When I was 19 years old, I took my first fiction writing class. Each week, the fifteen or so members of my class and I would gather around a table to discuss each other’s work. No one in the class was older than 22. Our professor guided our discussions with cryptic phrases like “I want to find myself closer to the narrative line in this moment” and “the verisimilitude of this moment is rather opaque.”
Some people wrote science fiction, and one girl worked on a retelling of Like Water for Chocolate set in rural Iowa. You know, as you do. Most of the other stories were attempts at literary fiction: young priests losing their faith, unhappily married suburban people, children confronting the specter of death with wide eyes and precocious wisdom.
And then there was me.
I was writing a story about a seventeen year old girl, a senior in high school who works at a coffee shop and reads Whitman and has a dog and is madly in love with a boy who never notices her, all, for some reason, set vaguely in Appalachia. It wasn’t good, but it wasn’t terrible, either. I’d never tried my hand at writing fiction before, and I mostly had no idea what I was doing, but there were some nice sentences, a few good moments.
Still, I was embarrassed by my story. Somehow I knew that writing fiction about a teenage girl wasn’t as… valid? I guess?… as writing about a middle aged suburban husband. The modern YA genre didn’t really exist at the time, beyond the pages of Sweet Valley High. I suppose a few teenaged girls existed in the pages of the literature we were reading in school — Jane Eyre, Esther Greenwood, Lolita — but of course a simple story about a regular teen girl didn’t count as literature.
Two other girls in my class were also writing about teen girls and their perspectives. We joked that we were writing Seventeen Magazine stories, insubstantial bits of fluff of no consequence to anyone — even though, as I remember, one of the stories was about a girl being date-raped at a party, another was a girl struggling with suicidal thoughts after an abortion, and the third about a girl grappling with the death of her mother. Not actually insignificant themes, but that the protagonists were girls made them, by default, fluff.
I remember being vaguely embarrassed about my teen girl story, but I kept working on it, because even though it was “just” a teen girl story, it explored relationships I was interested in and asked questions I had myself. I loved my dumb little story. But the next year, when I enrolled in an advanced fiction workshop, I wrote about college graduates struggling with their unhappy suburban relationship. Secretly, I gave my protagonist a teen girl’s heart.
Years later, having just published my first YA novel about — shockingly — a seventeen year old girl trying to navigate the complicated social rules of girlhood, I want to go back to my 19 year old self (and her Seventeen Magazine story writing friends), and encourage her to stop being embarrassed about the stories she wants to tell. Not because my feminist core is irritated that she’s learned that girl stories don’t count as literature (though it is), and not because my inner writer is dying to suggest that maybe she consider including, you know, a plot in her stories (though really, it’s painful).
No, mostly I want to head back to sophomore year of college and tell Young Molly to quit apologizing for writing what she wants to write, because life is too damn short to worry about what other people think, and true art — and great, interesting literature — comes from following your own weirdo obsessions and passions, and in the future someone will write this totally porny fan fiction that is a million times worse than anything Young Molly could ever imagine, and she will get very, very wealthy because of it.
You see, Young Molly? Embarrassment and self-censorship don’t pay. Better to fly your own freaky teen girl flag, and trust that someone, somewhere, will care enough to give you millions of dollars for it.