Dear Teen Me: Don’t quit writing

Dear Teen Me:

When I look at you, just about to hit Grade 12, I think, who is that skinny kid? And right, the hair.

I’m going to try to put this in such a way that won’t make your trademark stubbornness (which got you through that nasty, soul-crushing period of self-doubt and depression in Grade 11) immediately shut your ears. Crap, I think I’ve blown it already.

I know you’re standing on the edge of an abyss, but it’s not the same old one you’re used to, where you have to decide whether anything matters. I think you found that answer in all the writing you did – those short stories that set off warning bells in a teacher or two, and especially the one that got published in Scope, the school paper, the one about rage and mercy and understanding someone you thought was your enemy – in which violence turns out to be pointless. You know the one. Your friend Colin in English class cut it out, framed it, and stapled it to the classroom wall over his desk, and you knew for the first time your words actually had an effect on someone.

But while writing all those diaries you keep, the poetry you rarely show anyone, and the music reviews you wish would get you a job with Hit Parader can be good therapy, that’s not all it’s meant for. You can have an audience, and this is the thing you have to learn: it becomes a conversation.

Why do you need to know this, as you enter Grade 12, still sixteen and not even with your driver’s licence yet (I know, I know, you’re testing in September)? Because I see you sitting on your bed the night before the first day of school, touchtone phone in your hand, ready to chicken out. You’re about to call Mr. Clark, Ms. Doell, or Ms. Klassen, whichever of the teacher-advisors for Scope you can reach, to tell them you’re not the guy for the job.

See, even though you applied back in Grade 11 feeling sure that Joanne, the other person who wanted to be editor, would get it — let’s face it, she’s smarter and better read than you — they gave the job to you.  All summer you’ve been able to ignore the feelings that you never paid enough to what the the Grade 12 students running the paper did last year — Jacquelyne, Nikki, even Chris, who you got along with even though he used his position as cartoonist to lampoon your love of heavy metal mercilessly — and now you don’t have a clue what you’re supposed to do.

Number one: you can do this. Number two: get over yourself.

The most important thing about being editor isn’t even going to be your writing, and you should really get this through your head as soon as possible. Everyone laughs at the school paper; it’s not cool to write for it; it sucks – all that is true. And yet there are 1,200 copies printed of each issue and you know what? Just about everyone reads it. They may hate it – but that means they care.

You’re going to find that out when you publish other students’ articles on abortion, popular music, prayer in schools, sports, and atheism. When others are motivated enough by what they read to write something themselves, that means you’re doing something right. Because in high school, it takes a lot of guts to write something you really believe in, and put your name on it, and let everyone see what you stand for. (By the way: that takes a lot of guts at any point in your life.)

So as you sit  in your bedroom, maybe it’s finally setting in that you don’t know anything about typefaces, word count, or who to ask for help. (All the staff but one have graduated, some have already moved away; but call Nikki — she’ll give you good advice about managing staff group dynamics and how to get people to write.)

But here’s the only piece of advice I can give you that matters: DON’T QUIT. All the production details you should have been paying attention to in Grade 11, when you were wrestling with those demons that feel much smaller now, you can pick up. What matters is you keep putting what you believe down on paper, and making sure others do too.

And by the way, you’re going to have to write about half the articles in the first issue (at least, it will feel like it) so be prepared to use up all your ideas and then come up with a lot more. Also, ask for help. It’s not a sign of weakness, it’s called delegation. (Believe me, Mr. Alone-Against-the-World, that’s a life skill you should develop.)

So don’t chicken out. Believe it or not, while you go on to do a lot of other things you have loved in high school, like writing, art, and theatre, it’s in newspapers where you’ll eventually make your career.

And you know what? It’s a grind, it’s exhausting, and it is a total blast. Nothing beats the feeling of seeing your work — and that of others, who otherwise wouldn’t speak up — published. So don’t chicken out. Now’s your chance to try something that actually scares you, and learn that writing isn’t just something you do for yourself – it’s something you share with the world.


Middle-Aged Me

P.S.: I’m tempted to add “Get a haircut,” but I realize this will provoke automatic stubbornness guaranteeing an extra five years before you would even consider taking that advice. So I’ll say nothing but the slightly ominous, “Enjoy it while you can, dude.”


It’s been a blast to be a guest blog on the Dear Teen Me blog tour — Thanks very much to Zest Books for inviting me to take part!

See what other writers have to say to their teen selves by checking out the other bloggers on board here, or read the hilarious, sometimes heart-breaking book co-edited by E. Kristin Anderson and Miranda Kenneally, now available.

Dear Teen Me

  • Edited by E. Kristin Anderson and Miranda Kenneally
  • Zest Books
  • $14.99
  • ISBN 978-1-9369762-1-8

15 thoughts on “Dear Teen Me: Don’t quit writing

  1. The hair. is. awesome. Hahaha!

    This letter is really good. I do wish there were a way for our younger selves to get messages from our older selves. There is so much I want me teenage self to know. Sigh.

    • I wonder, sometimes, if I had a glimmer of Future Me shouting back through the years not to throw in the towel before even giving it a shot. Because what eventually made up my mind that night was thinking, “Dude, you can’t NOT do this. If you say you want something, you have to go through with it.”

  2. Pingback: Blog Tour and Giveaway | Dear Teen Me Edited by Miranda Kenneally and E. Kristin Anderson | The Cozy Reader

  3. I wish I hadn’t given up on writing in high school. I think this is the first time I’ve ever actually said that, but I wish I hadn’t decided I couldn’t do it then.

    I’m not saying anything would have come of it, but I’d be ahead of where I am now.

