Writing Tough Topics for Teens with Jamie Beth Cohen

Mindy:             Today's guest is Jamie Beth Cohen, author of Wasted Pretty. A writer and storyteller who works in higher education, her nonfiction has appeared in the Baltimore Sun, the Washington Post and Teen Vogue. Jamie joined me today to talk about writing tough topics for teens.

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Ad:                   16 year old Alice Burton has a crush on a college guy, but the night he finally notices her, so does her dad's creepy best friend. Wasted Pretty by Jamie Beth Cohen follows Alice as she tries to protect her future, her body and her heart.

Mindy:             Wasted Pretty, that's your debut. It deals with some heavy topics such as sexual assault. I know that I get this question all the time because of my own content. Why write about dark topics for teens?I always say because it happens to them. So what is your answer?

Jamie:              Well, I like your answer very much and it's much more concise than what I generally say. But I'd add that my goal in any writing that I do is to connect with people. I spent a lot of time thinking that the dark things that were happening to me were only happening to me. And I thought other kids came from uncomplicated families or were better at dealing with trauma than I was. Um, but as an adult, I've come to believe that we're all just really doing the best we can with what life has handed us and knowing that other people are also dealing with heavy, heavy stuff can be really helpful when you're going through it. So my, why do I write about it? I agree with you. I write about it because it happens.

Mindy:             Yes, it does. And it happens to, unfortunately it happens across the gamut. It happens on all age levels and however, like you're saying, when you're young, you do make some assumptions and you do worry a lot about being different. That's something that pops up a lot. Like socially, you don't want to be different. Thinking you're the only one that this is happening to, that you're the only one who has suffered in this way is really common. Like that is a very, for younger people, that is something that contributes to them not vocalizing when there's any type of assault or abuse. And also of course the self-blame, which I think comes in at any age, but especially when you're younger and you don't know better and don't know about all of the baggage and the history that comes along with sexual assault and victim blaming. So what are your thoughts on that when it comes to the youth and how they have to process some of these harder topics?

Jamie:              I agree with you. It happens at all ages. And I think the victim blaming specifically is, I'm not sure if it's the way just women or girls are wired, but I know it's the way I'm wired. And also that the alienation makes it so much worse. I mean, I had surgery when I was in first grade on my ureters. Your ureters go from your kidneys to your bladder. So the surgery was in that sort of private part area and I was in first grade and I was petrified and I was embarrassed and I think I probably had some shame that went along with it and my parents couldn't figure out. I think they thought that I was maybe reacting more strongly than they expected me to. And when my mom finally drilled down to it, I told her it was because I thought the doctor had never performed this surgery before because I assumed nobody else had problems like that. This is all he does. Like this is the surgery he performs like 10 times a day. And then as soon as she said that, I mean I was still afraid, but I was no longer alone. And so to think that you're only one to think it's your fault to think I, you know, I had this problem that I didn't even realize the doctor knew how to deal with is very common at many ages.

Mindy:             Yeah. It's so true. And especially when it comes to dealing with anything in your private area or anything like that, that deals with something that perhaps some of us have been taught is gross or Yucky or bad or we've already been taught to be ashamed of. It contributes to the guilt and the shame and the, and the feelings of alienation or isolation. Your novel Wasted Pretty deals with sexual assault. And in the case of the novel, it deals with specifically a girl who is just kind of getting some positive attention that she's really been looking for from someone for a while. But then she also has attention coming to her from someone that is completely inappropriate. So if you could talk about that for a little bit and how your character is juggling those two things and comparing them.

Jamie:              I wanted it to be okay for it to be exciting that she was getting attention for her looks and this was something that she hadn't had for a very long time and then all of a sudden she did and how exciting that was and then to sort of have that double whammy of, Oh wait a minute, I'm not in control of how this affects other people, so nothing changes internally for the girl. All of her changes are external and she remains the same person inside but is now dealing with a whole host of different reactions to her. And so I wanted to look at that because I think that's true to life. I mean I think that happened, that happened to me, that happened to many of my friends. I worked in a high school, I watched it happen to other girls, but on top of that I was also looking to explore in the book the person she wants to be attracted to her is someone her parents do not want her spending time with and the person she doesn't want attention from is her father's best friend.

