Once upon a time a story was something that my father used to put me to sleep or my mother used to keep my mind off fatigue on a long hike up the damp throat of a North Cascades trail.  I’m not sure I thought of ET or Star Wars as stories as such, but those, in concert with the limitless world of Narnia and the golden yarns spun by authors like Madeline L’Engle represented escape and liberation from my own world that was cracking under the weight of divorce and discord and other humdrum sorrows.  More than sports, pulpy YA novels with the right measure of gore and fright got me through early adolescence and by the time I was pretending to be too cool to read, I had deciphered my own desire to write stories, something that was unique rather than odd, something I could balance on in the crucible of image that was high school.  If you slid off from an afternoon kegger with a red cup and a spiral notebook and scribbled away by your lonesome, it was decidedly more acceptable than cracking a book of any sort to read.  In college, textbooks shouldered out novels and stories for the most part, but in the brief slices of time between semesters I would devour literature with a stored-up hunger—and I could still find time to pen purple prose poems about heartbreak and the facades that sickened me.  Of course I still knew very little of sorrow, and when I learned, it was writing the stories of loss and enshrining the memories of what was gone in story that saved me from a crevasse that otherwise might have swallowed language entirely.  Specifically, had I not had stories to write about my gone father, I wouldn’t have returned to graduate school after his death.  Specifically, if I hadn’t had a month at the Vermont Studio Center in 2005, I might not have lived much longer after my best friend’s life ended on a cold street. In the first decade of this century, my love for story curdled and turned—on me, or me on it.  I was possessed with the urgency of my fiction, convinced that my life would be spent dashing out novels of searing political critique wrapped in human cloth, publishing them with far-reaching presses and collecting the permission to do nothing else.  As most manuscripts piled up unpublished, despair and humility fought for dominion of my writing life—and that fight has not yet finished.  But something else happened, too.  In truth I’d been wading around in the healing power of storytelling for a long time—both for myself and for my students—but it was uncouth and sometimes improper to make it intentional in the classroom, where the focus was on objective quality and measurable conventions and concluded, usually, with letter grades.  Then I found Pongo Teen Writing.  Through Pongo I learned about the power of alchemy that can happen through poems (which are stories by nearly any measure): from victim to survivor, from shame at what has happened to pride in having lived through it.  And from Pongo the leap into youth therapy was clear, if also daunting.  When I sit with troubled, sorrowful, manic, traumatized but resilient kids in session now, they tell me stories.  And I listen for morals, for holes in the plot, for lack of detail or too much and what either might suggest.  I ask questions and I offer advice for revision; I try to get them to tell a new version of the story, one that leads in the general direction of liberation, even if it’s just a horizon for now.  I don’t tell them that I know what it’s like when an editor steps in tells you’ve missed a great opportunity—that maybe you can keep the frame but have to start from scratch on the content.  I do tell them that the stories we tell ourselves about our lives can mean life or death, liberation or imprisonment.


  1. i appreciate reading what you write, always.

  2. Jessica Smith says

    I’m so proud of you. yes, yes, yes. This is what you’re supposed to be doing!!!! good for you!

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