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Writing Saved My Life
Zaniyah Solis-Fearon

At age 15, I moved into August Aichhorn, a residential facility. I was court-mandated to spend two years there because I kept running away from group homes, foster homes, the Child Protective Servies (CPS) building, a residential school. You name it, I wasn’t there long. Looking back, I can see I just wanted a place to call home.

I went into care at age 11. But even before then, my voice was silenced by my mom, then by foster parents, foster siblings, friends who weren’t really friends. I never felt like my opinions mattered, so I mostly kept what I thought to myself.

But I could write what I felt without worrying about being an outcast. I wrote about everything I was going through, filling up notebook after notebook. Several people at August Aichhorn encouraged my writing: Ms. Brindle, who taught art and social studies; my English teacher, Mr. Brent; a staff named Terri Mystique, who was a poet; and my therapist, Piper. When I got upset, they gave me topics to write about like anger, forgiveness, family, love, and broken trust. I gave what I wrote to them to read.

At Aichhorn we had after-school activities. My two favorites were drumming with Kenji and a writing class called Voices Unbroken, held on Thursday nights. At Voices Unbroken, I would recite my poems and feel free, important, validated, creative, and powerful.

Because I was a flight risk, my first year at Aichhorn I wasn’t allowed outside the facility. During that year I wrote and read a lot. Little did I know that Ms. Brindle and Mr. Brent had been talking about ways to help me expand my writing. As I was leaving her class one day, Ms. Brindle handed me a Represent magazine. “Read this, and let me know what you think about it,” she said.

I started to read it as soon as I got upstairs to my room. At first, I doubted that Represent was really written by teens. I didn’t think anyone cared enough about foster kids to make this magazine; I thought adults considered us a lost cause.

For Real?

But if the magazine was legit, then that meant kids my age were writing about experiences a lot like mine. One writer in particular, Otis Hampton, spoke to me. He wrote about his adoptive father dying and about his older brother. Even though our lives were different, his writing spoke to me.

Connecting with readers the way Otis connected with me made it seem worth it to expose myself in writing. I filled out the application to become a Represent writer, which asked for three essays. For the last one, about a special person, I wrote about Francie, my therapist from the Children’s Psychiatric Center in the Bronx. I had angrily told her in one of our sessions that she didn’t know what my life was like. She didn’t answer then, but when I got discharged she gave me a book that she had written about her life. Only then did I learn that Francie was also raped as a child.

My essays got me accepted. I went to Midtown for a tour of the office (with a staff member to make sure I didn’t run off). I walked off the elevator and saw computers lined up in a big room. On the wall were covers of the teen magazines, going back to before I was born. Seeing how the magazine had evolved over the years was comforting. If Represent had been around 18 years, maybe it could give me stability.

Digging Deeper

Writing for Represent wasn’t as easy as I’d thought. I thought that I could write about whatever I wanted, however I wanted. Instead, I’d come in to find a draft full of corrections and questions.

I had shut down my emotions when I was 11, after my mother had burned my hands and tried to stab me. “If my mom tried to kill me, who can I trust? No one,” I thought. Even younger than that, I’d been raped by a family friend for years and my mom didn’t believe me. At home and then in care, I felt as if I didn’t have a voice and that no one cared enough to understand what I was going through.

Adults had hurt me and let me down, so I looked for another society, where violence was always the answer and I could justify anything I did. I found that society by joining a gang at age 12, and I lived that way in care, too. One time my staff denied me a visit from my siblings because I was disrespectful, so I smashed up Aichhorn’s common area. I told the staff, “If you hadn’t canceled my visit, the common room wouldn’t be destroyed.” Earlier, I had punched out a foster mother, then said she deserved it for being a bad foster mother.

I didn’t like that my editor, Virginia, asked me to explain my actions in my stories. I had to look at why I was so angry and be completely honest, not just to my readers but to myself as well. I still wore my gang identity like a badge or a shield, and wasn’t ready to think hard about what that meant for the rest of my life.

I was used to lying and evading my feelings, because I never felt as if my feelings mattered. Telling the truth about how I felt seemed impossible.

But I was writing for a magazine that was “true stories by teens.” I took it seriously that I couldn’t lie. And committing myself to the truth meant I had to be vulnerable. My editor asked a lot about my feelings, and I didn’t like that. She seemed to be trying to get too close with all her questions.

