I have such love for this group of middle schoolers. They’ve just finished their Capri Sun and their cheese and crackers. We’re here to do a writing exercise, to talk about how to create characters.
I tell them that writing saved me. That I knew I was queer when I was five and that I knew I lived in a family hostile to the truth about me. That I would not be safe if I were honest. I needed the outlet of writing, the world I could create there for myself, but I had to be safe. So I created characters. I wrote poems. The world as imagined. The character as shield and knight.
“Maybe you create someone heroic,” I tell the kids. “Maybe someone quick-witted and brave. Someone who always knows what to do. Or maybe you create a villain. Someone to experience the dark on your behalf. Maybe you create a mouse. Someone unnoticed — a quiet observer. Maybe you create a character made up of 5 of your favorite people.”
They pour themselves into the sheets of construction paper. They’re so earnest. I remember middle school as a time when we tried not to be earnest. When we were embarrassed by our enthusiasms. But these kids are not like we were. One of them keeps administering hugs. She asks first, whenever someone seems sad. They keep reassuring each other, “This is a safe space.”
A place perhaps where a character mask isn’t necessary. Whatever that may feel like. To be you at rest. Essential you. Undiluted you. Full of yearning. Your character. Not as shield or knight, but as solace, as community, as nurturer. Your self creating. You’re self-creating.