YA Open Mic is a monthly series in which YA authors share personal stories on topics of their choice. The aim of the series, above all, is to peel away the formality of bios and offer authors a platform to talk about something readers wouldn’t necessarily find on their websites. Check out previous posts here.
This month, our 14 featured authors are discussing everything from identity to mental illness to sexual assault, and beyond. All of the authors have YA books releasing this January.
YA Open Mic runs on the first Thursday of each month.
Christa Desir, author of Other Broken Things
The week before Christmas 2012, one of my best friends from college killed himself. I have talked about this online, mostly how much I miss him, how much I believe I failed him by letting him go when he pulled away from all of us. And to be honest, four years later, I remain pretty paralyzed by his death with few answers and mostly crippling grief.
After Michael died, when my husband took my kids to see my in-laws and I stayed home to grieve, I dropped into a bottle of Prosecco and didn’t really emerge from it for three months.
A friend told me once that she had to stop drinking because she was doing it for all the wrong reasons. When I asked what those were, she said, “I’m doing it to escape my life.” Well. Yes. Therein lies the complication. Alcohol is ragingly helpful in escaping your life, escaping the pain of loss, escaping the hard stuff of writing failure, escaping everything that sucks, really. Or at least it feels helpful, for a little while.
I wrote a book about an alcoholic girl boxer named Natalie. She had let go of her instinct toward making good choices. And she had fallen deep into a rabbit hole of addiction. As I sat at my computer typing away at this book, I thought to myself, yes, this is what my life could have been. If not for the people who said and did the right things to help me grieve and heal in a better way. Now I love more openly, I search for honesty in things, I hold on to hugs longer. And my heart has a lot more room in it for books and people and causes and hope and forgiveness and grace.
Laurie Elizabeth Flynn, author of Firsts
If you knew me in the years following high school, you probably had an opinion or two about me. You might’ve thought I was a flirt or a party girl or a free spirit, someone a bit wild and reckless, someone who didn’t care what anyone else thought about her. You likely would have said I was boy-crazy. You most definitely wouldn’t have looked at me and thought, she’s a virgin.
My debut novel is about virginity, but I still had mine after high school was over. My main character, Mercedes, is no virgin, but she masquerades as a prayer-group girl and makes people think she is. I was the opposite. I let people assume anything about me, as long as they didn’t think that. I just wanted to come across as cool and confident and fun. Like Mercedes, I was scared to let people know the real me, the soft one inside the hard shell who would rather stay home in her pajamas than go to yet another party. The girl who felt socially awkward almost all of the time and overanalyzed every seemingly flippant remark that came out of her mouth. Did I sound stupid? Did that sound desperate? Does anyone really like me?
Sometimes, it’s the people who pretend not to care what anyone else thinks who care the most. I was one of them.
Marieke Nijkamp, author of This Is Where It Ends
I love traveling. I love it with a passion. I have traveled all over Europe and parts of North Africa. I’ve tracked through various States. And there are many more countries and continents on my wishlist. At the same time, however, it’s one of the things I find most anxiety-inducing. The weeks before I’m scheduled to travel, I’m a nervous wreck. My mind will cycle through one horror scenario after another, and I frequently have to stop myself from canceling trips altogether. And don’t even get me started on flying.
But once I make it to another town, to another place, to another country, I fall head over heels in love again. Because for all that the world outside may be out of my control, going out to discover it isn’t. And I have slept in abandoned houses. I have walked through the ruins of castles and mines. I have seen deserts and oceans and ancient forests. I have climbed mountains and danced through brightly lit cities in the middle of the night. I have met the most interesting, kind, generous people. And for all that the unknowns terrify me, there are so many stories to tell. And that alone is worth it.
Marisa Reichardt, author of Underwater
When I was nine years old, two weeks after my 37-year-old father passed away from a cancer called melanoma, a teacher masquerading as a fortune teller at our school’s Halloween carnival took my fourth-grade hand in hers, traced my lifeline with her long, red fingernail, and told me I would die when I was fifty.
Those words have haunted me my entire life.
I don’t even believe in fortune tellers. But I believe in teachers. I believed in this teacher because she was an authority figure and I trusted her. I thought she was smart and capable and spoke the truth.
At nine years old, fifty sounded like forever. But as each year I live creeps closer to fifty, I realize it’s not a very long time.
