Flipping the Script
In her first story for Represent, a magazine by and for teens in foster care that I edit, Natasha Santos wrote with a charming blend of sassiness, introspection, and insecurity. Her story described not having friends to sit with during junior high school lunch.
“In the cafeteria, Natasha sees the different groups at their tables, talking away,” Natasha wrote using the third person to describe herself. “Natasha stands there thinking, ‘Where do I sit?’ The problem is Natasha can’t conform. ‘Can’t or won’t?’ her brain asks. Sometimes it makes her feel really low to be an alien to everyone around her. It gets hard to remember who she is: A young woman, not a rebel, but not a follower either. She’s Natasha, and that won’t change.”
That story showcased Natasha’s strength and survivor instinct. She turned a depressing and isolating experience into a funny, knowing article where she depicted herself as an iconoclast rather than a loser.
But in early drafts of her next story, tough and sassy Natasha was gone. “This story is going to be about love,” she told me, and named the story on the computer “love.doc.” In fact, the story was about whether Natasha had ever truly been loved by her drug-addicted mother or by her vindictive foster mom, who required Natasha to eat only from her own plate and spoon, so she would not contaminate the family’s kitchenware. The draft was a dreary catalogue of abuses, ending with the conclusion that she definitely had not been loved.
I felt unsure how to handle her story. Like all of us in youth media, I know that satisfying personal stories, whether conveyed through radio, film, or writing, must go beyond simply ranting or rehashing painful experiences. I believe those writing for a teen audience have a responsibility to show how teens take charge of their lives, even if they’ve taken only the smallest steps. I also consider it my job to help writers recognize their strengths and to acknowledge that strength in their stories.
Evidence of my writers’ resiliency is usually not hard to find. Writing a personal essay about a taboo subject like abuse is in itself an act of taking charge and resisting victimization. When a writer’s instinct is to dwell on the pain of an event, I push her to shift the focus of the story to show instead how she handled that pain. Reframing a story to more heavily stress a young person’s strengths and abilities affects not only their stories, but their self perceptions.
Reframing a story to more heavily stress a young person’s strengths and abilities affects not only their stories, but their self perceptions.
But Natasha seemed insistent that her story was solely about how she’d been victimized. She disregarded questions I wrote in the margins about the caring adoptive home she was now living in, or how she managed to achieve excellent grades despite all she’d been through. Instead, she handed in long drafts that burned with fury. Then one day she saw her story on my desk with the words “Anger Story” penciled on top.
“Why does it say ‘Anger Story’ on mine?” she asked me.
“Oh, just because that’s what it’s about,” I said, not thinking.
“What about anger?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said, “It seems like it’s about how you have all this anger from your past that you don’t know what to do with. And you’re trying to deal with it but you don’t know how.”
Something switched in Natasha during that exchange. She took her story to her computer and began writing. This time, her beaten-down voice was gone. “This is the story of a girl, born in the projects, neglected by her parents and tormented by memories of families she’s no longer a part of. It’s a story that I must tell so that I can move on.” she wrote. That led to a story about Natasha’s quest to acknowledge the pain of her past without succumbing to depression. Shifting the focus of her “love” story in this way helped Natasha reframe her worldview as well. She began to see that her painful sense of rejection as a child did not need to define her, and she could have a more hopeful future.
I was lucky to stumble across a way to help Natasha rethink her story. But, like all editors, I have a few tools that usually do the trick, that can work with young people producing personal stories in just about any medium, whether it be radio, film, or writing.
In most cases, focusing a story on a writer’s strengths is just a matter of being encouraging and asking blunt questions that redirect a writer from detailing what happened to her to explaining what she did in response. When one student said she wanted to write about being raped, I asked, “What do you want the readers to take from your story?”
“I want to let them know to tell someone right away, because I waited four years and I shouldn’t have,” she said. I asked her to begin by describing the day she told her mom, and she wrote a powerful piece about how she began to recover once she asked for help.
