by Miko Johnston

No tutelage or reflections on my writing today. I’m attempting to reboot – physically, emotionally and creatively. Instead, I want to know what you, our readers, have to say.

My original idea for this week’s blog post was to ask you if you’ve incorporated any of the recent turmoil in your writing, or if you’ve chosen to sidestep it. I see that topic very differently now than I did when I first wrote this piece.

Back in 2018 I began a mentoring program for a local high school’s creative writing class*. Along with other published authors, I offered critique and encouragement to these young writers. Alas, a combination of budget cuts and Covid put the program on hold for over a year, but it has been reinstated. I recently received sixteen submissions from the current class and as I always do, I read each entry before dividing the work between the volunteers.

In the past, many of the stories mirrored themes from books and television shows that were popular, filled with paranormal characters ranging from vampires to dragons. Other plots were taken from everyday life – going to school, hanging out with friends, getting dumped by a boyfriend, and family squabbles. One or two pieces dealt with darker subjects, usually following a death or other traumatic loss, but the majority had a light tone and many were flat-out funny.

The class assignment was to write a piece of flash fiction. With their submissions came a note from their teacher, informing me that prolonged isolation from school, and each other, had made her students shy and hesitant to share their work, so it lacked the usual peer review. I assumed the writing would be rough, and it was, but not in the way I expected.

I was shocked but not surprised at the bleakness that pervaded every single submission. At least half included nightmarish scenarios, and most involved death or dying. I felt saddened because I knew this was not an attempt to be “artsy”, but a reflection of the reality these teens face in uncertain, and even frightening, times.

My volunteer mentors’ purpose is to encourage and uplift young students in their writing, but somehow a verbal pat on the back for a good story or vivid imagery doesn’t seem enough. Nor do I want to push them into further gloominess. Does expressing dark thoughts on the page exorcise demons, or give them life?

We may have enough time for a second round of submissions. Should I ‘interfere’ and suggest writing prompts that would prod them into some more positive thoughts, or let them write what they want? What would you say to these teens?


Miko Johnston, a founding member of The Writers In Residence, is the author of the historical fiction saga A PETAL IN THE WIND, as well as a contributor to anthologies, including LAst Exit to Murder and the soon-to-be-released Whidbey Landmarks. The fourth book in her series is scheduled to be published later this year. Miko lives in Washington (the big one) with her rocket scientist husband. Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com


19 thoughts on “WHAT WOULD YOU SAY? ”

  1. I had a troubled childhood and I wrote quite dark stories. Not autobiographical but not hope filled. School were hugely encouraging about the way I wrote. I was about 15 when sent something to my Grandma and she wrote back something along the lines of ‘very good, but I do wish you’d write about happier things.’

    40 odd years on and it sticks with me as the single most dispiriting thing said to me, though at the time I shrugged it off as a ‘what does she know’. I got back into writing a couple of years ago. I can’t say Grandma was the reason I stopped writing, but I definitely felt as if there was no place for what I had to say. And this despite school being so positive.

    I don’t think not saying things makes them go away, it makes them fester.

