YA Open Mic is a monthly series in which YA authors share personal stories on topics of their choice. The aim of the series is to peel away the formality of bios and offer authors a platform to talk about something readers won’t necessarily find on their websites.
This month, 12 authors discuss everything from first loves to life with anxiety. All have YA books that either release this month or released in recent months. Check out previous YA Open Mic posts here.
Katie Cotugno, author of Fireworks
Last winter, I dropped my phone in a toilet.
It was in my back pocket; I was out at a bar. I forgot it was in there, ran to the ladies’ room, and:
The funny thing about dropping your phone in a toilet is how many people, when they hear about it, say, “Oh, I’ve done that.” My husband said, “Remember when I dropped mine in the urinal? I washed it off with hand soap.”
What I am to take away from this, I suppose, is that dropping your phone in a toilet? Not that big of a deal. Still, with that one tiny accident, the Pandora’s box I’d been keeping shut all winter with washi tape and prayers sprung wide open, and every single thing I am afraid of in both this universe and the next came screaming out.
It wasn’t just about the phone. It was about being a mess and everybody knowing, about not being a very good wife or friend or daughter or sister or person; about every questionable choice I’ve ever made and every embarrassing encounter I’ve ever had and most of all about the certainty that something even worse was about to happen.
I brought my phone home and put it in rice. I ate a large amount of food I wasn’t hungry for. I had a hard night.
I’ve struggled with severe anxiety almost my whole life, since I was eight and had to go play checkers with a woman named Alyce every Monday while I explained to her that I couldn’t pay attention in school because I was scared my parents would die in a car crash. Once in college I couldn’t eat anything but peanut butter sandwiches for a week and a half. I had two discrete panic attacks at my bridal shower, sitting in an upstairs bedroom while my friend M tried frantically to get me to stop crying. There is something hinky in my brain.
The phone dried out. I could turn it on and it worked. But the charger wouldn’t fit anymore, no matter how I tried to jam it; I’d broken something deep inside.
So I ran my phone to the phone place, where the woman peered into the guts of it under the bright, clinical lights. “There’s rice in there,” she told me.
Take a deep breath, is what she meant.
Sara Zarr, author of Gem & Dixie
My dad left when I was around 10 years old. He left with no warning (though it didn’t feel like a surprise), which meant he didn’t take much with him. After he was gone, I found a carton of his cigarettes on a high shelf in the ironing-board cabinet. He’d been a heavy smoker, sometimes rolling his own, sometimes buying the cartons.
I can still see him in front of our black and white TV, one leg resting on the other, his ash tray balanced on his ankle. It’s an image I see from behind. A lot of my memories of him are that way, rather than head-on. Looking sideways or peeking around doors or lurking in hallways, trying to assess his mood and sobriety.
The cigarettes he left behind were Pall Malls, in a red box with white writing. And in an incident I fictionalized in Gem & Dixie, I took one pack and hid it in the top drawer of my dresser, where I also kept shoplifted candy, drugstore makeup, and old barrettes and hair elastics.
I was a latchkey kid, which meant I was usually home alone after school. One afternoon, I took the pack into the walk-in closet my sister and I shared and closed the door. I lit the cigarette up and took a puff or two before putting it out in a panic.
I kept the pack in that drawer a long time, as I kept the stamp collection he left behind. I sat as he sat, hunched over it holding a stamp in a pair of tweezers and examining it with his magnifying glass. Except I didn’t know what I was looking at or for. I kept his record albums, sitting like he did in front of the speakers while listening to the Beatles, trying to hear what he heard.
I wanted to get into his skin. Feel what he felt. Think his thoughts. What was so great about smoking? Where did he go when he looked at stamps, listened to music, drank? Where did he go, in his mind, and why was that better than being with us?
Marcus Sedgwick, author of Saint Death
Last week I got an email from an old friend I hadn’t seen in about 26 years. I’d lost touch with Alex, but he wrote to me via my website to say he’d been going through some old stuff and found photos of me in the band. Did I want them?
One of the photos is above—that’s me with the hair. In the middle with the Posada T-shirt is Neil, and the gentleman right with the grin is Fran. The band was called Swing and around 1990 we were the most notorious outfit in the whole of Bath. We’d done gigs as far away as, oh, Bristol. If you’re not familiar with British geography, all of this is deeply unimpressive.
