The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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Writing my stories freed me
Otis Hampton

In the spring of 2008 I was about to graduate high school, and I had to start thinking about college. The application process was taking a long time, and I wasn’t doing much else. A mentor mentioned a magazine written by teens about their experiences in the foster care system.

I’d been writing short stories and poems since I was 7, so I filled out the application. I was excited to have my dream of being a published writer come true and to meet new people who also liked to write.

I had never shared my experiences in foster care or being adopted with people I didn’t know. I worried that I wouldn’t make friends if I shared things like being physically abused or that I was adopted.

I read some Represent stories online. I saw that other writers were writing amazing stories and sharing personal experiences that I didn’t think any foster kid would reveal. I thought “If they’re brave enough, maybe it’s time I come out of the dark.” At first, I felt embarrassed and even fearful about telling people about things like my cerebral palsy or getting my ass kicked or my biological parents giving me up when I was 2. Growing up, my adoptive family liked to keep things private. But it was a relief to let things out. Plus, I enjoy getting feedback on my writing.

I was nervous at first because I’d never worked with an editor. I’d write a draft and my editor would put questions and suggestions into it. I’d answer the questions and she’d put more questions in. Through many drafts, we crafted the story.

There were some days where I felt like I was taking high school English all over again. My editor’s guidance was helpful but frustrating at times. For example, she’d sometimes cut my sarcastic humor out. [Editor’s note: But not always!] Nevertheless, I could tell the collaborative editing between me and my editor, Virginia, made my stories better by helping me understand what I was trying to say.

One of the best (and worst) things about working with my editor is when she’d ask me to describe my feelings about a situation. My stories cover emotional topics: my father’s death, my suicide attempt, being bullied, and getting kicked out of my mother’s house and moving into a shelter. I have trouble telling people how I feel, so when Virginia wrote queries like “How did you feel about that?” or “Flesh this out a little more,” I felt like I was being asked to pick a wire that could deactivate a bomb! Still, I’ve learned to be more honest in my stories because of her urging that I share my feelings.

Greatest Hits

One of my first stories was “Soundtrack of My Life” which was about how different musical genres reflected different stages of my life: boy bands, then my “gangsta” phase; then hard rock and heavy metal. These different music styles were connected to things going on in my life like being bullied at school and feeling socially isolated from my friends or coping with my adoptive dad’s death.

“The Life and Death of the Crippled Enigma,” was about how writing helped me and harmed me. The Crippled Enigma was a nickname I gave myself to pay homage to my disability, cerebral palsy, and professional wrestler Jeff Hardy, known as The Charismatic Enigma.

What started out as a nickname, however, soon became the embodiment of who I was. Sometimes I was still the goofy kid my friends wanted to be around. But the Crippled Enigma was sarcastic and mean to people. He always wanted to be alone and would lash out against his loved ones for no reason.

That was the first story where I revealed how angry I was that my birth parents abandoned me and that I was bullied in junior high. I also wrote about my sadness about losing the girlfriend I had when I was 13. I didn’t want to let people know how hurt I was because I felt like that was a sign of weakness, so I used the Crippled Enigma to hurt others instead. Writing the story helped me realize how cruel I was being to others while hiding behind the persona. The Crippled Enigma was a mask I used to avoid taking any responsibility for my actions.

image by YC-Art Dept

In my five years of writing here, I’ve published 22 stories, several of which have ended up in books. The most personal story I’ve written here was about the relationship between me and my adoptive dad, who died when I was 8. I cried while writing that story because every memory made me wish he were still around.

Losing my dad brought on a lot of stress between me and my mother. She fed and clothed me, but she also taunted me about my disability and told people that my biological parents gave me up. At 16, depression started to sink in and I became suicidal. I wrote about my suicide attempt and the anguish behind it for Represent.

My editor pulls the best out of the writers she works with. If it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t have been able to find all the emotion or power in my stories.

One story I didn’t think I’d have the heart to write about was being homeless. 2012 wasn’t exactly the best year of my life. My mom kicked me out and I went to a homeless shelter in Brooklyn. The disgusting and noisy environment disrupted my studying, and I dropped out of college. But I did end up writing about it.

Overcoming Fears, Inspiring Others

I was homeless for almost two years. During that time, I turned 23, which is the age that writers stop coming to the Represent offices to write. (You can keep writing over e-mail.) I’d been spending several days a week in this office, for five years.

Before writing for Represent, I’d never had a job before. I learned how to be professional in the workplace through activities like a mock interview and helping to make several videos to accompany my stories. I learned some office etiquette—for example, to keep the music on my headphones at a volume that doesn’t distract the other writers.

A few times, Virginia asked me to write something quickly for an issue that was about to go to press, so I got practice in writing fast. Meeting deadlines has made me feel reliable, which is important in any job. I also sharpened my teamwork skills when we had staff meetings to decide topics for upcoming issues.

I accomplished a lot while writing for Represent, and I also got a lot off my chest. I faced my fear of speaking my mind and even spoke on panels and at public events. I shared my stories over Facebook and (sometimes) Twitter. I like when people ask me about my stories, and I like being a published writer. I made new friends here; there’s a family feeling in this place.

When I share what I really feel in my stories, it’s a big relief not to hide my emotions. Being honest in what I write has also helped me inspire others. A kid I made friends with at the shelter I lived in was uncomfortable telling people that he was homeless. I mentioned that I had been writing for Represent. I gave him some issues and he shared them with staff and residents. They were all surprised that someone wrote about living in a shelter in a magazine.

Soon after I turned 23, I moved to Albany, four hours from New York City, to join Job Corps. I felt like I was finished with Represent. If I couldn’t walk into the office and be greeted by my peers, it wouldn’t be the same. But I took a stack of Represent magazines to Albany, and reading them made me remember that I love writing no matter where I am. Recently, I wrote an emotional poem about an ex-girlfriend, and it was the most therapeutic thing I’ve written since I left almost a year ago.

But I want my writing to go further than my journal. Without Represent, my voice would be but the faintest whisper in the world. I think I will become a long-distance correspondent.

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