by Maggie Light
The year is 2002. The setting is a basement office cubicle. The protagonist is me. Nobody seems to notice that I haven’t done a moment of work in four days. I’ve been too busy composing emails to my college friend group, descriptions of my boozy escapades from the night before.
As the years pass and the cubicles change, I stitch these emails together, crafting various types of stories. Rom com, one-woman show, grad school application. But me and these genres don’t gel.
Then, I have my inciting incident; I erase the bar scenes and more illicit drug use, subtract six years from my semiautobiographical narrator, and try my hand at a young adult novel. An instant love affair. The letters of adolescents.
Adolescence: in the process of developing from a child into an adult.
I’ve always felt at home in this life stage. Not wholesome like young children. Not responsible like adults. Teens are cool. Teens want what they don’t have while pretending they don’t have needs. Write what you know.
Throughout this love affair with my story of an almost child growing into an almost adult, I get older. An adult growing into an older adult.
Here is a beat sheet of my adulting:
At twenty-six, I finish a draft, but emailing a pdf to agents from my boyfriend’s couch in Bethesda doesn’t make me feel special so I move to Los Angeles. Typically a move for aspiring actors, but I wanted a bold, impulsive gesture for this scene.
At twenty-eight, I dust off my grad school applications and make the sound financial decision of taking out a hundred thousand dollars in high interest student loans for a Creative Writing MFA, to ensure my seventeen-year-old sounds literary and to ensure I can never own a home or save for retirement or sleep at night.
At thirty, I send my teen to agents. So thorough is the rejection, from so many people, for so many reasons, it appears to be my ‘all is lost’ crisis point before the third act. Loved ones suggest a job in outside sales. But I ignore these antagonists, stay the course, in blind pursuit, as if this is still my first act. I pull myself up by my age-inappropriate combat boot straps, purchase a Writing The Young Adult Novel For Dummies book for $11.95 (a more sound financial decision than my MFA predatory loan. See? Growth!) and I commence an eleven-year revision process.
At thirty-five, I get married, but I bring my seventeen-year-old with me on my honeymoon, waking up at 5:00 AM to write about her first crush as my new husband sleeps alone in our hotel room.
At thirty-seven, I hire an editor to give my seventeen-year old a word diet. The arc of a YA novel should be as lean as a teen anorexic. The editor helps cut fatty B plots, flavors of moral ambiguity. Those pesky literary elements adults tend to savor but teens find too subtle. Subtle is the grown-up word for boring.
At thirty-nine, I send my seventeen-year-old to agents again and get rejected and revise and get rejected and revise and get rejected and revise and soon my seventeen-year-old character is not semiautobiographical at all. She’s pure fiction. The girl I could have been, if I could go back and revise every single decision I ever made.
At thirty-nine and eleven months? Bam! Plot point. I get an agent. And…nothing happens with that.
Then, at age forty, I get what I deserve. After seventeen years of writing from the point of view of a seventeen-year-old, I get my very own aha moment. Finally, I look at myself in the mirror. Finally, I see who I’ve become.
What looks back at me is an old child. A middle-aged teenager.
Infantilization: the prolonged treatment of someone as a child even though this person has a mental capacity greater than that of a child.
I haven’t been adulting. There’s been none of the internal growth that should have been. As my protagonist has stayed the same age, I’ve decayed, day-by-day closer to death, sans the concurrent wisdom from life experiences.
So much time lost. Flowers to smell. Recipes to test. Midcareer friends to make and complain about.
And it’s not just that I’ve missed out on the critical stages of adulthood. I’ve made myself worse off than when I started the book. The standard tropes of the young adult genre, as outlined in my YA for Dummies book, are a case study in how to decimate wellbeing. The young protagonist should always:
Hyperbolize minor events.
Play the victim.
Constantly evaluate her status.
And the most important trope? The cardinal rule for Young Adult fiction? Delegitimize the adult. To be the hero of the novel, the seventeen-year old must solve the problems of the story on her own, not run to mommy. So when I create adult characters, I disempower them. Make them alcoholics, workaholics, tyrants. As long as they are antagonists, not to be trusted and not in control of the story in the end.
What have these tropes done to me? Am I a disempowered workaholic tyrant? An obstacle to myself?
