Thursday, March 15, 2012

Lives in the Balance

I've been sick this week, which means the TV binge continues. Yes, it's sad, although probably better than the equivalent in ice cream or heroin.

And actually my current obsession dovetails nicely with the discussion I've started here on YA structure and themes, because the show in question is FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS.

Do you all know this show? (I lived in the South for five years and never learned to fully say y'all. I think because I know my mother would kill me if I ever did it in her presence. Even if it does make absolute sense grammatically.)

I've been meaning to watch FNL for ages because I thought the non-fiction book on which it's based was just so incredibly excellent, and I've heard so much about the show, created by the amazing Peter Berg, and there's also, well, Kyle Chandler. (And on the jailbait end of the spectrum, although at the time of the show he was an adult pro hockey player so it's actually NOT a felony to look at him - Taylor Kitsch.)

And I finally just started on it, which was a HUGE mistake, because there are FIVE SEASONS of this thing.Who in the world has time for five seasons of anything?

But first game - I mean, first show - I was just hooked.

I had lunch with a friend last week and was raving about it and he looked at me askance and said something to the effect of "Okay, I know it's great writing and all that, but sports fan that I am - even I couldn't get past the whole Texas football arena. So how the hell do YOU?"

I know what he means.

The fact is, very few people realize how much exposure to football I've actually had, because I very rarely talk about all the jocks I've - been exposed to.

Look, I'm a dancer. I appreciate physical talent.

But I'm not watching this show for the football, even though I can enjoy watching any sport for that pure physicality. I absolutely love seeing what the human body can do. And football (and hockey) are by far my favorite sports because of the body types and the body parts that the uniforms emphasize.

Okay, but football culture. Not a fan. Hazing, bullying, sexual harassment and assault, simpering cheerleaders making baked goods... And Texas, well, it gave us W. And anyone who can't figure out how I feel about THAT....

But the absolute fact is, this is a brilliant show. This show is about Texas (and I think it's important to understand Texas to understand this country, especially now), and it's about football (and I think it's important to understand football to understand this country, not as much now as eight years ago, but always), and it's about race and racism, and it's about paralyzing cliches of men and women. It's about Christianity and what that is in this country. It's about Texas oil and gas, crucial to understand about that state and this country right now.

And it's about teaching.

And it's about teenagers.

More specifically, it's about teenage lives in the balance.

I've been thinking a lot about those teen years, lately. Well, because my last novel, The Space Between, is set in high school, which of course tends to concentrate your focus (or more exactly, your entire conscious and unconscious being) on these things. But there's only one novel that I've written so far (and I just finished my TENTH on Friday, people!!!) that doesn't prominently feature teenagers in major roles.

I know why that is. When I was just out of college, I taught high school in various exceptional circumstances - rehab centers and the LA County lock-up camps. Gang kids, at-risk kids, prostitutes, felons, addicts, fosters, abandoneds, traumatized, brutalized, you name it. And while I was doing that, half-time, part-time, enough to make a bare living, I was also double-full-time doing the work that broke me through as a professional writer. So writing and working with troubled teenagers are inextricably entwined for me.

But even before that, I went to Turkey as an exchange student when I was sixteen, one of the most traumatizing and most profound and character-defining experiences of a pretty diverse life. Psychologists say that people can become fixed psychologically at the age of a trauma (especially childhood trauma) and I explore that idea thematically in many of my novels.

So I have extreme fixations at the ages of sixteen and twenty-two - I can channel everything about those ages as if I'm still living them. (Well, and lots of other ages, too, but for the purposes of this blog!)

Drifting a bit, but my point is that great stories about teenagers or teaching teenagers just light me up. I, the non-crier, cried all the way through the fifth season of THE WIRE, which I loved every single second of every episode of, but that season about the kids just devastated me, and FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS is having that same effect on me.

Because both of those shows are about kids who are literally infinite - the potential of everything imaginable is inside them, as it is in every child, but it's so very, very often in those teen years that kids fly or they fall. The stakes are unimaginably enormous; they are not just life and death but mythic.

I've been thinking about THAT a lot because RWA, one of the biggest of the big annual book conferences, asked me to do a YA-focused structure workshop at their craft conference this year and I'm working on this theory that YA tends toward the mythic and magical, with the ultimate of stakes, because that is actually so very heartbreakingly true about the teenage years. THE HUNGER GAMES certainly taps into that mythicness, and the HARRY POTTER series, and to a lesser extent, TWILIGHT.

And FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS really bears this out. Like THE WIRE, the show focuses on kids who are "at risk", but "at risk" is portrayed as what it truly is. The razor edge between - for a smart but troubled girl - rape and a life of prostitution and degradation - and a college education and an adventurous and fulfilling future. The razor edge for an orphaned boy between prison (which for a boy of 17 or 18 means sex slavery, torture, drugs, a high probability of suicide) and a stable self-employment, love and family. For more than one kid, the difference between a pro football career and a lifetime of drudgery at Tastee Freeze - or again, prison. Not just between life and death, but between life and hell.

It's the reality of so many, too many, staggeringly many teenagers in our country. Take a look at the statistics for girls and boys - for rape, homelessness, addiction, prison, suicide... and don't even get me started on the prospects for children and teenagers in less fortunate countries.

As a crime writer, I write about extreme circumstances, it's basic to the genre. Well, to me, there's nothing more extreme than the razor edge that teenagers walk every day, and generally they walk it alone because their parents either should have been sterilized at birth, or said parental units develop a wonderfully selective amnesia once they're out of their own teenage years and are of no help whatsoever to their children in a crisis, much less the continuing crisis that the teenage years are. And - though it's better now than what it as when I was in high school, kids still don't generally talk about the bad stuff. And you'd better believe predators rely on that post-traumatic self-defensive amnesia.

I admire the hell out of televison that doesn't sugarcoat. The most prevalent, Alice-in-Wonderland memory of my teenage years was looking around at all the agony the students around me were experiencing and wondering how the hell adults could be so oblivious to it.

So with YA, just like with my adult fiction, I write the dark, because I remember what it was like to be a teenager, and because I so wanted someone else to be acknowledging it and DOING something about it. And I am in awe of any storyteller, in any medium, who tackles the razor edge that the teenage years are.

Myself, when I was a teenager, I was never at risk for a criminal life. But I know my soul was in the balance, and great stories that told the truth about the darkness I experienced, and that I saw around me, literally, physically saved me - when people fell short.

Something to think about, isn't it?

So how about you?

In high school, did you, or people you knew, walk a razor's edge? Who or what saved you or them? What were the stories that got you through to the light?

And - who WASN'T saved?

- Alex


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Shelley Sly said...

I'm sorry to hear you've been sick. I went through that last week and also had a TV binge (though I haven't yet watched Friday Night Lights.)

On an unrelated note, I moved to the South two years ago and I tend to say y'all online (especially Twitter -- it saves characters) but I don't say it much in person.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Shelley, thanks, it's annoying but also the only time all winter that I've been sick so I can't really complain.

It IS easier to say y'all on line. I feel like a poseur if I do it in person!

Maureen Harrington said...

Feel better, Alex. xox

Scout and I never miss Friday Night Lights. He's into his 4th or 5th go-round of reruns. Can you figure he played football? The culture you mention never suited him and caused him to move on to other interests like backpacking and climbing mountains and canoeing. One year we made our own canoe with the kids. He took a group of teenagers on a 50-mile canoe trip. I like how he turned out, because I never would have married him if he'd been into the culture of football.

Jenni Legate said...

I hope you're feeling better too, Alex. It's no fun being sick. I'm getting over some crud I've had for nearly a month, so I empathize! We watched heaps of t.v. - got caught up on Justified and Walking Dead - WOW! What a season on Walking Dead.

I remember some dodgy times in high school, and then watching my kids go through it - at times all you can hope is that they will grow through it without doing lifelong damage to themselves. It's a risky age and there is so much going on. For my son, what got him through was getting a job where he was appreciated and felt he was making a real contribution. It got him to start seeing some potential for what he could do with his life outside of high school. My daughter said it helped to hear us tell her that everything she believed was important then would change once she was out of high school. It did, and she's on to college and doing well with her life. I think just trying to get them to see that the way they see their lives at 16 is going to go through radical changes and be completely different at 18 and again at 21 and so on throughout their lives is a big factor in overcoming some of their dangerous attitudes and risky behaviors.

Who wasn't saved? One of my neighbor's kids. When my son was 13, a neighbor who was his age got into meth in a big way. Last we heard he was doing hard time. I'm so happy my son broke all associations with that kid back then. Sad, and hard choices then, but I did everything I could to keep my kid out of that kind of trouble.