Jamie:              And so he has this unfettered access to her that he really shouldn't have. And I wanted to explore this area of things that look one way from the outside but are really something else on the inside. And so sort of a former bad boy who's really trying to clean up his act is actually someone much safer to be around. Then a sort of a famous professional athlete that has no checks on him whatsoever. In the book, the professional baseball player is her father's best friend. He's also bankrolling her mom's business. So he has money, he has influence, he has celebrity and he's been a family friend for a really long time. So he has unfettered access and I sort of poked at the notion that, you know, parents understand what their kids are going through because oftentimes they don't and certainly feels like they don't. More often than not.

Mindy:             Yeah. And parental trust in other adults is occasionally misguided. We'd all like to think that we know other people, especially our own friends inside and out. But that's not necessarily true. Did you see the documentary, um, Kidnapped in Plain Sight?

Jamie:              No. I've heard about that one. But I did see the movie The Tale. Do you know about The Tale?

Mindy:             I have not seen that or heard of it. No,

Jamie:              it wrecked me. So The Tale is, it is not a documentary, but it was a movie made by a documentarian about her life. So it's like a fictionalized version of her life. And in it she explores her memory of a situation and then she sort of goes back and fact checks it and realizes that in her memory, what she thought was a borderline inappropriate relationship went down, she was 16. But in actuality when it went down, she was 13.

Mindy:             Oh my. That sounds fascinating.

Jamie:              I saw it just in the last couple months. So long after my book was written and published, but listening to people talk about it in interviews, I knew I had to see it and it was, and again it was an adult, it was a coach, it was someone that her parents put their trust in who was completely inappropriate, but as an adult or as she was growing up, she basically told herself the story that it was okay because she was also basically an adult. But when she looked back on it and the actual timeline, that was not the case.

Mindy:             And there again you just have a girl who is making excuses and like even self editing for someone that she has been told that this person is safe, this person is okay. And so she's like, well I must be wrong. Wow, I will have to check that out. That sounds pretty fascinating.

Mindy:             Coming up, getting nonfiction pieces published - talent, hard work and luck.

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Mindy:             You also have nonfiction that has appeared in places like Teen Vogue and The Washington Post. So talk about getting smaller pieces like that place. That is a difficult thing to do is my understanding.

Jamie:              It is really difficult. It is talent and hard work, but it is also luck. I need to be really transparent about that. The way it was happening was I had written my novel, I was trying to get an agent and I wasn't having any luck, but at the same time I do live storytelling and preparing to do live storytelling because the stories have to be true. It's a lot like writing an essay, so while I was trying to get my agent, I decided to start sending out some of my storytelling pieces as essays and I basically educated myself on how one does that. There is not a central database of who's editing what, where. I don't know why. I don't know if it's because people move around so much. I don't know because people haven't figured out a way to monetize that, but basically I taught myself how to research on Twitter to find editors' email addresses.

Jamie:              There are also a couple of groups on Facebook that I'm a part of, mostly for women and non-binary writers that are great for sharing information like that. But I basically educated myself on this process and really went after it hardcore because I was, the novel was something I couldn't work on while I was trying to find an agent. I had sort of frozen it in time, but I still wanted to be writing and this I thought would be a great way to sort of raise my profile and have something to put in that bio paragraph at the end of the query letter.

Mindy:             That bio is a killer. Such a concern.

Jamie:              Yes. So I really wanted something to beef up that bio and I got really lucky. One of my first by-lines was the Washington Post on parenting piece and it really took off and I had been telling stories for several years, so I had a lot of material to pull from and it was a lot of fun actually for me to go back over.

Jamie:              When I prepare for storytelling, I write it out like it's an essay and then I practice it just verbally because we're not allowed to have notes. And so it was interesting to go back and look at the videos of the storytelling and then figure out how to craft a piece that would work better on the page. So that was a lot of fun. It taught me a new skill. The Teen Vogue piece was hilarious because I pitched it as a personal essay and got a response that said, oh, but you'd be interviewing teens for this piece. Right? And I wrote back and said, sure, yes I will. And so then I sort of taught myself about journalism and about, I mean, I hadn't done a reported piece since I was in grade school. You know, when I interviewed my classmates for something, I think it was their favorite song of the year or something. So I, it's like some really quick research on journalistic ethics and conducting interviews. And somehow I turned that piece in on time though I have not pitched a reported piece since, and it's not something I enjoyed. It's not what I like to do.

Mindy:             So tell me more about this live storytelling. What is it? I mean I think it's pretty self explanatory, but I, I'm curious about this. Tell me about your live storytelling and how this informs your physical writing as well. The act of moving those words onto the page.