At forty and one month, I take control of the story. Switch from villain to hero. Stop acting like a teenager. Say yes to my mid-life off the page. Forty is the new forty.
Life! Hello there. ‘Sup? I’m a bit rusty. What does a forty-year-old do, exactly? Mammogram. 401K. Tag pictures of renovated bathrooms. Kinda boring. I mean subtle. How do y’all raise the stakes? Shouldn’t I be confronting my character flaw in a way that revisits the themes from earlier chapters? What makes an immature person confront her immaturity?
Oh? Of course. Sure. Fine. I can do that. Not a teen pregnancy. A geriatric one. Take that, infantilization! I’ll have an infant, no longer be the infant. What do you say to that mark-of-maturity plot point? Here I go!
Done! In the months from writing the first paragraph of this essay, to writing this one here, I got pregnant and gave birth to a healthy baby boy. I’m now sitting in the nursing chair thumbing these words into my phone.
Infant: a very young child or baby.
Surely, this nine-pound Deus Ex Machina will solve my problems from the previous scenes. Surely, his little feet will spark so much gratitude I’ll be liberated from my vanity about getting older, my despair about being unsuccessful. So engrossed am I in the sacred act of raising the next generation. Not getting published? Getting osteoarthritis in my elbow? Pshaw. Look at this miracle now suckling my breast! I have solved the riddle of my existence!
Now for the punch line you easily predicted. Being a mother has done no such thing. Having a baby has made me more infantile, not less. I used to have the mind of a petulant teen. Now I have the mind of a three-month old. Blubbering. Babbling. Wetting my pants (vaginal birth hazard). And even though I can’t remember basic vocabulary—the words ‘table’ or ‘six’—my laptop calls out to me. At times, louder than my infant’s wailings. Not the infant in my head, the real one. And I don’t get to revise this. He’s here. That baby ship has sailed right through my body.
This poor child. In the dark early morning, his cries are so specific. “Whaaaa! Whaaaa! Why did you have me if you’d rather be writing a story that nobody wants to read?” “Because you have a sister,” I tell him. “I’m a mother of two, sweetheart. You, beloved and chubby-cheeked. Her, pimply and one-dimensional. You, I parade around the neighborhood. Her, I hide in the closet, only feeding at 2:00 AM when our real family is sleeping.” So if my ‘have a baby’ sequence yields shame of my seventeen-year-old instead of surrender, secrecy instead of maturity, then my story gets no resolution. One of those postmodern ‘the character doesn’t change’ think pieces.
In that postmodern spirit, let me get nonlinear.
Eighteen hours before they induce me, I hear from my agent. There’s a publisher. A nibble. A request to revise.
Can I make the character sound younger? Set more scenes in the high school gym?
I can. I will. I tell the publisher what she wants to hear, waddling around the nursery, as desperate as I always am when it comes to this topic.
Next day, forty and ten months, in the delivery room, I am not yet a mother of two, not yet mommy-brained to the point of crude infant cognition. I’m doing it. I’m revising between contractions, making every scene smack of youth, a puberty deep dive as my cervix dilates, and I have the rare thought—I’m doing good. It’s good to try at something and fail. It’s good to want more than one thing. A book and a baby. It’s all good. Everything is going to work out. That’s right. I’m on the fluffy cloud of my epidural.
Can’t this be my denouement? This lesson born from fentanyl? I see so clearly, dosed on these stirrups, waiting for the tiny new character to enter the scene. What I see is not redemption through the unborn baby or the unpublished book or the flat arc of my adulthood. My denouement is more abstract. I told you. Postmodern. My denouement is that there is no denouement. No third-act resolution. There’s just getting older and death. Isn’t that why we write books and have babies? To stay children? To not die? A lot of successful people have said that. Buddha. Don Draper.
Ageless: immortality or eternal youth.
The epidural says the Buddha and Don are right. Books and babies won’t give me eternal youth. The epidural says the day will still come when I will have to say goodbye. Goodbye to my baby being born. Goodbye to my fictional seventeen-year-old who only a mother could love. Goodbye to myself. The epidural says this is all very sad, so it’s OK. Go ahead. Act like a child.
Maggie Light teaches English at Otis College in Los Angeles. Her work has been published in Cleaver and The Furious Gazelle. She’s still working on her young adult novel.