Loving-Kindness and Writing Teenage Characters

Back in 2014, I had the chance to attend Leaky Con in Orlando. It was an all-around great time, but the absolute highlight was a panel called “I Was A Teenage Writer.”

One of my Leaky Con 2014 treasures.

From what I understand, “I Was A Teenage Writer” is a recurring event in these conventions. With good reason, too—it’s an amazing panel! It consists of some of the biggest names in YA literature—back in 2014, this included Rainbow Rowell, John Green, Holly Black, and many others—reading excerpts from their early works. And when I say early works, I mean early. The featured authors read from stories, poems, and essays they wrote as tweens and teens. The goal is to show aspiring writers that everyone was a “bad writer” at first.

The 2014 panel was, for the most part, hilarious— at one point, Holly Black burst into tears from laughing so hard at one of her old poems. While most of the authors present took jabs at their old writing, there was one notable exception. Writer and artist Kazu Kibuishi took a slightly different approach to his old writing. Before he started to read, Kibuishi made a disclaimer that he wanted to “show his younger self some respect and compassion” (I’m paraphrasing here. 2014 was a little while ago.).

At the time, I didn’t think much of Kibuishi’s statement, except maybe that his seriousness had briefly shifted the mood in the conference room to a careful silence. But all of this came back to me last week when I was writing Wednesday’s post.

The title of this post was almost “What The Jonas Brothers Taught Me About Loving My Teenage Characters & Younger Self,” but

  1. That’s a fucking mouthful.
  2. Two back-to-back posts about the Jonas Brothers might be a bit much for this audience, no?

Writing about something you loved so passionately as a teenager is tricky because there’s a tendency to talk down on our younger selves. Being in my early twenties, I think about my teenage self quite a bit. But it’s usually something along the lines of “thank God I’m not sixteen anymore.”

All of this reminds me of a meditation term called “loving-kindness.” Essentially, loving-kindness is about killing judgemental thoughts and replacing them with gentleness and understanding. Recently I realized that, when I think about my younger self, I’m often missing loving-kindness.

I’m not exactly alone in this, either. I’m willing to bet I’m not the only twenty-something who cringes at the thought of all those Team Edward posters. (And T-shirts. And the New Moon themed birthday party.) I can’t be the only person who went to the trouble of deleting old social media accounts in an attempt to erase boyband-related posts made at suspicious hours of the night back in 2012.

I can laugh about it now (because 48 posters of Robert Pattinson is a laughable amount), but sometimes I wonder whether I should. Hating on our teenage selves is an almost unavoidable bandwagon behavior; we all do it. And the closer in age we are to our teens, the more vocal we are about how “dumb” and “childish” we used to be as if by doing so we’re putting some sort of metaphorical distance between our present selves and the people we were six years ago. Well, recently, I started thinking about whether that’s fair to past me. 

Speaking of merch…

The flip side of being so close to my teens is that I still remember what it felt like to be a teen. A lot of the embarrassing things I did as a teenager came from a place of strong emotions. When I liked a book or a show, I hung posters and live-tweeted and bought all the merch my Christmas money could buy. When I loved someone, I was loud about it. When I hated someone, it consumed me. And just because I don’t feel the same way anymore doesn’t mean those feelings aren’t valid. 

This is 11 year-old me at her first Jonas Brothers concert.

For me, showing my teenage self some loving-kindness means admiring the strength of her emotions. Sometimes, when I catch myself being overly critical of my younger self, I try to flip the script on myself. It usually sounds something like “I love the way you love things. I love the way your eyes go wide when you’re talking about a story you love. I love the way your heart flutters when you see your favorite actor on screen. I love that you feel so strongly.”

I can’t say I’m perfect about this. I still talk down on my younger self sometimes. But, after a few months of loving-kindness, I have a newly found respect for my teenage self.

Strong. Fucking. Emotions.

