Traumas in adolescent life

A judge of the Seventeen magazine fiction contest recalls what was endearing about the writers of the 400 stories she read --even the really bad ones.


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Curtis Sittenfeld
February 18, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

| Like everyone else, I have no idea what women want (and I, despite my name, actually am a woman). But I do know what adolescent girls care about. How? Last spring, I served as one of five judges in Seventeen magazine's annual fiction contest, an institution whose former winners include Sylvia Plath, Lorrie Moore and the dread Joyce Maynard. Among the 400-plus pieces I read, I ended up picking both the first- and third-place winners. I also ended up being highly entertained and unexpectedly charmed by all the stories that the teenage writers chose to tell.
I'll be honest: I didn't enter into being a judge anticipating that I'd learn much. For one thing, at the age of 23, I am myself not that far removed from adolescence. And for another, I had won this same contest six years earlier. When I won, in 1992, it was the summer before my senior year in high school, and the judge who selected me as the winner (I submitted eight stories -- you know, just to be safe) was Jennifer Egan, who went on to write the novel "The Invisible Circus" and the story collection "Emerald City." In the years since then, I have had both fiction and nonfiction in Seventeen several times, and I've been receiving what seems to be a lifetime subscription to the magazine -- its appearance first in my college dorms and now in my apartment is a source of both confusion and amusement to visitors. They're even more surprised when I tell them that I actually read it.
This is all just to say that before serving as a judge, I already believed I had more than a passing familiarity with the world of girls. But there was something about hearing (or reading) so many of their voices -- in the aggregate, unedited, as they chose to present themselves instead of as someone else, like Time magazine or the WB, chose to present them -- that was both surprising and endearing. The stories came from nearly every state in the country -- Arvada, Colo., and Niceville, Fla., and Ypsilanti, Miss. -- as well as India, France and the Philippines. Their authors were named Brandi and Aimee, LaKeisha and Prudence, Willow, Meredith, Denise, Desiree, Abby and Melissa. Often, the handwriting in the notes that accompanied stories was big and bubbly. "I spilled my guts out for you and I hope you enjoy it," wrote one girl. Another signed her letter "your eternal reader" (addressed, obviously, to Seventeen and not to me). Several authors included class pictures, which I simultaneously had no idea what to do with and felt unable to throw away.

As for the stories themselves, a few showed a great deal of talent,including the excellent winning story, "Farewell, Angelina," by 17-year-old Susannah Rutherglen, which is out now in the March Seventeen. Susannah's writing is clean and understated, her characters seem real and her details are just right. All of this was pretty obvious within the first fewparagraphs. Most of the other stories, meanwhile, were abysmally bad. Maybe that sounds mean, but I would argue that the same great-abysmal ratio applies to any batch of writing produced by people who are not, by profession, writers; that is, it had nothing to do with the fact that the writers were an average of about 15 years old. One summer during college, I was an intern at the Atlantic Monthly, and our primary responsibility was reading unsolicited fiction manuscripts. Unfortunately, the experience helped me understand why instead of featuring so-called fresh voices, magazines choose to print stories by John Updike or Joyce Carol Oates overand over again.
There was, however, one significant difference in the submissions I read for Seventeen: In the writers' awkward phrasing or corny descriptions, you could imagine all the ways they might improve if they stuck with it. And that was precisely because they were 15 years old.

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I found that most stories featured one of three plots: The narrator decides that this is the year she's going to become popular; a cute boy moves to the narrator's neighborhood/joins the narrator's class/makes meaningful eye contact with the narrator at the amusement park; or early death of some sort occurs, usually by either suicide, homicide, car accident, AIDS or cancer. Adolescence in these stories is marked by a vacillation between excruciating self-awareness and complete lack thereof ("I was feeling very depressed and I had to do some major soul-searching pronto. I checked my watch. I had 42 minutes of lunch left, plenty of time"); by the looming presence of boys ("Her name is Skye and her decision involved 11 different guys. She had to decide on her escort to the homecoming dance, and it wasn't easy"); by endless self-definition and categorization ("Shevaugn and I are the second richest teens on the block. The richest teens are Adrian and Taylor"); and by improbable coincidences:

"I don't believe it," Nick said, laughing.
"What?" Mackenzie asked, bewildered.
"You have a peanut butter and banana sandwich cut in half, pretzels, two Oreo cookies and a Hawaiian Punch juice box."
"Yeah."
"That's exactly what I always pack."

