Sunday, March 7, 2010


Ithaca NY author Shawn Goodman, shown here with his daughter Ella, is the Winner of the prestigious 28th Annual Delacorte Press Contest for a First Young Adult Novel. His blue-ribbon novel, SOMETHING LIKE HOPE will see publication Spring 2011.

You can find out more about Shawn by clicking: SHAWN GOODMAN.

In SOMETHING LIKE HOPE, 17-year-old Shavonne finds herself in a juvenile lockup hundreds of miles from home. She wants to turn her life around before her eighteenth birthday, but her problems seem too big, and time is running out.

As both a talented author of a book about troubled teens and as a real-life psychologist in a girls’ juvenile justice facility, Shawn contributes a unique and intriguing take on Writing Teen Voice.

                      Losing Your Amnesia
                        By Shawn Goodman

There's the usual advice about writing teen voice: spend a lot of time around kids, listen to how they talk, etc. Although this sounds sensible enough, there are risks: stilted language, corny dialogue, outdated slang, cliches that don't fit or make sense. Mimicry gone bad.

Of course, you can always write about teen issues like drugs, or pregnancy, or whatever, provided that you have the skill and self-awareness to avoid moralizing or teaching.

It’s best to just tell a good story or capture a strong or unique voice.

How? I think it has something to do with anamnesis, P.K.D.'s word for "the loss of amnesia."

Applied to YA fiction it means that, as adults, we've forgotten what it's like to be an adolescent. Sure, we remember the snapshot moments or the intensely emotional ones. But the truth or magic is really in the small things, like Holden Caulfield's concern over the fate of the ducks. Or the kid in MILKWEED who hunts through the dead city to find a pickled egg for his sad mute friend (in the end he finds just a pickle and an egg - but it's good enough).

Or Vern Tessio's declaration that cherry Pez is the perfect food.

Or the cigarette burns in the vinyl bucket seats of Jeff Riscioli's '73 Camaro (as a dedicated member of the punk scene, Jeff dotted the glowing end of a Marlboro in the shape of an anarchy symbol, then crashed into a dumpster in the Twin Fair parking lot).

The point is that we all have these images and stories; we've just become cut off from them.

In the process of growing up and assuming jobs, and kids, and minivans with fold-down seats, and thirty-year mortgages on split-level three-bedroom ranches, we forget. But it doesn't have to be tragic; we can simply lose our amnesia. How? I don't know. Listen to a song from when you were in high school, like Just One Kiss, by the Violent Femmes.

Say out loud the name of your partner in Biology lab (Jennifer Renkens, a pretty blonde who fainted at the sight of her own blood during the blood-typing unit).

Recall your first car ('59 VW Microbus, bought at Angelo Bomasuto's' father's hot dog stand for $700). Remember the knock-down fist-fight in which you got your ass kicked by Rob Radloff, pummeled, really, on the Washington Avenue train tracks. Remember how he was later hit and killed by a train on those very tracks in your senior year.

Picture your prom date (the same Jennifer who fainted in Biology lab).

In truth, remember whatever you want, whatever you can. What matters is that you get better at this thing of remembering the small things, the details, the half-feelings.

Close your eyes and hear the music. Feel the rhythm of how you and your friends talked. Because that rhythm - the flow, the cadence, the back and forth of whispers in class, and insults in the cafeteria, the laughing and shouting - is what it's all about.

That's how you lose your amnesia.


Alissa said...

Great post! I kept journals on and off during my teen years, and going back and reading them is one sure way to lose my amnesia.

Kim Harrington said...

Wow, great post!

It's interesting what we remember and what we don't. I can still hear, with almost traumatic clarity, the sound of the cricket's exoskeleton being crunched open in biology lab.

But I don't remember who my partner was.

I'm going to go put on some Jane's Addiction and see if that jogs my memory. :)

Terry said...

Love this post. I read somewhere that, while listening to music from your teens, you start actually feeling younger. So it probably helps get you in the teen mood.

Great ideas!

Medeia Sharif said...

I sometimes feel disconnected from my teen years, but writing YA and working with teenagers bring me back to those times. said...

Me, too! But, Medeia, I don't know if that's good or bad.

There was a lot of REAL stuff going on when I was teen that I have forgotten. Mostly among my friends.

And then there's all the sad, desperate stuff happening right at my elbow that I didn't notice... and, when I think about it as an adult, I realize some harsh realities and recognize that people I ran around with were occasionally in dire and painful circumstances which I failed to appreciate.

Honestly, when I write YA I have to abandon my own teen years. They were, uh, too adult to pass the gatekeepers of YA fiction.

This continues to confuse me to this day.

Terry said...

I know what you mean, Randy. My real experiences as a teenager would never pass the YA gatekeepers either.

It's as if they want to paint this sugar-coated teenage universe, that doesn't exist, not even on Mars.

But it may be a lawsuit thing.

Kathy McCullough said...

This was great. It immediately made me want to sit down, put on an old LP (I still have some!) and write down my detailed memories (or memories of details rather). What a great idea for creating touchstones to take you back to that time. And take you back to how you felt then, and how deeply you felt. Very inspiring -- thank you.

gae polisner said...

love this, Shawn.

The delight still there for the little things...

a certain crispness and simplicity of purpose...

Look forward to your book.

Amy Holder said...

Great advice! I find songs are the easiest and best way to take me back to my teen emotions. I can travel back to various points in my life in a snap with the switch of a song.

I really look forward to reading your book!