Live Through This

I Was a Teenage Nihilist

If there was no point to life, then there was no way I was turning in my homework.

Illustration by Beth

I got a D+ in Ms. Reed’s creative writing class in 10th grade. The reasons for this were numerous. I skipped school, failed to turn in my homework, and answered questions in a variety of foreign accents. I had a two-foot-long white wig that I liked to wear to class and that I refused to remove, even when it became yellow and stringy and covered in dirt. I used a Sharpie to write Nirvana lyrics on my arms, and on my desk, and—in a fit of inspiration—on the teacher’s desk. One day, during Ms. Reed’s explanation of the rhyme scheme of the sonnet, I stood on top of my chair and squawked like a bird. Then I shot a rubber band at her. For this, I got sent to the principal’s office.

Why did I do these things? I wish I knew. I think I realized that the classroom was an audience, and that I could get an immediate reaction to my performances in the form of laughter or shock. It didn’t matter how destructive these behaviors were to my academic standing.

My parents were convinced I was doing drugs.

“Are you smoking the marijuana cigarette?” my father asked in his Egyptian accent. I was not, in fact, smoking the marijuana cigarette, so I ran upstairs to my room, where I locked my door and refused to come out, which only solidified the drug theory.

The problem was much different than either he—or Ms. Reed—might have imagined. I had a secret: I was doing my creative writing homework. I was doing all of it, 10 times over. I wrote several collections of poems. Then a collection of short stories. Then I started a novel. But turning my work in? Impossible. I’d much rather circulate it among my friends and cultivate the image of the reclusive genius—the tormented writer who refused to bow before the authoritarian demands of the classroom environment. I was a rebel. A ’90s incarnation of a Beat poet. Like Marlon Brando in The Wild One, when they asked me what I was rebelling against, I’d say: “What do you got?”

There were three main reasons for this rebellion. First: I was gaining a reputation as an unpredictable kid at my high school. In a quest for identity, I desperately wanted to maintain this edgy persona. It put me outside of the social order, sure, but at least I was somewhere. Ever since I’d been a kid, I’d been interested in animal behavior, particularly the dynamics of the wolf pack. In the wild, I knew, packs are divided into the alphas, the betas, the subordinates, and the omegas. The omegas are an interesting case. They are picked on mercilessly by the other wolves—and they feed last at any kill. But they are also the jokers, clowns, and entertainers.

Teenagers are like wolves, and my high school was no exception. While I lacked the self-confidence to be an alpha, or even a beta, I certainly didn’t want to be a subordinate. And so I settled for this outsider’s place. I would make a spectacle out of myself. I would entertain.

Second, I lied to you earlier. I was taking drugs (of a sort). I was reading the work of the Parisian existentialists—the French writers from the middle of the 20th century who wrestled with nihilism and the question of whether life was, essentially, meaningless. Over the summer I’d read, in quick succession, The Stranger, The Plague, and The Fall by Camus. Then I’d read Sartre’s No Exit. Then I’d read as much Beckett as I could get my hands on. (Though he was Irish and never identified as an existentialist, he did live primarily in Paris and wrote much of his work in French.) I particularly liked his play Endgame, in which two elderly, legless characters spend the entirety of the play buried up to their necks in garbage, but still demanding to be fed. These works, I told my friends, were giving me great insight into the truth about humanity.

They also touched off a firestorm within my brain. I was aware of death, and I was utterly defenseless before it. These writers brought me to a place where nothing had any meaning. My reasoning went something like this: I cannot prove God exists. If God doesn’t exist, then there’s no point to life. If there’s no point to life, then there’s no fucking way I’m turning in my homework.

Third, and perhaps most important, I couldn’t turn in my homework, because I was writing love poems to Malia McCarthy. Reams and reams of dark love poems. Malia was pretty much the only girl who was nice enough to talk to me, and perhaps predictably, this niceness led to a crush—a crush of the epic, soul-eating kind, the kind that thrives in the halls of our nation’s high schools.

