As any mother of a teenager will tell you, it’s not an easy job. And my teenager is an easy kid. Really. But even as laid-back, mellow and incredibly kind and gentle as my son is, I’m speechless at times by his behaviors—the strange things that slip from his mouth, the choices of daily outfits, the flawless way he morphs into a different person when he’s with his friends.
I remember those days, although quite different 20-some years ago than life is today for teenagers. For one, we didn’t have Facebook and Instagram. In fact, we didn’t have cell phones! But the physical and emotional act of being a teenager was the same. Our bodies still developed oddly right before our eyes. We still dealt with peer pressure, our minds desperately trying to figure out right from wrong, good from bad. Like teens today, we simply just wanted to “fit in”. For this reason, writing about being a teenager should be simple—I can merely look back at what life was like as a 14 or 16 or 18 year old and as those memories dance around uncomfortably in my head, I can write them down. Problem is, when I reread my words I often discover, quite unhappily, that they’re…outdated.
So, I figured out a way to solve this. By simply watching and listening to my son as he meanders through his teenage years, I can create teenage characters that are as real and genuine as my own kid. I sit in the background when my son has friends over, pretending to be engrossed by whatever is on my computer screen, but I’m actually eavesdropping and taking notes. I memorize the lingo. I follow my son on Facebook and Instagram, and I keep a record of what I see and read. I attend every school function and take mental snapshots of how my son’s classmates interact with one another. I watch them with their parents—the slight shift in how they stand and walk compared to when they’re with their peers. It’s constant homework for me, but as every writer knows, our job requires constant homework. And this just happens to be the most enjoyable homework assignment I’ve ever had to do.
The ‘mom filter’
In writing about teenagers for teenagers, the most difficult part for me is character development, the nuances that bring a character to life. How can I take the information I’ve gathered from immersing myself in my son’s life, but keep the adult awareness out, specifically my “mom filter”? In a way, this isn’t as much a concern today as it was 10 years ago. The Internet has done a damn fine job of making our kids ultra aware of everything. Even with the over-abundance and accessibility of online information, today’s teenagers are still not as emotionally and mentally mature as their adult counterparts. The more time I spend with my son, however, the more I cringe at the harsh reality of what life is like for teenagers today, and because I’m the mother of one, it’s this reality I feel the need to write about.
By fully integrating myself into my son’s world to the point of taking notes, I’ve been able to better identify with today’s teenager. But I’m also able to reflect on the harshness of their world as an adult with the knowledge I’ve gained since leaving high school all those years ago. It’s this knowledge that has helped prepare me to be a mother in the first place. Writing for teenagers requires not only an understanding of them at their level (and not the false understanding of what it was like to be a teenager “back in my day”), but also an understanding of what it’s like to parent them. There’s a delicate balance between the two understandings, and as a writer, there’s nothing more fulfilling than being able to utilize both.
If I wasn’t the mother of a teenager, I’d probably still embark on the journey of writing for young adults, but I’m not so sure my teenage characters would be as truly relevant and believable, especially to other teenagers. They’d find a glitch here and there, a personality flaw, moments of “whatever”. And I’m sure they still do in what I’ve written thus far. After all, I’m just at the very beginning of this escapade. But with the help of my son—as he hangs on this teenage roller coaster ride for a few more years—I hope I will grow and develop as a writer while he grows and develops into an adult.