When many young writers are only beginning to develop their voices, they encounter a world in which writing becomes a mechanism for professional advancement. As they grow increasingly familiar with the teen writing world, they realize it is oftentimes a discipline that favors those with resources and access to exclusive opportunities like renowned summer writing camps or creative writing departments.
In this panel discussion, four “teen writing” alums reflect on their experiences in this competitive community, what they wish someone had told them when they were teens, and how they have managed to pursue creative paths outside of the pressure-cooker of online teen writing communities.
Alexa Derman lives at home in Jersey, where she is an SAT/ACT tutor and a devoted dog mom. She used to write fiction and hybrid essays, but now she is a playwright with professional representation starting an MFA program this fall. In college, Alexa fell in love with critical theory, majored in Gender Studies rather than English, and wrote her senior essay on Star Wars fanfiction. In high school, she was obsessed with Ophelia — and, more generally, fitting herself into the canon of Great Literary White Men — but since then she’s started reading books by women. Six years later, she still hasn’t finished Infinite Jest and couldn’t be happier.
Peter LaBerge founded The Adroit Journal in 2010, as a high school sophomore. His resume is so fancy that one time, to make fun of him, a friend screen-printed his CV onto t-shirts and gave them out. After aging out of the “teen writing” world, he realized he didn’t know how to love his own writing without affirmation from contests or publications. He got so used to depending on recognition for writing confidence that he struggled to achieve a healthy relationship with his work. He temporarily became a cog in the capitalist machine and worked in Silicon Valley for 2.5 years, but fret not — he’s back on track and starting an MFA in poetry this fall. He may have won a Pushcart Prize for Poetry, but he still doesn’t know how to drive (he’s 25!).
In high school, Amanda Silberling was rejected from the Iowa Young Writers Studio and YoungArts (…twice), among other places. Now, she’s all grown up (she even pays for renter’s insurance) and has a full-time job in the arts. She’s been paid to write about Harry Potter fandom and life-size dancing Pikachu, and she worked at a film festival in Laos for a bit, so you could say she had a post-high school glow up. Sometimes, she gets jealous of others’ accomplishments, but ultimately, she’s come a long way in establishing self-worth independent of professional achievements. As a high school senior reckoning with the negative effects of “teen writing” culture, she wrote “The Call” for PANK.
Talin Tahajian graduated from Belmont High School. She holds an undergraduate degree in English from Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge and an MFA in poetry from the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan. She recently completed a postgraduate fellowship year, during which she trained for a half marathon that didn’t happen, watched Skins, learned how to knit, and worked at a local vegan restaurant. In the fall, she’ll continue as a postgraduate student at Trinity College, Cambridge, where she’ll study for an MPhil in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, before returning to begin her doctoral work in English at Harvard in 2021. She’s still working on it. The truth is that nothing ever happens quite like you think it will.