Jamie:              So for anyone who's heard The Moth podcast or anything like that, I mean that's similar to what we do. So I live in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and we have something called the Lancaster Story Slam. And the rules are five minutes, no notes, no props, no music, as true as you remember it. And that always gets a really big laugh when we're doing the rules because no one is up there fact checking with you. So that's a little bit different. When I turned in an essay, I need to be totally 100% sure that when it's fact checked, if it's fact checked, that everything's going to come out correctly. When you're up there telling the story on stage, no one is standing next to you, fact checking you. So that is a little bit different. But I do really aim for authenticity and honesty.

Jamie:              So we have a monthly story slam in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and a monthly stories slam in New York, Pennsylvania. I'm driving distance to both. I live between the two. What it's been great for over the years is actually prompts. Because every month has a theme. When I was querying and waiting to hear back from people and didn't want to be working on the novel, it gave me a writing prompt every month or two if I was going to both slams. That really helped me get words on paper and there's an, you know, a deadline, it's like show business, right? Like the curtain's going to go up whether or not you're ready. So there was a hard deadline, there was a prompt that's usually pretty open ended and that was a really great way to just keep writing while I was waiting between hearing back from agents.

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Mindy:             So I want to return to the idea of your Lancaster group and your other writing groups. But first I want to talk a little bit about the fact that you have worked on both fiction, orally and nonfiction orally and written, so when you are approaching something, when you're approaching a piece of fiction versus a piece of nonfiction, do you have a different way of preparing yourself for those or is there a different writing procedure that you use or do you mix it up to put your brain in a different place? Like you were saying, when it comes to something like fact-checking, if you're working on nonfiction, is your brain in the same place when you're working on fiction versus nonfiction?

Jamie:              It absolutely is not in the same place. But I will say with both I'm always aiming for emotional authenticity, so Wasted Pretty, it's a novel. It's a young adult coming of age novel. Nothing in that book happened the way it happened in my life. The character is 16 and in Pittsburgh and goes to an all girls school. I grew up in Pittsburgh and was a 16 year old in an all girls school. Aside from that, the characters, the plot, everything is made up except for the scene - I always have to say this - in which the main character accidentally locks herself in the bathroom of a boy she has a crush on. I am talented. I did that. That was wonderful and horrible all at the same time. So that actually happened. But aside from that scene, that book is completely made up. But what I tried to do was stay true to the emotions and the feelings that I was having as a 16 year old girl in Pittsburgh.

Jamie:              So that emotional authenticity is there. When I'm writing nonfiction, when I'm writing an essay or like a hot take or response piece that comes from I have just seen something or experienced something and I need to make it make sense. I need to take that sort of real life, real experience and get my head around it. And the only way I know how to do that is by writing. So when I'm writing nonfiction, I'm often going for a message. I'm often trying to take something that's horrible and not necessarily find a silver lining, but at least make it worthwhile so that it's just not horrible. One of my pieces that I love is about taking my daughter to a rally in support of immigrants. It's hard. I mean, I think she was seven at the time. I hated that we had to be there. I loved that we were there, but I hated that we had to be there. I needed it to make sense, and so when I'm writing nonfiction, I'm going more for a message. Whereas when I'm writing fiction, there may be a message, but it is not what's central. The process, what's central to the process is creating an arc that is fun and that is engaging and that makes sense. I will say that I am a terribly literal person and very on the nose writer, so in fiction I'm always working against that tendency and in nonfiction I'm leaning into that tendency.

Mindy:             That makes sense to me. Myself, I've never attempted any essays or anything of that type. Do you have any advice for people who want to attempt essays? Particularly personal based essays?

Jamie:              Not from a craft perspective, but from a pitching perspective. Timely pieces are so much easier to place. I, it's counterintuitive to what I thought going into it. So there are two types of pieces or there are many types, but I write either evergreen pieces, so pieces that really could be published at any time throughout the year and timely pieces which are tied to a news event or something that has just happened in the news cycle. You can send a timely essay to more than one editor at a time, as long as you disclose that you've done that. An evergreen piece, you really have to pitch to somebody, wait to hear back from them, follow up with them a week or two later, maybe never hear back from them or hear back from them that they're passing, and then you can go to the next person. So with an evergreen piece, it could take you six months to get through 10 editors before you find someone to take it.

