The first time I was taught how to write nonfiction was at a memoir workshop in Taos, New Mexico. I had only signed up because it was being taught by Emily Rapp Black. Her book about her son Ronan, and his death from Tay-Sachs disease, The Still Point of the Turning World (2013), is extraordinary.
On the first day of the workshop, I realised what I had signed up for. This class would not involve making things up, but instead we were meant to excavate our own experiences and bring them to life through literary and narrative techniques. I was so tentative that when I wrote my first piece, about my shuttle breaking down in the desert on the way to the workshop, I tried to come out as queer as subtly and inoffensively as possible. Of course, my classmates and Rapp Black were not about to let it go unnoticed. ‘It’s awesome that you were rescued by a woman,’ one of the students said. ‘It’s such a twist on the trope of the knight in shining armour. You were saved by a queer woman of colour. I love it.’
Encouraged, I delved a bit deeper. I began to write about my grandfather who had died a year earlier. Writing about his life and death wasn’t too raw, just bittersweet. The more I wrote, the more memories I was rewarded with, and I didn’t want to leave the room.
Writing workshops take place in all sorts of spaces; some are sterile and alienating, others nurturing and cosy. The place itself and the presence of other people don’t always matter. There’s something else at play. When the conditions are right, the space can feel like a sanctuary.
Later, at welcome drinks, I downed several potent margaritas, forgetting that the high altitude in Taos meant I was dehydrated and that the alcohol would have a much stronger effect. I ended up inebriated but somehow felt clear-headed, and returned to my room to write. I wrote for hours, ignoring the strange sounds of a mountain town after dark and drunk writers out to play. I began to process my grief in a way that went far beyond anything experienced in therapy. This became my first published essay.
Two years later, I studied memoir writing with Cheryl Strayed, whose essay The Love of My Life (2002) and memoir Wild (2012) impacted on me in immeasurable ways. Her writing rattled me and made me see through certain layers of protection I had surrounded myself with. I had been writing fiction not because I wanted to make up characters and plots but to veil my truth, to keep myself safe. But there was Strayed, writing her truth and not veering from it, even when the truth was ugly, messy or traumatic.
Studying with these two writers led to many changes in my life, including the realisation that I could use memoir and creative nonfiction to process pain and make meaning of my experiences. Yet I wasn’t completely ready to do this.
Some of my pain was associated with the bullying and exclusion I had faced during my schooling. Without properly acknowledging this, I applied for and commenced a Master of Teaching. In the subject that prepared pre-service English teachers, Associate Professor Graham Parr prompted us to write critical autobiographical narratives about our experiences with English education at school. I found the process deeply satisfying and a powerful way to release the hold the past had over me. It felt subversive to write so honestly about an institution while situated within another, but I only did it because we were instructed to do so. I was an obedient student, even when rebelling against the education system.
When I went out on placements, I wrote reflective pieces about the lessons I taught and the classes I observed. I focused on pedagogy and curriculum, taking careful notes about classroom management, which I never read again. I didn’t write about the way that misbehaviour, violence, bullying, racism and sexism twisted my stomach and heightened my anxiety. I didn’t write about what it felt like to be a queer and Jewish teacher and to hear anti-Semitic or homophobic comments in the majority of schools I taught in.
I began a career as a freelance writer and wrote about subjects I had previously never imagined writing about let alone publishing. I came out as bisexual and gender diverse, described a traumatic medical experience, disclosed my mental health issues, and publicly parsed interactions that I found challenging, especially when I encountered prejudice.
I started teaching high school English and Humanities. I noticed the way that the act of writing was not enjoyable for most students. The majority of the teenagers I interacted with just tolerated it. They used it because it was required for assessment purposes, but rarely as an activity that brought relaxation, peace or pleasure. I thought about implementing exciting new approaches to English teaching. I remembered the time that an experienced literature teacher, Madeleine Coulombe, presented at one of our English lectures at university to show us the literature boxes her students had been working on. The students designed and created boxes and filled them with objects, images and textual fragments associated with their writing. I also thought about the American high school teacher, Brian Mooney, who taught Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp a Butterfly alongside Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.
There are so many interesting and unique ways to approach writing at school, but schools are institutions, and institutions require their subjects to adhere to rules. The nature of most school assessments, no matter how much we might want to think they are creative and playful, is mandated uniformity. Meeting the top levels of a rubric is literally about ticking off boxes, not pushing outside them or critiquing why the boxes are there in the first place.
