The Ledge of Despair and Exultation: I love YA

In 1999 I was a senior in high school and MTV published Stephen Chbosky’s YA novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I just loved it. Like, loved it till I hurt. Last year I went to see the movie adaptation and despite my ridiculously high expectations, I left happily heartsick. That’s why on my commute yesterday morning I found myself getting emotionally invested in a song that came on the radio. It was “It’s Time” by Imagine Dragons – the same song that played over almost all the previews for the film. Weird, right? But let me break it down.

When you’re in high school, there’s are a bunch of things in play, but here are the major two that come to mind:

  1. Heart health. If you’re getting your heart broken, it’s probably the first time. Know what’s terrifying about that? When it’s the first time you get your heart broken, you have no frame of reference. You have no real life experience that let’s you know that it gets better. The second time, the third time, you can reference back and know that healing happens, but that first time, holy crap.
  1. The pressure of limitlessness. If your family has cleared a bit of a path for you, now it’s up to you. This is not a time in life in which you settle out of fear. You reach or you run. When you are knocked down a peg, you feel like you are falling off of a mountain. When you are validated, you feel like maybe, just maybe you can do anything in the world.

So, back to the song. There’s something there that crystallized a realization about YA for me. It’s the chorus. The way the lyrics kind of rush over each other like a current, like the singer can almost not keep up with the ideas. Like he’s straining and  running to convey this kind of abstract sentiment.

It’s time to begin, isn’t it?
I get a little bit bigger, but then I’ll admit
I’m just the same as I was
Now don’t you understand
That I’m never changing who I am

It’s proud and kind of dumb, and sincere and urgent. This is why I’m drawn to these stories and driven to create them. When else in life is drama so naturally ingrained into life? And it’s not bull – those feelings are legitimate.

Being a teenager is, if you’ll pardon the timely parallel, filled with all kinds of green lights across the water. Just like Gatsby idealization of his love, and keeping her right out of his reach, teenagers idealize a future filled with possibilities. Close enough to throw a rock at, but impossible because it’s not here yet.

When I was in high school and imagined a life in New York, I filled in the concrete blanks with delicious abstractions. I filled in the spaces with gorgeous, gritty, daring things I mentally pasted together from movies or books or TV. It was and wasn’t reality.  In my twenties, when I moved there, there was a reckoning to be had. I’d stand in the same spot that I’d envisioned, and be uncomfortably cold because I wore the wrong coat. And I was pissed off at myself because I blew eight dollars on a drink, and I didn’t have that kind of money. And the people I was with weren’t auto-bffs fighting the good fight with me, they were just other lonely people. The cigarettes on the sidewalk didn’t look like art, they looked gross. I missed my parents.

But that stuff is for the twenties. Given a take it or leave it option, I will leave those twenties. No thank you.

Your teenage years are for green lights, and life-or-death-in-love situations. For me, that’s really the good stuff. It’s emotionally pure and unfettered by rent or a disappointing job hunt that leaves you feeling desperate and …well, disappointed. I just love those stories.


One thought on “The Ledge of Despair and Exultation: I love YA

  1. Whew. Okay. See, I also remember seeing this book on MTV (that sounds weird, doesn’t it?) when I was in high school. But then when the movie just came out, like, just now, I thought maybe my mind had been reorganizing my life’s timeline. Thank you for confirming that. I’ve been ignoring the movie because I’ve felt disturbed by the whole time confusion debauchle.

    Great post, by the way. I agree with your take on teenage life, especially the “pressure of limitlessness.” Well said.

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