What made things worse was that I was painfully shy. This shyness had been encouraged by my Catholic upbringing, which had not-too-subtly indicated to me that any sort of physical desire was wrong. Sex, masturbation: they were all sins.

The sense that my hormonal drives were somehow wicked led me into a sad place. I was convinced that there was something bad about nearly everything that I was feeling. So, when Ms. Reed called for my homework, I had a decision to make: I could keep my transgressive desires to myself and add to my truant street cred. Or I could share them with a 50-year-old teacher who was in constant contact with my parents. You decide.

Of course now, looking back, I realize how silly all this was. The poems themselves were not that dark. They were not wildly transgressive. They were just wildly embarrassing. Nothing terrible would have resulted from my turning them in. As a matter of fact, I did probably hurt my chances of going to the kind of college I dreamed of attending (Yale, Harvard, Princeton) by nearly failing my English classes. I’m sure that when I wrote my essays about wanting to be a writer, the admissions officers looked at my terrible grades in creative writing and tossed my application in the shredder. And who would blame them? (Well, OK, I do still blame them, a little bit.)

I’m going to share a sample of two of the poems below. I warn you that I am doing this at great personal cost. These poems are humiliating. Oh, and formatting has been preserved!

Pagliaccio

Sometimes I feel like part of a freak show.
A lab rat captured under glass…

I am trapped in a display case.
My dreams billow through a pipe
to reality.
And I can only think of her seduction
in the afternoon
when the sunlight catches us in a torrid maze of honey…

     In my childhood,
when I was six, maybe
        seven, I found this puppy lying
     in an alley.
    And this puppy, his vocal cords
were cut and
his legs were broken.
    He just rolled around on the ground,
      whimpering in pain. And I moaned with him,
   and the tears were so easy that
they shattered when they hit the ground.

I stand before you now, empty as a cave.
Carve my innards out to form my grave.

For the record, I would like to say that, at the age of six (or seven), my parents weren’t letting me wander through the alleys of downtown Seattle. (“Where’s Pauls, honey?” “Oh, I think he’s in that alley over there, where we saw the dead puppy.”) But I do remember sitting there at my dad’s circa-1983 computer and trying to conjure the most disturbing things that I could imagine. And I think I did a pretty good job–I definitely never saw anything remotely close to this image! I was trying to demonstrate, to anyone who’d pay attention, that I was an important writer. Someone who was worthy of adoration and fame and, most important, love. In a torrid maze of honey.

As for the poem, the tired phrasing and dramatic energy pour off of the page. And the couplet at the end is magnificently terrible, a combination of ugly language and foggy meaning. Carve my innards out to form my grave? What does that even mean?

Which brings me to an excerpt of the second poem:

Lost to the Dreams

I see you in my dreams, my love.
At first on swirling satin clouds.
A shroud of air clothes bare
your chiseled skin of stone.
We are alone.
In an empty
crowded
room.

Where devils of the mind and body dwell.

We melt together with a grace that comes from love.
With shaking hearts we reap the depths of soul…

If it existed, I would certainly submit “with shaking hearts we reap the depths of soul” to a Worst Lines of Poetry Ever contest. It might even win. Of course this was also a description of sex, which I find horrifying for a variety of different reasons, none of which I would like to enumerate now. I put these titles in my chapbook of poems (after “Catholic Heart,” but before “Metal Alloy Murder,” “Tears,” “Patches That Mirror His Soul,” and “amusing grief she speaks to me”). I then self-published this chapbook at Kinko’s and gave it to a few of my friends, including Malia. I’m certain she understood that they were, essentially, love poems to her.

Looking back on these poems 18 years later, I do realize something interesting. They are certainly first steps, explorations of form, content, and (admittedly grotesque) imagery. I am making stylistic decisions. I have decided to eschew traditional, left-justification in favor of the more freeing center-justification. (Yes, they are terrible stylistic decisions, but they are decisions nonetheless.)

As I read it now, I can see what I’m trying to do. I can see the chain of cause and effect. An event happens, its impact is felt by character—the basic demands of narrative are satisfied. Still, I do want to reach back through the years and give the sad, 15-year-old me a hug, tousle his hair, tell him that it’s all OK, and that, yes, he would have sex some day.

