Embracing self-advocacy through creative writing classes

A student describes their experience advocating for accurate mental health representation in their creative writing class.


Since I was 16, I’ve had to craft minute-by-minute schedules of my day. I counted every moment that filled my empty time, from the final papers I had to write all the way down to the seconds it took to buckle my belt. For seemingly no reason, the thought of not having every gap of time accounted for frightened me. 

My toxic habit of counting time was a characteristic of a larger problem, and at 18, during my first year at Temple, I was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder. My OCD overwhelmed my mind, causing an all-consuming anxiety that I could never seem to communicate. 

Then, during the second semester of my freshman year, I discovered Temple’s creative writing minor: a program where students are free to express the roughest parts of themselves through fiction writing workshops. 

In my Creative Writing: Fiction course, students brought rough drafts of stories we’d written to critique in a group setting each class. We used those criticisms to edit our work and share again to celebrate our growth.

Imperfect drafts were expected in the class, but many of my fellow classmates’ stories portrayed mental health in dangerous ways. During each workshop, there was a noticeable growing obsession among writers with diagnosing their characters with a mental health disorder, whether it be PTSD or bipolar disorder.  

Many depictions portrayed OCD as a charming yet pitiful trait, where characters simply fiddled with their jewelry or counted cracks on the sidewalk to ease their anxiety. 

The student work mirrored mainstream mental health representation.   

I’ve only seen two accurate media representations of OCD throughout my life: “Fun Home” by Alison Bechdel and “Turtles All The Way Down” by John Green. Both of these stories capture the debilitating nature of OCD in how it negatively affects relationships and productivity, making simple tasks, like writing, seem like an Olympic feat. 

However, the most culturally relevant portrayals of OCD tend to be characters like Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, where his compulsions were set to a laugh track and treated like an inconvenience. The comedic portrayals made me believe I may not be obsessive-compulsive as a child because what I was seeing on screen was the opposite of my experience. My OCD has no laugh track.  

The misrepresentations of OCD stung because my experience could not be summarized into one-liner jokes. I felt envious of these unrealistic characters who could acknowledge their condition and simply move on. My disorder bled into every aspect of my life with no escape route, while so many fictional characters could simply abandon OCD like it was a minor inconvenience.   

The way mainstream media — and now even my own peers — minimized OCD made me feel more insane than I already was. I made a point to correct these depictions with the other students, but I always felt apprehensive about it, worrying it may not be important enough to bring attention to. 

I never wanted to seem dramatic or come across as insinuating the writers to be bad people, but I realized it is almost impossible for my peers to make art that reflects OCD accurately in a society that lacks proper representation if no one spoke up to educate them.     

When I gathered the courage to bring up the issue during workshops, the authors were always receptive to what I had to say, and I was left with a glint of hope. The writers expressed how they only intended to add depth to their story by adding a mental health condition and they understood my critique. 

After years of on-screen and literary depictions of OCD making me feel unseen, I felt both shocked and gracious at my classmates’ compassionate responses and willingness to grow.  

Every critique I made resulted in a noticeable difference in final drafts, as my peers would edit their stories to omit OCD entirely or instead write proper depictions free from comedic relief. No one had any malicious intent, and coming to that realization changed my relationship with workshopping. 

My story critiques began to shift from frustration and resentment to a genuine desire to see the artists grow, a level of grace every classmate had afforded me, too.  

I still voiced my opinions, but I began focusing on the use of language, structure and any other areas they could improve rather than solely mental health depictions. It wasn’t fair to let my anger ruin the hard work of learning young artists. 

I’m inspired by everyone in my writing workshops who shares a desire to advance their craft. Coming to terms with misrepresentation took a long time, but I’ve found beauty in artists with diverse perspectives joining together to uplift each other through workshopping.  

Creative writing workshops allowed me to not only grow as an artist but to emerge with a newfound empathy and understanding of the creative process that is indispensable.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.