11/12/2013 10:24 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Healing Power Writing Can Have For Teens

In Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, New York Times bestselling author Matthew Quick unflinchingly examines the impossible choices that must be made when a student brings a gun to school--and the light in us all that never goes out.

When I was a high school English teacher, each year there were always one or two students who needed to write, just like they needed to breathe air.

These kids would furiously scribble words into notebooks and punch keyboards regardless of whether they had been assigned a writing project or not. They simply could not stop. They were driven by something within that seemed to trump the demands of teachers and parents and the system at large. For them, writing often felt like a matter of life and death, and yet no matter how hard they tried, they just couldn't get the majority of the world to understand their intense feelings, which were always on full naked display in their creative works. Sometimes these students would completely ignore my writing prompts, going off on daring tangents that were as reckless as they were brave. These types seemed to thrive in my class, maybe because they were the ones with whom I could most readily identify.

But the sad truth was this: With alarming frequency, the kids who needed to write were the ones who struggled--too often in secret--with depression and various mental health issues.

The protagonist of my latest novel is one such student. His name is Leonard Peacock. At the start of the book, he's extremely angry, and in my opinion, he has a right to be. It's his eighteenth birthday and Leonard's afraid that no one will remember, so he's giving presents to the four people whom he feels matter most. He's also planning on killing his former best friend and then himself with his grandfather's WWII trophy--a Nazi P-38 pistol. Leonard is clearly in crisis and needs to vent, which he tries very hard to do throughout the novel, both via conversation and the written word.

I would have never brought a gun to school when I was a teenager, but I was dealing with intense feelings that I could not name. I didn't have the vocabulary back then. Two decades later, I can easily and openly label what I had: depression and anxiety. (In the early nineties, people in my neighborhood simply didn't use such taboo labels, especially when describing themselves.) The storm going on inside of me was something that I didn't feel I could talk about openly--and so I started to write.

I didn't necessarily choose writing; it seemed to choose me.

About the numbers and letters my teachers wrote on the assignments I turned in, I cared little, and often hid my best work in secret notebooks or sent it to my pen pal who lived a safe five-hour drive away. For the rest of the world, I was good at hiding what was going on inside of me. If you asked my friends back then they probably would have said I was a little moody, but really just another kid from the neighborhood--someone they had known all their lives and assumed was like them. In many ways I was, and in other ways I wasn't. And I was embarrassed about those differences, especially the fact that I was too often on the verge of tears in a town where men didn't hug let alone cry.

My junior year English teacher pulled me aside one day and suggested that I enter some of my poetry into a contest and that if I won I would be taken to a university and given a critique. To my great surprise, she believed I'd be selected. The catch was this: The poems had to be typed, and since I didn't know how to type, I said I wasn't interested.

She typed them up herself and entered me anyway.

It was a small thing to do, just a little benevolent nudge, but it's the reason I can still clearly see her face in my memory all these years later.

That simple kindness mattered.

Gave me a big boost right when I needed it most.

And I was selected.

Maybe everyone was selected, but even if that were the case, I would have never had the courage to submit even my handwritten poetry on my own.

In my memory, the professor used a lot of big words to tell me that my poems weren't yet very good, but I didn't really care all that much about the critique. What mattered to me then was that my English teacher had typed up my poems--that she'd taken an interest in me at a time when I was secretly feeling pretty terrible.

I learned two lessons about writing honestly:

  1. People like the college professor I encountered will sometimes make you feel stupid and ridiculous. (This is still true in my life.)
  2. People like my high school English teacher will sometimes empathize and make you feel wonderfully visible, if only for a short period of time. (This is also still true.)

And for me, the low didn't trump the high, maybe because I knew the world would go on trying to make me feel irrelevant regardless of whether I wrote or not.

My pen pal often said she loved my writing, and so maybe there were others out there somewhere who would too.

I became a writing addict right around the time my teacher typed up my poems, which I am sure were terribly sophomoric--albeit authentic--snapshots of the teen I was.


The great storms still occasionally swell in my mind and chest, and all these years later, I'm still going to the page to sort everything out and attempt to feel less alone.

It continues to help.

A lot.