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?

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Nice Docs

I really try my best to not create sentimental attachment to things and stuff. This type of detachment tends to form when you live in NYC long enough and become painfully aware of the dollar value of each square foot of your apartment. When my husband (then boyfriend) was packing for the move from Tampa to Brooklyn, I’m pretty sure we had our first fight over a collection of wooden spoons. He owned somewhere in the ballpark of 13 wooden spoons and argued against tossing them because… honestly, I don’t even know. I stopped listening because our new closet-sized 1BR had exactly one utensil drawer in the kitchen and we had to be smart about every inch of it. We had to be ruthless. In the end, I think we compromised at three spoons. The rest stayed in Florida along with some t-shirts dating back to middle school and a lot of typical mid-90’s Asian-inspired dude décor.

Unlike my husband, I find it pretty easy to get rid of stuff. But, there are two things I’ve held onto for nearly 20 years: my Doc Martens.

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Source

They’re the original “greasy” boots with the signature yellow stitching and “bouncing soles.” I got them in 1995 after months of campaigning. They were around $120 even back then, so I had to make a pretty good case for myself. I promised I’d wear them every day. I explained that they came with a lifetime guarantee, so I’d have them forever. So, on my 15th birthday, my mom drove to Maurice the Pants Man in Worcester, MA and returned home with my very own pair of Docs.

Most trends are pretty bizarre and fail the test of time. I usually failed to catch them in time to benefit from their coolness. Some trends were just out of my price range. Others, like all that expensive soccer apparel that kids started wearing off the field, would have made me look like a “poser” (#1 insult at my school, btw) because I wasn’t on the team.  Occasionally, I would just catch on too late. I remember finally getting my first and only pair of skids in fifth grade just as the pajama pants look was starting to fade.

But for the most part, a lot of trends just didn’t feel right. I’m not suggesting that I was at all above the influence of my peers. I was, just like most teenagers, very much affected by what others thought of me. I think a part of me rejected certain trends because there’s a certain “all or nothing” aspect to my personality, and I didn’t feel like I could sustain them. Even if I could have afforded it, I’m not sure I could have delivered upon what I thought the expectations were for a girl who wore brand name apparel every day.

I say all of this now with the benefit of personal reflection and 20/20 hindsight. I’m sure at the time I would have said something like “Pumas are wicked stupid.”

BUT, there was something about the Doc Marten thing I could latch on to. I didn’t really know or understand the history behind the boots (you can read a particularly poetic account here) but I got that they were a little edgy, a little subversive – a bit of a non-trendy trend, which was very attractive to a teenager starting to seek an escape from the shelter of her small, suburban town. They felt substantial (maybe because they weighed about 5 lbs). And, they also weren’t accepted by everyone. In fact, a lot of the kids who easily picked up on trends flat out rejected Docs. Partially because goth and alternative kids (we didn’t say “emo” back then) wore them, as did band geeks and the kids in show choir. Partially because they thought they were ugly, clunky combat boots. Wearing Docs gave me a tiny, easy-to-digest taste of rebellion.

I wore them all throughout high school and with everything in my closet (not hard to do, since that was jeans, corduroys and t-shirts). They came with me to college and remained in the rotation even after graduation. When I got a more traditional office job, they mostly lived in the back of my closet and came out only on weekends. And then, for years, I kept them not as a pair of shoes but more as a souvenir from my past, dutifully packing them up as I moved from apartment to apartment.

Up until a few months ago, Docs haven’t really been on my radar. I’d occasionally see someone wearing a pair during my morning subway commute or notice a few pairs in a shoe store display and be like “Oh, yeah.”

Then all the sudden I was seeing them everywhere. High cut boots and low cut shoes. In every color and texture. Docs were having a mini revival (at least in my world).

I was inspired to reconnect with the boots that meant so much to me at one time. So, I bought some new laces and took my Docs for a spin.

docs

It was fun to wear them again, but I think I tapped into their true power at age 15 when I needed it most.

