There is a “Dear Teen Me,” meme that I have not done, but if I were to do it now, I might invoke my young self to stop reading Vonnegut, to read maybe one book each by Nabokov, Auster, and Delillo but not read them obsessively, so that my own writing become paralyzed with self-consciousness.
There’s nothing wrong with those writers, but every high-school aged boys with aspirations to write discovers Vonnegut, imagines himself to be the next great wit, and writes Vonnegut-tainted stories for a time, and emerges from the smothering style only when, as an upperclassman, he discovers the likes of Nabokov, Auster, and Delillo. And so, for a time, he begins soon abandoned self-conscious novels, talks about metafiction at parties to anyone who pretend to listen, and wonders if he needs to read more Thomas Mann to have literary street cred. I would like to stop teen me from taking those perilous steps and losing a decade to misdirection.
I would allow the Hawthorn, the Poe, the Steinbeck and Twain but only to have an anchor in Americana. I would discourage an scholarly inclination toward anything — if a story works, it works on instincts, not on explanations. I might even caution him to major in something besides English. Vonnegut was a mechanical engineer, after all, and Nabokov an entomologist. Major in geology or anthropology, I’d tell myself. Something that gets you outside and mucking around in the soil.
Literature built atop a tower of literature is the right road for someone else, but not for you. Your way into a story is the story, not the language. Your strengths are emotional, not cerebral. Find an anchor, a patch of soil to plant yourself, a way to see the world without words.
I would tell my young self to discover Sigurd Olson and Annie Dillard and the poetry of William Stafford and the essays of E.B. White, not because they tell me how to write, but because they tell me how to live.
I would tell myself to go for more walks.
I would tell myself to talk less and listen more.
I would tell myself to learn the names of trees and bugs.
I would tell myself to appreciate silence and the immense value of free time.
But knowing that teen me as I do, I know he wouldn’t listen to any of this.