“How do we avoid all the teen angst?”
I heard this question from a high school teacher last week, while sitting on a panel at the National Young Writers’ Festival. The panel was entitled ‘What Makes A Story’ and it had an audience of mostly teenaged writers. The teacher was asking us how they could keep their students from handing in creative writing filled with angsty teenage emotion.
What was meant to be a discussion about “how to write well” had turned into “how to write like you’re not a teenager”. I had to call shenanigans on this.
The thing is, I don’t buy into this idea of “teen angst”. I don’t think angst is arbitrated by your age.
“Teen angst” is a term generally used to dismiss the fears and anxieties of people aged thirteen to twenty. It suggests that their emotional reactions are overblown and ridiculous, less valid than the feelings of people outside this age bracket. Among writers, “teen angst” refers to writing produced by teenagers that is characteristically overly descriptive, unsubtle and rife with cliché. In other words, poor writing.
For older writers, “teen angst” is shorthand for the unsophisticated prose we wrote at school. It is a way of laughing into our sleeves at the earnest poetry we wrote when we were fifteen and totally in love. I don’t use the word “totally” to mock the stereotypical syntax of teenagers. I mean totally in love. When I was seventeen and I heard the warm voice of a young man who would torture my dreams for years, every part of me fell into love. There was nothing else left.
Was I angsty? Yes. Did I write pages of embarrassing poetry about it? You bet I did. But should I have stopped myself from writing this “teen angst”, stopped exploring my feelings and experiences, and instead written as if I were some imagined other person?
What would have been the point?
If I tried to ignore the bent of my feelings and write as if I were someone else, to please someone else, I would inevitably write something mundane and stupid. In fact, I often write mundane and stupid things even when I am being most true to myself. But at least then I have spent time with the subjects that most occupy my thoughts; I may have exorcised some demons. If you’re going to write something mundane and stupid, it might as well be on the subject of something you care about.
I understand that high school English teachers are sick of reading extended metaphors comparing love to a roller-coaster. I couldn’t be more sympathetic. And since they mainly read writing submitted by teenagers, they can be excused for thinking this lack of sophistication comes down to age. But listen, I attend poetry open mic’s. It is not just teenagers. When you’ve heard fifty-year-old men read out long, meandering poems about their heart being “torn apart” (“in the dark”, “from the start”), you tend to stop thinking angst ends with youth.
I’m not claiming that the teens are not a turbulent time, or that fourteen-year-olds are not more prone to emotional highs and lows than most other age groups. I’m saying, let’s stop shaming them for this. They are reacting to a legitimately difficult period of life. When I look back on my teens and my “crazy emotions”, I now notice that those years coincided with a crazy amount of new responsibilities and pressures, coupled with being trapped in environments I wasn’t allowed to leave (school, home). As soon as I graduated high school and had the freedom to choose where I spent most of my time, and with whom, it’s amazing how quickly I perked up. To paraphrase Steven Winterburn: before you diagnose your student with “teen angst”, first make sure that they’re not just actually having a really hard time. And please, let’s stop rolling our eyes at teenagers for being melancholy. People in younger age groups are more likely to experience depression and anxiety disorders. It really is life-or-death for them.
Anway, if your teenaged students are submitting poor writing, it is probably because they are inexperienced writers. It’s not because they are writing about teenage experiences, or because their youth renders them senseless. Writers who’ve had many decades to work on their craft are more likely to write better. But someone who picks up a pen to write their first poem or story about heartbreak at fifty-three is just as likely to write something terrible as a fifteen-year-old. Prodigies aside, we all need to work at writing, no matter our age.
So, teenaged writers, it’s not about how old you are. It’s about how much you’ve read, how much you’ve informed yourself, how many hours you’ve put into writing. Older people have had more time to learn their craft, but that doesn’t mean they’ve used it. You have as many hours in the day as everyone else. If you want to be a great writer, work at it. And don’t let anyone tell you that your feelings are just “teen angst”. Your feelings aren’t clichéd; your experiences aren’t clichéd. Your metaphors, however, might be.
The panel was a part of NYWF’s Younger Young Writers Program, organised by teacher/tour-de-force Geoff Orton.
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