My schooling had taught me how to be an analytical writer, but not how to write reflectively, in a personal and exploratory way. Thinking about how much I would have benefited from this sort of writing made me realise that there is an absence of life writing – including memoir, creative nonfiction, and nonfiction poetry – in educational settings. I wondered why, and what teachers and policy-makers were so worried about.
I began to read literature about narrative therapy (Pennebaker, 1997), empowerment (Laverack, 2006; Wagaman, 2016), and trauma-informed practice (Russon, 2017), and hypothesised that a therapeutic writing intervention could be adapted and related to various life writing genres. I discovered more about narrative inquiry (Richardson, 2000), various forms of life writing (Douglas & Poletti, 2016), online writing (Alexander, 2002), digital storytelling (Vivienne, 2016), self-writing/hupomnemata (Foucault, 1997), and writing as meaning-making (Hakanurmi, 2017). Through this reading, I developed an aim to design an intervention that could be used in school and wider community settings to explore identity and, in turn, promote wellbeing.
My research is interdisciplinary, bringing together perspectives and literature from education, arts, health and psychology. I am passionate about bringing a stronger focus on creativity, sense of identity, wellbeing and mental health into school settings. These are closely aligned with education policy and curriculum, which refer to all of these areas in some capacity (The Australian Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs [MCEETYA], 2008; Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority [ACARA], 2016). This requires being attentive to the ideologies, discourses and discursive gaps (Berlak & Berlak, 1981; Bernstein, 1996) embedded in curriculum and policy documents.
I thought about which population I wanted to work with, and decided that this sort of writing could be meaningful for those identifying as LGBTIQA+, despite there being a wide range of identities within this acronym. LGBTIQA+ people appear to be worse off across all indicators for mental health and wellbeing, and this is particularly the case for those experiencing harassment and violence related to their identities (Hillier et al., 2010).
The arguments used to support young LGBTIQA+ people often tend to associate queer identities with abjection or victimhood (Cover, Rasmussen, Aggleton, & Marshall, 2017), rather than focusing on empowerment, creativity, or health. Limited research has examined the way that social identities impact on meaning-making. It occurred to me that this sort of writing could be considered queer writing or queer resistance (Halberstam, 1993). I drew on queer theory (Ahmed, 2004), and considered the way that writing could mediate queer literacy (Miller, 2015) and sexual literacy (Alexander, 2008; Moje & MuQaribu, 2003).
My own sexuality and gender identity have influenced my selection of LGBTIQA+ young people as a research population; however, I would also like to look at how this research could be applied to other populations in the future. The research design has been informed by emancipatory and transformative paradigms (Mertens, 2007) and utilises decolonising research methodologies (Tuhiwai Smith, 2012) and an intersectional approach (Blackburn & Smith, 2010; Crenshaw, 1991; Lozano-Neira & Marchbank, 2016).
Ultimately, my research aims to examine the way that writing can reify or disrupt young LGBTIQA+ people’s process of meaning-making around identity. It extends on Hakanurmi’s concept of storytelling as ‘a meaning-making tool for constructing identity’ (2017, p. 153). Storytelling can be considered ‘everyday activism’ (Vivienne, 2016), which may provide an opportunity to empower marginalised young writers – including those from the LGBTIQA+ community and others – in education, publishing and wider society.
In my research, I will conduct textual analysis of the participants’ writing to see how writing relates to meaning-making around identity, and perhaps whether it can ameliorate challenges such as stigma and shame. The ultimate aim is to determine whether a directed life writing intervention can be a useful process for helping people work through their identities.
In my case, the techniques and pleasures associated with life writing were introduced into my life at the age of 30. I still think about how different my schooling, and my teaching, could have been if I had learned these techniques earlier. Life writing can provide support, can be used for emotional regulation, can be cathartic, and can encourage playful exploration, all of which are often missing in mainstream approaches to secondary education.
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Roz Bellamy is a writer, researcher and educator who is passionate about social justice, creativity, storytelling, and mental health. She has written for a range of publications, including Archer Magazine, The Big Issue, Daily Life, Huffington Post, Junkee, Kill Your Darlings, Meanjin, SBS, The Sydney Morning Herald and Ten Daily. She is a PhD student and research assistant at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society at La Trobe University. She has presented at conferences and writers’ festivals, and her work has been published in two peer-reviewed journals. You can read more of her work at www.rozbellamy.com.