can check it out here: A Wall for Zombies for a general sketch of the main idea.

    I doubt any publisher will pick that one up.

    Posted by John T. Spencer | September 2, 2011, 4:29 pm
    • Laugh? Hardly. Fist pump? Indeed.

      +1, Sir.

      Posted by Chad Sansing | September 3, 2011, 7:05 am
    • I think you may very well find a publisher who Will pick it up. Your sketch is huge, touching upon a number of matters I experienced this summer as a participant in a ceremony that had been banned in the U.S. in 1883 and only became fully legal again in 1978. I do not know whether the “failure of imagination” is a preliminary issue that leads to genocide (whether cultural of physical), or if it might be the failure to communicate and comprehend “the other” so as to be able to imagine the similarities between ‘us and ‘them” — either way, you presented significant soico-cultural aspects of we-ness in the context of zombie-mania and so I think your timing is right on for marketing.

      Posted by Brent Snavely | September 3, 2011, 11:49 am
  4. Thank you so much for writing/sharing this post. I believe art is healing- and creative writing in particular. Who doesn’t need a little healing?

    You are an inspiration- thank you.

    Posted by Kristine | September 4, 2011, 4:42 pm
  5. John, I’m so with you. We “write” other people’s stories to know our own…

    Beautiful. I also write to heal myself, and it is an act of transformation.


    Posted by Kirsten | September 8, 2011, 3:08 pm
    • I like that concept that art, story-telling, poetry – these are all acts of healing and transformation. There is something in destruction that can only be healed through creation.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | September 8, 2011, 11:49 pm

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