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Juvenilia and Loving the Writer You Were

I visited my mother this week, and, on a whim, took a magical journey up into her attic where a nice pile of my things--VHS tapes and stuffed animals and books, glorious books--still reside. Among the spoils of my childhood was a box occupied solely by my youthful creative output: Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves fanfic, dozens of sketchbooks, a bound book I wrote in second grade called The North Plainfield Stick Emergency.

I was, perhaps, more productive in high school than during any other era. For years, I could hardly look at the marble composition books that I clutched to my chest between classes. I knew that the wide-ruled pages contained embarrassing stuff. Drawings of mermaids. Vampire poetry. Some very earnestly-written political posters whose memory, for decades, made me cringe.

But when I sat down with these books, so well-loved that their covers were held on by stickers and tape, I was surprised by what I found. Sure, there was all the emo posturing that I remembered--corny Johnny the Homicidal Maniac-inspired comics, for instance, which I sold to my classmates at twenty-five cents an issue. Sure, most of my writing--particularly the epic fantasy about a one-horned mercenary--was overwritten. One story began:
The sun was just sinking below the Releitae Mountains when Jance Atherlorn arrived in Pyrenia, the place of fire
and then proceeded, for four pages, to reiterate exactly how hot "Pyrenia" really was, without touching on any type of characterization but Jance Atherlorn's "pale dust colored eyes."

But now that I have more than a decade on my old high school self, I can see, too, how charming a lot of it is. There were sparkling bits of dialogue in a story about a girl named Portia Dalton and a shapeshifting crow named Vincent Crowe. Another story was surprisingly well-timed.

Fourteen years later, I feel almost as if another person wrote these stories--but she's a person who had quite a bit of potential. Why couldn't I see it then? Why did I tear so many stories out of my notebooks when they didn't come out perfect on the first draft, or cross out sketches and write "BAD! BAD DRAWING!" in the margins beside them? Why, for years, did the memory of my art make me cringe, embarrassed?

Why am I sometimes hard on myself in exactly the same ways now?

When I was in middle school, I became convinced, after seeing a picture of myself, that I had chubby knees. I spent a whole, sweltering summer refusing to wear shorts. I saw the same photo a few years ago. The funny thing is that I didn't even notice my legs. I saw, instead, the width of my smile--how happy I was standing beside my best friend, giving her bunny ears, grinning through my braces.

It's an important reminder, I think, of how hard we can be on ourselves at times, in terms of art and our bodies and the people we once were. But in retrospect, I'm not embarrassed by my former self at all. In fact, I wouldn't mind giving her a great big hug.

How has your perspective on your writing changed with time?
Phoebe North

Phoebe writes stories about aliens for teenagers. She loves both Star Trek and Star Wars and doesn't believe you should ever have to choose. She is the author of Starglass and Starbreak, both from Simon and Schuster.

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  1. When I was younger, my writing was more structured with lots of details using all five senses and leaving nothing un-described. (Like teachers want their student to write.) Now, my writing is more free. Flowy. (Is that a word?)My descriptions are less wordy, yet more sensory. I, also, pick a part my pictures, drawings, writings, cooking, you name it. It's difficult not to be critical of ourselves, but I guess this is how we grow. (Or wither away and die.) My choice is to learn, adapt, and grow.

  2. Hmm. I don't usually look back on my middle and high school writing except to wince and be like, "Well, that girl's gone for good." Forget about elementary school.

    But now that I think about it, there were some lessons that I took away from those old writing sessions. Though I always felt that my first YA trilogy (circa ninth grade) was skewed toward the books I was reading at the time, I can look back and find moments where the banter can still make me smile, or I explained my myth with a bit of back-story that did make sense.

    Those early writings really are the first steps toward becoming better.

    It still isn't getting revived, though.

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  4. I had a different experience than most people have in high school. I was at a boarding school where the thing I was doing was writing. And it saddens me deeply that I can point to the exact moment in time where a lot of my insecurities come from.

    One of the writing teachers wasn't particularly well-liked. She was cruel and insistent everyone write 'high literature'. I was young and liked to try new things, and she dragged 15-year-old me into her office and began berating me that, despite trying something new and pushing myself out of a comfort zone, I was capable of better than some failed experiment.

    It's been a battle to not wonder if I can do better every time I write now. It's been almost 11 years.

  5. I had a weird pattern in middle and high school, showing everyone my art and giving speeches in public without a care, but showing very few friends my written words. I felt the words were somehow more important, but that meant they had to be perfect. Perfectionism in youth kept me from getting used to and benefitting from the give and take of criticism. From making multiple drafts, or staying too long on one project. Because, of course, the longer you're with a project, the more you see its flaws.

    As you probably agree, editing changed that perspective dramatically. It helps to see the other side, to know that there is no judging deity who hands down stamps of perfection and imperfection. It's just a splashy, squishy flow of words that work sometimes.

  6. I Just re-read an old epic fantasy of mine - my first ever "novel" attempt - and I was surprised at how good I thought it was. Not perfect, of course, but it showed promise. I only ever wrote the first chapter, but managed to spend about 5 years "brainstorming." Still, maybe I'll go back to it some day. And, I've always been the same with old drawings and paintings, but I you look back, I'm proud I tried to express myself, to put myself out there for others to see. Most people won't.

    Great post!

  7. A lot of my high school writings got transferred to my computer the summer before college. I didn't want to leave them in my parents house (the forays into NC-17 territory especially), so I destroyed the notebooks and spent the entire summer typing until they sat on a flash drive that remained on my keychain...until my keys got soaked in the freshmen dorm's open-stall shower. I still have the corrupted files on my laptop eight years later.

    Someday I might have the drive to try to save them, but for now they sit in my writing folder, waiting.

  8. My writing of 20 years ago needed a lot of work, though I stayed with some of the characters and books, and brought them to a much more mature level over the years. There's a lot to be said for literally growing up with your characters.

    I began my Atlantic City books as a preteen/teen soap (of the 1940s) of sorts, and so featured lots of angsty, hot button issues I thought you were supposed to include in books about young people. Things like eating disorders, racism, divorce, wild parties, drugs, etc. Now they feel really forced, gimmicky, and cliché. I also featured the wildly jumping camera common to soaps, not often focusing on just one scene for longer than one page. There was no clearly-defined story arc, just an episodic structure with nothing leading to anything, no development, no resolution, just dumping stuff on the page. There were also lots of throwaway storylines.

  9. I wrote a series in high school which was sort of Buffy meets Spooksville and looking back those stories were the worst thing I have ever wrote. So many cliches, drama and Mary/Gary Sues! *shudders* And when I was a child I wrote about three dolls who came alive at night called Molly, Polly, and Dolly. Enough said about that. *cringe*


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Item Reviewed: Juvenilia and Loving the Writer You Were Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Phoebe North