In Praise of Teenagers

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I’ve always had a particular affinity for teenagers. I’ve taught them for 20+ years as a college professor. When I was a young adult, my two half-siblings were in their teens. When my dear friend Deborah Tall was in the final stages of her life, I was honored to get to know her teen daughters who have turned, over many years, into friends. When I married, I acquired two beautiful girls on the cusp of adolescence and I’ve been blessed by watching them grow through these years. 

I know what we’re supposed to think: teenagers are moody, irresponsible, contrary, self-absorbed. They’re the size of adults with brains that ricochet between those of four-year-olds and those of cocaine-addled macaws. When I tell people I live with three adolescent girls, they invariably offer me condolences.

Teenagers are our bogeymen right now–college kids who literally can’t stop partying to save their lives, super-spreaders with their frats, swapping spit and sharing Solo cups. Who would trust them?

And yet, that’s the heart of it, if you’re a parent. You have to trust them. My youngest, my only biological child, is twelve. Although, to be honest, she was nine last year and she’s fourteen this year. I don’t know if it’s partly the pandemic but she became a teenager overnight. It happened at a fingersnap.  In June, she woke at 6:30 a. m. to ‘make the day last longer’ and then, on a certain day in August, she began waking at 10:00 and woe to me if I tried to get her up any earlier. It happened that quickly.  

I remember when she was a toddler, and I’d think I figured it out—how to make her sleep, eat, follow instructions, avoid harm. Then it would just suddenly shift as she entered a new developmental phase and there she was doing pencil drawings on the wall or sloshing her own pee from the potty as she carried it down the hall. She went through a cute phase of stealing my jewelry and hiding it. I didn’t realize until I found my gold bracelet, a gift from my aunt, stashed behind the now-obsolete nursing rocker. 

It’s like that again. I’m playing catch-up with how to parent her—each day, a new thing.  So far, this summer, I’ve learned a few things about her that will probably be useless by the time the first leaf falls. But here they are:

  1.  Listen.  Although I may not be interested in the recitation of the plot of her latest anime passion (does anyone want me to recite the narrative of Tokyo Ghoul? Because I can), she needs now more than ever to be listened to. And often, somewhere between an instance of face-eating (does anyone want to enlighten me as to why there’s so much human-eating in anime?), she’ll slip in a Very Important Revelation and I’ll learn why she’s sometimes sad.
  2. STFU: things will pop into your mind, mom. You will want to say them. They might be lovely things, about how pretty she is, or instructional things, about how friends should treat one another, or simply observations about the trees you are biking past—don’t say them. Keep your mouth closed. If you interrupt her train of thought, she might pull her head back into the turtle shell and it will be days before she pokes back out. STFU.
  3. (by contrast) Insist. Although two months ago, her needs and her instincts aligned pretty well, and you could kind of let her impulses guide her, her impulses are no longer reliable. She will sit in her room all day staring at a screen if you let her, and this is Not. Good. For Her. You need to insist she reach out to her friends. Insist she eat regular meals. Insist she get exercise. She will fight you. 2/3 times she’ll be miserable and whiney throughout. But you do it for the third time, when she’s suddenly smiling and glorious again. You do it for the long term.

I’m a weirdo whose favorite students to teach are first-years and sophomores. Don’t get me wrong—I also love working with students in upper division classes who want to nerd out with me about experiments in narrative form, cross-genre devices, intricacies of point-of-view, who are going to introduce me to that new writer or narrative form I’ve never encountered, but I really like teaching intro. I even really like teaching first-year seminars. Students in these classes sometimes don’t really get college yet—or even commas.  But they’re also more prone to revelation. Something utterly familiar to me is suddenly made magical and new in their eyes. And when I return to the basics, I realize a) they’re not that basic after all and b) I don’t really know them. One can never know anything completely.  

Adulthood, I’m sorry to say, is the process of calcifying thought, of absorbing pre-existing notions as one’s own. Adolescents are just as smart as adults, have the same raw brain power, but they don’t have the same context. This makes them behave stupidly sometimes, but it also means they see bullshit as bullshit. Sometimes, teaching, things that look true to me suddenly are unmasked as total horse manure.  This is what an eighteen-year-old can do that a forty-eight-year-old can’t.  

The standard line on teenaged feelings is that they’re fleeting. They’re in love, and then they’ve broken up. They’re sad, and then they’re laughing. A critique I’ve often heard of Romeo and Juliet is that it’s not a love story because the two lovers are ‘only’ adolescents.  It’s as though we believe young people’s feelings simply evaporate.