The reason I’m writing about this now, Dear Reader, is because the protagonist of my WIP is a teenage girl. Her name, I might as well tell you now, is Anne Marie. I absolutely love Anne Marie, but, as I was looking through some old drafts of the story that inspired this novel, I realized I could have shown her a little more loving-kindness.

It was interesting going back to my workshop notes and finding that readers really liked the narrative voice poking fun at Anne Marie’s flair for drama. Anne Marie, much like my younger self, is all about strong emotions and wearing them on her sleeve. Going back to those early drafts made me realize that when we’re writing about all the awkwardness and urgency and the theatrics of being a teenager, we can choose to talk down on our characters. Or we can choose to show them some loving-kindness. 

Writing teenage characters in a way that truly honors their experiences is all about compassion and understanding. It’s about toning down judgments. It’s a practice I’m finding especially challenging as I attempt to write a novel with a teen protagonist but for an adult audience. 

I am not an expert writer, and I’m not trying to tell anyone how to write. But I find that practicing loving-kindness with my characters really helps me understand and sympathize with them. If you’re writing a character that you aren’t quite sure how to feel about—especially if this character is a teenager—I urge you to try some loving-kindness with her. You might be surprised at what you learn about her. And about yourself. 

Yours,

Miss Breathing 

The Jonas Brothers Breakup My Life Needed

It’s around sundown on the afternoon of October 28, 2013, when my uncle breaks the long silence to ask if I’m ok. That’s one of the things I like most about him: he can be as melodramatic as a sixteen-year-old girl. I try to laugh it off–I’m fine. I’m not a little girl anymore. It’s not even for sure yet. But the rumors have been circulating on the internet for days now, and we both know what’s coming. The Jonas Brothers are breaking up. 

The other girls at my high school think it’s “hilarious” that I’m “still into the Jonas Brothers.” At home, I’m known for being a drama queen. But sitting in the passenger seat of my mom’s Chevy, just my uncle and I going down a nondescript Florida backroad, I finally let myself feel all the things I’ve been pushing aside. The Jonas Brothers breaking up feels like the end of something, and although I can’t quite grasp why, I can’t help but feel a sense of mourning.

I’ve always rolled my eyes at those Tumblr edits with phrases like “Bands Save Lives” and “Her Playlist Is A Glimpse Into Her Soul” stamped over a black-and-white background. But I’d be lying if I said that kind of thing didn’t unironically cross my mind that October. The way I loved the Jonas Brothers and their music had, in a weird way, saved my life. The last gift my father gave me before passing away in 2009 was Jonas Brothers tickets. I listened to their music as a means to cope with problems that were simply too much for an eleven-year-old girl. I could play A Little Bit Longer when I felt like crying and blame Nick Jonas for my tears. The summer we lived in a haunted house, I’d blast their albums on my speakers as if the joyful music could drive away that heavy sense of dread. 

If any of this sounds melodramatic, it’s because it is. But your favorite band breaking up is an end-of-the-fucking-world scenario when you’re sixteen, and I’m not trying to invalidate the things my younger self felt so deeply. And now, nearly six years later, I still think of the Jonas Brothers breakup as a formative moment in my own life.

When I think back on the year 2019, I can honestly say the best thing that’s happened to me so far is that the Jonas Brothers got back together. It’s been a year of loss, mourning, confusion, and rejection, and always-expensive-and-not-always-effective therapy sessions.

Now, I won’t pretend I know what Kevin, Joe, and Nick were going through back in 2013 because I don’t know them personally (imagine knowing them! I bet they smell heavenly and have really soft hands), but it’s safe to say they were going through a tough time. I imagine that, when they were trying to produce V, their unreleased fifth album, they struggled with insecurities and uncertainty about the future. I’m almost certain I know how they felt when they released Pom Poms and First Time–like they were stumbling around in the dark, hoping and praying that things would go right but knowing they wouldn’t. Of course, I can only extrapolate, but something tells me I’m close to the truth here.