On my way home from work a few nights ago I observed a girl on the train with her mom. She had that signature look – equal parts curious, self-conscious and embarrassed to be in public with a parental figure. She had an anxious energy, like she was ready to burst at the seams. I remember feeling that way. Like I couldn’t wait to start living my life. I imagined she was thinking about the day she’d be let loose in NYC, free to run through the streets of the Village, linger in coffee shops, go to shows and take the train with just her friends.

That’s when I noticed she was wearing a pair of brand new, not-yet-broken-in Docs with her long black dress and tights. It made me smile.

Whenever she’s ready to make her escape, she’ll have the right shoes.

The cool kids

Some comments from a 2006 Salon.com interview with Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries (I won’t link to their site, but you know the clothing brand – fitted polo shirts, carefully weathered jeans, flip flops) resurfaced this week and have been rubbing a lot of people the wrong way.

In the interview, the 68 year-old CEO (he was 61 at the time) talked about how, under his leadership, the clothing line doesn’t carry larger sizes, for fear that overweight people will be seen in AF jeans, thereby sullying the “cool kid” brand that he’s built. Other brand stewardship tactics include launching a thong underwear line for middle school girls and only hiring “all-American” “attractive” people to work at his stores.

Here’s one particularly insightful gem directly from the horse’s mouth:

“In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids,” he says. “Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either.”

– source

There have been a number of thoughtful responses to these comments. Wall Street Market Watch even pointed out that, when it comes to the sizing issue, AF isn’t exactly practicing what they preach.

On a personal level, this guy gives me “the yucks.” He’s icky and gross. As a marketer, can I put my personal feelings aside and judge him purely as a business person and brand manager? Sure. But, guess what? He’s still way, way off.

Now, for all accounts and purposes, I am “old.” At 32, I’m less than half of Jeffries’s age, but in the eyes of a 16 year-old I may as well be eating strained prunes while I talk on my landline and listen to my CD collection. Luckily, I have the privilege of volunteering with middle schoolers from time to time and have a background in the youth-serving, non-profit sector. I currently work for an organization that encourages constant dialogue with youth. Through social media and more formally constructed advisory councils, we do our best to listen to what they have to say and what values resonate with them. I’m not an expert on all youth everywhere, but I’ll stand firmly behind on major point.

This idea of the “cool kids” – that they’re exclusionary, superficial, that they value homogeny – is old-fashioned and inaccurate. Jeffries’s idea of teenagers seems stuck in John Hughes’s version of high school where kids were oblivious to the world beyond home room, house parties and the mall’s food court. That’s not a knock against John Hughes, who was an incredibly relevant storyteller. It’s just that if John Hughes were still making movies about teenagers in 2013, he would know that even the ones who were born into small towns are connected to the bigger world around them, and his films would reflect that.

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That’s one of the benefits of social media and online content in general. Kids know there’s a bigger world out there, and that’s given them perspective on what’s important. And the “cool kids” who, as Jeffries defines them, have “great attitudes and a lot of friends” understand that successful, progressive, forward-thinking people value inclusion and diversity. They understand better than most adults that beauty needn’t be “classic” or “all-American.” I’ve read first-hand comments from kids (“cool kids” who are leaders in their communities. Kids who have been elected prom queen by their high school class) telling me that diversity – in skin color, body type, gender expression, economic background, sexual orientation – is important to them. They want to see diversity and inclusion in their leaders. They want to see it in the entertainment they consume. And, I’d argue, they want to see it in the brands selling them their clothing.

This isn’t to say that high school is now this welcoming space where all people are respected and valued, because it isn’t. There are the kids who are mean and snobby and tease others. There are kids who gain popularity at the expense of others. And, even if most youth are like this (I’m optimistic that they are not), Jeffries says he isn’t trying to appeal to the “vanilla” majority. He’s trying to appeal to the “cool kids” that stand out. The kids with “great attitudes.” The confident ones that are two steps ahead of their peers.

