Tuck a madcap teenager into your manuscript?

by Nancy Means Wright

As a youngish mother with four lively children teaching high school and trying to write between classes, I was losing weight and, all too frequently, patience.  My oldest son had been expelled from his pre-school for breaking the toys, and was too fidgety to concentrate in first grade, so I had to teach him to read–with the help of Dr. Seuss.  I hadn’t yet heard of ADHD or the drug Ritalin. My daughter, two years his junior, was  a teacher’s darling in school but a mother’s nightmare at home with her negativity and a closet full of rabbits, guinea pigs, and white rats. When her clothes got too smelly she would raid my closet/bureau for school apparel–usually just what I was planning to wear. How many rainy days I’d come home, exhausted from teaching, to find the living room window glass shattered by flying pucks from an indoor hockey game organized by my eldest!

If they were wild as pre-teens, they were beyond control as young adults. My daughter graduated high school with ease, then took a gap year before college to wander, alone, through Europe, then into the explosive Middle East. My oldest son poured all his energy into hockey–his college coach phoned with abject apologies when the lad crashed into a goal post and knocked out half his teeth (another “gap” year and don’t ask about the cost.)

I got my revenge by writing them into stories and books. Teens appear in almost all my twenty books–mysteries, mainstream novels, poems.  My daughter howled when I wrote up her risky gap year adventures in a local newspaper column. “How could you?” she’d cry, “that was my story!”

Well, we’re all familiar with the “my story” syndrome, yes?

They’re grown up now with wilding kids of their own. This year I’ve four grandchildren doing their thing in the developing countries of Central America, Africa, and the Near East. And I worry about them as they wander. Because adolescence, I recently read in a piece by a professor of clinical psychiatry “is synonymous with risk taking, emotional drama, and all forms of outlandish behavior.”

Apparently, the professor says, we afflicted elders have never understood the dark side of adolescence, the “surge in anxiety and fearfulness.” For the brain circuit, he claims, develops far ahead of the pre-frontal cortex (the seat of reasoning and control). In other words, teens are overwired for anxiety but underwired for calm reasoning.

I could have told him that years ago! But if my daughter was so afraid and anxious, why did she keep traveling through Iran, Afghanistan and India, where they threw pebbles at her, a young woman daring to explore the world–alone?  And why did my eldest hurtle his body into contact sports that might injure his brain and eliminate his teeth? (Even as a college hockey coach, he was recently hit by an errant puck and bled all over the ice.)

The three top killers of youth, I’ve heard, are homicide, accidents, and suicide. My offspring, and now my grandkids, have all had accidents. One granddaughter was a passenger in a rented car en route to Duke University when the car was rear-ended and a heavy suitcase fell and killed a girl in the back seat. Even though it wasn’t my granddaughter driving, she still suffers PSTD from the death of her close friend.

I’m not surprised to see the increasing popularity of young adult novels these days, as we authors write about  this risk-taking circuit in the adolescent brain. One might  add a world filled with guns, bombs, drugs, civil wars and children fleeing violence to travel on their own to a U.S. that is trying to keep them out. And the young brain has gone crazy with it all–wanting to escape–not like me as an aging writer into books–but physically: to another part of the untamed world, not knowing what the welcome might be.

All I can do now with my tired brain is to stand out on the village green in my Vermont home town and wave a petition for universal background checks for guns. And then go home and work on a story about–well, yes, a runaway teen.

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12 Responses

  1. I lose patience when I come home to crumbs on the counter (from my husband) or when visiting grandkids run from one room to the other — no damage, just shrills. I’m amazed that you stuck it out and now have extraordinary people that you gave the world.

    • Well, the grandchildren are worth it. But I’ve had huge frustrations along the way! And was a late bloomer to published writing because of the home pandemonium.I love writing teens into books, though. They’re great for developing conflicts.

  2. In my dodderage, I have found myself doing the same thing. People have said for generations that everyone has a story inside them, but I have decided that everyone also has the potential for tragedy as they stumble through their formative years. It is rather astonishing that any of us live long enough to become adults. If anyone wants to understand life, they need to view it from the perspective of it being like a rock tumbler. Our sharp edges get worn off by rubbing against people and things that cause abrasion. Often, we produce some offspring that are rather wonderful as soon as they get past the ‘stupid years.’

    • A wonderful way to put it, Joe: we do indeed have the “potential for tragedy” as we bumble our way through those early, risk-taking years.
      My abrasive son who broke all the rules is now a strong disciplinarian of his young college hockey players. And my wild-living daughter has morphed into an earth mother of two. After the age of 25 reason ultimately prevails for most–but not all. My former husband never got over his fraternity days! (Hence our divorce…)

  3. I’ve written six novels for teens. Like you, Nancy, I raised my children and also taught high school English. So I felt very comfortable writing about the trials and tribulations of those years. My latest, THE DEVIL AND DANNA WEBSTER, actually goes back in time rather than a sci-fi future which is especially popular these days.

    • Yes, you portrayed teens beautifully in your recent novel, Jacquie. I based some of the teens in my books on the conflicts and risks my own kids have taken, and think I now understand them better after reading the latest research on the young brain. That is, it makes me feel less guilty about some of their actions I could never seem to control.

  4. Nancy, you bring back memories of those parent-of-teen years. One of the great gifts of being a writer is that everything become material for our work. I used a few teenager characters in short stories and in my novel and always find it interesting to slip inside that adolescent skin and see the world from their perspective.

    • Right, Anita, and we learn more about ourselves as we go. It’s interesting to think back and remember who we were in our turbulent teens: what we’ve achieved since then, and what we haven’t attained.I think teens can bring a freshness and vigor to our mature work.

  5. I kept a journal as a teen so I can look back and see exactly how self-centered and selfish I was. I’m also amazed at some of the things I recognized/realized about the world and people in it. There were depths to my shallowness that surprise me now.
    I use the journals to help construct self-absorbed Allison in the Subbing isn’t for Sissies series.

    • How wonderful to have a journal to look back on, Carolyn, for your “self-absorbed Allison!” I didn’t keep a journal, alas, but have kept some of my adolescent writings, and am amazed at what a naive little fool I really was, Now I want to look for your “Subbing isn’t for Sissies” series. A great title!

  6. As a writer of young adult fiction myself, I have to laugh and cry along with you, for I am also the mother of 3 and grandmother of 7 darling folks who’ve had their share of mishaps. Never had the nerve to put any of them into my novels though. You are a brave soul!Thanks for a thoughtful post.

    • You might try a memoir, Susan–your offspring will love you for it! And yes, why not put them, disguised, into your YA fiction? Surely you already do, in some subliminal way. From reading your fiction, I would think so.

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