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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Why I write YA

When people hear that I write novels for teenagers, they often respond with a question that I find ever so slightly disingenuous: “How can you remember all that stuff?”

I really shouldn’t accuse complete strangers of lying to my face. After all, it’s hard to think of something to say when someone tells you her profession (“You’re a lawyer? That must be so…interesting”), and people might feel that a simple, “Cool” will make them sound un-literary. So “How can you remember all that stuff?” could just be a way of making conversation with someone whose occupation sounds dull or bewildering or, I don’t know, weird. Assuming one of these to be the case, I smile and shrug and say something along the lines of, “Just lucky, I guess.” Since I teach high school, acquaintances often assume I simply write about my students, and here too, I don’t disabuse them of their notions.

But when people ask me, “How can you remember all that stuff?” what I really want to say in response is, “How can you not?”

It seems to me that there is, quite simply, no more vulnerable, terrible, memorable time of life than adolescence. Burdened with many of the responsibilties of adulthood (complicated romantic relationships, demanding friendships, scholastic responsibilities that will impact your future), you have none of the perspective that adulthood brings—the knowledge that broken hearts heal, that friends who take without giving are not really friends, that there are many paths to happiness, that the life we live is rarely the life we plan. Before we learn these lessons, each setback feels permanent, each disappointment epic.

It is one of the blessings of adulthood that this is no longer the case. A few years ago, I was invited to a party for a friend whose trendy radio show was launching a TV series. The party would be filled with people who (to me) are hugely famous, celebrities whose stories I’ve listened to and admired for years. I was giddy with excitement about being invited and spent the days before the party impressing (annoying?) my equally awed colleagues with my invitation.

And then my son got a stomach virus. The day of the party he wasn’t deathly ill, but he spent the afternoon throwing up and by evening he was running a significant enough fever that I couldn’t see leaving him with a babysitter. I called my friend and wished her luck, told her I’d be thinking of her and asked her to call me the next morning to tell me all the details. Then I settled down to an evening spent nursing a sick pre-schooler.

I was certainly sorry to miss the party. But it was a fleeting disappointment, and the next morning I was more relieved that my son was better than I was sad about not having gone out the night before.

Had I been in high school and had the same thing happened, I think I would have died. I certainly would have wished for death, just as I wished for death (or at least a new life in the form of the witness protection plan) when boys broke up with me, when my mother wouldn’t buy me the pair of jeans I wanted (needed), when I had knock down drag out fights with my best friend.

The beauty of adulthood, for me, is that while terrible things do happen (marriages break up, people get laid off, life-long friendships end), we are, for the most part, equipped to handle them. I’m not denying there exist horrors that lay low even the most capable of adults, but these are horrors. Real horrors, not parties sick children prevent us from attending or designer jeans our incomes prevent us from purchasing.

Writing about teenagers (for me), means not just remembering but being willing to dwell in that place where life felt like walking a tightrope without a net. When the boy I liked was the last boy I would ever like, the friend I fought with was the last friend I would ever have, the college rejection letter was the finale of a promising academic career.

I believe that while many people choose not to remember what those things felt like (and who would blame them?), few have truly forgotten. Sure, the name of the girl who threw the party where you first kissed some guy in the closet might have escaped you, but has the feeling of emerging from the closet (everyone knowing what you just did and wondering about it)? If it has, I guess you’re lucky.

If it hasn’t, you might want to write a book.

To read the first chapter of The Darlings in Love, click here.



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