Updated: Dec 31, 2020
It has become increasingly prevalent for young writers to compose pieces about the trauma, hardship, or a specific part of their identity. Teenagers and young adults are as capable of writing important topics as the older generations, and it is incredible that we are writing about what is relevant and personal to us. No matter how much the adults emphasize preparing for the “real world” later in life, we live in this imperfect world and the systemic injustices affect us no less than it affects them.
However, an unhealthy emphasis on these topics can be harmful to the young writers community. An anonymous young writer notices that in competitions like Scholastic Art and Writing, pieces surrounding racism or homophobia are more likely to win or enter the final round. It is understandable since the mission of these organizations include fighting discrimination and amplifying voices that are underrepresented in the media. However, for someone young and inexperienced, this could easily send out a false message — that writing has to include sob stories or adversities to be valuable.
Even during the Kenyon Review Young Writers Program, I noticed the tendency of composing pieces related to trauma or marginalized identity. I’m extremely grateful that our workshop provided us a safe environment to examine subjects that might not be able to be discussed elsewhere, but it also discourages some students from sharing their pieces about “less crucial” subjects. Before the night we read our pieces in front of a hundred people, my friend said to me, “I don’t know if my writing is good enough. The girl before me wrote about rape.” I didn’t tell her at the moment, but I wish I had answered, “Writing about a deeply personal or sensitive topic doesn’t automatically make it superior to another piece. Writing about an ordinary event in life, such as a flower on the road or your love for peppermint tea, is just as valid.”
Writing sorrows is sometimes easier than writing joys. Especially in poetry, when everything seems excruciating and slightly melodramatic, and language about suffering and pain sometimes flow naturally on the page. I used to think that they are just the characteristics of poetry until I fell in love with a simple poem, a poem about balloons. Then, out of the things I’ve written, the one I’m the most proud of became a poem about watching snowflakes falling. I guess what I am trying to say is don’t forget to write about what can be easily overlooked.
I admire the courage of reading a poem about a personal and potentially trauma-inducing topic in front of a large audience. I remember how nervous I was when I first read a poem about gender dysphoria. One of my favorite quotes is “vulnerability is your sharpest weapon.” I believe in the power of words. I believe that writing can be a crucial part of the healing process. Speaking from someone who values drawing inspiration from personal experience, I am in no way saying that everyone who writes about these topics are crowd-chasers or doing it for attention.
My concern lies in the fact that many young writers are often not taken seriously, and the desire for recognition and affirmation can motivate them to write about specific topics. Just like in the common application process, well-intentioned colleges want to take the adversities that the students face or have overcome into accounts, but prompts that encourage students to write about life challenges sometimes don’t reflect who the person truly is.
I don’t want this article to be a reason that you avoid writing about trauma or an identity that is important to you. In the end, the idea is not “what you shouldn’t write about,” but “you shouldn’t write about this because you think it’ll bring you success, recognition, or other forms of prizes.” I am a firm believer of the freedom of expression, however, I do hope that you are writing because you enjoy it, not for some external validation. Only if you enjoy what you write, the readers will enjoy what they read. This might sound contradictory to the “write for yourself” mindset, but writing what you need the most will also benefit others. The human experience is incredibly complicated yet interconnected; if you pour your heart into something, it will touch someone else.