What we say as adults to kids and teenagers who trust us matters. Here I am, making money writing words, and trying to do the best I can. I don’t want to be preachy or lesson-y or cautionary. But I do want to write truthfully and in a way that sticks. And because of that, the weight of every sentence can sometimes seem unbearable.
I won’t always get it right. I have accepted that. But I will do my very best to try.
Because the wrong words can haunt a person forever.
And the right words will always matter.
Alexandra Bracken, author of Passenger
I have the equivalent of the Shame Bell Nun from Game of Thrones for a guilty conscience, so, believe it or not, this still haunts me:
I played basketball my freshman year of high school and hated it. I hated the running and the pressure of competition. Adding to the fun was an old tailbone injury that suddenly demanded my attention and discovering I have exercise-induced asthma which, it turns out, is a real thing, and not an out-of-shape thing. I don’t even know how I finished out the season, to be honest. Naturally my dad was super invested in me playing and loved the idea of having a kid who was as into basketball as him. Okay. You see where this is going.
I’d already made up my mind not to play the next year, but I couldn’t cough up the truth, because in addition to being a people pleaser I have the unhelpful bonus of being super non-confrontational. So basketball training camp rolls around that summer and I am stalling, stalling, stalling on telling Dad I don’t want to go until, finally, on the morning of…I taped a sign on my door that said GONE FISHING (I lived in a desert. This was metaphorical.) and ran away to the nearest playground to hide until it was over for the day. My mom drove around for three hours looking for me. I know it was three, because 10 a.m. is when it hits 95 degrees in Arizona and you enter the Heat Stroke Danger Zone and I had to return to air conditioning. Unfortunately, I also returned to my parents’ silent, scorching disapproval that has stayed with me so much longer than the bizarre tan lines that lasted the rest of the summer.
I’m sure my dad was only angry because I in no way acted like a reasonable human being, but I’ve regretted it ever since. I wish I could ask him what he really thought and apologize, but he passed away a few years ago and, like so many of the open shots I had in basketball, I was too scared and let all of those opportunities pass me by.
Susan Dennard, author of Truthwitch
Awkward. The defining word of my high school years. In fact, it feels like only yesterday that my best friend (the eternally brave Brenna) was inviting my crush to a Sadie Hawkins dance.
Now, to set the stage, I was a late bloomer in every sense of the word. At fifteen, I was so flat chested I was concave, and I was also prone to hiding in bathroom stalls whenever I felt Too Overcome.
Needless to say, my crush was completely unaware of my existence. But Bold Brenna wouldn’t let my shyness keep me from the boy of my dreams.
So there I was after school, waiting as Brenna tackled my crush on the way to his locker. Minutes later, she breathlessly told me he’d said yes! All I had to do was call him with details!
Cue: my speechless elation. I squealed. I giggled. I jumped. Until suddenly, I was Too Overcome and had to race for the restroom. Because of course—WHAT? I’d never said “hi!” to him, so the thought of dialing him on a telephone seemed downright impossible.
But I would persevere! Somehow, I would work up the courage to call my crush. To speak to him. To—dare I think it?—dance with him!
Fortunately for me (or rather, in a soul-crushing turn of events), my crush informed Brenna the next day that he’d made a mistake. He, erm, had to babysit! And, erm, he’d thought she meant a different Susan. You know, the one with boobs. (Okay, so I added that last part in.)
My ego, it would seem, never did quite recover, but hey! If nothing else, my persistent fifteen-year-old awkwardness makes writing for young adults that much easier!
Arwen Elys Dayton, author of Traveler
My parents didn’t believe in babyproofing. Or maybe babyproofing wasn’t really a “thing” yet when I was a kid. They also didn’t believe in knowing much about where I was or what I was doing after school when I was five or six years old. (Or, ahem, during school, on the days when I would figure out a way to simply wander off and not come back). I think this was terrific parenting, personally. When I look back, I remember hands and knees and hair covered in tree sap, riding large horses by myself in the woods without checking in with anyone, scraped knees and elbows, lumps on my head from crashing into things, and of course the occasional pot of boiling water I pulled down on myself as a toddler. Lovely! Every part of it fit with every other part to make a great childhood.
Now, if my own kids look a little dirty and unkempt, if my youngest has holes in the knees of her pants no matter how often they get mended, if I let them get muddy and stay muddy and wander in the woods without supervision, I think I’m a terrific parent. But I’m not so sure anyone else thinks that anymore. I recently saw a mom worriedly tell her ten-year-old son not to climb a very small tree because he could hurt himself. What? The risk is part of the thrill when you climb trees. Doesn’t she know that? I’ve watched parents Purell their kids’ hands because they touched an insect. This makes me sad. I hope my kids stay dirty and slightly uncivilized as long as possible—maybe forever. And when I write, I think I’m doing it, partly, to keep my childhood sense of adventure alive.
