Fortune for Your Freshman Year
by Lucy Silbaugh
Issue #42 • May 18, 2016•Buy Now!
The leaves will be falling when you first set foot on campus. Zigzagging down like lazy hands, and the whole campus will feel to you like a mystical temple: tended lawns, gravel paths, students with paperbacks sprawled beneath trees. Your parents, dawdling behind you, will oooh and aah at the architecture. Castles, Natty! your father will say to your two-year-old sister, Look at the castles! and your mother will squeeze your shoulder with pride, as if you personally are responsible for the aesthetics of the buildings. Your parents will pretend not to care which college you picked, but you will know that really they are delighted with your choice: the grand buildings, the famous name, the dizzyingly tiny acceptance rate.
Your roommate, Margaux, will have intense eyes and a huge, flat-ironed mane. She will be pre-med, like you, and as you shake her hand you will wonder if she too is a virgin. You will hug your parents goodbye and kiss Natty’s forehead, and when they leave you will feel a lump in your throat but you will recite chemical formulas over and over until it goes away. At dinner, you will sit with Margaux and a table of girls from your hall; you will pick at salads with the rest of them as you battle one another with witticisms about Newton, Euler, Malthus.
Lucy Silbaugh is a senior at Abington Friends School in the suburbs of Philadelphia. She was a YoungArts Writing Finalist in 2014, and in 2016 she was named both a National Merit Scholar and a Presidential Scholar in the Arts semifinalist. Her work has also been honored by the National Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, the Susquehanna County Young Writers’ Contest, and the Sierra Nevada College High School Writing Contest. In the fall, she will be a freshman at Columbia.
Patrick Ryan on Fortune for Your Freshman Year
Imagine you’re about to head off to college for the first time, and you crack open a fortune cookie, but instead of a tiny slip of paper, an entire short story falls out.
There are no cookies in the new issue of One Teen Story, but what you’re about to read is a kind of fortune. Or a prediction. Or a meditation on the future. Call it what you will. I’ve never read anything quite like Lucy Silbaugh’s “Fortune for Your Freshman Year.” It takes you by the hand and leads you—at a breakneck pace—through a period of sweeping transition.
We’re proud to introduce to you a stunning new voice in fiction: 17-year-old Lucy Silbaugh.
Q&A by Patrick Ryan
My favorite fiction is usually pretty traditional: I love Alice Munro, Elizabeth Strout, and Jhumpa Lahiri—writers whose stories are more simple and straightforward, I would say, than innovative or experimental. I’m a little wary of “devices” where storytelling is concerned, and before this story, I’d always steered clear of the second person in my own writing because it felt a little like a gimmick, a little contrived. (And, maybe, because second-person narration brings out the stubborn realist side of me: when I read, “You did this,” a little voice in my head immediately says, “No, I didn’t!”)
Then, this summer, I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s story collection The Thing Around Your Neck. One of my favorite stories from the collection, “Tomorrow Is Too Far,” is written in the second person. I thought, okay, I’ve seen this done in a way that I don’t like and I’ve seen it done in a way that I do like. Now I’ll try my own hand at it.
I started writing down little second-person snippets on my phone and in the margins of my physics notes (hey, maybe that’s why I did so badly on the tests!) and the story built itself slowly from there.
Some of my older friends have gone to college with really high expectations, and the actual experience has been disillusioning for many of them. My mom had a similar experience when she was nineteen and a freshman in college; she calls it “Nineteen-itis.” I think that was definitely a motivation for writing this story—it was about preparing myself for certain disappointments. Maybe it was a silly hope that by describing in detail a certain narrative—involving privilege, intellectualism, a feeling of suffocation—I could prevent myself from living it.
It also happens that most of my friends who have been especially disappointed by college are ones who went to more “selective” or prestigious schools. After my own college application process this year, I feel even more convinced that there’s something so fundamentally wrong about the modern obsession with acceptance rates, “prestige,” with the whole notion of the single “right fit” and how much personality we ascribe to (especially elite) institutions. At the same time, I feel guilty and weird because I’m going to one of those “selective” colleges next year, and because in many ways I feel like I’ve bought into the system that I feel so nauseated by. So this story was another way of wrestling with that.
“You” implies “I,” but in second-person stories, there is no “I,” and there’s something sort of inherently off-balance about that. I think that’s one reason that I didn’t initially like or trust second-person stories, although it wasn’t until I wrote this story that I was able to understand that. There’s a tension between what you know about yourself and your history and what you’re asked to believe about “you” in the story.
Ultimately, I think that tension was a really helpful aid for this particular storyline. I got a lot of mixed reviews from the first readers of this story. One person told me that the anaphora of “you will, you will” left her feeling dizzy, that she finished the piece feeling kind of blah, and that she wasn’t sure why she should care about this character. I spent a lot of time thinking about that comment, and I realized I was actually okay with that reaction. In order to make it through this story, a reader has to lose track of herself, to forget who she is as a reader. Maybe she does feel dizzy and blah and uncertain. Because the story is about a girl who loses herself, I think that’s okay. Maybe the form even mimics the story’s emotional content in that sense.
When you’re practicing an instrument, you have to overcome frustration and just push through. It’s about the time you put in and also about your willingness to admit where the tangly spots of a piece are. And there’s also kind of a trust that happens with music. You have to say, “Yes, this passage doesn’t sound good today, but if I keep practicing it for a week, it will sound better.” You’re investing in something without being able to see immediate results, and that trust is something that I find myself reaching for a lot as a writer.
I also find (and I’m sure this will come as no surprise) that I tend to feel especially bad about my writing when I’m just starting a new story. When I start a new piece on the cello, I have a much healthier attitude. Each time I start to learn a new piece, I feel like I’m a beginner again. I’m used to that sensation, and it can actually be sort of a fun challenge. In fact, if I could play something perfectly on the first try, my cello teacher would probably make me pick a different piece to study! In music, you don’t expect everything—you don’t expect anything—to come out well on the first try; practicing isn’t supposed to sound good. You practice so that you can play. I think that’s true about writing, too.