I’ve got a theory about the formative nature of early adolescence; I think the things you’re exposed to from when you’re about 10 to about 14 make indelible imprints on your tastes and opinions. Certainly, that’s true for me. (See: Now 39 is the greatest album ever made. An indefensible stance I will defend forever).
Perhaps that’s why I am such a sucker for epistolary novels. I read a lot of them at that time; from Adrian Mole, via The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer (despite not seeing a single second of Twin Peaks until a good decade later), to Dear Clare, My Ex Best Friend. I still have the best part of a bookshelf dedicated to all my most beloved and dog-eared Jaclyn Moriarty and Louise Rennison paperbacks. I return to them again and again.
Anything with a diary format draws me in, really – and especially if it gives a glimpse into that teenage mindset. I cannot get enough of Mortified and Grownups Read Things They Wrote As Kids and My Teenage Diary. Always so charming, so funny, so perfectly lacking in self-awareness.
I spent a Saturday recently working at the Youth Action Festival which had been organised by some of my colleagues and our youth advisors. As the hundred or so delegates milled around at registration, Hayley said, “Aw, I’d forgotten what it was like to be an awkward teenager.”
“I haven’t!” I laughed, “These are my people.”
I thought that I remembered with absolute clarity what it felt like to be fifteen. But recently I dug out my box of teenage diaries, thinking that I could mine their pages for some amusing blog-fodder. Instead, disconcertingly, I found a stranger.
There, in neat handwriting (which has since degenerated significantly), were moments captured in amber that were oddly different to those I keep inside my brain.
Some of the cognitive dissonance comes, I think, from that fact that I used writing then just as I do now: to work through some of my thoughts and feelings by finding ways to articulate them to myself. In general, I need that less for the good stuff than for the stuff that sucks. So while my head is packed with memory flashes of beaches and balloons, swimming and sleepovers and silliness – in my diaries I found mostly angst and insecurity.
What makes me feel so completely off-kilter about it, though, is the impossibility of knowing quite where the true recollection lies. Do I really remember the things that I think I remember, or have I edited and reshaped them to fit a narrative that I want to tell myself?
There’s a boyfriend I think of with such fondness. We met first as eleven year olds on a French exchange programme; I crushed on him crazy-hard from afar. We were at different schools and, as unlikely as it seems in tiny Jersey, our paths didn’t cross again for years. At sixteen, we found ourselves in the same social circle. It was almost more than my little heart could handle. At seventeen, we got it together for a few months (until I ill-advisedly decided to give things another go with The Boy Who Broke My Heart. Another story for another day).
The things that I remembered about our relationship are all rosy and silver-edged.
We had our first kiss in my bedroom after watching an episode of Child of Our Time (oh, Professor Robert Winston, you infamous aphrodisiac). Every few weeks we’d go to a screening of a foreign film at the Arts Centre. We hung out at youth orchestra rehearsals. So far, so wholesome.
But here are some things my brain had not retained:
A good and lovely friend had had a crush on him for even longer than I had, and I was well aware of that. She was never anything but kind and generous and gracious about the whole situation, even though she would have every right to have been horrid in her heartbreak. I am breezy when I should be beholden.
He made me feel massively insecure. He once sent me a text message that said, “Don’t think cause I sometimes don’t reply that I don’t appreciate your messages.” I have recorded my impression that this barely acceptable nugget of correspondence was “lovely… It made my tummy go a bit funny.”
Weeks later, I write, “He’s a very sweet boyfriend… He treads a fine line between being a bit detached and being entirely disinterested.”
At the 18th birthday party of an acquaintance I didn’t know well, I lost him for a big chunk of the night. His best friend – his best friend! – tried to make light of it by saying, “You should start from the assumption: gambling number one, pot number two, girlfriend number three.” When I dissect the night in my diary, I write, “[He] is the best boyfriend I’ve ever had… But half the time I think I’m just an annoying distraction from the important things in his life… I’m a rubbish girlfriend. I don’t blame him for being disinterested.”
GET A GRIP, teenage me.
This isn’t meant to be a diatribe on his character, by the way. I think, probably, he was no better or worse than any other seventeen year old boy. What I am railing against is not so much his behaviour as the mismatch between the smart, bolshy, sorted girl I remember myself being and the doormat who I find in my diary. The chasm between the ovaries-before-brovaries friend I’d like to imagine I am, and the girl who trampled on her pal in the pursuit of what she wanted.
It makes me wonder what else I’m misremembering. It makes me worry about the line between interpretation and misrepresentation.
In the story of my life that I’ve captured in my diary, I’ve created a protagonist who’s fundamentally unlikable. She’s not even an antihero.
I want to rewrite.
I want to edit.
I’m worried I can’t get it right.
I’ve signed up, you see, for a creative writing course. (I’ve typed and deleted that sentence about nine times because “saying it out loud” is scary). It starts in under a week. Already, before it’s begun, I feel like a fraud. I worry that I can’t write anything authentic. I worry that I’m too full of pretence and pretension.
This entire post has been an exercise in avoidance and procrastination: writing about thinking about thinking about writing.
And we go round and round and round in the circle game.