Emily Martin, author of The Year We Fell Apart
When I was a senior in college, an interviewer asked me to share my greatest achievement. I remember thinking I could tell him I was a first-generation college student, and that being the only member of my family to graduate was my biggest accomplishment. But that didn’t really feel true—the thing I was most proud of was moving to France for a semester the year prior.
“Living abroad isn’t exactly an achievement, is it?” my interviewer asked.
I replied with a polite smile, but what I really wanted to say was, you don’t know me at all.
See, I was a painfully shy kid. I was that girl who cried at sleepovers and never went to camp because no way was I getting stuck in some cabin with a bunch of strangers. But in France, every day pushed me out of my comfort zone. I lived with a host family, ate foods I’d never heard of, attended classes taught in French—got called on and had to stand at the front of the class while my marketing professor grilled me on the day’s assignment. At one point I got into an argument with a French postal worker who had lost the care package my parents sent and was trying to blame me for not picking it up on time.
I learned more about myself in those six months than the rest of college combined.
This month, my debut novel will be published. This is my greatest accomplishment to date. And yes, I will be celebrating with pain au chocolat.
Francisco Stork, author of The Memory of Light
My first encounter with depression came when I was 14 years old. Two years later, when I entered high school, I was having trouble staying alive. I didn’t have a name for what I was feeling. All I knew is that I had many reasons to feel happy and instead I felt miserable. And, on top of that, I felt ashamed for feeling miserable.
During the past four years, as I wrote and rewrote The Memory of Light, I kept asking myself: What kind of book would have helped that young boy as he struggled to make it through the long days and even longer nights? I decided that, above all, the book had to be interesting. Vicky Cruz (the main character in the book) needed to have thoughts and feelings familiar and real but also complex and unique enough to captivate my attention. Vicky’s life, like mine back then, had to be normal and good in many ways. And yet, like me, Vicky ends up losing her will to live. How does it happen that someone who has so much going for her ends up feeling so bad about herself and about her life? And, more significantly, how does a person with depression go about making friends with life again? Where can someone like Vicky find the courage and the hope to live and maybe even to be useful to others? A book about a young girl who asks these questions and who glimpses at the answers would have been helpful to that boy in El Paso who hurt so much. And that’s the book I wrote.
Elissa Sussman, author of Burn
Depression is a paralyzing pain in the ass. This is especially true when you don’t even realize that the overwhelming sadness, extreme lethargy, and utter disinterest in all the things that once brought you joy are really symptoms of a larger problem.
“Have you considered the possibility you might just be depressed?” my doctor asked me a few months ago. For a while, I had been feeling a bit like an onion with one layer too many peeled back, leaving me feeling vulnerable and tender. That question, however, forced me to acknowledge I had probably been depressed for a good long time.
I agreed to try antidepressants. There’s a lot of stigma surrounding antidepressants, especially if you’re an artist of any kind. There’s a fear that taking medication will take away your creativity—that it will make you a different, less interesting person. That idea needs to gtfo.
It’s been over a month since I started taking antidepressants, and I can say without any hesitation that it is the best thing I could have done for myself. My depression didn’t make me more creative or more interesting—it made me miserable and lonely. Taking medication brought me back to the things I love and it gave me control over my own life.
Shaun David Hutchinson, author of We Are the Ants
I was 23 and living in Rhode Island. I’d recently broken up with my first long-term boyfriend, and I’d decided to go on a date with a guy I’d been chatting with online. I was naive back then. Online dating was a fairly newish thing. I still believed guys were inherently trustworthy. He went to college locally, and I met him at his dorm room. There was a party he wanted to take me to, and even though I hardly knew the guy, I went. I drank. A lot. I don’t remember much about the party itself. The next thing I do remember clearly is waking up in the guy’s dorm room as he was sexually assaulting me.
I didn’t fight back. I didn’t say no. I just lay there until he passed out. I lay there until I sobered up. Then I grabbed my clothes and ran. The guy kept messaging me for a while after that. He’d had a good time and wanted to know when he could see me again. I never replied. Almost 15 years later, the one thing that haunts me is that I never told him to stop. I thought it was my fault. No one had forced me to go to the party, no one had forced me to drink. I was to blame.