I nearly added “the kid that every other kid wants to be” to that last paragraph but stopped myself, as that idea is sort of contrary to my whole point here. Yes, the “cool kids” are still the ones that have their peers’ attention. But, unlike Jeffries’ “cool kids,” they’re telling the people around them that it’s ok – “cool” even – to be themselves.

 

How the Agent Querying Process Feels a Lot Like High School

One time I joked with my husband that he’d basically ruined me as a poet. The writer in me had always thrived on the crushing disappointment of failed romance.  And pain!  And unrequited love! What was I supposed to write about now that I was in a secure and loving relationship? No one wants to read about stability and mutual respect.

Of course, that’s silly. Being in a strong relationship has made me a better person and given me so many gifts, including the confidence to more seriously pursue being a writer. But, as I worked on my YA novel,  I worried that one day I’d have trouble remembering that uncertainty that’s so specific to high school.

You know – those stomach knots you’d get trying to work up the courage to talk to THE guy. The conversations (the ones that barely qualified as conversations) that you’d go over in your head a million times so you could analyze every detail. (“He said ‘hey’ instead of ‘hi’ this time…I wonder what that means…”) And that moment when you finally accept that he just doesn’t feel the same way…

I mean, as a 30-something committed gal, how would I ever really stay in touch with such intense feelings of angst and disappointment?

I didn’t yet realize the answer was right in front of me.

Ways the Agent Querying Process Will Keep you in Touch with your Inner Teenager

Or

Oh yeah, I remember…

  1. Existing in a fairly consistent state of humiliation and having to just be ok with it. There was always something.  You got your period unexpectedly. Or you tripped in front of everyone. Or you didn’t have enough money to buy the right clothes. The levels of mortification varied by person and circumstance. But, overall, you were exposed, and you had to just deal with it. The query process can leave you feeling just as vulnerable. You’re basically baring your soul and asking for someone to find value in it. And not “showing up” isn’t an option if you want to be a writer.  You have to suck it up and deal. Unless you’ve already got representation, which brings me to the next item…
  2. Being a little jealous. Or a lot jealous. Unless you were them, there was some version of the “cool kids” and you wanted in. You thought about what it would be like to casually trade witticisms and joke together in the hallway. Update: the “cool kids” are published authors and their agents. And the “hallways” is Twitter. Don’t get me wrong, Twitter is an awesome resource for researching the querying process, but reading the abbreviated, giddy, Agent/Author banter about new deals/interviews/book tours can be tortuous when you’ve got a fresh rejection email in your inbox.
  3. Rejection. Really, is there a more common theme for High School? I don’t think I need to explain what rejection looks/feels like in High School. Even if you’re not like me and don’t spend a lot of time trying to get in touch with your inner teen, that feeling is pretty close to the surface for most adults. Well, it’s just as accessible for debut authors. The comforting thing is that it’s also something that published authors talk about, too. Everyone from Jennifer Weiner to Stephen King has written about how much rejection they experienced trying to get published.
  4. But does he like like me?” Ok, so this was maybe even WORSE than straightforward rejection. The not knowing and second guessing and “what iffing.” Hope tempered with self-doubt – is there anything more excruciating? Yes, there is! Except now it’s typically more like “Does she like like me?”  When you get a little nibble and suddenly, before you can help yourself, you are imagining yourself as full time writer. But, then you have to reign in your hopes and dreams and remind yourself that it was just a manuscript request. You have a long way to go…But, then again, maybe she really does like you and your manuscript…and it will all work out…and you’ll be together forever…
  5. Hearing “Don’t listen to them – you’re beautiful and funny and smart!” This always came from the people who are too blinded by their unconditional love and support to be objective about anything. And not much has changed. Your family and friends still think you are awesome and can’t believe anyone would think differently. And you still feel half comforted and half frustrated because they “need to say that – you’re my mom/friend/husband.”
  6. Giggle-inducing excitement. I’ve talked about this a bit in other posts, but there is an intensity that comes with being a teenager. People like to blame it on hormones, but I think it’s also just the fact that you’re experiencing things for the first time ever. You still have the capacity to be completely surprised. You’re a little scared, but also excited about all the “firsts” you have in front of you. So excited that you often find yourself involuntarily jumping up and down . Or giggling for so long or laughing so hard that experience physical pain.

