Lessons from Teen Writers

 Edwin_Meese_publicity_shot (This is a picture of Attorney General Edwin Meese, who commissioned the Meese Report on Pornography. He’ll be keeping an eye on things, just so no one gets the giggles. The following post acknowledges the existence of sex.)

I had the pleasure last week of teaching a class with Carrie Mesrobian at the Loft Literary Center. For three hours every day, we had the attentions of a dozen teenage writers. And what did we do with their attentions? We talked, read, and wrote about sex and violence. In essence, it was a class about crafting dramatic conflict and intense personal interaction. I cannot vouch for the students, but I can say it was an education for me.

This was not a focus group; I wasn’t there to discover what teens in general want to read. I tried to keep my primary engagement with them on the level of writer and editor. But I was keenly interested in listening to them talk and reading their writing, particularly about sex. I was interested in what things they perceived as clichés and as fertile, unplowed YA soil. Outside of increasingly unreliable memory, this was as good a window into experience as I was going to get. I tried hard not to blink and miss something. Here are seven things the class showed us that might be of interest to those who write about teenagers:

1. Girls masturbate, and the writers and readers in this class have noticed a distinct lack of same in YA fiction. A couple students talked about scenes they wished they could read (and will probably write) dialogue that connected the experience of masturbation with the experience of partnered sex. (More on this one later.)

2. Virginity is more a point on a life’s timeline than it is a character trait. To be a virgin is not necessarily to be virginal.

3. More mixed-race relationships. In the context of the class, I took this to mean they wanted to write and read about these relationships without having the mere existence of the relationship become the story.

4. They have a very sophisticated sense of the diversity of sexual orientations. Nobody thought the word “pansexual” was particularly novel or exotic. As people, these teenagers took their sexuality much less for granted than we generally imagine, and as writers they were vastly more interested in exploration than categorization. They’re impatient even with the non-diversity of our so-called diverse books when it comes to explorations and expressions of gender and sexuality.

5. Oral sex is a two way street. We asked the students to identify sexual clichés toward the beginning of the class, and then near the end we asked for the anti-clichés—the missed opportunities as they saw them. One student wrote “girls getting eaten out” three times on her anti-cliché list. Her general sentiment was not unique. This one was very interesting to me. Yes, reconsider the cunnilingus-to-fellatio ratio—duh—but I thought this comment also shined a light on how we adults so often write about teen sex—especially oral sex acts—symbolically. The no-strings-attached quickie blow-job can be a character development move in much of YA fiction. The girl who goes down on a guy but won’t have intercourse with him is a certain kind of person, etc. But what about depictions that aren’t concerned so much with what the act signifies as how the newly experienced desire feels to the character? Would the world come to an end if a YA novel captured a character discovering that he or she wanted to give a blow job? To capture this is to get hold of something so much more personal and fleeting than the purely symbolic.

6. One girl said she preferred writing queer sex scenes because it felt like she was working in a room less crowded with other people, an analogy I will not soon shake. In general as writers and readers, the class often found depictions of queer sex more appealing because such depictions had to rely more on “data” (Carrie’s extremely useful word for sex scenes that actually have anatomic specifics) and less on cliché or coy euphemism or nudge-nudge wink-wink. Makes sense, right? To conjure a non-heterosexual sex act, a writer has to be specific about bodies if she has any hope of putting a specific picture in a reader’s head. Spreading petals and silk and exploding stars fading to black doesn’t get the job done.

7. While they’re not looking for things to be “left to the imagination,” they are similarly uninterested in the sexual simulacrum that is porn (at least they were uninterested as writers—they were teenagers with pulses so I imagine they might have been interested in porn in other capacities). The girl who wrote “girls getting eaten out” was not ignorant of the fact that she could find millions of hours of cunnilingus with a single Google search. She was after something else. They don’t want symbols, wish fulfillment, or pretend sex. The sexual weariness, frustration, and disappointment so common to literary fiction about adults are uninteresting and foreign to them. Several said they wanted to write and read sex scenes that include conversations about the sex, which, while possibly terrible as writing advice, is a fascinating observation. Teen sexuality is its own unique thing in the vast universe of human sexuality.

I’m beginning to think of sex in YA this way: the processes of discovering

  • the facts of any given sex act,
  • the desire to have it,
  • and then of the opportunity to have it

are not necessarily erotic or symbolic or easily recalled by an adult, but they are none the less distinct, absolutely fascinating, and true to the experience of being a teenager. And isn’t that the whole point of the genre?

One last observation. But first, it’s not an exaggeration to say that being allowed to listen to a group of teenagers who are serious readers and writers discuss sex, reading, and writing in an open and unashamed way for many hours is a privilege and implies a certain amount of trust and respect. I hope I am honoring that trust, and I want it to be clear when I recount this next student question that I’m doing so with the considerable respect it is due:

“Why would I want to put a dick in my mouth? Do adults even do that?” asked one young writer.

At the time, Carrie and I answered with glib, adult equivalents of “yes” on the latter inquiry, but after a week’s reflection, her questions are far more valuable to me than our answer was to her.

Teenagers have always existed in a weird chasm between childhood innocence and adult experience. And the progress they make across that chasm on the way to adulthood is uneven and sporadic. Desire outpaces understanding. Understanding lurches ahead of desire. You know that people put penises in their mouths—and a dozen other things completely incomprehensible to the last vestiges of your child-self—before your new self quite feels the desire to do it. Or you feel the desire for intense and unfamiliar intimacy but don’t know how bodies—your body, another’s body—can quite satisfy it. Your mind surprises you. Your body surprises you. And on and on. The one thing of true value in all this chaos is honest, specific depictions.

“Yes, adults do that, but it’s not the same as what you might feel. No, I cannot really explain why you would want to do that or anything else, but trust me that if you do, you are not weird or a symbol of anything other than yourself. Though I cannot give you a reason, I can try as hard as I can to do justice to the process you will go through,” I wish I had answered.

If you as a writer take the specifics of adolescent sex—all of them—for granted, or let its symbolism be the primary force in the book, then you miss an opportunity to express something breathtakingly true about this thing that is being a teenager. And that would be a shame.