Seventeen Again: Reading to Reminisce and Look Toward the Future
One of my biggest influences as a writer is Rainbow Rowell. She and I have relatively different styles; while Rowell is a dialogue heavy snark, I’m more of a show-and-not-tell thought monster. Both are good in moderation.
But Rowell once said the very thing that encouraged me, (at the time) a writer of science fiction short stories who was struggling to produce her sci-fi novel, to fearlessly dive into a story idea I had about an anxiety-ridden college senior suddenly faced with a series of changes that force her out of her comfort zone. In an interview with The Rumpus in 2013, Rowell said:
“I didn’t know Eleanor & Park would be published as YA when I wrote it. Being a YA writer wasn’t really on my radar. I just wrote the book. When an editor purchased it and wanted to publish it as YA, I was fine with that. I didn’t feel like it was a step down. I never thought, ‘This changes me. This makes me a YA author.’”
For me, that book I dived into was ‘A Fantastic Mess of Everything,’ a novel I worked on over the summer and published in August of this year. I didn’t treat ‘A Fantastic Mess’ like a Young Adult novel as I was writing it, I merely told myself to just write a story I would want to read. And it worked so well for me as I writer. I had finally found my voice, something I was lacking in my sci-fi stories, and even though it was a book about younger people, I didn’t feel like there were any age barriers separating me from the character. I was 26 when I wrote it, which is arguably not much older, but I was in such a different place in my life as this character.
So, ‘A Fantastic Mess’ wasn’t written as a YA book, just like Rowell’s ‘Fan Girl’ was (and some of the characters in that story are in their 20’s, I might add) but that’s pretty much what my book was, if my categorization of books was correct.
Turns out it was not. When I approached a book publicist about my novel, I was encouraged to promote ‘A Fantastic Mess’ as a New Adult novel because “the characters are older.” The main character is 22, and she’s still very much in college. Suddenly, my self-proclaimed YA novel became an NA novel–a genre I didn’t even know existed–and suddenly, my audience narrowed. I felt like I could no longer put my work in front of lovers of YA, because I was being told that they want to read books about teenagers, and my 22-year-old protagonist was just too old.
That scares me. I’m currently writing a novel told in the dual perspective between sisters, who are 17 and 23. So what is my book? Is it YA? Is it NA? Are younger readers going to shy away from reading it because it’s about someone too old for their taste? Because quite frankly, adults are hardly turned off by genre, and I think many of them are starting to embrace the fact that YA is just general fiction in disguise.
The thing is, teenagers don’t know what being an adult is actually like. And I don’t mean that offensively, but I just read a story published on Wattpad by a 17-year-old in which the protagonist was told by her best friend that she needed to settle down with a guy because she was 23-years-old. On the first page. First paragraph even. Maybe when I was a teenager I thought 23 was an age where I needed to stop being single, too. But I’m 27 and single now, nowhere close to marriage.
The first time I was intimate with a guy? Sorry, teenagers, but I was 20. Not 16. At 23, no one was telling me to settle down. At 23, my Facebook was deactivated for 6 months so I could graduate with honors. I was still asking my parents for money for food and gas. I had only been living on my own for 2 years. I didn’t actually start feeling like an adult until I was 26 and 11 months old. That was three months ago. So yes, at 23, I was a new adult, but my experiences–while my own–are universally relatable. That’s why I’m sharing them with the world now.
While I’m in full support of genres, I think as writers and readers we need to remember that experience isn’t categorized by age. One person’s first time, or even first love, can happen at 15 or 25. Many of the situations that happen to Millie, the protagonist of ‘ Fantastic Mess,’ happened to me between the ages of 23-26, but I gifted them to my 22-year-old protagonist, and I think it works just fine.
What matters should be the way relating those experiences make us feel. As readers, we need to explore the world with relentless curiosity. We must read books from the point-of-view of a teenager to evoke those feelings of first experiences. We must read from the perspective of a young child, whose innocence raises questions of moral value. And we mustn’t fear the well-versed, and at times jaded, mind of an adult whose lived through the stages we haven’t quite touched yet. Otherwise, there would just be far too many books about 23-year-olds who need to settle down. That would be very, very boring.
Meet Beck Medina
Beck is a writer from Los Angeles. Her debut novel ‘A Fantastic Mess of Everything’ is out now.