Saturday, May 10, 2008

The more things change...

In high school, my teachers loved that tired old joke that goes, “When I was your age, back in the Dark Ages—” Funny, now that I’m the same age many of them must have been at the time, my school days seem like they could have happened only a few heartbeats ago. And yet something important has changed between then and now. The World Wide Web went public three months after I graduated from high school (thanks to Wikipedia for the date), which means my high school years really did take place in a darker age than the one in which we live now. What are the implications for YA fiction?

Let’s start by taking a look at the implications for YA reality. On a typical day, one of my fellow YAYAers who happens to be in high school might be chatting back and forth with me, discussing her latest manuscript via email-capable cell phone while she’s in Spanish class. At the same time, another teenage YAYAer might be checking in and connecting with friends across the country when she drops in at her school library. Physically, they’re in school, surrounded by fellow teens, desks, and textbooks. But their minds aren’t focused on those potentially bleak surroundings—or at least I hope not. Instead, they’re connected to a larger world. The writer on the cell phone is sharing mutual feedback with me—a mom, yoga teacher, and multi-genre writer on the opposite coast. The writer in the library is researching agents, connecting with a select group of people all over the country who share her specific interests, and putting the finishing touches on a manuscript. Their lives are, without a doubt, far bigger than the walls of the school buildings that contain their superficial daily activities.

When I write YA, on the other hand, I draw on memories of a time when if you didn’t have a car and you didn’t have change for a payphone, you were stuck spending the school day trapped in your school as if it was an island, an eight-hour-long mini Lord of the Flies scenario—or at least that’s how it felt some days. A lot of the impetus behind my choice of YA as a favorite genre—why I find it so compelling to read and write—comes from remembering and embellishing on what I saw happening to the human spirit as we attempted to grow and interact under the strange, largely artificial circumstances of high school. The situation brought out both the best and worst in people. Combine the trapped isolation with the fact that teens are forming adult identities and—supposedly—deciding what to do with the rest of their lives, and you have great kindling for an infinite number of hot stories.

Now, high school life is probably not quite as isolated as I knew it to be. I went through some of my days as a teen feeling lucky if anyone wanted to have a conversation with me, even if it was the guy at my table in art class telling me how he stole a bunch of candy from the local convenience store. I couldn’t have imagined that someone in a different part of the country would be interested in talking to me.

Note that I’m not saying life is easier for teens now than it was two decades ago. In fact, some of the changes have made adolescence harder in some ways. Here’s my question: Does that old sense of isolation in school still occur just as strongly despite the ease of internet access? Despite the fact that if you’re a teen now, your world is much bigger than mine was as a kid in the eighties? Tell me how—and if—you think this affects YA plots!


Meggy said...

You still feel isolated. You still feel like you are just waiting until you're out of the trap that is school and out into the real world.

Trust me.

Though the internet is still pretty darn cool.

hannah said...

"On a typical day, one of my fellow YAYAers who happens to be in high school might be chatting back and forth with me, discussing her latest manuscript via email-capable cell phone while she’s in Spanish class."


I actually have a picture that someone took of me where I am in Spanish class, on AW. It's sort of fab.

hannah said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sasha said...

Meg, that's kind of what I suspected. Bad news for the emotional health of high schoolers, but good news for the tone of my YA writing.

Hannah, there's no denying it now. We have proof! :)

Thump said...

So THIS us YAYA! I've been wondering :)

The internet was around during my HS years and I can tell you school was still miserable. We didn't have internet-capable cellphones yet but the net was an important part of our lives. A lot of stuff would get decided over MSN and I'd only find out about it later. That way, they never had to invite me.

I had friends but the only "place" I was really happy was online. I found chat rooms with people with my interests and although I was the least popular girl in school, I was popular online.

I love the internet and I try to use it in my stories but it is hard. Mostly, you want your characters to be able to interact in person with each other. In this present WIP, I'll try to have the internet have the same place as it does in real life. We'll see how I manage.

Jordan said...

I agree with Thump, about how the internet was able to isolate me (and other shy/outcasts). At the same time that it made it easier for kids to communicate and make friendships, it made it harder for me to keep the few friendships I had, since I didn't spend my free time online chatting with them.

Same thing with cell phones. I didn't have one of those yet.

But those few friends that stuck with me and my technically-challenged quirks were good ones, and we built our relationships around other things than the internet and cell phones.

In my stories I mostly ignore the internet altogether. I prefer to let my characters develop face to face, over the phone sometimes, but mostly in each other's presence. Body language is a big part of my writing, I'd hate to lose it. How to make that fit in with the changing world?

Just do it and hope for the best? Perhaps my lack of internet will make my novels more timeless. King Dork certainly had that feel about it. I could live with that legacy.

Sasha said...

Thump and Jordan, you've both painted really clear pictures of what things are like. I've noticed that most fiction (with the exception of things like TTYL) doesn't give too much focus to online communication. Face to face is usually juicier.

Donna said...

When I was in high school, I was on the cusp of internet being popular. I'd say only about half of the kids in school, myself included, had internet at home and most of us had some form of dial-up. A couple lucky ones had cable access that was only accessible on your TV. Even the internet in the computer labs and library were running at a snail's pace so it wasn't like anything could be found quickly.

AIM was the major instant messenger of choice among the internet kids but we still weren't using internet speak then, not really. St least, not like it is now. We had TTYL and LOL and OMG but very little beyond that. I just missed that major wave in high school.

So it was an extra to have it. No one really used it in school (at least not that I noticed) so my school was really closer so the "standard" trapped in a box with no real way out. Plus it was a closed campus so even if we had a free period, we couldn't leave the building otherwise the psychotic hall monitor (we had adult hall surveillance people, one of the guys was gigantic and I swear could bench press a Buick) would run after your car. Literally.

For cell phones, pagers were still the bigger thing when I was in high school. I was one of the first people to have a cell phone and it was only because I was going away for college. My mom was one of the first people she knew to have a cell phone because she traveled for work. It was one of those big boxy things that could take out an elephant at 50 yards.