This week's New Yorker magazine treats us to a feature called "Starting Out" that showcases five wonderful short autobiographical pieces by authors who recount or recollect what it's like to be an adolescent or a young adult. When they are supposed to be on the brink of bigger things and moving on or out or up, they are sometimes confused, dejected, rejected and bewildered.
Jennifer Egan in "Archeology" writes about spending a gap year and working as an archeologist for a while to satisfy and dismiss a passion. In less than a page, Junot Diaz writes in "The Money" about understanding his neighborhood and the moral revelation afforded him by a theft. Tea Obreht tells us in "High School Confidential" about the ignominy (and the lessons) in having her written word mocked and disrespected.
"Where I Learned to Read" by Salvatore Scibona is a funny one-pager about a near high school dropout who is turned on to the esoteric and exceptional Great Books program at St John's College, always an intriguing school on the early lists of a few of my children.
Finally, in "Shacks," and in very few choice words, Edward P. Jones conveys the pain of having his letters ignored by his love interest, Sandra. But he also conveys the strong allure of writing when he says: "I don't know what I would have done if I hadn't had it in me to write those letters, those stories, to Sandra." Writing is a tool, he says, that helps to create a little shelter, or shack, that we can inhabit, however briefly.
One of my favorite writers, Jhumpa Lahiri, tells us in "Trading Stories" ( in another section of the magazine) about her own development as a young writer and what the craft did for her:
"...writing is one of the most assertive things a person can do. Fiction is an act of willfulness, a deliberate effort to reconceive, to rearrange, to reconstitute nothing short of reality itself."
There are many situations and emotions that draw us to the keyboard or paper. For teens and young adults, often awash in emotions, life changes, uncertainty and possibility, writing is a way for them to center themselves and to try on or explore intense feelings. In these uncertain economic times, writing can be a life saver and serve a therapeutic purpose. But it might also just be the start of a career.
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