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Art Saved You

The letter below is part of an ongoing series featuring letters from authors to their teen selves. If you're a published author who'd like to participate in this series, we'd love to have you. Just click here and let us know you're interested. Today's guest is Emily Roberson, author of Lifestyles Of Gods And Monsters.


Dear Emily,

I see you, sitting on the floor of our room, late fall of junior year, listening to the stack of albums on the ancient record player. It was your parents’ but you’ve highjacked it upstairs. It has an arm that lets you suspend five or ten albums on it, and when one record finishes playing, the next drops, and then the next. I has a stack you love – The White Album, the Byrds, the Doors, the Rite of Spring, Rhapsody in Blue, Bessie Smith. You will listen to the whole stack, then flip it over, and listen to the B sides.

You are surrounded by stacks of magazines, another thing you love – Vogue, Elle, Allure, Harper’s Bazaar, Vanity Fair, the New Yorker. You tear out the glossy pages, making mosaics of the images and lives that seem so far from here: Jacksonville, Arkansas. An Air Force Town. A Southern town. A small town. A place where people tease you for reading. The place you are ostensibly from.

Books are here, too. You will read anything except for horror, always have – Romance, SciFi, Books of mythology, history, fantasy, Jane Austen, Shakespeare, The Reader’s Encyclopedia, the Dictionary. You also have stacks of cookbooks—recipes you’d like to make. The parties you’d like to throw.

Emily as a teenager

There’s a poster on the wall that you got last summer at Disneyland when you went with your cousins to Anaheim for a postal convention – It’s a travel poster for Cloud City from The Empire Strikes Back.

You don’t have a TV in your room, but other days, you carry the stack of magazines downstairs, and flip through them while watching movies and TV shows. Old ones, new ones, doesn’t matter – Casablanca is a favorite, all three Star Wars movies, Monty Python, Beverly Hills 90210, Northern Exposure, soap operas, game shows.

You have notebooks and scrapbooks, and the mosaics of magazine paper. Stories and plays that you’ve started and stopped. Poems you’ve written.

This wall of paper and movies and notes and words and images memorized in your head has been built up over years, going back to elementary school-- the long hours spent at the babysitter’s house, the latchkey days, the hours and hours at the library or reading at school or sitting in the breakroom of the bank where your dad works, waiting for him to be done so you can go home with him because that way you don’t have to endure the bus.

But here’s the thing about you in this sea of content; here’s the deal: it’s lonely. So desperately lonely.

All of these things jumble around in your head and there is no one to talk about them with, and that feels terrible. I don’t know if it is the impulse of every human to share the things that they love, but it certainly is mine, and it was then, too.

It would not be fair to say that at sixteen you have never had friends in your life. Except for eighth grade, a horrible desperate year when you felt like a girl sitting alone in the bottom of dark pit while people threw things at you, you did have friends. But with a few rare exceptions, the friendships all felt conditional – the girl from your class, the girl on the bus, the kids from orchestra.

But Junior Year, you are going to a countywide Arts and Science Magnet High School, out of your town, and it finally feels like you’ve met some people who like what you like. Some people with whom you might share all the things you wanted to say. Some real friends.

But here’s what you’re finding—these people you’ve made friends with, they like some of what you like, but other parts of it – fashion, mythology, Casablanca, 90210—they don’t like. In fact, they think it’s stupid. Popular. Which is about the worst insult one could throw at anything.

So, you learn to be very careful with what you take out of this room. REM, yes, that’s fine. Monty Python? Sure. Star Wars, no. Because as a girl who hasn’t consumed the entire Extended Universe of Star Wars including books and comics, you are not allowed to have opinions about The Empire Strikes Back, a movie that is among your favorites of all time. But fine.

You can probably hear in my tone that I’m still annoyed about the Empire Strikes Back thing.




This is what I’m here to say to you. I (we) can defend the things we love and our right to love them in the face of criticism, because:

Your taste is your taste and it is not a thing to be ashamed of.

Also. It isn’t going anywhere. You aren’t going to grow out of it.

I am still a person who wrote and published a whole book that made the Minotaur Myth into a reality TV show. You will never stop being a person who loves both Aeschylus and 90210, Shakespeare and Reality TV talent competitions.

I now understand two things really clearly. First, criticism of the things that you love is not the same as criticism of you. And secondly, even if it is, that’s okay. The things we love can take it.

As a young teen, you had the scarring, primal experience of banishment. True, it was only some girls on the blacktop during lunch period telling you that you couldn’t sit with them, or stand with them, or be with them anymore. That they never wanted to see your face again.

Only that.

Only the awful loneliness of coming to a place every day where there was no place for you. A place where people shouted insults at you while you walked the edge of the blacktop, book in hand, trying to disappear. Of having no one let you have a seat on the bus, so you have to stand there awkwardly, while the bus driver yells at you to get out of the aisle.

It sounds pretty bad when I say it that way. And it was. You’re not the only person to have experienced that kind of thing. But it was really, really hard.

Art saved you that year.

Books, and movies, and TV, and magazines, and the record player in your bedroom.

And what I want to tell you, the 16-year-old who is barely past that experience is this: you don’t need to be ashamed of the things you love. The things that saved you. And you don’t need to be afraid of making your own.

Sure, some people won’t like it.

That’s okay.

It’s not for them.


About The Author: Emily Roberson is the author of Lifestyles Of Gods & Monsters. She has been a bookseller in Little Rock, a newspaper reporter in Vicksburg, a marketing manager in Boston, and a writer in Chapel Hill and Dallas. She graduated from Brown University and has a master’s degree in English from the University of Texas at Austin. She now lives in Little Rock, Arkansas with her husband, three sons and no pets.


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