Another staple of the stories is elaborate descriptions of physical appearance: "She had wavy brown hair, green eyes, and a perfect smile. She was tall and slender. The perfect body. She wasn't too big, or too small in the northern and southern part of her body. She also had a good tan." Or: "Matt was a truly unique person. He had shiny red hair and beautiful hazel eyes."
And clothes, apparently, are just as important as hair and body: "It was a half an hour before the party ... I was going to wear my blue velvet mini-skirt with my white baby-tee, my blue vest and my hair pulled back in a little ponytail and curled. Shevaugn was wearing her purple velvet skirt that was down to her knees, her white belly blouse that tied in front, and her hair was in a low ponytail with a green fluffy elastic on it." Of course, physical descriptions aren't always gratuitous -- sometimes they're central to the plot: "Jason's about five-six, and he has wavy blonde-brown hair down to his chin and big, dark, green eyes. It suddenly hits me like a ton of bricks. Omigosh! Jason's hotter than I thought!" (I'll end the suspense -- yes, the narrator and Jason do end up together. As she reports near the story's conclusion, "He's teaching me to play drums and he's learned to like Fiona Apple.") The importance of appearance informs all the stories, even when a particular person's looks aren't being described.

"Is that it then? You don't like the way he looks?"
"Well," I had to choose my words carefully. "I just wouldn't want to walk around a mall with him."

This passage contains what I love most in these stories -- a kind of unapologetic honesty about what matters, even if it's not what should matter. Like Woody Allen's heart, these narrators want what they want. And they usually go after it, regardless of what's considered appropriate. As one narrator tells it, "The perfect, all-that-you-will-ever-need-in-a-man guy approached me to ask for my number in a club that I had no business being in at the age of 12. I immediately wrote it down and gave it to him." This honesty also manifests itself in the titles of certain stories, which are so explicit they basically obviate the need to read any further: "Traumas in Adolescent Life," "Penelope Learns to Deal" and (my favorite) "The Day That My Best Friend Went Psycho and Told Everyone Everything." If in writing workshops, the show-don't-tell approach to conveying information is something like law, the contest entries both did and didn't follow the rules. At pivotal moments in the stories, the writers are usually a little too enthusiastic, lest you as a reader should miss the importance of it all: "Jonny, I know you love me. But I'm not the same person you fell in love with two years ago. I like sports and hanging out until one o'clock in the morning. I hang out with all kinds of people. I'm not the same person. Don't you understand?" But in describing the daily lives of teenagers (the number of stories about adults was negligible), they hit the mark exactly in both subject and diction, and they do it seemingly unconsciously:

It wasn't until after our next class, when he walked up to her and handed her a note, that my heart started beating a little too fast. Leah, Jackie and I all ran into the bathroom to read it. I almost flipped when Jackie read the words "does Melanie really like me? If she does, then ask her out for me." We all looked at each other, screamed at the top of our lungs and then burst out laughing. Later that day I had my sister call Justin and tell him my answer.

Or:

It all began when my best friend, Sophie, and I were tied for first place at the gymnastics competition. She thought she had won when she scored a 9.6 on the vault, but I scored a 9.8 on my floor routine. Things have been different between us ever since.

The writing also seems unconscious when, embedded in a paragraph about something else, the narrators reveal entire philosophies about larger issues -- age, say, or gender or family. A few examples:

  • Mom was laughing her brains out ... I turned away after a while because it started getting embarrassing. It was the kind of thing a mother shouldn't do. It was like parents having long kisses. There are some thing you should stop doing when you get old.
  • We decided that we didn't want children because they just pose a problem in a small apartment.
  • Like women, he could never stay with the same job for more than a couple months.

