Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Writing Wednesdays: Knowing Your Audience

I sometimes wonder if I have what it takes to write for teenagers. Not because I don't remember what it was like to be one, or because I don't like teenagers, but because I'm not sure how well I really know my audience.

I like to think of myself as being relatively "with it" (although I have a sinking suspicion that using terms like "with it" doesn't exactly up my cool factor. "Cool factor" probably doesn't help either.). I listen to popular music, dress decently, and am very in touch with who I was as a teenager (I remember some things from high school better than I remember what I ate for lunch yesterday). But over the past couple of weeks, when I had the opportunity to work with teenagers on two separate occasions, I felt like I was back in high school myself, and it was not a pleasant feeling.

Last week I led a book club discussion of The Outsiders. I went into things fairly hopeful. I write for teens, I told myself. Half the novels I read are written for teenagers. I got this. Falling on my ass on the way there didn't help my confidence, but I managed to pull myself together. I was there fifteen minutes early; plenty of time to catch my breath, take off my eighteen layers of clothing, and steel myself for the next hour. But when I walked in and headed for the table where I would set my purse, I had the odd sensation I was being watched. I looked up to find seven pairs of unblinking teenage eyes trained on me.

A second later, I dropped my gloves on the ground. Two minutes later, there went my hat. I was sweating profusely. I was a walking disaster.

But I plowed steadily onward, because if there's one thing I do know, it's that teens, like hyenas, can smell fear.

Maybe it was because these teens were Russian and didn't understand me. Maybe I'm just not nearly as interesting as I'd like to believe I am. Or maybe these kids were all just sullen and self-absorbed (I know I was guilty of being both of those things as a teenager. I can see you nodding, Mom). Whatever the explanation, I spent the next hour prying words out of these kids like a dentist pulling teeth without anesthesia. You would have thought the girls in the back row were being tortured by the looks on their faces. I tried to be funny and relatable. I showed clips of the 80s-fabulous movie version of the book. I told witty anecdotes. I gesticulated, because gesticulation always helps!

Then a button went flying off the sleeve of my Target dress, and I'm pretty sure that's when I lost any scrap of credibility I had left.

I finished the discussion and walked home defeated. Who was I kidding? I didn't "get" teenagers when I was one myself. I assigned them their essays, which I promised to read and critique, because at this point I just wanted these darn kids to learn something. A week later, a whopping six essays came in out of the dozen or so kids in the class. I read. I hacked and slashed with the little red "track changes" line. I told them what they'd done well and what they needed to work on. I edited my butt off, because that's what I do.

Yesterday, I received a single reply. "Thak you for all!" it said. Today, I'm clinging to that sentence - misspellings, bad grammar, and all - like a hard-won compliment from a high school crush. Maybe this student was just trying to kiss my ass, but the email reminded me of something.

I'm not trying to reach every teenager out there with my writing. I'm trying to reach anyone I can. And if I manage to succeed in that, maybe I do know my audience after all. Thak you, indeed.


Paul Tobin said...

Great post. I agree I am aiming at just reaching a person out there as well. We have to write what we believe in, I think if we believe in it ourselves then other will. If I am honest I think I write what I would want to read. I cling to the hope that if it is authentic then people will connect to it.

Anonymous said...

As a mom of a 17-year-old, I know they absorb far more than they say too. I bet you reached quite a few and didn't appear as nervous as you felt.

I know I'm not cool-- that aforementioned daughter let's me know but loves me anyway. :)