Back in 2013, I couldn’t understand how or why JB had come to the point where a band of brothers needed a break from each other and the fame and creative beauty they had achieved together. But I was sixteen, and things had mostly gone my way up until then. I knew what I wanted (to write) and who I wanted to be (a writer) and how I would get it (by studying writing in college). In short, life hadn’t kicked my ass yet. But all of that began to change when I started college. For the first time in my life, I doubted what I wanted and how I wanted to get there. I read “The Bell Jar” my freshman year (bad idea if you’re clinically depressed, friends) and couldn’t stop thinking about Plath’s fig tree metaphor where every fig represented a different life for the same woman. Would she pick one? Would she starve? Author, TV writer, producer, teacher, lawyer–which fig was I going to eat?

College zoomed by, and eventually, I had to pick a fig or two. I chose to change majors from media production to media theory. I chose to stay away from LA, which meant I couldn’t be a TV writer. I chose grad school, and I applied to a grand total of two institutions (not my best idea, I’ll admit). During my last semester, I was rejected from both at around the same time my grandmother died and I inadvertently (but also maybe intentionally?) ruined things with a really great guy by standing him up on our first date. 

There was a lot of crying going on that semester. I must’ve run through twice my bodyweight in tissues (is this where I try to get Kleenex to sponsor me?). None of the crying episodes felt particularly climactic at the time, but some moments do stand out in retrospect. I remember crying in the Public Gardens (a really nice place to cry, actually. I highly recommend it if you ever find yourself sad in Boston), not caring who saw. I remember crying so much it left ugly, unignorable streaks in my foundation. I saw myself in the bathroom mirror when I got home, and the crying turned into hysterical, hiccupping laughter, which in turn led to some more crying. Next thing I know, I’m on the bathroom floor, staring at a mousetrap and asking God why He’d allowed me to get my hopes up about my future if it was all going to go to shit. You know, real classy stuff. 

But here’s the thing. I should have never doubted in Him. 

I’m not trying to get too religious on you since I promised you a post about the Jonas Brothers and this is like three whole ballparks away from that, but bear with me. Whatever you believe in–God, several gods or goddesses, the Universe with a capital U, some cosmic power or other–you believe for a reason. For me, the reason is that every awful thing I have experienced has been temporary. Every bad thing I have lived through has ended, and there was almost always something better waiting on the other side. The Jonas Brothers broke up in 2013, and early this year they announced their comeback. Well, roughly a month after the triple catastrophe of early 2019, I received a miraculous little email from NYU. 

I’d applied to two different MFAs at NYU and had received rejections from both. So, when I checked my email in bed one late March morning, I was tempted to believe I was hallucinating. Maybe it was a mistake? A marketing ploy? Was Ashton Kutcher about to pop out with a camera crew? The email was an invitation to apply to an MFA program I had never heard of before, one they thought I would be a better fit for. I looked up their website and burst into tears. Happy tears, for the first time all year.

It was almost too good to be true. It was the kind of program I could only dream of, a hybrid program that perfectly combined my creative pursuits and my interest in critical theory. Perfect for the girl who couldn’t decide on a fig. 

I’m scheduled to start there next year.

How does any of this relate back to the Jonas Brothers? Just like Kevin, Nick, and Joe needed some time apart, I needed things to fall apart so that better ones could fall together. Maybe crying on a bench in the Gardens on a cold February morning was my interview on Good Morning America. And this doesn’t necessarily mean that my struggles are over with. I still have rough days (and weeks, and, hell, even months). But there’s an odd sort of relief knowing the worst is behind me. Just like Kevin, Joe, and Nick took time to heal, I’m taking a gap year before starting at NYU. I think I still have some stumbling around to do before I make it to the Jonas Brothers comeback of my life, but I have a feeling that, for me, happiness begins soon.

So, Dear Reader, if you ever find yourself going through hell, think of the Jonas Brothers. It works for me! 

Yours truly,

Miss Breathing