Which is not to say that the music we made was unimpressive. I had sort of gate-crashed the group when they’d had to sack their previous drummer for being unable to do anything other than whack out four-four time, so I feel able to say, without boasting (since the band was very much Neil and Fran’s baby) that it was genuinely ahead of its time, musically. Neil on the guitar and Fran on the bass both used a different, nonstandard tuning. I gave them the nonstandard (for rock) rhythms they’d been looking for. The result was a monumental, bombastic, earth-shattering sound. When we rehearsed (in a tiny vaulted cellar) we would periodically burst into maniacal laughter from the sheer joy of hearing something so profoundly unexpected and new.
Our vision of ourselves was not shared, however, and after a couple of years, when Fran and Neil said they had to go to London to try to hit the big time, I had had enough. I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer then—though that was my path in the end. Neil I never heard of again, while Fran, years later, found worldwide fame for a year or so as the bassist in the musically unadventurous the Darkness. Such are the paths we take in life, and this email and bunch of photos only serves to prove we have no real idea of our way. We can only hope we stumble across it and, in retrospect, feel it was the right one.
Adi Alsaid, author of North of Happy
When I was seven years old, my best friend died in a snowmobile accident. I’ve been lucky enough to not have to grieve much since–grandparents, a brother-in-law I wasn’t all that close to. It wasn’t quite the defining tragedy of my life, like grief in childhood can be, and it’s not even something I spend a lot of time thinking about. But I think it shaped me in the way books and movies and songs always try to shape stories of grief, that golden-tinted moral at the end of the arc: the appreciation of life.
A bit simplistic to connect those dots, maybe, but there it is anyway. I don’t know why or how I was so lucky to come out with that life lesson. I’m not complaining. And that’s not to say I’m constantly nailing the concept of living in the moment, or that the fear of mortality has eased its talons from my sides. Just that…well, I think there’s a reason why I write about fireflies and kisses and waving your hand out the window to feel a cool breeze during summer.
Elana Arnold, author of What Girls Are Made Of
When I was 14, I fell in love with a boy. I loved his thick, muscly thighs. I loved his big nose. I loved his brain. My best friend Shayna didn’t understand the attraction, but she humored me, and would drive us past his house late in the afternoons, as the sun went down. I’d imagine which window might belong to his bedroom.
When I was 16—a junior—he called me. My feelings were no secret, not to him, not to anyone. That night—late, after my parents had gone to bed—he asked me to sneak out of the house to meet him.
I was such a good girl that I left a note on my pillow, just in case my mother worried I’d been kidnapped. I waited for him to pull up in front of my house, and I got into his car.
He drove up the hill to a nearby park. We stayed in his car, and we kissed, and he did a thing to my ear with his tongue that melted me.
“Take off your shirt,” he said.
I wanted to. Even though the boy had spent the previous two years vacillating between ignoring me and mocking me, I wanted to. I would have, but for the shame I felt about the smallness of my breasts, one of his favorite things to tease me about.
“Take off your shirt,” he said, “or get out of my car.”
By then, it was two o’clock in the morning. I got out of the car. He drove away. I walked home, down the dark street, through the dew-damp air. I reentered my house through the back door. There, untouched, unread, was the note I’d written for my mother.
Slowly, carefully, I shredded it.
Corrie Wang, author of The Takedown
My sister-in-law tells me she won’t be dating boys until after high school because they’re a waste of time. She’ll be focusing on herself, thankyouverymuch. She’s 14. My quartet of female leads in The Takedown would love her.
I wish I’d known any of them when I was that age. I dated my high school boyfriend for over a decade. And the entire time, I knew he wasn’t the one. But I thought that’s what you did. You found your person. And then you just stuck it out. Never mind if they gave you tingles or not.
It wasn’t until we broke up, and I moved to NYC 10 years later, that I realized shackling yourself to your high school flame was not what everyone did. People dated, and learned to make decisions for themselves. They traveled with girlfriends and felt lonely sometimes. They took themselves to the ballet solo and grinded it out. Without answering to or for anyone.
Being un-relationship-ed not only let me very actively pursue my writing career, but it made space for some of my most fulfilling friendships. Romance is fantastic, but I’d argue that discovering exactly your purpose in life is even better. After all, like it or not, you will always have you around.
High school (and life ever after) is tricky business, but it’s easier and ultimately far more gratifying if you allow yourself to listen to your instincts. Or as the girls would say in The Takedown, “fck them small betches.” Do not be afraid of failure. In fact, prepare to fail. Sometimes a lot. Work your butt off regardless. And whatever you do, do not be afraid to go it alone.
Hanna Nowinski, author of Meg & Linus
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always needed a lot of alone time. More than all of my friends did, which could occasionally lead to awkward situations.
I specifically remember fifth or sixth grade, when I had this huge group of friends who all enjoyed hanging out with each other every day. Which was just too much for me, so I started making up excuses—family stuff, doctor’s appointments, rescheduled piano lessons.
