How My Teenage Diaries Inspired My Novel
When I decided to write a novel with a dual timeline—present day with flashbacks to 1989—I got out my old teenage diaries for a bit of inspiration. As you might expect, there were times where I laughed or cringed as I read, but actually I was mostly more moved than I expected.
Some of the things that happened in them were crystal-clear in my memory, and others I’d totally forgotten. What struck me most, though, was the range and vividness of my emotions between the ages of 13 and 18. My life was lived in a technicolor spectrum that ranged from exuberant joy (“Just had the best two weeks of my life”) to near-suicidal despair (“I kept nearly crying, in fact, I am nearly crying most of the time”). It tends more toward the despair end of the spectrum, but I think that’s because I tended to write more when I was upset about something.
The other thing that really stands out is how all-consuming my friendships were. Not that my friends are not important to me now, they are; but back then, they were everything. The relationships we had were constantly shifting and transforming, leaving me desperately trying to stop them slipping through my fingers. I write about them as if they are romantic relationships—talking about breaking up: “I hope I haven’t broken up with R and she goes off with K. If it happens, I will feel so sad—I know I’ll feel like killing myself.” The phrase “going off together” crops up a lot, too: “R and K kept going off together—I felt really left out; it was bad enough them laughing at me secretly because I didn’t know that one of them had asked a boy out that I liked.”
In some ways, it all feels so long ago, and in others, it feels like yesterday. None of the characters in my novel Friend Request is directly based on anyone I knew at school, but I took bits and pieces from people I knew and experiences I had and wove them into my story. Yes, I suffered at the hands of “mean girls,” but I was cruel too sometimes, and there were parts of my diary that were hard to read as a result. I didn’t do anything as bad as the girls in my novel, but I wasn’t perfect and I did and said things that make me feel desperately ashamed now. When I spoke to one of my school friends to whom I’m still close about some of the things we had done, she had totally forgotten them until I reminded her. Funny the things we choose to remember.
“Will we hold them for ever, these hurts we bear from our teenage years?” wonders Louise in Friend Request, and it’s something she shares with many of the characters in the book: an inability to fully move on from the experience of adolescence. A lot of the feedback I have had from people who have read it centers around those chapters set in the late 1980s, and how the book took them back to their own schooldays.
There’s something so heady, so potent about adolescence; perhaps because it’s when we begin to become ourselves, the adults we are going to be. Even though I am in my early forties, my teenage years seem like no time ago. And while I am definitely more confident now and less in thrall to others’ opinions, in some ways, I am still that girl. There is a part of me that is still prey to the insecurities of that time, and I know I’m not alone in this.
I am a mother now, and in a few years’ time, I will have two teenagers myself. When that day dawns, I plan to reread these diaries in an attempt to stop myself doing that typical adult thing of rolling my eyes and dismissing their worries as meaningless. I will do it because I know that what we do in those years, and what happens to us, can send shockwaves that reverberate throughout the rest of our lives.
Laura Marshall’s debut novel, Friend Request, was published by Grand Central Publishing on September 5, 2017.