Million Dollar Challenge: YA fiction is Coming of Age

by Jerry Waxler

Because of the millions of dollars earned by the Harry Potter series, it seems every author would like to understand the key to its success. I believe Harry’s power lies not in his magic but in his life experience. When you strip away the incantations and special effects, Harry Potter is nothing more nor less than a child trying to become an adult. The challenge to grow up has captivated the reading public, not just in fiction but in nonfiction as well. Many of the most successful memoirs that kicked off the success of that literary genre were about that period of life.

In 1997, the year of the first Harry Potter novel, Frank McCourt won a Pulitzer prize for his memoir “Angela’s Ashes.” As a child, McCourt faced incredible poverty, and then year after year had to learn about himself, his relationship to his family, his sexuality, and then push away to become independent person. Instead of a magic wand to get through these years, McCourt used his wits as he attempted to make sense of life.

In McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes” and in the equally acclaimed memoir “This Boy’s Life” by Tobias Wolff we witness some of the gritty issues boys face, and in Jeanette Walls’ “Glass Castle” and Mary Karr’s “Liar’s Club” we accompany girls through their side of the process. All of these young adults struggled to understand themselves, with only sketchy guidance from parents.

The close connection between the fiction and nonfiction version of young adulthood seems to contain important information for all aspiring writers. To research the connection between fiction and real life, I recently read a Young Adult novel, “Over My Head” by Marie Lamba. The protagonist is a 16-year old girl who fell in love with a 20-year old boy. The protagonist desperately wanted to overcome her parents’ objections. In her struggle for clarity, I learned about young love from a girl’s point of view. I also learned a much broader lesson. In “Over My Head” I saw the underlying power of both Coming of Age memoirs and Young Adult fiction.

Humans have to spend almost two decades connected with caregivers. During that period we are their mercy, and more importantly we are at the mercy of the stories they tell us about the world and about ourselves. We desperately need the stories of young adulthood in order to know how to go out into the world. This process is built into our society, and according to a fascinating perspective on human evolution, it may be built into our genes. (see Brian Boyd’s Evolution of Stories).

We all had to go through this period once in our lives, and now we read Harry Potter, or “Over My Head” or the growing body of Coming of Age memoirs, and we vicariously accompany the protagonist to see how his or her journey works. All the while, in the back of our mind, we want to cry out, “Grow up. Get through those mistakes. You can do it.”

Adults automatically urge young people to reach toward the next step. And this urging often annoys young people who fear that too much guidance indicates lack of respect for their youthful process. That’s part of the fascinating dramatic tension of adolescence and young adulthood. We long for the protagonist of “Over My Head” to learn and become wise as she tries to steer through the difference between romance and sex. We want her to find some wisdom, avoid mistakes, and make the right choice. The reader knows what the character does not yet know, a perfect equation for powerful dramatic tension.

The young protagonist of “Over My Head,” with the unusual name of Sang, brought to life the intimate connection between compelling stories and the underlying psychological dynamics. By watching Sang’s authentic struggles and at the same time watching my own deep instinctive reactions to her growing up, I realize that the memoir wave is performing multiple services for our culture. Primarily, it opens up memoir readers and writers to the introspective realities of real life. However, I believe that it is also permeating fiction and increasing the cross-fertilization between our literary goals and our psychological ones. Real human beings with real human needs populate our fiction as well as our lives, and we can learn about ourselves and each other by reading books.

If you are considering turning your early life into a memoir, you are already guaranteed that your readers will root for you the moment they see that you are striving to grow. If you are composing a fictional account of a young person growing up, you can learn an enormous amount about the actual psychological journey by reading dozens of memoirs.

Of course, fiction writers have the authority to stretch and shape reality. And if they are creating fantasy-worlds, they can also take advantage of myth and metaphor. For example, when Harry faced evil, it was pure and demonic. When his birth parents were murdered, it provides a powerful metaphor for the transition we all must go through, pressing away from our parents to find our own independent path.

Fiction writers can also apply other literary tools. For example, they have the ability to slow time down and take us into moment by moment details. That’s what Marie Lamba did in “Over My Head” when she focused on Sang’s romance. Fiction gave her the artistic freedom to take readers all the way into the situation in a highly crafted anxiety-producing, believable, and enlightening way. For a much grittier look at sexual Coming of Age, read the memoir “Girl Bomb” by Janice Erlbaum about her confusing life as a teenager on the streets of New York City.

Many Coming of Age memoirs show the demoralizing, dehumanizing dangers of drugs and alcohol. In addition to Janice Erlbaum’s involvement with drugs on the street in her memoir “Girl Bomb”, author Dani Shapiro traveled a more privileged version. Instead of scrounging for her next fix, Shapiro was a kept woman, maintained in an upscale apartment with endless drugs in exchange for sex. In Harry Potter’s world, the danger of breaking the rules was to be imprisoned in Azkaban, where the Dementors sucked away all emotions. This sounds remarkably similar to the real-life danger of drugs, which can leave users in a state of anhedonia, that is, unable to feel emotion.

In the real world, we have to learn a trade or get a job to support ourselves. Harry Potter’s trade was magic, which is perhaps more familiar to real teenagers than you might think. Adults often joke about the tendency of young people to act like they know everything, but that is not necessarily so funny. Young people often use fantasy and magic to help them plot their life course, or to help them tolerate their sense of helplessness in the world. When I look back to that period in my own life, I see how obsessed I became when I discovered science and math. I thought if I learned enough formulas and equations I would be able to control the entire cosmos. For me, knowing everything was neither a joke nor an exaggeration. However, instead of granting my wish for infinite wisdom, this approach left me entirely unprepared for adult emotional challenges. Another person who became obsessed about having pure, magical knowledge was Tony Hendra, author of the memoir “Father Joe.” When he was 14, he was seized by the conviction that he wanted to be a monk. Religious philosophy became his entire universe, and when it didn’t work out as planned, he had to completely restructure his understanding of the world.

The vast majority of adults look back on early years and remember a lot of fuzzy thinking and disconnected anecdotes. Aspiring memoir writers have the unusual opportunity to collect those random bits of memory and organize them into the shape of a story. We watch ourselves stumble through adolescence, when we are forced to learn incredibly subtle lessons and make crucial decisions before we understood their consequences. We can’t change the outcome of those years, so instead we do what people have always done with such profound life puzzles. We read and write stories. Coming of Age memoirs and Young Adult novels let us relive this period of life, running through an endless series of what-ifs, giving us that peculiarly human magic of entering into a world of someone else’s creation.

When we do finally turn our own experience into a good readable story, we might not earn millions of dollars or win a Pulitzer Prize. But even if we merely complete the work and step back satisfied, we will give ourselves a million dollar education about our journey from unformed infant into the person we have become today.

Writing Prompts
Write a scene in which you went out on a date or fell in love, and then tried to sort out what that meant.

Write a scene or a series of scenes about how you first realized you were going to have to figure out how to survive financially.

Write one or a series about an argument with your parents when you were trying to do something more adult than they could tolerate.

Write a scene about a decision you made or that was made for you that took you farther away from your goal of becoming an adult.

Marie Lamba’s Home Page

Click here for an interview with Marie Lamba

Click here for an article about why Coming of Age memoirs deserves its own genre

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.