Sunday, November 16, 2014

35 years

I turned 35 on Friday. I can’t believe I’ve made it this many years on earth. Life is hard and I have made some questionable decisions that could have made it a lot shorter. There was the time my college roommate and I hitchhiked in the middle of Iowa at 4 AM. During a vacation in Mexico my husband and I followed a shady tour guide off-road in a small rental car that took us to the middle of a field. It was the perfect setting for us to be car-jacked and be-headed. There have been countless times I have eaten foods from my fridge way past the expiration date just because they smelled like they were fine, bacteria be damned. So how did I make it this many years?

Not everyone has the luxury of 35 years. My husband only lived for thirty-four. I’ll never understand why he didn’t get more years, but that is a post for another time.

I don’t believe I survived this long because of anything I did to merit these years. Being 35 feels like a huge responsibility. I feel I have lost the ability to blame things on inexperience or lack of knowledge. At this point in my life I should have enough life experience to know how to make good choices. If I live to be 70, I’m halfway there. I’ve already had half my life to learn how to exercise common sense. That’s a long time. It’s three and a half decades worth of life lessons. 

Stylin' a tattoo choker
I’m more than twice the age of most of my protagonists. When I think of it that way, I feel far removed from the characters I love to write. When I was their age, Puff Daddy and Toni Braxton owned the airwaves and R. Kelly believed he could touch the sky. I pulled curly tendrils out of bandanas my mom made for me from fabric scraps, and wore tattoo choker necklaces. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet had the kind of whirlwind romance I longed for, minus the sinking ship. I was a senior in high school, had two part-time jobs, raised funds for my prom, and escaped to suburban teen dance clubs on Saturday nights. It was a pivotal year, too. When I was 17 I left Chicago for college, knowing in my heart that I would never live there again. 

When I think back to the late nineties it feels like everything was so different. How can I write an authentic teen character that today’s seventeen year olds can relate to when I'm old enough to have birthed that character? 

Well, not everything was so different back then. I had crushes, and teens still have them now. I may not have been Snap Chatting photos to him, but the excitement of getting a page from your crush back in 1997 carried the same butterflies and excitement as getting a text does today. I remember the agony of waiting for college acceptance letters and the pain of applying in the first place. Acceptance letters may come via email today, but you still have to apply and wait to see if the school of your dreams wants you as badly as you want it. If college wasn’t your thing, you were constantly being asked what you were going to do with your life, as if 17 years had prepared you to determine what you did with the remaining decades you had left. That pressure is still as strong as ever.

Rockin' overalls
My friends were my world back then. I wanted to spend as much time with them as I could, and what they thought about my life was paramount. That same desire to be part of something still fuels teens today. You can see it in the themes of the movies they flock to that become number one at the box office. At seventeen my parents were the last people I wanted to be around. I was tired of their rules and wanted to pave my own way. What teen doesn’t want that, no matter what decade they live in? 

All in all, the core of being a teen is timeless. It is what allows writers like John Green and Gayle Forman to write multiple best-selling YA novels well past their adolescent years. It is what excites me most about writing for teens. I get to spend time remembering nights on the phone with my best friend, inventing possible ways to run into our crush; proudly wearing collegiate gear of every school I applied to; sneaking in or out of my house to go to that party that EVERYONE was going to. It is par for the course to keep those scenes as vivid as possible in my mind so I can draw on them as needed. That is a luxury. It keeps my mind sharp and reminds me of feelings that are harder to come by as an adult. It keeps me close to the wonder and enthusiasm of youth, and that is something I hope to never lose, no matter how many candles I blow out each year. 

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