Why, then, does so much lifelong trauma date from those years between twelve and twenty? I recall it, my own adolescence, the intensity of pain. It sang, my loss and my shame, my heartbreaks.  Maybe objectively, the boy who rejected my invitation to the sophomore semi-formal wasn’t my life partner. Maybe the objective stakes weren’t that high, but my tender brain contended with the grief as if it were.

The quality of those feelings, not their object, is what’s important. How a drive around the rotary, windows down, music pumping, could thrill me. How I ached for days after I’d said a cold word to a friend. I had two best friends in high school—mistake—and they did not like one another very much. They also lived on the same street. I remember the ricochet between them—shuttling between houses, trying to make it up to one when I’d wounded, and then to the other.

I guess I think our attitude towards them should be awe. They have no armaments, and they are still out there, trying to grow. Awe isn’t a parenting style, but I don’t mind if it informs mine, which is what the first two rules on my new list are all about. STFU, and listen.

My novel, The Likely World, is a lot about my love for teenagers, and you could boil it down to this: what happens to teenagers is significant. What they go through lasts the whole life long. We need to be tender to them.

I want to say this thing: when I was that age I didn’t get high to dance. The music was enough, the smell of bodies. I want to say this about teenagers. That all of them are a hundred times more beautiful than the most beautiful adult. It’s being uncorrupted by failure and gravity and entropy, but it’s not just that, not just youth and innocence. Teenagers, the chubby ones pulling down their too-short dresses, the ones who aren’t smiling because they are hiding their braces, teenagers are studies in vulnerability, have only the broadest cloth with which to cover themselves. Teenagers are lovely and when I see them now at the meetings, Jim from Mondays in Brookline, the pink-haired girl on day pass from the hospital, when I see them, I wish I had wings and breathed fire. I wish I could stand in front of them until they were good and ready to face the world. I wish I could go back, and stand in front of myself.

The Likely World

Wandering for Writers

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At dusk, several weeks ago, my family and I went on a picnic at the majestic Treman State Park. It is important to go to places at the wrong times, I think. 

My husband and I have been the only people on a volcano at high noon, and my family were once alone in a crumbling pyramid. One winter, long ago, I wandered through the ruins at Ephesus so unobserved I could have stolen a statue. It’s hard to get the imaginative jolt that comes from a place when it is packed with people, but when it was just us, as evening thickened, everything sparked. The wall of colored stones felt like messages from another realm. The dark gaps in the shale presented as entryways. The deep pools looked bottomless. 

Yesterday, we returned to Treman in a rainstorm. Just Coco and I. Coco likes the rain, and I had a hat, so we forged past the sheltering hikers until we were by ourselves in the dark, wet woods.  There’s something totally magnificent about this place. Much of the trail work was done during the WPA in the 1930s, but because of the moisture, and the way the soft shale crumbles, the stonework looks centuries old. 

The path is twisty and changes grade frequently, so you are always coming around a corner to something unexpected. On this visit, the journey was auditory, the dripping of the rain, the rustle of branches, the rush of the stream. Above you are precariously perched trees, hanging onto the cliff face by their toes. There’s a little sense of danger from the plummeting heights and narrow paths.

I already have a story from it, though maybe it’s one which will stay in the mulling realm and never see the page. Coco announced that she was going to put a waterfall in the narrative she’s been writing through pandemic. Not all experiences become writing, but certain conditions help. Quiet, movement, solitude, being somehow out of season.

“Robert H. Treman State Park is an area of wild beauty, with the rugged gorge called Enfield Glen as its scenic highlight. Winding trails follow the gorge past 12 waterfalls, including the 115-foot Lucifer Falls, to where visitors can see a mile-and-a-half down the wooded gorge as it winds its way to the lower park.“–https://parks.ny.gov/parks/135/details.aspx

Everything Should Have a Party

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The thunder clouds moved away and darkness fell over the drive-in theater. It seemed to me that the cars didn’t stop rolling in.

I saw friends from every part of my life. It was the middle of a pandemic, and it was a party. I got to thank people who’d helped me along the way. My friend Bob said all the perfect things about The Likely World, including that it is sad. I read from the funny part, though and told an embarrassing story about a teenaged crush I had/stalker situation I may have perpetrated. Kevin Colton captured one of the perfect moments of happiness of my adult life on film. 

I was surrounded by some of the most brilliant, creative, sparkly people I knew. And I thought, why don’t we do this for everyone’s accomplishments? Each academic book, each dance choreographed, each time someone does something brave, each pretty design, we should throw a party. 

Parties are hard right now, of course. Practically impossible. But I hope you’ll let me throw you one when this is all over, or at least attend to celebrate the amazing things you’ve done. Let’s dance, too. I miss dancing.

