A few years back, I had one frightening week. I had my head down, working hard, when I heard a commotion outside. I got up to look out my front window and saw the SWAT team marching towards my house, carrying guns and wearing bullet-proof vests. Once the sound of the news helicopters alerted me to turn on the TV, I found out what was going on: there had been a workplace shooting in my normally quiet neighborhood, and at first law enforcement thought the gunman might be on the loose.
Things eventually went back to being quiet here, but they’re not the same. There’s an almost tangible sorrow hanging in the air because of the lives lost. I can’t help but remember the care that our neighborhood UPS driver, one of those killed, always took to hide my packages from the winter weather (sometimes he hid them so well that I didn’t ﬁnd them at first, either). The last package he delivered to me was something I’d greatly anticipated: the line edits for my novel. I’ve tied a brown ribbon on my railing in his honor.
I’m not the only one who waited fearfully until they announced it was safe to leave our homes again. I was talking to a neighbor yesterday, and she said that her five-year-old reassured her, during the time when we still thought there was active danger, by saying, “It’s okay, Mommy, I learned what to do in school. We just get down on the floor and hide.”
That breaks my heart.
During that chilling week, I was also dealing with another series of mini-scares—and I want to make it clear, I recognize that these are on a radically smaller scale than the tragedy above. But for me they’ve been frightening events, nonetheless: mice have suddenly appeared in my house. I’m terrified of mice. It’s a fear that goes way beyond rational, housed in some deep primal corner of my brain, as evidenced by the fact that my response when I see one is the embarrassingly stereotypical duo of jumping up on the closest piece of furniture and shrieking.
My response, although way over-the-top, is a good reminder that fear isn’t always rational, but it’s always deeply felt. Sometimes the things we fear are based on horrible realities, and sometimes they’re just a mouse in the house. Wherever they fall on the spectrum, fear is still one of the biggest human emotions. And writing, I’ve learned, is one way that young people can effectively grapple with their own fears. Asking your students, “What is the thing that most scares you?” and then giving them the chance to journal about it, or to address a letter poem to that fearful thing, or to construct a plot where the character shares their fear, can lead to deeply powerful writing—as well as, sometimes, to a sense that they have some control over the fearful thing itself.
With sincere apologies to author Neil Gaiman for most likely horribly mangling his words, I remember once hearing him respond to an interviewer who asked why he wrote such frightening books for kids. He answered that kids are all too aware that there are monsters hiding under their beds, and it’s no use trying to convince them otherwise. So he tries to give them stories that acknowledge the monsters, but where kids still win out in the end.
Sometimes, maybe, we can also gain a little ground on our monsters by writing about them—just like I’ve done here.