When I saw a video entitled “Phonetic description of annoying sounds teenagers make,” I was like YES! And then I was like, NO! And then I was like, “breathy voice long low back unrounded vowel with advanced tongue root.”
Because while I love a rigorous breakdown of adolescent speech patterns as much as the next linguistics-obsessed young adult writer, this video kind of encapsulates a writing problem I’ve been having lately: I’ve forgotten how to sound like a teenager.
Well, not totally. At the wizened age of 23, I’ve just just passed the pivot point of language shift from “hip young thing of today” to “old,” and so I can still trade fluently in the slang and speech patterns that define millenials or Gen-Y or whoever. I know enough not to say things like “I wrote a blog” or to put a definite article before the names of websites. The expressions are easy, but they’re not the problem. It’s the expressed.
One of the reasons I love reading (and writing) YA fiction is because teenage feelings are, to borrow an appropriate phrasing, some intense shit. Besides the inner turmoil engendered by ungodly amounts of hormones coursing through your body, you’ve got a new external experience practically every day, whether it’s driving or taking the SATs or making out with someone you really really want to (or don’t want to, for that matter). And while fiction is, by definition, fictive, that doesn’t preclude it from telling the truth, and I think YA fiction operates with a singular understanding between the reader and the writer to translate the specific details of one character’s ups and downs to the larger, universal curves of the teenage human experience.
Getting the feelings right is crucial, in other words. And when your point of origin is no longer the chemical cocktail of adolescence but a conscious recipe of one part imagination and one part memory, inspiring that same buzz of immediacy and intensity is tricky business. But besides the rusty archives of your own recollection, where can you find teenage truth?
Du-uh. The internet.
I’m not saying you need to go out and #followateen-stalk actual, individual teenagers. That would be weird. But you also shouldn’t go out and read think-piece essays about Those Kids Today, because that is looking at teenagers with all the subtlety and understanding of that song from Bye Bye Birdie. Don’t have a cow, man!
Here’s my curated list of true teenage stories. These kids aren’t always going to be neat, or dynamic, or well-edited or -rounded or -spelled, or even interesting, at times. But then again, none of us was. The stories are still valid.
- Rookie, the only teenage magazine that speaks to actual teenagers instead of the glossed-up automatons Seventeen seems to think exist out there
- Teenage Diaries Revisited, for the NPR treatment of adolescence with the benefit of hindsight
- Hanging Rock Comics, because Taylor-Ruth draws and collages a lot of things I wish I had been cool enough to understand as a teenager
- Only the Young, a documentary about kids in California I saw in Montreal and found so charming I bought and watched again twice
- This American Life episodes, forever: Prom, Harper High School Part 1 & Part 2, High Speed Chase, Crush (Prologue), I Enjoy Being A Girl (Prologue)
- Or, if you’re of my generation and you’re brave, trawl through the archives of your own personal LiveJournal or Xanga.
Are you wincing? Are you feeling it? Are you optimistic and cynical all at the same time? Good—or as the kids would say, “voiceless velar affricate”—that’s the place you want to write from. And if I missed anything good, hook a girl up and let me know.