Jamie:              Whereas with a timely piece you can write to 10 editors at the same time and say, hey, this is timely because it's tied to an event that's happening next Friday. It's being pitched simultaneously and can you get back to me soon if you're interested. So I've had better luck placing timely pieces. So that's one facet of it. As far as the actual craft, it's sort of like what we were talking about, the dark themes. For me, the only thing that works is really leaning into the things I'd rather not think about, but the only way I know how to think about them is writing. That gut level honesty is what is going to make a piece resonate. And then I also got a great piece of advice from Jia Tolentino who just today I think her, her nonfiction essay collection came out and I was in a talk with her last year and she said if what you learn in one of my essays is about me, I haven't done my job. When I'm talking about myself in an essay, it is solely to illuminate a larger issue. I think it's what I'd been doing, but when I heard her say it, I leaned into that even further. So it's not, let me tell you about this horrible thing I experienced when I was 16 but it's, I experienced this thing when I was 16 and why is it still happening to girls and how can we get it to stop?

Mindy:             It's interesting, you were talking about timely pieces and evergreen pieces and unfortunately when we're talking about sexual assault, sometimes things can be both.

Jamie:              That is for sure, but if you can hook it to something concrete, it's more likely that you're going to get it picked up. It's a numbers game. It's more likely that one of those 10 editors will read it and take it as opposed to spacing that out over a six months. I mean, I was talking about luck before and timing my second piece in the Washington Post - I can't say it's solely happened for this reason, but I know for a fact that the editor wrote back and said, I love this. It's really clean. And I had to pull something from tomorrow. So you're going in tomorrow?

Mindy:             Oh my gosh. Did you just pee your pants?

Jamie:              Pretty much. I don't know what she pulled. I don't know why she had to pull it, but for whatever reason she had to pull something. She needed a filler and that's when she opened my email and thankfully it was clean copy. We didn't have to go back and forth on many edits and she just dropped it in. But again, that's the luck part. It's showing up. It's doing the work. It's great that it was clean copy. That was timing and luck and I have no idea why.

Mindy:             That's amazing. Well, and I love that you are so honest about the luck aspect because luck is a huge part. It's a huge part in, uh, the larger placement of novels as well.

Mindy:             Lastly, the dangers of embracing the myth of the solitary writer, how community can help and where to find Jamie online.

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Mindy:             I want to talk a little bit more about the writer's group you mentioned that meets once a month in Lancaster. I think it's really fascinating what you were talking about with the the free storytelling, but also if you could just talk for a little bit about what having a community like that means for you as a writer.

Jamie:              I founded Write Now Lancaster with my friend Michelle Lombardo, who's also a local writer back in 2015 and we are very different writers with very different situations, so at the time she was home writing full time and didn't really know anyone in Lancaster. She had recently moved back here after growing up, sort of in the general area. I had a full time job. I knew a bunch of people from the storytelling community, but I had no time to write. So I was looking for a time, a dedicated time to write and she was looking to meet more people who were writing. And it's interesting that when we founded this together, we sort of hit both of those needs and they've benefited us both and the community really well. So what we do is we come together in a coworking space, a local coworking space called The Candy Factory because it was founded in a candy factory.

Jamie:              And um, we come together once a month and we bring food and drink and we hang out and we chat for about a half an hour. And then I set the timer for 60 minutes and we write silently for 60 minutes and then we hang out and chat for about a half an hour after. So it really hits both of those needs for people who are just looking for the motivation, um, to, to sit and get their butt in the seat and write and also hits the need for people to be in community. So I'm an extrovert who is also a procrastinator. So being in a room with a lot of other people writing, I get energy from them, but I also get motivation because if I'm like surfing the Internet, they're going to see that. And so I, it's like positive peer pressure to know that everyone is working on their writing.

Jamie:              But a lot of things have grown out of that. So we met monthly for two years and realized we didn't know what anyone else was working on. The beauty of a silent writing time meetup is you can be writing poetry, you can be writing non fiction, you can be writing fiction, you can be writing... we had people writing comedy, we had people writing cooking blogs. You're not a fiction writer who is trying to critique poetry. It's not a, it's not a workshop group, it's not a critique group. So after two years we decided to host a public reading and it was the first time we'd ever heard each other's writing. And some of us knew each other better and had swapped before. But really we were so impressed with what everyone was doing. So now every other year we do a public reading so that we can see what everyone's been working on and and you know, give positive reinforcement and get really excited about it. But mostly we are there to write. It's great for beginner writers. It's great for seasoned writers because you're not measuring yourself against people. You're just there because you want to write and you want to be around other people who are writing.

Mindy:             It's much like going to the gym. So I go to the gym about three times a week and I really have to force myself to go sometimes. But once I get there, when I'm in my class and I'm around other people that are really pushing themselves to lift, it will really motivate you to kick up your own game. Being around other people is the same is true of writers. When I see other people writing and other people taking it seriously and sitting there and hitting their laptops, I'm like, oh, I should be doing that too. And it is great motivation, right?