Other times I have to actively sniff out evidence of resilience to help my writers see ways they resisted allowing their voices to be silenced. Scrutinizing the grammar and style a young person uses to tell her story often helps me figure out why the writer’s voice seems to go passive or fall flat in certain stories. Every writer has a signature grammatical pattern. Some put “too much tinsel on the tree” by being too descriptive, others hit the reader with their points like a jackhammer.
Often, those grammatical patterns reflect how my writers view themselves and their relation to the world. When writers are uncomfortable or uncertain about what they’re saying, their signature patterns get worse. Flowery prose turns purple.
One of my writers, Pauline, often hides behind adjectives and lots of dreamy metaphors. Sentences that clearly show Pauline taking action can be rare. In early drafts of a personal essay partly about surviving her father’s physical and sexual violence, Pauline seemed to disappear entirely. Very few of her sentences began with “I,” and those that did were often in the passive voice. So many sentences began with “he” that it was as if, even in her retelling the story, her father had succeeded in dominating her.
We turned the story back around by searching for Pauline. I’d say, “Pauline, I don’t see too much ‘I’ in this section. What were you doing?” It turned out that Pauline fiercely resisted her father and protected her sister. Pauline yelled for her mentally ill mother to intervene. She nudged her grandmother to take her on trips out of the house and encouraged her sister to come along. She spoke up when social workers visited her house.
When we shifted the focus from “what happened to Pauline” to “how Pauline responded,” her story blossomed with “I” and active verbs, and Pauline was able to recognize and appreciate how courageously she had fought for her own well-being.
Natasha’s signature writing style, on the other hand, sometimes veers too far into an angry, know-it-all tone, facilitated by tons of short sentence fragments. Describing a few well-off teens Natasha had interviewed during a field trip we took to a suburban school, Natasha wrote:
“Then there was Jesse and Jessica. The wealthy ones in the group. Jessica lived in the wealthiest community in Norwalk. And Jesse lived in the second wealthiest. Their answers may have been considered standard by someone else. But for me they were useless. Too sheltered and clouded to be of any real substance.”
In the draft, Natasha wanted to convey that she felt only scorn for those naïve suburban teens. In truth, visiting that school in the suburbs had also made her feel jealous and cheated of a tranquil childhood. Her anger shined through those choppy sentences. I needed to help Natasha shift her story from a simplistic “Teens in the suburbs don’t know about life,” to a more thoughtful, “The teens I met in the suburbs seemed more hopeful than the teens in my ghetto neighborhood.” Simply by requiring her to write full sentences, I figured I could draw out a more thoughtful response.
I sat Natasha down with this story, all the fragments underlined. I asked, “Do you know what a fragment is?” She surprised me by saying yes.
“What do you think all these millions of fragments are about?” I asked, and jokingly began to read them out loud in an annoyed, almost snotty voice: “The wealthy ones in the group…Too sheltered and clouded to be of any real substance.”
“You sure want to get your point across!” I said, laughing. Natasha knows herself well, so she began laughing too. I told her that she needed to learn to use fragments only for emphasis, and to choose what to emphasize. Not everything is so important it needs to be highlighted, I explained.
“Ok, ok, I get it,” she told me, and took the paper to her computer. Thirty minutes later she’d smoothed out every fragment, which took a lot of the defensive, snotty tone out of her writing. “I want to leave the last fragment,” she told me, “for emphasis.”
I put her on “Fragment Watch” after that, and the next draft she wrote almost knocked me over: Four paragraphs and not a single fragment. Then I felt pretty stupid. If I’d pointed out those fragments three years ago, when I’d first started working with Natasha, I could’ve saved myself a lot of time!
Or maybe Natasha needed to be ready to correct her own grammar. Since the way a person tells her own story is often so entangled with her worldview, maybe Natasha just needed to grow up before she felt confident enough to turn the volume down.
Nora McCarthy has edited Represent since 2002. She also edited New Youth Connections, a newspaper by and for public high school students in New York City, for three years.
Above left: Represent editor Nora McCarthy and writer Natasha Santos at work.
An editor of a teen-written magazine considers challenging young people’s stories integral to her job.