    • For me, it was one of three creative outlets I had — the others being art and theatre. I gave art up first (gradually) when I did a theatre degree, because there wasn’t time; and later I “retired” from theatre even though I loved it because the chaotic feast-or-famine nature of the business got to be too much. But writing… I was damned if I was going to give that up.
      The idea that you “can’t” write — that is a powerful fear, the more you care about doing it well. I think I was very lucky to have supportive teachers who provided feedback that kept me going, but also, working on that newspaper, and taking the many brickbats with the occasional bouquet — that was what cemented it for me. You could see your words reached people, and that goes a long way to killing those doubts. Even when people say what you’ve written is wrong, or they disagree — somehow that convinced me I could at least write, since people don’t react to things that are boring.

    • P.S. I have felt what you’re describing every time I approach a new writing project. I feel like I should have already written it five years ago, somehow. Guess I’m still neurotic about writing 😛

  4. Your friend Colin in English class cut it out, framed it, and stapled it to the classroom wall over his desk, and you knew for the first time your words actually had an effect on someone.

    That is an awesome compliment from a fellow high-school kid! If one of my classmates back in the day had done that, I would have been thrilled! The one thing I remember writing for my school’s paper was an incredibly cheesy op-ed. We were supposed to do a point-counterpoint thing, with one student in favor of deer hunting, and another student against. My article was something along the lines of “Can’t we all just get along? Think of Bambi!”

    Heh. Oh, high-school me ^_^;;

    • I was actually very blessed to attend a high school with not one but two writers’ clubs and a school newspaper, in a division with annual Young Authors’ Conferences and which also published an annual anthology of student writing. And that short story, that Colin clipped out, was one I poured so much of myself into I didn’t know if anyone would ever like it. When he did that it blew me away.
      But good for you for sticking up for Bambi! What was the prevailing mood/opinion in your high school on deer hunting?

      • I think the prevailing feeling was pro-hunting. It was a yearly tradition for some students — they’d even get to miss a day of school to go hunting with their families.

        When my article was published, one upperclassman came up to me and handed me a stack of info he’d printed off the Internet, on why hunting is necessary. He was totally cool about it, but 16-year-old Nerija was a bit perplexed. Heh, I was probably thinking, Um…thanks? This was just an assignment, I don’t want to actually start arguments with people!.

        • So, hey… dialogue! That’s cool.
          In my Grade 12 theatre class, two of my good friends were on total opposite ends of that spectrum. One, a deeply creative vegetarian who abhorred killing any animals, and a brilliantly improvisational, mild-mannered science student who went hunting every fall with his family. It was fascinating to listen to them talk about it. I really should have gotten them to write about it for the paper…
          Biggest controversy I ever waded into was the issue of prayer in public schools. We published an article making the case that to force all students to take part in reciting or standing for the Lord’s Prayer every morning violated their Charter rights. The school allowed students who didn’t wish to take part to leave the room and stand in the hallway during that time.
          But what got my head bitten off was not publishing a far-too-long piece in response, which a student had written with her pastor, that basically said everyone needed to pray and ask for God’s forgiveness (whether they believed in him or not). I should have found a way to talk to the student and get her to submit a shorter version (and work with her on rewriting it), but instead I just rejected the whole thing. We got into a nasty argument about it after the paper came out and her article wasn’t in it.

          • Oh dear…I imagine she assumed her opinion was being rejected rather than the length/quality of the article. Though I probably wouldn’t have wanted to publish it either, even though, yeah, everyone deserves an opportunity to share their opinion. Even if I think their opinion sucks.

            Actually, I do remember getting into a sort-of fight with a guy during my freshman year, about euthanasia. I made a comment about how I didn’t think it was fair to the patient to make him or her suffer, or to make the patient remain in a vegetative state for the rest of his/her life. I was remembering a family friend who was in a tractor accident the previous year, and if the family hadn’t made the decision to turn off life support, John would have been in a vegetative state for the rest of his life.

            But the other student also knew someone who had been in a horrible accident, and he started yelling at me for even suggesting that “murder” was better than letting the person’s body stay alive. Again, high-school Nerija was naive enough to be taken aback by this volatile turn of conversation.

          • Euthanasia is a hard one, for sure, especially when people have personal experience with it.
            Abortion is another one — we ran articles in the paper on it, but the only heat I ever took was quite separately in a discussion about it the the school’s I.S.C.F. club — Inter-School Christian Fellowship club. I took the position that I didn’t think it was necessarily wrong, but that in any case it was a person’s choice and it shouldn’t be illegal. Another guy basically said I was saying murder shouldn’t be illegal and we should remove that from the Criminal Code as well. One of the more staunchly Christian girls there actually came to my defence, questioning the other guy’s rationale, asking if he thought it was okay to take away a woman’s right to choose in all cases like that, such as in rape or incest, but he seemed to focus his attack on me. Clueless teen me was surprised at her taking my side (or at least not joining the attack) — and when thinking about it later I had to reexamine what I thought not only about abortion but my assumptions about the way my Christian friends would feel about a given issue. Also, whether being male or female would affect the way you felt about abortion.

          • Oh yes, that’s definitely a hot issue. My prof. in an undergrad English class wouldn’t let us use that as a topic for our argument paper that semester — or other high-emotion issues like the death penalty or euthanasia — because we were going to read our papers out loud and she didn’t want there to be any blow-ups between students.

    • Thanks Emily. I liked a lot of the other stories & posts better than the one I was able to come up with, but what a challenge to figure out what I would actually say to Teen Me. MUCH harder than I thought at first. Thanks so much to you and Zest Books for including me on the tour!

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