Until one day some of them walked up to me and said “you always say you don’t have time today, but we know you’re just sitting at home. Why?” And I didn’t have an answer to that other than “because I like being by myself sometimes,” which I couldn’t really say, because it just seemed wrong. You’re supposed to be happy to hang out with friends, right?
The thing is, I do enjoy hanging out with people. A lot. My friends are very important to me and always have been. But sometimes, I just don’t want to.
More than that, it’s presented as the norm that eventually people will pair off and have a partner, boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife. And not wanting that . . . it seems weird. So for the longest time, I thought I did want it because everyone else does, and I couldn’t really accept the thought of not having that.
It’s only been over the last year or so that I’ve come to realize: I’m perfectly happy by myself. This is what I want. I want friends, but I also want my alone time. I want to live alone, I want to leave my stuff wherever I want, I don’t want to wait until someone else is done in the bathroom, I want my bedroom to myself, I want to caterwaul along to my favorite songs when I do laundry and yell at hockey games and talk to myself when I feel like it, alone.
And that’s perfectly fine.
Barry Lyga, author of Bang
College. Freshman year. Nineteen-eighty-nine, children, and that is a considerable time ago.
Walking the sodden grass of Yale’s Old Campus, I began to realize how much of a fraud I was. Yeah, I’d had the grades to get in, but I didn’t really belong there. My suitemates were cosmopolitan New Yorkers and private school kids with perfect smiles and inborn confidence. I was a public school kid from cow-dung rural Maryland.
I don’t want you to think they looked down on me, btw. Hell, no. To a man, my roomies were warm, friendly, and welcoming. The problem was me. I was used to being bullied and looked down on, but what I always had going for me back in high school was that I was the smartest m-fer in the room, bar none.
At Yale, I was middle of the pack, brains-wise. My crutches were knocked out from under me. I had nothing to hold me up. Nothing to cling to.
Over the summer before school started, we’d called each other, we future roomies. Getting to know each other. “What hobbies do you have? What do you do?”
My only answer was, “I write.” It started to feel lame because they all did so many varied things. I just…wrote.
Up late in my room, pounding at my keyboard. As a kid, praying the keys would take me away from my small town. Then, as a Yalie, praying those keys would make me worthwhile.
I was sure they wouldn’t. Until one day I was talking to a woman who lived across the hall, a pint-sized Texan on whom I instantly and heartrendingly and silently crushed. When I said something about writing, she said, “You know, the first time you told me you wanted to be an author, I thought, ‘Yeah, right.’ But then I reminded myself: This is Yale. And you have to take it seriously when people say they’re gonna do something. So I believe in you. You’re going to do it.”
That jogged something loose in me, and for the next decade—no matter what obstacles came my way (and there were many!)—I persevered.
I never really felt like I belonged at Yale. But when I published my first book, I thought, Yeah. This is it. This is where I belong.
Jonathan Friesen, author Unfolding
My third grade teacher asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up.
She thought that was funny. I remember her laugh.
But I had given up on astronaut two years earlier, when I went with motionless muscles to a farm auction, and came back with shoulders twitching as though charged with electricity.
Wake up still, go to bed with Tourette’s syndrome.
Yep, a mannequin seemed like a decent occupation.
By high school I had nine tics competing for my attention, epileptic seizures had joined my party, and I was in constant motion.
Made for a miserable school career. I was convinced I’d been cursed, and told my grandma as much.
Then she changed my life.
“As long as you keep all that to yourself, yes, it’s a curse. But if you give it away, it will be a gift.”
A gift? Mental illness a gift?
Now, I travel the world talking about my mental health issues, writing about them. Grandma was onto something.
Have you seen Guardians of the Galaxy? Think last scene, when that raccoon shoots the bad purple dude’s hammer of death and Chris Pratt grabs the infinity stone from the air and his face starts to melt? Well, he would’ve blown, but his friends grabbed hold. Chris shared that pain with those around him and somehow a stone that minutes ago was going to destroy, transformed into power. Good power that saved the world.
I don’t know why any of us get anything, or why my muscles have jumped over 3.85 billion times. I do know that if you offered me a curative pill, I wouldn’t take it. Grandma was right; I have a severe gift to share.
The kind a mannequin just wouldn’t understand.
Diana Rodriguez Wallach, author of Proof of Lies
On September 11, 2001, I lived five blocks from Ground Zero. I was 23 years old, and my now-husband and I had just moved into our first apartment. To say that my life changed dramatically after that day would be an understatement, as it would be for any New Yorker. But for me, 9/11 meant that I now lived and worked in a terrorist target—a reality that stuck with me long after the events of that day.