Except…no. It wasn’t my fault. It’s taken a long time for me to be able to say that. It wasn’t my fault.
Brenda Drake, author of Thief of Lies
I learned that I’m a survivor. The entire year of sixth grade, an eighth grader bullied me. It wasn’t until I stood up for myself and took a stand that the bullying stopped. It was beyond scary to do, but with some much needed will, I did it. When my son was diagnosed with cancer at the age of five, I wanted to crawl in a corner and rock. My son was stronger than I was and he showed me that life still goes on during the most harrowing of times. We had some of our most wonderful times together fighting his disease. So when it was my time to face my cancer, his example of strength helped me through it. We are healthy now, a few scars, but our family is stronger for coming through it. I think it taught me most of all how to have compassion for others.
I’ve had some dark moments on my way to publishing, made many mistakes, but by lifting others up and cheering them on, I’ve gotten through it. I’m truly blessed with my family and my online family. If you find yourself facing troubled times, please remember no matter how horrible things seem at the time, it will pass, and you’ll have come out the other side a changed person. A more compassionate one. That is my hope, anyway.
Emily Henry, author of The Love That Split the World
Around this time last year, my boyfriend and I were supposed to have dinner with his future landlords to sign the lease and get the key. I was also on deadline and, for some incomprehensible reason, accepted a massive software update for my computer that basically led to losing hours of work, some of which I spent crying in the shower. By the time I finished edits, I was a wreck.
I called my boyfriend and told him, “I can’t.” The anxiety had left me feeling small and afraid. I couldn’t go to dinner. Couldn’t drive somewhere I’d never been. Couldn’t spend hours talking to people I didn’t know. Couldn’t move. I felt paralyzed, incapable of just doing something that to most wouldn’t be a big deal. It felt impossible. The thought of going sent my body into full-on panic for no reason. The words just repeated in my head: I can’t I can’t I can’t.
My boyfriend was completely understanding. He canceled for us and immediately I felt such relief from the perceived “threat.” I felt safe, if embarrassed. Awhile later he called me back—he’d gone to pick up the key alone, stopped by the new apartment, and locked his keys in his car.
So, still slightly anxious but under control, I drove down with a spare. He suggested we go inside to see the apartment, now that it was officially his. We climbed the stairs. We went inside. I followed a trail of tea lights to the empty living room at the front of the building. There were hundreds of candles, white Christmas lights, white gauzy fabric draped from the ugly drop-tile ceiling in the apartment that would become our first together. He didn’t get down on one knee. He didn’t make a speech. He even forgot to propose until the ring was already on my finger, and I’d said yes.
A day of crippling panic turned into one of the happiest of my life. Everyone has their hangups and struggles, but your moments of I can’t don’t make you unlovable or undeserving. To the people who love us, we’re worth our baggage. The people who love you will walk with you through slow progress toward I can.
Marilyn Nelson, author of American Ace
This year I will be 70 years old. Every “big” birthday we confront asks us for an assessment, or a reassessment, of our life. “Big” birthdays are less “turning-points” than points at which we return in our memories to our histories, and try to make sense of our lives. I’ve been remembering how, some twenty years ago, I was asked to contribute an autobiographical essay to a series of reference books called Contemporary Authors Autobiographies. As I wrote my essay, I noticed the many points at which it was being shaped by my choices to include one memory while not including others. For the first time I realized how much control I had, in retrospect, over my self-definition. Like people who decide as adults to name themselves—Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, Toni Morrison, Marilyn Monroe, T. Coraghessan Boyle, and Caitlin Jenner are a few who come to mind—I could claim the power to determine which of my many faces to present as my “self.” Would I show the world a self shaped by being sexually abused by an adolescent babysitter? A self shaped by experiences of American racism? A self shaped by having a famous Native American traditional singer sing sacred songs while shaking a tortoise shell rattle hung with eagle feathers, for me alone for a magical hour in my professor’s office? A self shaped by my walking among a silent, docile herd of wild reindeer in a narrow meadow between snowy peaks in Norway? As I wrote that essay and a follow-up essay for the same reference series a dozen years later, I saw—as I also did while writing my family history in a book of poems called The Homeplace and while writing my childhood memoir book of poems, called How I Discovered Poetry—the inestimable importance of perspective. I learned that identity, even sometimes what we consider the most fundamental, bedrock basics of who we think we are, can be multifarious and flexible, and that we can be free to make our lives mean what we wish.