The pain on the pages is obvious. The words wrapped up in a poetic form, some rhyming and some wandering. When read out loud by the writer, they take on a new significance. Especially to an audience of peers, newfound friends and kindred souls.
The hurt is evident, but so is the safety in sharing them.
This summer’s 2019 Masterpiece Camp was as always an incredible and unique week. It was the sixth camp I’ve attended where I’ve taught creative writing to teens. The location for our camp this year was different. Instead of being at a camp in the heart of Kentucky country, we were staying and meeting on the campus of Wheaton College. The spirit of Masterpiece still remained.
During this week, something remarkable began to happen the very first night of our open mike, a time where the students can go before everybody else and display their artistic abilities. They might sing a song they crafted or show artwork they’ve made or read a poem they wrote. As the week goes on, more and more students become brave enough to get up and share something. At this camp, the vulnerability was there on opening night, and it continued throughout the week.
After an emotional Thursday night at open mike, where some heavy burdens were shared by some of the students, I decided to share some thoughts the following morning in my creative writing studio. I normally don’t read portions of my own writing to the students. Heaven forbid. How self-serving is that? But I woke up early in the morning with a heavy burden for some of the teens, a few who were in my group of ten girls I was teaching.
I applauded all of the students on this Friday morning, not just the ones who shared at open mike during the week but also those who were being vulnerable in their writing in our studio. I told them when I was their age, I did the same, pouring my angst and my questions about life into writing. I wanted to show them that they can do something with this pain and hurt in their art. For me, I ended up pouring them into a teen series I wrote called The Solitary Tales.
It’s no coincidence that the last title is called Hurt. In a sense, that’s what the whole series is about. It’s also about where the hurt can and should go, something I wanted to remind them about on this morning. Yes, we all have brokenness in our lives, some more than others, and yes, sharing it to kindred souls is a blessing. But there has to be something else. We need to give them over to God.
I told my wonderful group of students that I wanted to share three chapters from three of the Solitary Tales books. Not only to explain how you can put pain onto the page in a story form, but also how you can convey hope. (Note: there are spoilers ahead, something I didn’t tell the students. So you’re warned.)
I first read from Gravestone, the second book in the series. This is from the second-to-the-last chapter, where a defiant Chris Buckley makes it clear where he stands on the issue of faith.
Chapter 111: A Fine Ending
If this were a fairy tale or a story about a good person, then this would be his moment. The moment where he would seek the water for baptism. Where he would give himself up and finally give up. When he would embrace this thing that his father so fully accepted, this thing that Jocelyn so freely gave herself over to. He would stand in this flowing stream and kneel and ask for forgiveness and just let go.would be a good story and a fine ending.
But this forest doesn’t belong in a fairy tale, and standing in this stream is no good person.
I hold an old backpack containing the items I have to offer.
A Bible that once belonged to my father. One he claimed had answers for me. A Bible I gave to someone else to use, only to receive it back with claims that echoed my father’s statement.
They were both wrong.
Also inside is a leather band once given to me by someone I had just begun to know. Something that meant the world to her. It was like the Bible, a present a parent gave a child, a present with deep meaning.
Then there’s the picture of Jocelyn and me, a faded color printout of another time and another life.
Faith is believing in someone or something. And this is my moment of finding faith.
You want me to make a choice, Iris? So be it.
I know what I believe now.
I believe in anything and everything that I can do.
I believe that the world is messed up and that there’s evil and that there’s madness and that there’s mystery.
But there isn’t a God up above. He can’t be watching, not with all this madness around me. Not with everything happening. It’s okay if He wants to abandon me, but there are too many others for Him to not abandon. Too many. If He is up there, He abandoned us a long time ago.
I lift the bag and then chuck it over the falls.
If the dead can be raised, then so can other things.
I stand and look out to the surrounding stranglehold of woods.
I believe that I can and will be free.
No more sadness and no more sorrow. No more secrets and no more spying. I’m tired of trying to be a hero in a story I don’t belong in.
So here I am. Here I am.
I’m a new person, a new soul. And this soul is open and free and ready to start living.
And if God is up there, then it’s up to Him to hunt me down.
I explained to the students how remarkable it was to have a Christian publisher not only publish a young adult series but to allow me to have the main character remain a non-believer through three books. This last scene is always the most chilling because Chris is telling God to come after him, something that God does in a dramatic way.
Chapter 108: Remorse
The L-train shakes and hums and I don’t want to get off. I want to stay on here all night. I want to stay inside here the rest of my life.
I feel a deep ache inside of me. Something worse than how I felt over Jocelyn or Lily. Because this ache is because—and for—me.
I’m tired. No, I’m beyond tired. I’m exhausted.
I just want some peace.
But Mom is missing and I know that peace is a long ways away. I’m scared for her and scared to find out the truth. I know I have to go back and know this is the nice little message they’re sending to me.
I’m alone in this seat, and there’s nobody watching. Nobody prying. Nobody bothering. It’s just me. Just me and my Maker.
I know now that God is above, watching. But in many ways, I’ve always believed He was there. I had doubts and I could laugh it off or shove it away, but I sorta always still kind of believed. When Dad finally announced that he had made a big change, it felt all wrong. Of all the people in my life, it was Dad? The man who I didn’t know, who had been out of our lives, the man now saying he had found faith. That made me decide.
