When I was in junior high, I thought my life was boring.
I had my reasons. I wasn’t pubescent enough to be cool, I wasn’t cool enough to have a girlfriend, and I wasn’t even uncool enough to have some weird badge of shame like headgear or a rolling backpack. I just felt boring. And although I harbored secret ambitions of one day becoming a writer, I had no idea what interesting things I could possibly ever write about.
Flash forward a few years to my sophomore year of college, when, in a fit of craziness—and, yes, boredom—I decided to write a novel. But what should my novel be about?
My first impulse was, of course, “Don’t write about your life—your life is yawn-inducing!” After some reflection, though, that thought lost out to another truism: “Write what you know.” And yet I figured that, being only 19 years old, I didn’t know a whole lot about anything, so I decided to try and write about the only thing I really had much perspective on: junior high.
And boy, was it not boring.
My middle school memories came exploding out of my brain like they were Athena leaping out of Zeus’. There was the social environment of my school in Santa Barbara, CA, which mixed together Hollywood-royalty children who lived two minutes from Oprah’s house along with the kids from the Eastside of town, some of whom had parents who worked
at Oprah’s house. There were the impossibly lavish Bar Mitzvahs and the unfathomably frightening gang altercations. And there was even the typical junior high stuff, which all of a sudden seemed strangely fascinating to college-aged me: the two-week relationships, the bathroom wall rumors, and the medieval forms of bullying (like the time I got dumped in a trash can, which I’d been trying for the better part of a decade to block out of my mind).
I realized that my twelve year-old life wasn’t boring at all. Sure, it seemed that way to me at the time—everybody’s story seems boring to him or herself, especially while it’s happening. But in truth, everybody’s story is worth telling. Nobody’s story is boring
And once I realized that, I really got cooking. In writing my book, I began to consider junior high not just from my perspective—that of the awkward Bar Mitzvah boy whose parents work in show business—but from the perspectives of the other kids who I grew up near and around. The budding cool kid and almost-rebel who’s torn between his privileged upbringing and the gang life. The queen bee who destroys the reputations of those around her until her victims begin to destroy her back. The kooky outsider who has only a loose grip on reality, going so far as to develop crushes on anime heroes and video game characters.
I went to school with versions of all of these characters. Thus, these characters became the major players in my book about middle school.
I think that, for many kids who want to write stories, the most difficult barrier to entry can be lack of imagination. It’s not that kids don’t have big imaginations—that’s obviously not the case—but many of the best and most popular books for kids already feature such gloriously different and fleshed-out worlds: a school for witches and wizards, a battle arena for bloodthirsty tweens, a city that needs to be protected by a loony principal clad only in his underwear. I think that kids must read these stories and feel the need to try and create equally fantastical scenarios in their writing, when, to be honest, all they need to do is look to their own everyday lives.
Kids should feel that their lives are filled with engaging, gripping, un-put-down-able stories, because, honestly, they are. What’s more, once kids start to write about the world around you, they begin to further consider the characters around them. When you write from the point of view of a dork, or a popular girl, or even a bully, you come to think about what things make those people the way they are, and after a while, you might even begin to understand those seemingly-different types a little bit more. In my opinion, that’s not such a bad thing.
Unremarkable lives really are pretty remarkable. That’s something I hope a young reader will get from reading my book.
That said, you don’t even need to read something I wrote to realize that—you’ve just got to write something yourself.
Teddy Steinkellner graduated from Stanford University in 2011, where he won a creative arts grant. TRASH CAN DAYS: A MIDDLE SCHOOL SAGA is his first novel. He lives in Los Angeles, California. Follow him on Twitter at @teddysteinkelln, or visit him online at www.teddysteinkellner.com.
© 2013 Teddy Steinkellner. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise. Beyond the Notebook: Sparking Ideas for Student Stories Crawling Inside Stories in China