Despite everything else on this angst-ridden list, I do feel that. Every little inch of progress has me texting my friends and using way to many exclamation points for a grown person. I’m both scared and excited about the unknown. I have something to day dream about.

There are so few good surprises in life, that I guess I’m willing to deal with all the other stuff if it means I’ve got a few more “firsts” ahead of me. And, I know that when I do finally achieve my first big first,  there will be lots of giggling and jumping up and down.

Question: When’s the last time you felt high school level humiliation, rejection or excitement?

GOATS

This is me with a goat.

I met him a few years ago on a trip to the San Diego Zoo. He was incredibly sweet and patient even though I’m sure he had to be tired of sun-burned tourists pawing at him, offering only meager handfuls of those little food pellets. I remember thinking that if I lived in a big old farmhouse on a few acres (instead of a 1.5 bedroom apartment in Brooklyn) I might get a pet goat.

But, alas, this post isn’t about that kind of goat.

It’s about GOATS – the things that “get your goat.” The stuff that bugs you and always trips you up. I first learned the term at Cross Fit, which I started doing a couple months ago. My coach was showing me how to keep track of my workouts in my notebook. He told me to dedicate one page to goals and another page to GOATS. As a beginner, I didn’t know what my GOATS might be. I mean, Cross Fit is tough and everything seemed hard. But, as I’ve started to build strength and get (slightly) better, I’ve found that I do indeed have GOATS.

At the top of the list: Pull-Ups.

This does not surprise me, as pull-ups haunted me all through elementary, middle and high school. I’m sure most of you know exactly where I’m going with this.

That stupid president’s fitness challenge thing.

I have no problem with this type of test in theory. Fitness is important. But every year it would just sorta come out of nowhere and we’d go from playing halfhearted indoor volleyball to pull-ups, like it was a transferable skill. I remember watching some girls – they were usually the tiny, compact gymnast types – hop up on the bar and crank out 15 like it was no big deal. I, unfortunately, was never a gymnast. Nor was I ever tiny or compact. I was tall and gangly and uncoordinated (I’m still those things) and would just sort of pathetically hang there, desperately trying to flex my non-existent biceps. Eventually my gym teacher would give me a disgusted nod and mark a big, fat zero in his ledger. I’d walk away embarrassed, but mostly relieved that it was over. Time would pass, we’d play some more halfhearted volleyball and I’d forget all about pull-ups until the next year where I’d repeat the same dreadful performance.

So, how are pull-ups different now that they’re a GOAT?

1. You’re supposed to have GOATS. There’s a whole page for them, right? When you’re working towards something that’s really difficult, you’re building strength. And, when you conquer something that was once difficult, you build confidence.

2. Everyone’s got GOATS. Everything’s relative. Even the strongest person at my gym has a GOAT page in their notebook and groans a little when a work out contains a specific exercise.

3. With a GOAT, you don’t just accept that you suck. You don’t ignore the GOAT, pretending it doesn’t exist for a year and then just feel disappointed when nothing’s changed. You work at it.

You feed it little food pellets and scratch it behind the ears until one day it’s working for you instead of against you.

For now, I’m practicing with these giant rubber band things, but I think my muscles are starting to get it. One day soon I’ll do a real president’s challenge -worthy pull-up and we’ll all celebrate. Then I’ll cross it off my GOAT page and move on to the next thing.

Question for the day: What’s your GOAT? (Maybe it has absolutely nothing to do with exercise or fitness.)