Jamie:              I agree. And I definitely have some friends who are more on the introverted side get distracted easily. So I have a, I have a friend, I mean I love his writing, he's just doing really wonderful things. I met him through storytelling and I love what he's doing and I invite him every month and he's like, I don't want to be around other people when I'm writing. I'm like, that's?? No. Who does that?? And so I definitely get that. It's not for everyone. But it is so for me,

Mindy:             I had the experience of being at an event where a friend needed just kind of to have some space to herself and not have a bunch of people around her. Cause it was a large event and I happened to have a room at the conference. So I was like, you know, you can come up to my room and we'll just, you know, you can chill out here. And she was like, okay. And she whips out her laptop and I whip out mine and we're there and we're together and it's social in the sense that we're in the same place at the same time doing the same thing. But we're both in our own little worlds and we're doing our work. I find it tremendously motivating.

Jamie:              For me, it's important to push back against the idea of all writers are introverts, right? Oh, writing is so solitary. People are miserable. When people lean into that, I often feel like, well wait a minute, am I a real writer? If I like people and I'm generally nice and outgoing and so I know that there are outgoing, lovely, fully functional writers. I mean, and I love to be surrounded by them, but I also, I really like to, whenever possible talk about how much it is about community and how much it is about, hey, take a look at this for me or what can I look at for you? I was just listening to one of your earlier episodes about how, you know, getting readings is often from knowing other people. I mean, I'm from Pittsburgh. And so Kit Frick just moved back to Pittsburgh and I saw that you were there with her and I thought, oh, I wonder how that came about.

Jamie:              And then I was listening to your podcast and you talked about how that came about. So I had an event there two weeks ago and she came out to that event and I introduced her to my friends there. And so my writing is about connecting people. My sort of ethos is about connecting people. And so I guess I would just like to say to any writer listening who feels alienated when people say, Oh, writing. So solitary, it never has been for me. I would, I've written in hotel lobbies, like in my home town, I will go to a hotel lobby with my laptop because I need that background noise and that energy of people

Mindy:             Definitely. I've had the similar experience where I will just go somewhere public because I need that motivation of having people around me. And it really can be something different. And you know, you're right about the isolation too. It is, you know, I mean you can decide whether or not that's who you want to be or what you want to be doing. I know a lot of people that write in groups and they find that uh, you know, very motivating.

Jamie:              It's helpful to hear that there are lots of different ways to be a real writer. I think we get caught up in that a lot.

Mindy:             The poor tortured, starving artists thing is, it's not attractive to actually be that person. Last question, what are you working on right now and where can listeners find you online?

Jamie:              I am working on a sequel to Wasted Pretty, but I recently scrapped 40,000 words. That was really intense, but it was the right thing to do. I have trouble plotting, so I really write my way into the story and I had actually plotted a broad sort of arc for where I thought this was going, but the 40,000 words in it no longer matched the characters. So some people would say that was poor plotting or planning on my part, which it very well may be, but I just don't enjoy plotting. I got to know the characters as I was writing this, and I can't say that none of those 40,000 words are going to end up in the next draft, but I just, I, I paused, I opened up a clean document. I plotted a new arc that made more sense for who the characters had become and now I'm going to write into that and see if that happens.

Jamie:              So hopefully there'll be a sequel. I initially I had wanted to have a zero draft or a first draft by the end of this calendar year. I think that's still possible. Uh, but I do have a full time job and two kids and a husband and friends that I like to spend time with. So we'll see. We'll see what happens with that. I did spend all of July only working on the novel, which meant that for the month of July I didn't write any essays and I learned a lot about myself in that process. Mainly that I'm not a very nice person to be around when I'm not writing essays.

Jamie:              It's all of the stuff that I need to work through gets pent up in there. So that was fascinating. But I did find that when I was writing the novel every day there was much less sort of gear up time. You had asked about what it's like to get into the head space of fiction. And when I was writing the novel every day, I could just sort of sit down and write it. I didn't have to sort of remember where the characters were and get back into those characters heads. They were just right there. So I think if I didn't have a full time job and I could really write every day the way many people do, I understand the benefit of it. But it also, it did zap some of the fun for me. And so I really as a writer need to balance those two things. And as far as where people can find me, I am on Twitter. And I'm on Instagram at I have a Facebook page. And my website where you can find links to all of those things is http://www.jamiebethcohen.com/

 

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