Thursday, September 18, 2008

Why I Write for Teens

Recently, a reviewer said I was adept with teen culture. I laughed quick to drown out my husband and two sons, who were snickering and elbowing each other. “Okaay,” they said. “Uh-huh. Ri-ight.”

I’m not up to date on current music, TV shows, video games, etc.—I never have time to get on YouTube unless I’m on a mission of some kind. The social networking sites are a moving target. I’m on Blogger when everyone else is moving to Facebook. As soon as I’m up on Facebook I’m getting invitations to Twitter (!).

My MP3 player is loaded with the music that I loved when I was a teen, with a few latter-day additions. When I mentioned developing a music playlist to go with my books, (something the cool authors are doing) my husband got this pained expression and said, “Maybe you should ask Eric and Keith to do it.” The subtext was: nobody in your target audience wants to listen to what you listen to.

So sometimes I wonder if I should be writing for teens at all. I feel like I’m totally unqualified except for the fact that I once was one.

But maybe the key to writing YA stories is remembering what it was like. All I have to do is walk into a school building, and it all comes rushing back: those nasty black bathing suits we had to wear in swimming class, the humiliation of phys ed, the bad boys I used to lust after.

I remember a boy who broke my heart. He drove an orange Mustang convertible. For years, my pulse accelerated whenever I saw a Mustang.

I remember the stricken look on another boy’s face when I told him I just wanted to be friends. “That’s not how I see us,” he said, and walked away, his back very straight. He was a poet, and so was I, but it wasn’t enough.

I have notebooks full of stories, poems, songs, and essays I wrote in junior high, high school, and college. Anyone who reads that stuff wouldn’t say adolescence is carefree. I think pain was my muse for writing back then. Either that or I was always in pain.

When I was a teen, I read like a fiend. Books were a refuge for me. I remember the time I was reading Valley of the Dolls in Problems of Democracy class and the teacher confiscated it. It belonged to a friend of my mother’s so I had to go beg for it back. Books are still important in my life, but they will never be as important as they were then.

So maybe knowledge of the specifics of popular culture isn’t important. It’s not the particular band member or TV star you’re in love with—it’s the emotional memory of how it felt. You cannot write for teens from an adult perspective. You can’t condescend. They get enough of that in real life.

If I want to remember what it felt like to be a teen, maybe listening to the music I loved when I was that age might be the way to go.

I tell myself that, anyway.

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