At some point recently, I got in touch with Malia again. We talked for a while and I asked her about the poems. Did she still have them? I wondered. “I won’t say that I do,” she said, “but I won’t say that I don’t.” Perhaps she’s waiting until I have a 15-year-old son—at which point she’ll use them as material for blackmail?

The fact remains, though, that I’m somehow a little proud of those poems. I went on to become a writer and, maybe more amazingly, a creative writing teacher at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. Those poems were the beginning of learning how to write, and now I can’t help thinking: embarrassment happens when you become self-conscious. While in some ways those poems are outright lies, they are also raw and honest. They have the kind of freedom that dissolves with adulthood, that you have to work to return to as an artist.

I see the melodrama in the work of many of my students. I’ve read the equivalent of bloody puppies dying in alleys in my creative writing workshops over the years. But what I do now is try to help my students figure out what’s beneath that image, what that wildly active imagination is working toward. Because that darkness is impressive, at its core, and dizzying in its intensity. ♦

Pauls Toutonghi is the author of the novel Evel Knievel Days, which was published in July by Random House/Crown, and Red Weather.

39 Comments

  • Jessica W September 5th, 2012 3:15 PM

    I feel like this was written about me to some extent.
    My English teachers often think I slack off, but it couldn’t be farther from the truth

    The Lovelorn

  • ddddaphne September 5th, 2012 3:17 PM

    “My reasoning went something like this: I cannot prove God exists. If God doesn’t exist, then there’s no point to life. If there’s no point to life, then there’s no fucking way I’m turning in my homework.”

    i liked that sentence a lot

    • Abby September 5th, 2012 3:19 PM

      Me too… I kind of wish that that was a good reason to not turn in homework… then I could say I wasn’t doing it for religious reasons lol.

  • Abby September 5th, 2012 3:18 PM

    Wow. That’s all I can say, really. Wow. Thank you for this.

  • kayak September 5th, 2012 3:28 PM

    thanks for this great article! I could really relate it

  • Lulli September 5th, 2012 3:32 PM

    This is really good. Thank you.
    Shehadtogetout.tumblr.com

  • raftingstarlit September 5th, 2012 3:43 PM

    Thank you for this article! I also had this phase in my life, and made the same conclusion (“My reasoning went something like this: I cannot prove God exists. If God doesn’t exist, then there’s no point to life. “) I still kinda think like this but also believe, that the world has some kind of inexplainable shared and eternal soul which is reachable through art. That gives me a reason for living.

  • blaine.e September 5th, 2012 3:47 PM

    This article is absolutely ace, and you’ve done a great job at explaining the process of a young writer. It’s comforting to know that a successful writer was once shy and awkward, and failed English classes.

    As for myself, in high school, I was told that I wasn’t a good writer. My teachers didn’t understand my work, and wanted me to do things a certain way. “Too conversational” was a frequent critique. This resulted in me tailoring my work to what I thought my teachers wanted to see, and often times not turning in anything at all. It wasn’t until I began taking college classes that I realized I didn’t actually suck at writing.

    Anyway… Bravo, sir, and thank you for a great and relatable read.

    http://goosesgeeses.blogspot.com/

  • Narita September 5th, 2012 3:52 PM

    Oh my god! This is so me. My grades for my native language suck, I’m considered the weirdish but fairly liked kid and nobody knows I write on pretty famous sites and get a nice amount of money for it. I got D’s for tests for my native language because I just did not care.

  • Yayo September 5th, 2012 4:13 PM

    Funny, I was thinking a lot this morning about what my English teacher must think of me. All my creative writing pieces have a common theme of death, mainly suicide. Earlier this year I wrote something based on Cecilia Lisbon’s death, in the style of The Lovely Bone’s rape if you get what I mean. Full marks, though, so surely I’m not doing too badly.

  • Melbaroast September 5th, 2012 4:22 PM

    “While in some ways those poems are outright lies, they are also raw and honest. They have the kind of freedom that dissolves with adulthood, that you have to work to return to as an artist.”

