New Writing Prompt: How to write a letter to your teenage self!
Try starting out with second-person to make it intimate (I recorded a video here on YouTube about the second person if you need a refresher). A good jumping off place is “You think that…” or “When you try….” Really imagine yourself – get out a photograph. One of those hideous school photos or a yearbook. Doesn’t it look like a different world? What would your teenage self be the most shocked by? Is it something personal that has happened to you? Have you overcome something you never thought you would be capable of? Can you trace the disasters, luck, near misses that have led you to your current place? For me, in my piece below it was centered around the random invitation (literally the night before) to the MTV Music Awards. It brought back intense memories of sitting in front of the TV in the mid-80s rapt with attention. In the suburbs of Milwaukee, I never thought I would ever get close to the channel that I was obsessed with as a 15-year-old kid.
Advice to My Fifteen-Year-Old Self
Hey, I still know you. You believe that when your braces come off that suddenly people will realize that you are pretty. Not beautiful, because no one in Milwaukee is “beautiful” like the models you see on the front of Elle magazine, who could very well be from another planet (but just to let you know, they are actually from another continent called “Europe”). You are about to see Jello Biafra speak in downtown Milwaukee and sit behind a boy you think has a gorgeous Mohawk. Almost thirty years later (twice the time as you have experienced by now) you will walk into your favorite wine and spirits store in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles at the age of 43, looking for a nice, reasonably-priced rose and they are playing Bedtime for Democracy.
You will rage for a few minutes inside with the deep pleasure of coming full-circle. You will delight in the fact that you can drink rose, live in a major metropolitan area, and do whatever the hell you want. Listen, when your parents freak-out about your friend Rachel attempting to carve a “checkerboard pattern” into the back of your head after school, try to stay calm. People are already telling you that you are ugly– at the Catholic school, on the bus, boys in school. Life is about change and the truth is that when you are an adult most people don’t call each other ugly. They just think it. And yes, the haircut is a disaster but hair grows (until it doesn’t for a lot of the men, ha ha) and everyone who said an angry hurtful crazy thing to you will never remember what they said when they get older. The anger-throwers will forget, but usually the anger-receivers will internalize. Don’t believe what some idiot teacher says to you, or those boys, or even worse the girls. Those words are not real, but nasty child’s play. When you have crushes on boys let them be crushes, and let them be. Read stacks of books because knowledge is power. When your parents offer to send you to Japan for a month, you won’t realize that it will change your life. It sounds cool to tell your friends, “yeah, I’m going to Tokyo.” Even though you know you will be out of the social scene and might lose your place the hierarchy, you know that when you come back you will be royalty – you will be off the charts for having done something different.
Later in life you will realize the gift your parents gave you, and you can tell them 30 years later what you learned that helped you to survive the rest of your life. Your parents, who have only been out of the country to Mexico and Canada at this point and had their honeymoon in Chicago, pushed their pennies together and sent you to the other side of the world, alone. The truth is that what you perceive as the rules, are not the rules. What’s cool is not cool. What is in is out. In 1986 Tokyo, girls are demure and condescended to, you watch your host sister wait on her younger brother like a waitress. As an American teenager you have earrings and wear makeup and a two-piece swimsuit. You stumble in the most crass, ridiculous fury through Japan talking about feminism, buying combat boots, and giving the finger on the street to men passing out flyers for XXX shows not realizing it is an international symbol and you are not getting away with anything. But over the years you question everything and it keeps you safe, and alive, and free. You have seen that life can be incredibly different that your little Wisconsin hamlet, and you never go back to that tiny worldview.
You move to Iowa, you move to New York City, you move to San Francisco and then Los Angeles. When you graduate in the 90s from the U of I with a degree in Communications and Anthropology you have no idea what career it will afford you. Your parents have taken care of you and given the amazing gift of being a child full of magical thinking and lacking a sense of self as a commercial enterprise. You got to grow up in an America free from constant fear, playing in the woods and following creeks to see where they went. You’ve been bullied, you’ve had jobs shredding paper in the basement of an office with your boom box, a job scooping ice cream, working at a toy store. But you have been raised to not be afraid. When you babysit and then afterwards the father goes to drop you off on the dark pavement in front of your house, and you accidently shut the door of his car with a bit too much force and he says, “you do not slam the car door of a fine European automobile” you know he is an asshole. By now, little one, he is probably a dead asshole.
And you get jobs, and lose jobs, and life is definitely unfair, and when your braces came off you had pretty straight teeth but it was up to you to make yourself beautiful from the inside out, and it came down to a million choices living in a free society where you are a sum of decisions you make. That is adulthood—learning things you didn’t want to know. You will marry a man who had a different trajectory, and one day he will ask, “How did I deserve you?” And you can pinpoint the moment. It is when he was 15 or so, he realized that no matter what was going on in his life (and he had his share) he was going to make the decision to live his life, make his own decisions and not be a simple culmination of the wrongs that had been perpetrated against him. He would support his own dreams, do his own hard work, and become a proud, generous, and sensitive Man.
You are sitting in front of that boxy TV, and with the few cable channels your family gets, you become mesmerized. MTV, is all music all the time. They have music videos full of girls singing their lungs out, colors popping, guys in skinny pants and makeup, paint flying. You are watching 120 Minutes with a churchlike fervor and even buy a t-shirt to go with your plaid thrift store shorts. The TV is like a drug, definitely broadcasting on your teenage frequency. And when thirty years later, a friend emails you, “Hey I have two extra tickets to the MTV Video Music Awards, do you want to go?” You say hell to the yes. You pick up your wedding engagement dinner dress – gold fabric you chose yourself with a dahlia pattern made by a local LA designer and get ready to go out with your fiancé. Standing in front of the picture of the MTV astronaut, putting his flag on the moon, with a glass of champagne in your hand you realize — you did it.
You are living your dream, even though you are not currently sure what that dream is, it is forming. You have no idea what will happen, but if you hear one simple thing in the echo of time — beauty is a state of mind cultivated in your heart. Your heart is your property and it is yours and yours only. Never underestimate it.
PS. New wave rules!
PSS. Parents totally let kids do whatever they want with their hair now!
PSSS. You are not entirely sure what is up with the Miley Cyrus tongue thing, but when in Rome…