Last week I reread my old high school writing. And I am still cringing.
With so many millions of words behind us — read, written, and spoken — it’s easy to forget the less-than-literate past of our high school days. As a volunteer editor/proofreader for a small lit magazine, I recently had to go through an assortment of stories and poems by high school kids, which dragged me struggling and red-cheeked back into the embarrassing world of high school writing. It is not at all how you remember it, and it is exactly the same as you remember it.
Running the gauntlet through these stories, I started out grinning and chuckling at the classic lines I was reading. I had heard these lines before, recited at a podium by our eleventh grade class in front of an unbelievably straight-faced teacher. But my fun soon devolved into a sort of crochety stream of consciousness: oh you poor kids, all this texting and tweeting and Kardashian bullshit on your color TVs or whatever. You’ve murdered the high standards we set in the mid-2000s. Back then I had just received a Gmail invitation — or was it Google Mail then? — a simple time it was. Then, the gears really turned: Gmail… 10.1 GB and counting. Incredible. Never had to delete an email. Wait — NEVER HAD TO DELETE AN EMAIL.
In the darkest corner of my inbox, some pyrite flashed in my pan. I stared at the titles with nostalgia, and the monologue continued: Yesss I bet this’ll be so fun to read. I don’t really remember what I wrote, but I do remember thinking quite highly of it at the time and ohhhh jesus fuck…
Twenty minutes later — that was all I could take — embarrassed and disoriented, I concluded that absolutely nothing had changed, or maybe it had even gotten better from my “un-proofread one-draft-wonders.” And while my bruised ego remembered my old oeuvre with shame, I did find satisfaction and comfort in realizing that I had awkwardly stampeded over the same trite ground as today’s young writers. It feels unifying to consider we all wrote this way as kids, thinking we were so deep while splashing around in the shallow end. Since everyone shared their work back then, it was like all of us were naked in public together and so the shame was everyone’s — and therefore no one’s. So why not celebrate the shame that all literate people share?
Thus, I present the universal discoveries of high school writers. They are discoveries you have, by now (one hopes), forgotten.
The Discovery Of Irony
This is one of the finest moments in writing, and in life, as it is the moment when you discover that writing can actually be fun, and that it can be an antidote to the absurd. In writing, you can crack jokes, sarcastically get in the last word, satirize stuff that bugs you, and demonstrate your cleverness to the world! In school, you’re taught to write what you mean, but irony lets you write the opposite of what you mean while meaning the same thing?! I can’t imagine this not blowing a young mind. You can only imagine how many saccharine “Why I Love School” essays English teachers across the country must roll their eyes at, or all the “How Be a Jock” variations by the alt kids who are actually trying to write well. But sometimes a good one will even come along like “Reagan Was a Great Actor” by some junior C-Spanner (Student Council Rep, (D)).
The Discovery Of Form
Curiously — or not — most of the stories I proofread were titled “How to [be/do/act + noun].” It’s as if they’re all preparing to write for Thought Catalog — that, or they’ve all just read Junot Diaz’s short story, “How to Date a Brown Girl/Black Girl/White Girl” in class and ran with it. The discovery of form seems to liberate young writers from the classic “Short Story Masters” mold, but simultaneously blinds them instead with the possibilities of literary anarchy, of writing without rules. Suddenly, the second person voice is fair game (thanks, Jay McInerney!), and oh, let’s drench it in the irony we just discovered. Let’s also subtly make the universal (i.e. the how to…) personal! Maybe they were trying to imitate that Diaz model, or maybe that’s just something you do when you’re sixteen, like feeling awkward, which transfers to me as I read these wonderful, heartfelt pieces, relive my own youth, and cringe. Some might say these tales of young angst are clichéd, but they aren’t at all, at least not to them. And that’s what matters, I think. But it shouldn’t seem clichéd to the grown-ups either. Cliché implies a hackneyed quality, like something has worn out, and after reading these, I can assure you that nothing is worn out. These feelings are as fresh and as raw as they were for us. Clichéd no, universal yes.