But deciding is one thing.
This ache—gnawing, twisting, hurting—won’t go away.
I’m seventeen and oh am I stupid.
I’m seventeen and oh am I so silly.
I feel the weight of my problems and mistakes and sins spiraling inside of me. A teen is supposed to have problems and make mistakes. But sins? Really? But I know.
This isn’t for show and isn’t out of guilt. I’m not a kid anymore. A kid moved down to Solitary, but that kid grew up.
Now, inside of this empty car, the boy who became a young man sits there. Without any doubt, but unsure of how to move on. Unsure what to do next.
“I tried,” I say out loud.
And yes, I did try. I tried to do it my way.
I even dared God to come hunt me down if He was up there.
I feel a shudder go through my body.
I feel warm and cold at the same time. The world circling around me without the help of a drop of alcohol or caffeine.
“What do You want from me?” I ask Him. “What do You want me to do?”
I feel tears blur my eyes and I let them stay.
I feel so heavy, so hard, so stuck.
“I’m sorry. Okay. Is that what You want to hear?”
I think of the words my father said:
But He is there, and He does love you. And that love—there’s nothing like it, Chris.
I think of the words Kelsey said:
Jesus says for anybody who’s tired and heavyhearted to come to Him.
And then I think of Jocelyn. This girl who knew she was on a one-way track like I am toward one single destination. And yet she still could find the way to say that she believed in the place she was going. That there was only good in that place, that she didn’t have to fear anymore. Or have regret. Or apologize.
What do you want?Pastor Marsh asked me.
I look at my hands.
Everything feels so heavy.
All I want …
“I want the hurt to go away,” I say in a loud voice.
I just want it all to go away.
I want to bottle it up and throw it out into the ocean.
I want to set a fire to it and watch it drift out into the night sky.
I want something to soak it up and then leave me dry.
I want someone to take this heavy hurt inside away.
He’ll give you rest.
I tried running, but I guess He hunted me down after all.
“If You can, Jesus, take this—take all of it—take every little drop of it and take it away. Please.”
This whole dark world needs hope.
That’s what Jocelyn said. It was a year ago when she died. And when some important part of me died with her.
Or so I thought.
I hold the seat in front of me and stare down at the floor. Then I close my eyes.
“Take this hurt and replace it with that same hope that beautiful girl had, God. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry for trying not to believe. I’m so sorry for being so stupid.”
I open my eyes and then look ahead. I wipe them and see the night outside.
I know that there is unfinished business back in Solitary, and I know I need to go back.
For my mom’s sake. And for my own.
I just know that if I do go back—no, when I go back, that I need help on my side.
Help and hope.
And maybe, just maybe, God above will be kind enough to take some of the hurt away.
The students were all shocked that I revealed a big spoiler in that text. I apologized and laughed at the same time. I told them they needed to hear this. There was very real pain that I put into this story, so I wanted them to see how I wrote about it.
The last scene I read to my group was from one of the last chapters in the final book, Hurt. I wrote this for myself, for the teenager I used to be and for the grownup I’d become. I read this to my group, hoping they could hear these words and have them help with all the things that had been going on this past week at Masterpiece.
Chapter 138: Tornado
You will have questions for the rest of your life.
But you’re not alone.
You will question yourself and your actions all the days you breathe air.
But you’re not abandoned.
You are only one and nobody else is like you.
But your life is not solitary and never will be.
You will keep hurting until your last breath.
But believe the hurt can be taken away.
Reach out for more because more is there. Reach out and believe with a heart as soft as the air flowing through your open fingers. Reach out and know that I’m there.
Reach out and touch faith, Chris.
Stare up in the eye of the storm. Don’t let the tornadoes blow you down.
Don’t ever stop.
Grow and question and wonder and cry and laugh and try and fail.
But don’t ever stop.
As many days and weeks and months and years as you have.
Blinks, all of them, in light of the good grace you’re given.
Look back not with fear and bitterness but with love.
Look ahead with the same love.
After reading this, I told the students that in so many ways, Chris Buckley and his story represent my teenage years. No, I never moved to a Satanic town and discovered people being sacrificed and underground tunnels. But the isolation and loneliness and questioning and brokenness are all things I went through. Four high schools and moving and change can do that to you. So can love and loss and faith and frustration.
Writing for me has always been cathartic. Always. But at the first Masterpiece Camp I attended, I realized there’s a place where I can put these portions of my pain. Where I can sacrifice them as an offering. Where I can put the pages onto an altar and burn them up. Where I can watch the smoke and ashes of hurt drift up to the Heavens.
Put them before God. Let Him take the hurt and fill you with peace and love.
Once again, Masterpiece was a reminder for me to keep doing that. It also made me think with pride of The Solitary Tales. If you knew me well, you’d know pride is not something I have to struggle with when it comes to my writing. God always speaks to me during this week of camp, and He always tells me to keep going. To “Just keep following the heartlines on your hand,” as the Florence + The Machine song goes.
Chris Buckley would like that particular quote.