On Angst

I’m realizing, I think, that I haven’t been all that fair when talking, thinking and writing about angst. You likely know that particular anxiety and torment that so many of us, myself included, associate with being a teen. The feeling of being trapped in some way, often operating just outside or possibly miles away from what’s accepted and appreciated by both our peers and the adults in our lives. Unsure – scared, even – about the future.

“I love angst.” I’ve said that on more than one occasion when talking about writing YA fiction. It’s a comment that was likely followed by an exchange of light-hearted, self-deprecating stories of high school embarrassment and unrequited college romance, which is all perfectly fine fodder for happy hour (hey, it happened to me. I can exploit it if I want to). But, that “I love angst” comment? It’s a really stupid thing to say.

A t-shirt intended for teens...clearly designed by adults. Available at zazzle.com.
A t-shirt intended for teens…clearly designed by adults. Available at zazzle.com.

I think what I actually mean is that angst is valuable when it comes to storytelling. It makes our characters more complex, their struggles more believable, and their victories sweeter. It has the power to create bonds between unlikely friends because it’s so universal. Readers, when they see it in characters, recognize the feeling of angst and might feel less alone because of it. Angst and the desire to escape it can be a driving factor for adventure and risk-taking, which makes stories exciting.

But in real life it sucks.

For the person who’s experiencing it, angst is real. It’s easy for an adult to look back on a 16 year-old broken heart and romanticize the experience with poetic narration and a carefully chosen soundtrack. But, if you really (NO REALLY) think about being 16 and heartbroken it was awful. That physical ache of feeling alone and ignored. Crying induced headaches. And then going to school, which essentially means dealing with every single person in your social circle (and teachers – that’s like having 7 different bosses) at once when all you really want to do is hang out in pajama pants alone, or maybe with that trusted best friend who doesn’t require an explanation because they already know the whole story.

Adult-shaped angst might look a little different, but it’s not necessarily worse or more serious. It’s just relative to our experiences. And, just like teens, it’s uncomfortable. We hate it and want it to stop.  Just like we did when we were in high school.

I want to make sure I don’t lose that when portraying angst in my stories. Angst can be a powerful force. But if it’s not portrayed with respect for how much it truly sucks, a story has the potential to feel insulting to the reader’s actual experiences. Best case scenario is that just doesn’t seem authentic. And if it doesn’t feel real, readers won’t connect with the character, which means they won’t want to keep reading. And, I wouldn’t blame them.

Question: In the stories we write for teens, are we being fair to angst?

2 thoughts on “On Angst

  1. I enjoyed reading your post, Jenessa! You’re right that the pain is romanticized in hindsight. In fact I remember thinking that when I was a teenager, how representations of teenage existence were so much more interesting, problems so much easier to solve, than in real life. And the fact that you’re thinking about this shows that you’re a thoughtful YA writer. Look forward to reading your novel in print!

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