Rebecca Barrow on Self Discovery and her new YA novel, And Don’t Look Back
"Discovering—understanding—who you are is not limited to those teenage years; that’s just when it begins, really."
This post was written by Rebecca Barrow, author of And Don’t Look Back.
There’s something about being a teenager that feels hallowed. Maybe it’s the way other people talk about it. People in their twenties, thirties, forties, waxing lyrical about how it was either the best time of their life or the worst, how they look back on the time fondly or wish they could forget all about it, how they’re still friends with people they knew back then or how they couldn’t wait to cut everyone off and go discover new people. Whether people praise being a teenager or look back with disdain, it doesn’t matter, because either way it turns the idea of teenager into something bigger than it is—or maybe it makes it appropriately big. The real thing is, you’re supposed to be making something of that time. You’re supposed to be turning those years into something special, something that you’ll look back on later and laugh at, or maybe miss. But god, that’s a lot of weight on so little time.
I used to be really into indie movies. Or, what I thought was indie at the time, which was really just a bunch of movies starring a bunch of actors who I had seen and decided were really cool and therefore if I watched their entire backlist, I too would be cool. I wanted to be a screenwriter then and I read film magazines every month, pretending like I was super into Gus van Sant. I used to keep up with fashion week, clicking my way through every look from every show I deemed important. I wanted to be a designer then and if I watched the Central Saint Martins’ show then that meant I had a better chance of getting in, somehow. I started to take dance classes, first jazz and then tap, contemporary, a tiny bit of ballet, and I wanted to be a choreographer. All I had to do was make it past the audition for the training programme at my studio and then I would for sure, definitely, certainly, be on my way.
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I wanted to be fun, and so I drank when everyone else did and got into arguments and made up at school the next morning over cafeteria croissants. I wanted to be liked, so I flirted with boys I knew deep down I didn’t even want and let people make fun of me and laughed along like I was totally in on the joke. I wanted to be a teenager and so I wondered why my life was not as fun or important or interesting as people acted like it was supposed to be, and then I tried somehow to shape things that way. Because of course the worst thing possible was that I would grow out of being a teenager without ever actually having been a teenager.
As a young adult author, you spend a lot of time answering the question of why you write what you do. There are always many different reasons but one, for me, is this feeling that I don’t think I ever got over—the sense that these years were (are) supposed to be important, and what you do with yourself when you realise that you didn’t (don’t) know what that means. There’s just this knowledge that you’re supposed to be doing things, discovering yourself, so that by the time twenty rolls around you’re all done. Loose ends tied up, identity neatly divided into tick boxes, the shame of indecision fading in the rearview mirror.
In my newest book, And Don’t Look Back, protagonist Harlow puts on a new identity in every new place she lands. For her, there are big, scary reasons that mean she has to do that—but really, it’s not so far from what a lot of us spend our entire lives doing. We pretend to know who we are when we’re fifteen, then seventeen, then twenty. We try on different costumes and wonder each time if this is the one that will stick, if one day it will stop being that costume and become just another layer of skin. The truth is that even if it does become another part of us, there might come a day when that skin feels too tight, and you have to slough it off, start over feeling appropriately raw and exposed. Discovering—understanding—who you are is not limited to those teenage years; that’s just when it begins, really. Maybe if we talked about that more, that teenager weight would lift, even a little. Or maybe we need the idea of being a teenager to carry that weight, so we are anchored. So that we know whatever comes next is not anything we haven’t been through—because god, remember being a teenager?
Get your copy of And Don’t Look Back by Rebecca Barrow here.