    I don’t have a conclusion for you, but this anecdote may be pertinent to your dilemma.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Welcome, Jackie, and thank you for your personal insight. As a grandma myself I can understand why your Grandma made that comment. She probably meant to encourage you, but ended up doing the opposite by discounting your feelings. I would never tell the students to put aside depressing subjects or dark themes – for proof, see my first novel. I also agree that for some, writing can be cathartic, a way to purge the negative thoughts in a positive way. However, if I saw any evidence that a student might do more than write about their dark thoughts, I’d intervene immediately.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I actually don’t find your question difficult to answer. I think about not only the books I write, but books by people I read. What do the characters do when faced with a crisis? Both the hero and the other people populating the book? Do they give in, curl up and die, or do they stand up and fight? When the hero in the white hat rides into the small town being overrun by the bad guys, the hero takes a stand and eventually the townsfolk follow that leader. Sometimes a few of the locals become heroes themselves. So when we face a real challenge like we are going through now in all sectors of our society, do we crumble or say we can get through this if we keep our head on straight, listen to what’s happening and see who the heck is telling us the truth? When we have that answer, we can get through anything. But it takes inner strength which can actually be found in all of us if we look at what we believe in and hold dear which includes family, friends, community and that deeper source of goodness in the world which is God. If you really don’t want to look that deep, curl up… You know the rest.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Having reread the students submissions, as well as feedback from the other volunteers in the program, I’ve found qualities in many of the pieces I’d originally missed. Several were mysteries with brilliant twists many of our readers would envy, others wrote fantasies with an uplifting message, and even the darkest pieces have a spark of hope. To borrow your metaphor, some of them are ready to fight, and if the rest are not there yet, they are standing up.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I think it is important, as Jackie said,to let them write what is real for them, and then, perhaps, suggest that they can find ways to tackle the problem, create tools to help, but first, they must write their own reality, or, it will indeed fester.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Shira, and welcome. Although writers have to walk in other’s shoes, it’s not always easy. These high school students live a very different reality from those of us who are older and have more experience at life, its highs and lows. I’m pleased to be giving them the opportunity to express what they feel, in fictional form. Perhaps it will help.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve found that it helps, but the reactions of others often do not help. I could link you to a few of my shorts that it took me years to be able to write, but once I did, that writing made a difference. Glad you are able to guide them in the use of another tool. It will help.


  4. This has to be a particularly difficult time for kid for many reasons, and I’m not surprised that they include it in their writing. None of us knows what the future will hold, and young people have a long future to consider. In response to your question, I might suggest that they consider that future and include in their writing what they hope they’ll eventually find–or not, if they’re writing fiction. I used to write time travel stories and had fun going into the past and the future in my characters’ heads, even though the present wasn’t as bleak as it is now. But whatever they want to write is the important thing.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Good advice, Linda. Whether we give the students a writing prompt for their next submission or let them continue to write whatever they want, they should be free to explore their feelings and ideas. This project should be about the quality of the writing, not the subjects.


  6. It’s hard to know what to do in a situation like that, but I think it’s good to let them work out their feelings on the page. And as you noted, if you sensed a student was going to act on those urges, that’s the time to intervene. I personally think it’s good for them to occasionally look into the abyss; if they’re going to be writers, they need to explore all parts of life, not just the happy ones.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Bonnie. You understand this firsthand, being one of my volunteers (and thanks again for that!) Whatever inspired them to write what they did, I must say this group of students, and the maturity of their work, impressed me. Whether you consider the artists of the Italian Renaissance, the writers in Paris during the 1920s or filmmakers in the 1970s, the right combination of talent and times often leads to these pockets of excellence.


  7. As a troubled teen, I found solace in writing in my journal, mostly poetry. I still have those journals! I agree with the comments I’ve read, especially that young people need to explore all aspects of life. They need an outlet for their angst, fears, doubts, and writing is (hopefully) a safe one. Thanks for this thought-provoking post, Miko.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thanks for your comments, Maggie. Writing can be a safer way to express feelings compared to other outlets. We often talk about writing an initial ‘vomit’ draft – get it all out now, clean it up later. This may be part of what they’re doing.


  9. Miko, I can feel your struggle with the questions you pose. Glad to see others have commented, with which I agree. The only note I would add is: encourage writers to tell the truth. Most of of us use our own instances of reality in our fiction, bringing characters and settings vividly alive because the writing is from true emotions and from the heart. Great post, Miko.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I commented already, but it evidently didn’t make it here, so I’m trying again because, Miko, I wanted to say what a thoughtful post this was, and my little input is that all writing I think, at all ages, is cathartic. And bravo for your mentoring.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. “…all writing I think, at all ages, is cathartic.” What a brilliant observation, Madeline. As for mentoring, it’s always been a pleasure, but this time around I found it to be a privilege as well.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: