I felt a little out of place as I sat down in the theater to watch “Paper Towns.” I was by myself, as per usual, and looking around the theater I realized that I was the only one there that was not a 15 year old girl or a parent who was dragged there against their will. No, I was a man on the verge of 23 years old sitting alone in a movie designed for teenagers.
Maybe its my crippling self-criticism, but I feel like this is a bad move. Not that anyone really cared at all. I just always have this nagging feeling that someone is lurking in the shadows judging me. Saying things like “Eww, what’s that creepy dude doing here? Why is he crying? Did his dog die or something? There is no way he’s this worked up over the lives of fictional teens.” But I am that worked up because as much as I judge myself for it, I really do like coming of age stories and YA lit.
I wasn’t always so open to the idea of young adult novels. I didn’t really read any of the Harry Potter books ’til my junior year of high school. I looked down on anything written from the perspective of a high school student with miserable disdain. After all, I was a serious writer. I tackled the hard subjects like death and loss and the inability to find a girlfriend. Anytime I asked a friend what book I should read, they’d say The “Perks of Being a Wallflower” and I would scoff like a pretentious little jerk.
Then I read “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” It felt like life punched me in the stomach really hard but I was sort of happy about it. Never had I read a book that dealt with the issues that were currently floating around in my head. I’d never read anything that tackled anxiety and depression in such a visceral, real way. No monsters and magic. No ghosts. Just pain and emotion and hope and it flipped the script on my life.
Here was a book that tackled all the subjects I liked to thing I understood and it spoke directly to those who live it daily. At the end of the day all of my work was about the same things: that growing up sucks. Whether you’re 12 or 25, growing up is painful and awkward and it sucks. But here I held a book that spoke to me about those things, let me live in a world where these problems were addressed and sort of made things ok.
To this day I hold onto that book tightly. It’s the only book I’ve ever read three times and if I leave home for more than two days, you can guarantee that that book is on my person. Whenever I’m stressed out or depressed, I pick it up or watch the movie. It doesn’t quite make it better, but it makes it manageable. And that’s a powerful thing.
After that I started doing my best to find more and more books like it. That tackled the same issues, that had that same protective impact for its fans. I discovered Ned Vizzini’s “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” and Simon Rich’s “Elliot Allagash.” Rainbow Rowell and most importantly John Green. These books and writers became my guides and my teachers. Before long it dawned on me that this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to write novels about the struggles of growing up that could help teens and young adults the same ways these books helped me. To tackle life’s problems and pains with a glimmer of humor and hope.
So I try my best to read as much of these novels as possible. Which is weird because I’m pretty sure if you saw me just hanging around the Young Adult section at Barnes and Noble for extended periods of time, you would call the cops on me.
But I don’t know enough about the genre to just shop on Amazon and have them shipped discreetly to my house. I have to get in their, pick up the books, flip around and see what grabs me. Because lets be honest, for as much good stuff one can find in that section, there is just as much, if not more, god awful garbage. So I have to take my time and sift. Which I can never comfortably do.
My trips through the Young Adult section are all designed to loo like accidents. I casually stroll up and down the fiction aisles, looking at the names I should have read in college. Giving a long linger over a handful of Nabokov’s so that any passers-by think that I am sophisticated and am a true student of my craft. “Oh, of course I’ve read “Pnin.” Like in third grade.”
Before long the fiction section turns into the young adult fiction section. I pick up a book with a colorful cover and make a show of being interested by its novelty. I pick it up, flip it over, and then set it down. Then I’m in.
I give myself about five minutes max. It’s like moving through the porn section at old video stores. You rush through, grab something that looks vaguely like it suites your interests, and you bolt without making eye contact. If there are already people in the section, I walk away.
Occasionally I’ll be shopping and a parent will be looking for the “Hunger Games” books or “Divergent” or whatever new dystopia allegory is in theaters this weekend and I’ll debate pointing them in the right direction. The conversation in my head goes “Oh thanks, do you work here?” And I’m all like “Nah, I just reading about 16 year old’s love-lifes.” And then they scurry their pre-teen away and give them a lecture in talking to strangers with beards.
So I don’t talk to anyone. I never ask someone for suggestions or where to find something. If I can’t do it on my own, I guess I’ll just suffer.
I don’t know why I’m so weird about things like this. Between fear of judgement from parents and aggressively rude teenagers, I also have this fear that my peers and educators are looking down on me. I went to school to be a writer. I was supposed to read Mark Twain and Graham Greene and Dostoyevsky and be inspired to create great works of literature. To handle my craft to tell stories of importance.
But I have no desire to write moody dude poetry. I want to write stuff that’s goofy and fun. I want to write about stuff that freaked me out when I was younger and only continues to freak me out more as I grow up. I don’t want to take down the government with a think piece. I want to let some chubby kid know that it’s ok to be sad sometimes.
That’s the battle I have everyday. Do I write something I want to write and have fun or do I want to write something important? As if those two things don’t occupy the same space. Sometimes this battle between what I want to do and what I feel I need to do to live up to my potential is crippling. More like all the time. I oscillate between this projects and that story and what I want to do, “but no the people on tumblr will not like me” and “I’ll be letting Professor Rabb down…” so much that it paralyzes me.
This blog is the most that I’ve really done to write for myself lately and I can’t even keep that rolling out consistently. I’m just kind of stuck soemtimes and I want to break that. I want to tell stories that I’m passionate about. I want to write with the type of passion I did in high school when I should have been listening to an Algebra II lecture. But I’ve become so hyper-aware of expectation and what it’s like to have to live up to something, that I forget that there really is no pressure on me to do any one thing. No one really gives a shit and as horrible as that sounds, that’s really freeing sometimes.
After seeing “Paper Towns,” I kind of got reenergized to tell a story that I want to tell. To write something that may have helped me or someone like me navigate his way through college or something like that. I try to stop focusing on doing something important and focus on doing something that feels right to me. Something that makes me love writing.
I mean, I still only allow myself five minutes in the Young Adult section, but maybe one day I’ll allow myself a little longer when I’m admiring my work on the shelf.