The two questions I’m asked most often are 1) what inspired you to write The Beast Is an Animal, and 2) why do you write for young adults. I realized just today that the answer to both questions is the same: Confusion.
Stop laughing. Or laugh. It’s funny and not funny that I’ve arrived at this age having absolutely no idea what I’m doing.
I am a deeply confused person, and this has caused me so much grief that I’ve spent most of my life working very hard to appear certain. Confusion always struck me as a personal failure. Confusion means disorder—and by that I don’t simply mean mess. That’s part of it, of course. But what I really mean is illness. Confusion felt like disease to me. Like something must be very, very wrong with me.
So for a long time I tried to be very sure, very fast. It’s only in recent years that I’ve wallowed in uncertainty. Some around me have been surprised to learn that so much confusion has been there, inside of me, all along. I’ve worked so hard to convince myself of my certainty that I suppose I’ve been putting on a convincing show for everyone else, too. But I’m done pretending, and I can admit now that confusion is my natural set point. That might seem despairing, but it’s the opposite. I despaired when I believed that there was something to be done about the situation. But if this is just who I am, well…this is just who I am.
What does that have to do with the novel I wrote, and the age of my protagonist? I wrote a novel about a young girl who is terrified of what lurks inside of her. She lives in a frightening world, but what she’s really afraid of is who she is and what she’s capable of (or incapable of). Yes, it’s a fantasy—a dark fairy tale. But the part about confusion? That’s pure nonfiction.
Confusion is why I’m so drawn to write about and for young adults. Teens are often portrayed as know-it-alls who think they have it all figured out. We picture the teen caught in an eternal eye-roll at the ridiculousness of the adults around them. But just because teens find adults ridiculous (and who can blame them), doesn’t mean they think they know it all. They’re frightened out of their minds at how much they don’t know—and like me, they’re pretending as fast as they can to be certain.
To me, there is no more poignant time of life than adolescence. Teens are still children while beginning to look more like adults, and adult things are expected of them. All these responsibilities are new to them—of course they’re going to make mistakes. Meanwhile there’s a world of adults lying in wait for them to fail. Adults love to tut and shake their heads at the mistakes of the young. How unkind we are.
I see coltish young people on the subway where I live in New York City, and I want to go up to each and every one of them and say, “It will be okay.” But that would be terrible—not least because I’m a stranger (emphasis on strange). No, the worst part is that it would be a lie. I don’t know that it will be okay. No one does. They’re right to be frightened and confused. Life is frightening and confusing. The best I’ve been able to do for myself is not to try to make it seem otherwise.
Sometimes when I’m asked why I write for young adults, I know what the questioner is really thinking: Why not write something important. Something hard. Something…adult. In response, my inner adolescent has to suppress a magnificent eye-roll. We adults are the know-it-alls. The ones who think we have it all figured out—or pretend do. It’s the confused adolescents who know the score. I write my books about and for them, because that’s where I’ve decided to dwell, too. Confusion is the realest, surest thing I know. I wrap it around me like a blanket, and I wear it like a hat; it sits on my shoulder while I write. I feed it. I might as well take care of it—because it’s not going anywhere.