The Discovery That You Are A Deity
The realization that you have complete control over your writing brings a feeling of great power. But in this case, the power need not come with Peter Parker’s uncle Ben’s (or Voltaire’s, if you like) “great responsibility.” It is the discovery that the world of fiction, unlike the one we live in, does not have to be causal. Martin Amis once referred to the “God-like relation to what you create” as he spoke about the difficulties of writing sex scenes. Though he spoke it in criticism of the typical dishonest and fantastical sexual descriptions written by men, his statement of writer-as-god rings too true. One of the young writers I read wrote a tremendously fun story filled with violence, suspense, betrayal, and intrigue. It didn’t quite start with, “A shot rang out…” but it was pretty damn close. I remember back when I realized I could have my characters behave however I wanted. I quickly inserted into stories the various daydreams I had after watching Bond movies. I wrote another story about a magician who fakes his own death, which later almost caused me to fake my own death from shame after rereading it.
The Discovery Of Freedom Of Expression
In hand with the discovery of your own divine status as author, you realize you can now say whatever you want how you want. Throughout the stories, the kids occasionally dropped a “fuck” or an “asshole.” They would always come after the story had gotten some momentum, I imagine to increase the likelihood of getting away with it, as you have the first part of the story to try to get enough credibility before dropping F-bombs. And when they do get dropped — and I remember doing this myself — there is almost a brief pause right before, either out of hesitation or accentuation. You can feel this anticipatory frisson before words like “sex.” ‘Finally,’ I can hear these kids sighing, ‘a legit excuse to swear in front of adults!’
The Discovery Of The Thesaurus
After making the false discovery that using big and/or obscure words equals good, erudite writing, high school writers begin to copiously use the right click in Microsoft Word, showing off their ability to consult a list of synonyms. It’s a great way to learn new words, but later, when you go back to read the sentences you beefed up artificially, like “my progenitors conveyed me to the pedagogic locale,” your “epidermis” will again turn “carmine” or “cardinal.” Accompanying the discovery of the thesaurus, the discovery of figurative language arrives almost intact. In this case, people seem to start with an absurd originality, producing ludicrously purple and flowery passages that almost always contain a nugget of golden unintentional humor. “Water [dihydrogen monoxide, anyone?] ran over my hands like tears from a hungry crocodile that couldn’t catch a toddling child.” Jesus, did I really write stuff like this? I must have known I was being funny, right? A for effort?
The Discovery Of Ourselves
In the face of the great Socratic discovery of attaining an inkling of how much uncharted territory there really is, invariably the young writer tramples the road back to the self and goes to the mirror to begin the rite-of-passage of self-examination. The paradox is strong here: the concurrent discovery that the only thing unique you can think of is yourself, but at the same time, everyone is thinking that too. Any brief glance into a library can confirm that this paradox is not going to be resolved by the young or old. Discovering that your own self and life are fair game for literary exploration is a big moment, one that is probably as much a game changer as the discovery of irony. When imagination is lazy or when inspiration won’t strike, the understudy of self-aware self-deprecation will happily step in, provided you’re willing to suspend your pride and become transparent. Candor can often pass for quality.
Considering my YA writing as well as these high school performances, I feel pretty far removed from this looking back. But who knows how steep the learning curve is. Is twenty-three still not callow youth? I fear it is, and what I will think of my own stuff in ten years? Forty years later, Martin Amis re-read his award winning The Rachel Papers with embarrassment. So that’s the best case scenario. But hopefully we will keep wincing when we look back at ourselves, or at least see new mistakes or weaknesses, because that will mean we’re still improving.
All I know about these kids is that they’re future novelists, future cataloguers of thought, future poet laureates. Their peers don’t care about writing and probably don’t care about reading, so this is the best adolescence has to offer. It’s a comfort to someone who loves reading and writing to see this, and I especially respect these kids over myself, as I never had the guts to publish anything in high school. It’s also a comfort for another reason: if one of these kids becomes the next Hemingway, we’ll have this charming work, incontrovertible proof that he or she is human like the rest of us.