And what would stories by teenagers be without a little melodrama? One narrator is both vivid and succinct: "I have come to believe that I am at the armpit of despair." Other descriptions are more elaborate: "Penelope began to cry. She couldn't bear the pain of her twice-broken heart any longer. She ran out of the cafeteria, alone and sobbing. Her tears were so intense that she didn't notice her friend Angie in the doorway, who was also bawling." (Thankfully, this is Penelope of "Penelope Learns to Deal." Whether Angie learns to deal is less clear.) The stories also demonstrate a kind of unself-aware feminism. These girls don't hesitate to ask out the boys they're interested in dating. And, while it may well be true that adolescence is the time that girls start suppressing their own needs in favor of fulfilling the needs of other people, quite a few of the narrators demonstrate not-very-well-concealed self-interest: "That summer we grew very close and became almost best friends. About a week before she had to leave, she suddenly decided that she wanted to stay up here and live with her father. I was thrilled at the idea, trying to keep my knowledge that she would make me extremely popular in the back of my head." Yes, the narrators often berate themselves for being somehow inadequate -- frequently, it's in comparison to their sisters or best friends -- but when they're looking good and acting cool, they know it, and they don't hesitate to congratulate themselves. "In my violet mohair sweater and snazzy iridescent sneakers, I felt like I was riding high," says the heroine of one story. Another narrator feels so positive about herself that upon arrival at the school dance, she can't even find anyone who deserves to talk to her: "We scanned the crowd. It was mainly freshmen, and, being that we were juniors, that just wouldn't do." Many stories were topical when it came to pop culture -- El Niqo, Hanson and "Titanic" all receive mention, and one story was titled "Thank You, Leo," though it was not, to my disappointment, a paean to Leonardo DiCaprio. Technology also makes a few appearances:

"I just asked my mom what she thought about Internet relationships and she basically said it was crazy," Maggie said as she felt the hot and heavy tears trickle one by one down her cheeks. "Oh, Maggie, every parent says that."

Maggie's skeptical mother aside, there were few stories that hinged on issues that are uniquely contemporary. The overview I got of what it was like to be 15 years old in 1998 did not lead me to believe it was much different from 1990, when I was 15, or even 1970. The same conflicts still arise, the same insecurities persist, and all you can do is put your hair in a low ponytail with a green fluffy elastic and hope for the best. The larger lesson I took from these stories was (surprise, surprise) more about me than about the authors: I understood, suddenly, why people had always encouraged my own writing when I was a teenager, even when I was churning out angst-ridden dreck. It was, I realized -- and I say this at the risk of sounding hopelessly gooey -- because writing is a way of explaining your life to yourself, a way of making your life bearable and a way of connecting with other people. And these are all good and important things always, but they're perhaps most important when you're in, say, ninth grade. Given that, the issue of whether a story has any literary merit is pretty much irrelevant.

Then there's the fact that the mere existence of these stories, no matter what their subject matter, reveals both discipline and optimism. Discipline because it can be fun to write a few paragraphs, but a whole story is almost always work (and, therefore, even when I was laughing at and not with particular lines, I always respected the writers' efforts). Optimism because -- in light of all the stories that have already been written, and of people saying, Oprah's Book Club notwithstanding, that fiction is in general biting the dust, of thousands of other aspiring writers entering this same contest -- what else but optimism can explain the apparently unwavering belief that you have a story to tell and that you deserve a wider forum for telling it? This optimism often filtered from the act of writing the stories into the stories themselves (the notable exception, of course, being all the tales of death). Boyfriends were obtained or, at least, lessons were learned about how boyfriends being obtained isn't the most important thing after all. In all their wistful absurdity, such conclusions genuinely touched me. It would take someone more jaded than I am not to root for these characters and for the writers who invented them, girls who live in a world that is precarious but still filled with possibilities. Nothing is ever certain, of course, but as one narrator explains in what seemed to me a cleverly modern version of a very old clichi, "We hope to live happily ever after."


Curtis Sittenfeld

Curtis Sittenfeld is the author of the novels "Prep" and "American Wife."

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