Every morning I commuted from Wall Street to One Penn Plaza, the skyscraper above Penn Station. I’d leave my apartment to see men in army fatigues holding machine guns to guard my block. I walked past the New York Stock Exchange, which became so intensely barricaded you couldn’t cross the street let alone get past the men in riot gear restraining German shepherds. Inside the subway stations were more men with guns slung on their shoulders, along with walls of never-ending Missing posters, reminding me of the people who weren’t so lucky, who didn’t come home, and who were the reason I couldn’t complain about the state of the world I now lived in. New Yorkers had to return to business as usual. We had to prove we weren’t beaten.
So we locked our feelings away—an entire city full of people with “walking depression.” We were sick, we were infected, but we kept about our lives with dazed expressions and dark thoughts. We tried not to panic when our buildings got evacuated (again) or when smoke poured out of the subway station (electrical fire). Like many, I never would have admitted I was suffering from post-traumatic stress, because I had no right. I wasn’t in those Towers. People went through worse.
But now, when the anniversary comes around and I force myself to cry through yet another documentary and remember those lost, I realize that is exactly what I had. What everyone in New York had.
So in Proof of Lies, when my main character, Anastasia, goes through a traumatic event, I let her fall into “the funk.” She succumbs to the depression in a way I never did, but in a way a lot of people might find familiar. We have a right to feel what we’re feeling, even if someone else has had it worse, and I hope teens will relate to Anastasia’s emotional journey to find her family, and herself, again.
A.L. Davroe, author of Redux
“Just stop. Just fight it.” They say… But how do you fight an invisible monster? How do you battle a thing you do not understand? A thing that no one has proper armor or weapons or training to attack or tame? What do you do when phantom voices are telling you lies? When your chest is tight? When you’re shaking, sobbing, gasping?
“Just breathe,” the therapist says. “In and out. In and out.” What does breathing do for a lying, broken mind on repeat? What happens when it knows you’re tired, but sleep doesn’t come? When it knows you’re hollowed out, but tells you that the square pegs in the square holes still don’t fit. Nothing is broken or bleeding but it tells you you hurt? You’re safe and still, but your heart is pounding? There is fight or flight, but the only thing you should be running from is on the inside?
“I have some pills…They help,” your best friend offers you. The terror is a thing alive and curled around you and suffocating you like a snake. Even now, with her hand pressing Xanax into yours, it eats you whole.
You could take the pill. You could cage the beast—for a little while, at least.
Isn’t that what drugs are for? To cage? To hold? To silence, and make invisible all the symptoms? As long as the monster falls still for a blessed few moments, lulled to sleep by the ocarina of chemistry.
But the illness is still there. Eventually the music will stop. The beast will wake. You’ll be running again. In your head. The beast will hunt you, find you, toy with you, swallow you whole only to spit you out so it can play again…The beast that holds you prisoner in your own mind. Anxiety.
Cyndy Etler, author of The Dead Inside
I’m 13 years old, and I finally have a friend who likes me. I am not messing this up. Somehow she thinks I’m cool. How did I fool her? It’s my jean jacket. And my new black Wet n Wild eyeliner. And the button I stole from my actually-cool big sister. The one with the Rolling Stones tongue and the fuzzy red letters underneath. STONED. That’s why Jo likes me. She thinks I’m a stoner. I’m totally not. I’ve never even seen a frigging joint. But that doesn’t matter. Remember what we learned in biology about plant and animal cells? Plant cells have that hard shell around the outside. They’re rigid. But animal cells are smooshy around the edges, so they can change shape. I’m totally an animal cell.
We’re in the backyard of Jo’s, like, unbearably cool guy friends. I’m talking dirty Levi’s and sheep fur around their jean jacket collars. I’m talking characters from The Outsiders. This is my once-in-a-lifetime chance to get in with the right people. They don’t need to talk as Jo hands over the baggie she bought. They know what they’re doing with this ancient ritual of plant and fire and lips. They’re so cool, they’re cold. They’re human frigging icebergs. Somehow I’m here with them, a crackling, frenetic, sparking live wire. Stay back! Don’t touch the loser! The thing, the bowl, is moving around the circle. I lean back and look at the stars, praying that God rearranged them into an instruction manual. But no dice. No instructions. No idea what to do when it gets to me. Teach didn’t say a cell’s changing shape was easy. Just that it was possible. I don’t say yes to the bowl, and I don’t say no. I just try really, really hard to be cool.