Hurt Ink – Heather Demetrios

I want to talk about hurt.

How many of you write for children or teens (or both) because you were hurt as a kid? Because those wounds from so long ago still hurt? Or because you see the hurt so many teens and children endure, a hurt that is so often hidden, shamed, forced to be invisible—and you want to do something about it?

How many of you came to VCFA with a cry for help on your lips, and left with a torch in your hand?

It is no mistake that the streets of children’s literature are filled with orphans, with roadside graves, with the grieving, the broken. No mistake that there are so many absent parents, runaways—so many kids going at it alone, forced to find their own way or create new families, remaking the world because the one they have grown up in is filled with intolerance and hatred and indifference.

Who writes these worlds? These very same children, of course. All grown up—but they can’t quite forget Neverland. Everyone else seems to be able to, but we can’t, can we? We can’t forget what it was like. And that’s why we are uniquely qualified to speak directly to children and teens about their pain. Because we are the adults who remember. Who say:

I believe you. I hear you. I understand.

I came to the world of kidlit because books like Jacob Have I Loved, Little Women, The Giver, Number the Stars, and, later, in college, Harry Potter, were my light in the darkness, and because I found kinship with other kidlit writers. People who took the pain of children seriously. People who saw that the children and teens they wrote for were worthy of respect, that their problems were just as serious as those of their adult counterparts. They weren’t children, they were people. Smaller, younger, maybe—but people all the same.

This is at the heart of the work we do: seeing teens through remembering our own time in that fractured, confusing era of our own lives. Taking the echoes of our pain, and amplifying them until they become universal. I recently had the chance to read WCYA alum Laura Sibson’s upcoming debut novel, The Art of Breaking Things and it was yet another example of an adult taking a childhood trauma and turning it into healing art for the teens she writes for. I’ve seen this generosity and word bravery with so many VCFA alums and faculty, either taking personal pain or using their deep empathy to explore the plethora of traumas present within the young adult community. A.S. King’s searing fury at the invisibility of so many teens, of the way their sovereignty is denied them by the adults in their lives. Ibi Zoboi and Kekla Magoon’s explorations of what it means to be Black in America. Time and time again, I see our VCFA family digging deep and leaning into the pain of their own experience in order to shed big love on their readers.

Teens need you and your stories. They need your pain. They need you to be brave. To be vulnerable. To leave it all on the page. To fight for them with your words. To never, ever give up on them. Even when they give up on themselves.  

I think a big reason so many of us are drawn to writing for children and teens is because either we hurt, we have been hurt, or we hurt for those who are suffering. I remember seeing a documentary several years ago at a literary event in Boston—I can’t for the life of me remember the name of the film, but my takeaway was something either David Small or Jack Gantos said (given their work, it’s a toss-up who said this, but I think it was Jack): so many children’s authors are the product of abusive homes or have experienced deep hurt in their lives, or suffer from depression. Isn’t that interesting? We are not the soft, weak, loose things the world would like to fashion us into. Frivolous authors who only write things that are pretty and silly. (Although, let’s be clear: we NEED pretty and silly, too. Pretty and silly is a noble calling, indeed). I say, if you want to write the hard stuff, write for children. That’s the true refiner’s fire of emotionally resonant writing. It’s Genesis and Revelation.

Eric Carle was haunted by his childhood in Germany in World War Two. Many of Maurice Sendak’s family members perished in the Shoah. P.L. Travers struggled with the memory of a difficult childhood, a troubled father. I’ve yet to meet a kidlit writer who wasn’t in therapy, on meds, or working through hurt in some other way (healthy or otherwise). I myself suffer from major depression, and what do I write about? Teens in trauma, abusive homes, abusive relationships—my experiences, re-worked to reflect the life of real teens who email me to say: Yes, me too. Me too.

There is a kind of person in the Buddhist world called a Bodhisattva—a person who chooses to forgo nirvana in order to stay here in the world to help relieve the suffering of others. They are compassionate beings, devoted to helping their fellow human beings out of the darkness and suffering in their lives. I see so many Bodhisattvas in kidlit. So many on our own faculty and the ranks of our alums.

I say, turn your pain into ink. Be a warrior Bodhisattva writer. For all those teens in the dark and confusion of adolescence who need your words. Who need your advocacy for them. It won’t always be enough. But we can’t give up. On them, or on the wounded child within us all.

As our own member of faculty, Amy King says in Please Ignore Vera Dietz, “I’m sorry, but I don’t get it. If we’re supposed to ignore everything that’s wrong with our lives, then I can’t see how we’ll ever make things right.” 

Here’s to making it right. Together.