    This article has inspired me to go create something. RIGHT NOW. Thank you so much. <3

  • moonchild September 5th, 2012 4:40 PM

    Ohmygod. I wish I could be your friend.

  • clairee September 5th, 2012 5:01 PM

    Embarrassing writing/poetry from the past is always the best to go back to! I thank you for sharing and writing about that *dark*, *angst* phase that I feel a lot of writers go through in their adolescence.

    http://modalityblog.wordpress.com/

  • RainingMiceAndMen September 5th, 2012 5:17 PM

    AH! I love creative writing, but I hate doing it for school because the prompts are usually stupid (What did you do this summer? -I sat on the computer and read Rookie) and I always have to ‘dumb down’ what I’m writing, in a way, so that it’s ‘school appropriate’.

    I’m most proud of the work I’ve done that’s too graphic for school.

    rainingmiceandmen.blogspot.com

  • k September 5th, 2012 5:18 PM

    YAY, existentialism, I love that stuff! In my final year of high school (last year) I read tons of it. It resonates well when you have big decisions to make and priorities to set. Only I prefer Dostoevsky and Nietzsche to Camus. Out of his works, I only read The Stranger, but Mersault annoyed me. He was too apathic, passive, while for me existentialism was all “FREEDOM therefore BRAVERY”. It’s really not so dark, the idea you’re free to do anything and responsible for your every move. Or meaningless. I actually think what you do “counts” even more if there’s no determinism/destiny. People die and stuff is finite, but it also means people live and a potential afterlife doesn’t have to confirm that it was worth it.

  • GlitterKitty September 5th, 2012 5:24 PM

    I am sort of in love with this article.

  • kolumbia September 5th, 2012 5:32 PM

    I LOVE this!! I totally relate, except I do all my English work. The last sentence rings beautifully true, and I know exactly what it’s like to look back on old poetry and be embarrassed and proud of it at the same time. This is wonderfully eloquent.

  • laurenniee September 5th, 2012 6:01 PM

    So much love for the French existentialist phase. I remember having an existential breakdown on the bus as I read The Outsider. BUT on the plus side, I get to study Sartre/Camus/Kafka at university this year and I cannot wait.

  • Ruby B. September 5th, 2012 6:03 PM

    SO GOOD. I can’t exactly relate to this, but it is beautifully written and you did a great job of explaining the process of a young writer.

  • jenaimarley September 5th, 2012 6:53 PM

    Thank you!
    I love this.
    I have had similar feelings but kept them a lot more internal…
    Also I am applying to Lewis & Clark!

  • lula September 5th, 2012 8:09 PM

    i really love this!

  • Moxx September 5th, 2012 8:48 PM

    Camus, Satre, Beckett…

    I love them, but I feel like people think they are so cool and get all pretentious
    and it kills me when people get all pretentious through their teenage angst as if they invented roman stoicism or something and they they are soOooOo eDgY aNd InTelLeCtual OmGnm
    They don’t discuss these things with people who have similar interests, they just show off the fact that they read them like it’s some sort of badge of human greatness.

    So now, if they start it off pretentiously, I just go “Oh, you mean “Camus”? Sorry, I didn’t understand, with the American accent and all. And you’ve read them in the original language, of course?”

    >If God doesn’t exist, then there’s no point to life
    do people really feel like this
    Because it makes me sad
    The point of life is maybe to lrn2lyfe??? Don’t be discouraged because it turns out that something you knew was wrong.
    It just makes me sad.
    :(

  • barbroxursox September 5th, 2012 9:11 PM

    LEWIS & CLARK COLLEGE! I’m a senior and I’m applying to colleges now and I was just looking at/thinking about Lewis & Clark College! I love it when two different things in my life are connected. Also, if someone has anything to do with rookie, they’ve gotta be awesome right? I think Lewis and Clark College just moved up higher on my list. ;)
    Sorry this comment has nothing to do with the actual article lol!