But Virginia explained that she was asking questions from a reader’s point of view. To write good stories, I would need it to make sense to a random person. I got angry when the edits made me feel vulnerable, and I would tell Virginia that I hated her, but we always came back to the story.

image by YC-Art Dept

One thing that made it worth it was thinking about my readers. I could make a difference in their lives by telling my true stories for those afraid to speak up. To help them, I had to make a stand and face my demons.

I used writing and answering Virginia’s questions about my experiences to help me understand myself better. I found I was more honest writing for Represent than I was in therapy. In therapy, I beat around the bush, and at first, I did that in my writing too. But Virginia kept asking the questions I didn’t answer. Looking back, I think I stopped beating around the bush because I was curious to see how writing for Represent would benefit me if I sincerely stuck to it.

Facing Up to My Life

My first story was about being in the gang, which I wasn’t quite ready to leave. But as I wrote the story, I confirmed to myself that there was no future in it. The ending of the story was that I wanted better for myself. While writing the story, I started to remove myself from the gang.

I lost privileges at the residential facility for part of the year and couldn’t come to Represent, plus I avoided the office when Virginia’s questions got too personal. It took almost a year to finish the story. But when I finally did and got paid for it, I felt like an actual writer.

Writing that story helped me begin to understand why I was so angry and hurt. For the first time, I could confront myself, not someone else, when I had those feelings. Before coming to Represent, I’d been stuck in a repetitive cycle of violence and anger because I didn’t really believe my life was real. It seemed more like a nightmare.

Writing my story was the first time I admitted, “This is what happened in my life.” The anger got clearer: I hated my mother for trying to kill me, and I hated myself for being raped, but part of me thought I must have been very bad for my mom to abuse me. No wonder I hated being vulnerable so much.

To my surprise, this was healing. The more we edited the story, the clearer things became to me. Writing changed the lenses I looked through. I understood I just wanted to have someone love me. I wanted a home and family.

If my therapist was asking questions that pissed me off, I’d run away or scream at my therapist. At Represent, I could leave, but my work would still be where I left it—and I was not getting paid until I finished it.

It took a while for that first piece to appear in the magazine. For my safety it was “by Anonymous” rather than my name. Even so, when I saw the piece published, I was so proud of myself. I bragged to a few people that I had written the story. Most of them were impressed by my writing, and a few staff said they understood me more as a person from reading my story.

I believe writing for Represent is why I haven’t been incarcerated. From an early age, I was running away, stealing, gang banging, and fighting. I disrespected authority left and right.

Becoming Who I Want to Be

I never understood why I couldn’t let go of my anger. I was so angry that it was hard for people to get to know me. Why did I isolate myself and turn to violence, and who the hell was I as a person? As my stories explored who I was, I gained clarity and learned to feel comfortable as I am. When I was a young teenager, I only wanted to please my older gang boyfriends; before that I needed to comfort my mother even when she was abusing me. I didn’t know how to value myself; I didn’t know who I was.

I started understanding that my anger was a cry for help. I was in a dark place, and I didn’t know how to get myself out. I was so desperate to find love and to fit in because I hated myself. The more I wrote the less angry and the more content I became.

I am proud of who I am becoming, and writing for the magazine has helped me find that person and be that person. Being a published writer whose stories help other people makes me feel amazing.

And Represent taught me so much more than writing. Represent was and is a family to me. I got the support and the tough love from Virginia not only in my writing but also in my personal life. I am able to communicate more, and I was able to engage more and be more honest in therapy. Represent became the family I was desperate to have, where safety is a priority.

Other things have helped: I eliminated violent people out of my circle little by little, and gave my love to my daughter Aasyiah. I started going to the gym and working my anger out there. I avoid negative people so I am not in threatening situations where I’d be tempted to fight.

I became a better person because, even when I wanted to give up, Virginia wouldn’t let me. She let me leave the magazine for months, but she never let me lose my focus. She always kept me motivated to write. Virginia has a way of sticking with her writers even at their weakest moment and for that I am forever grateful.

Without her persistent questions, I wouldn’t have found out that the majority of my anger was toward myself—and that I didn’t need to be mean to myself. Her support let me be vulnerable and let someone in. I think writing here for the past five years saved me from becoming another statistic. Without Represent I don’t know where my life would have led me.

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