This week, if you have a moment, would you kindly drop a review on Amazon, and on Goodreads? You don’t have to have bought from the giant to leave a review, and these venues are important to getting the word out.  And if you are reading, post a selfie, or a quote you like, and tell your friends.  With my deepest gratitude, 

Melanie

Today’s the Day!

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Folks–it is a scary and wonderful thing to put a book into the world, and every reader who reads this book does me an honor. I’m so grateful to each of you who has chosen to give your attention to The Likely World.

I can’t wait to hear what you think.  A book is inert until it reacts with its audience.  My fondest wish is that a reader somewhere will make something strange and unanticipated with The Likely World.

Mary Gaitskill calls it “bizarre and beautiful.”

In Vanity Fair, Lysley Tenorio calls it “unlike anything I’ve ever read.”

Chang-rae Lee says it’s ‘groovy, badass smart and totally trippy.”

And you?

xoxoxo Melanie

Real Life, Part II

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When I first started writing The Likely World, I thought of it as a ‘speculative memoir.’  There are lots of words that already exist for novels which ghost into non-fiction in interesting ways: roman-a-clefauto-fiction, and the humble autobiographical novel, but none of these words exactly described what I was trying to do which was to marry the speculative engine—‘what if’—to the creative process of memoir.

If you’ve ever tried to write about your own life, you know interesting things start to happen. You dig into a memory space in your mind, and over hours, days, details you thought you had forgotten surface. It’s like a cross between a neurological experiment and a research practice, and it’s cool to find yourself unearthing a memory you didn’t know you had.

I often tell people I’m a professional liar (this is probably subconsciously stolen from a line from a David Lehman poem I teach to my students, “Operation Memory”: ‘All my friends had jobs/As professional liars.”) What I mean is, I’m just an inveterate fiction writer. When I was doing story slams, where the rules are that you have to tell the truth for five minutes, I. Just. Couldn’t. 

Same in the book. And I wasn’t really trying that hard. I’d mine a memory, and then I would…speculate.What if it had been different? Who should I put in this scene instead of the person who was there? I’d wander off wildly. Then, when I sat down again, I would pull myself back to the memories. Why? I got nothing for you, except that novel writing is definitely a pathological condition, and maybe I was trying to keep some rooted relationship to myself. Naw, that’s a lie. I really don’t know why I did it.

Chapter four in the novel is the second chapter which deals with the narrator’s life at sixteen. She’s called Mellie. Wink. Wink. Subtle, huh?  I put her in an apartment where I actually lived with my mom. It was in a nice neighborhood, but it had bugs. In real life, I’m pretty proud of the way my mom made choices, on limited funds, when I was small. We sacrificed maybe having a nicer place so we could be in a safer and more convenient neighborhood. It turns out my mom was right to make this decision. Your zip code is one of the most reliable socio-economic indicators of future success. I also don’t have any shame about having been poor. Again, kind of proud that we scrabbled, and made it out, even if it might have been hard at the time. 

So there the scene is, in a real setting, and in pops this alternate-reality mother. If you know my mom, for example, you know she is a terrific hostess. That among her other qualities is a warmth which makes her guests feel welcome. That she is—or was before that jerk Corona came to town—most herself with a table full of great food and happy company. The mom in the scene is nervous around a guest, anxious about serving frozen fish sticks. And she’s a kind of mystic who reads past lives. Yeah, sure, my mom had a tarot phase in the seventies, but that’s like saying she had a polo shirt in the 80s or owned a tech stock in the nineties. So why did I put this imaginary woman in the apartment?

One thing about the character is that she bears some resemblance to the first fictional mother in the first story I published. This woman was also a mystic, and also a bit at sea. So, I guess I might think of her as an archetype.  Why she haunts my writing is a question for the therapist, I suppose. But, the point is, where a memoirist is bound to the things as they happened, the fiction writer plays in an infinite field. Anyone can appear, at any time, in any place. For me, this infinity is necessary to what I want to say, the lie that gets me through to the next scene. 

In the end, I abandoned the term ‘speculative memoir’ because I think it describes how I wrote, but probably not what I wrote. Still, a part of the label remains important to how I consider this book. I do hope readers will be sparked to think about the interplay between imaginative- and reality-based material, and how they operate differently, and sometimes collaboratively to make a whole.

There’s a small passage I did write with my real-life mom in mind, and it comes towards the end of part II, after Mellie has experienced a scarring trauma which will drive her motivation for the rest of the novel.  It’s not much of a spoiler, so I’ll end this post with the passage:

“For an instant, my mom is as tall as the Statue of Liberty; she is marking safe harbor for me. Mothers: what is missed in all your psychology is also their super powers to heal, is how a mother’s love is a port after a shipwreck. Sails tattered, mast split, it’s where you drift when all the instruments fail.”

The Likely World