  • ebcstar September 5th, 2012 9:12 PM

    I love this. It’s very well written. I feel like he’s talking about me. I had period of nihilism in high school too and I filled it with bad poetry. More importantly, I’m a freshmen at Lewis & Clark and he’s my adviser. I haven’t meet him yet but now I’m really excited to.

  • katiearms September 5th, 2012 9:34 PM

    Ah man, I am tempted to print out this essay a few hundred times, stich each copy together, and curl up inside the magical cloak of awesomeness.

  • rroseselavy September 6th, 2012 12:38 AM

    THISISSOWONDERFULYESSSSSS

  • DaniElla September 6th, 2012 12:47 AM

    As a writer (hiding behind the bangs) this really gives me confidence. I feel like I should start to at least try to share my poetry now. Thank you!

  • evoheenwu September 6th, 2012 2:57 AM

    We are alone.
    In an empty
    crowded room.

    That one may win the Best Lines of Poetry Ever contest
    :)
    Congrats!

  • redblueblueberry September 6th, 2012 6:37 AM

    woah…right on!! good stuff!

  • Ana September 6th, 2012 7:43 AM

    Thanks for writing this Pauls! I wondered if Rookie would include an article focused on nihilism/existentialism for a while. The way you describe ‘nihilistic’ actions or ways of living is an interpretation that I often find repeated and I can’t help feeling that I don’t relate to it. This isn’t a bad thing – it would just be interesting to understand why you see things in this particular way. Why has violent and/or sexual imagery and acts of this nature become a reoccurring theme associated with nihilism? I get that the abandonment of ‘morals’ or ‘values’ plays a part in this but from my understanding, I define nihilism as literally ‘nothing’. And then not even that. Doing weird shit is great (like squawking and shooting rubber bands at people) but isn’t that more just… doing weird shit? To me, nihilism means something that doesn’t mean anything. Like, something I can never hold onto or comprehend. I can live my life in levels of understanding everything, followed by uniting everything as a whole (ie. all human thought is the same, pleasure is no different from pain), followed by nothing ever occurring or making any sense, and finally, letting it all be not even that.

  • Isabelle97 September 6th, 2012 4:32 PM

    I love this article! From now on, in my dreams, I will wander through a torrid maze of honey. Also, for all it’s pretentiousness, I love reading my old poetry. I feel like it has this gorgeous roughness and awkwardness, so in a way it sums up completely how I was feeling at the time…even when I was babbling about daffodils growing from corpses or whatever :L

  • brynntheredonethat September 6th, 2012 11:17 PM

    This is probably one of my favorite Rookie posts ever. It makes me a bit self conscious about my own writing now — I thought I was SO GREAT last year, but this year I’m quickly learning that even though I’m good, and even though I aced the AP exam, I still have a long long long long long way to go. It also makes me wonder how I’ll look back on my writings when I’m older…-cringe-

  • raggedyanarchy September 7th, 2012 12:53 AM

    I LOVE this post! Getting over that awkward angsty-existential -crisis stage is a monumental and liberating experience.

    And can I use “I cannot prove God exists. If God doesn’t exist, then there’s no point to life. If there’s no point to life, then there’s no fucking way I’m turning in my homework.” as my senior quote? It can go right next to that baby picture of me snarling and growling like a puppy with it’s legs broken.

  • jcmay96 September 7th, 2012 3:48 AM

    I can see your superb style of writing. It blows my mind when reading the part where you said, “Of course now, looking back, I realize how silly all this was.” Beforehand, I thought a reclusive weirdo was lucky enough to write in Rookie.
    Keep writing!

    http://jessiakhalis.blogspot.com

  • Motherfunker September 7th, 2012 3:03 PM

    i thought the poems were ok what does that say about me

  • superkat October 12th, 2012 5:01 PM

    I wish this article came in the form of a stuffed animal, so I could let it wipe away my tears whenever my English teacher tells me that the way I write is awkward, and therefore precedes to give me high 60s and low 70s just because I don’t write to the extent of a basic fill in the blanks. And I thought grade nine English was gonna be fun ..

  • Merman December 7th, 2012 3:38 AM

    This was a great read and I think I may publish a book of my own poems now, since this has inspired me!