Writing for Teens Is a Do-over

Photo: Getty Images/Westend61/Giorgio Fochesato

Before I started writing YA, I was resistant to the idea. I’m in my 30s, and didn’t know if I could convincingly channel a 17-year-old’s concerns and sensibilities. But since I started writing books, eight years ago now, I’ve been told that my voice is “girlish,” and “young” — sometimes a compliment, sometimes not. Probably all writers want to be taken seriously, and being told you should think about writing for kids is bound to agitate that wish. There are serious and beautifully written YA books, but they’re not considered literary, usually. None of the four books I’ve written for adults are considered literary, either, but at least I could say they were read by people my age — as if age confers taste, or seriousness.

Then, after my fourth book came out, I felt disillusioned and uninspired by the idea of proceeding as usual. I was bored with all the latest, most acclaimed novels I was reading, too, struggling to find ones I liked enough to finish. I missed reading like a kid, when I spent the summers checking out six books at a time from the library, reading in bed for hours every morning and night. That was the kind of reader I wanted, and wanted to be.

So, with the encouragement of an auspiciously timed email from the woman who’d become my YA editor, I started writing a version of a love story I’ve heard recounted dozens of times over the past five years: two 14-year-old girls come out to each other, then fall in love. This was the draft that would eventually be a book called Girl Crushed, which comes out today. One of those girls is now my wife, and the other, our friend Jenna, and every time they’re together, I learn something new and adorable about their courtship, like that Jenna lied about having seen Lydia’s favorite show, Alias, just to have something to talk to her about. I’m amazed by their luck as much as their bravery. Now it may not be so unusual for two queer suburban high-school girls to find each other, but in 2002, it was miraculous.

2002 was also the year that the Russian duo t.A.T.u. released a song called “All the Things She Said,” about a lesbian couple enmeshed in forbidden romance. I was intrigued by t.A.T.u., but more so by Heath Ledger in A Knight’s Tale. I was straight then, like apparently everyone else I’d ever met: in my 420-person class, there was not a single out gay student. I knew of “LGBTQ people” only as an abstract concept whose inability to legally marry upset me, but they had nothing to do with me or my life, which was about getting good grades and having crushes on boys who didn’t speak to me.

Photo: Knopf Books

I was a happy enough kid in high school: I wasn’t popular but I wasn’t bullied, or paid much attention to at all, which I think was my goal. I avoided dances. I didn’t date or kiss anyone, or ever break curfew, or smoke a cigarette, or sneak out of my house in the middle of the night. I worked at American Eagle and then Panera and I played tennis and for one semester I was a D.A.R.E. Role Model. Every year I assumed that the next year would be the year I got a boyfriend — “got,” as if I’d wake up one morning and find him on my doorstep.

I don’t think it’s the not-dating part I’d do over so much as it is this: the waiting, the passivity, the submission. I wish someone told me I didn’t have to follow the rules so closely. Or, wait, that’s still me wanting permission, so I’ll rephrase: I wish I’d figured out, on my own, that I had to go after what and who I wanted. Somehow Lydia knew this. Somehow Jenna knew this. I wish I’d known them both.

In writing YA, I am able to imagine what I might have done if I were 16 or 17 again, knowing what I know now. I am able to put a little of myself in my characters, but instead of doing what I did, I can make them take the risk, or break the rule. I am able to imagine what it would have done for me to be around queer people and influences sooner — just to know they existed, to know there wasn’t only one way to be.

At a therapy session a few weeks after I came out, when I was 28, I told my therapist I felt sad and jealous whenever Lydia talked about high school and college. I’d thought I was a relatively happy teenager, so why, now, did my own adolescence look so empty of experience? “That’s grief,” my therapist told me.

Writing YA gives me a chance to do high school over, but it also gives me a chance to say good-bye. I’m an adult who knows how time works but still it stings, realizing I’ll never, ever be 16 again. I’ll never get to ask a girl to homecoming, or redo my first kiss. I’ll never get to know what that all-consuming teenage love feels like. I can’t regret not doing what never occurred to me, but I can mourn it. I did the best I could, I think. I wish I’d done more.

I write books to get something out of my system: some intolerable fact of my existence, or a friendship dynamic I can’t stop thinking about, or, in the case of Girl Crushed, a love story I wish were mine. It’s not that the writing eliminates the problem — it’s more that writing a book focuses all my attention on the problem for long enough that I finally get sick of it, and can move on. The seriousness of the problem is sort of beside the point. I like writing YA because it’s not writing what I know. It’s writing what I wish could have been.

Writing for Teens Is a Do-over