Ned Vizzini: Control, Cruelty and the Cool Club

Ned Vizzini is the author of The Other Normals, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, and Be More Chill. His novels are about angsty, nerdy teenage boys dealing with the ordinary and not-so-ordinary problems of adolescents. Ned knows a thing or two about these problems, because he was once a teenager (we can’t say anything about the nerdy or the angsty part). Today, he stopped by Figment to talk about the importance of having a passion to focus on when you’re in your teens—even if it’s a little dorky.

 

When I was six years old, everyone in first grade became obsessed with forming “clubs.”

kids on jungle gym

I was at a new school. My parents had moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn after seeing how beautiful the borough was becoming—and after their landlord in Manhattan died and they just quietly didn’t pay rent for a year and saved up money to buy a place in Brooklyn.

A new school meant new friends—or it should have, but there were these clubs, and they were hard to get into.

One was the Lego Club. On the second day of school, I saw some first-graders playing Legos. I came up to them.

“What are you doing? Go away! We’re in the Lego Club and you’re not a member of the Club.”

Then there was a Kickball Club that had a monopoly on the poorly-inflated red kickball.

“Leave us alone! We’re in the Kickball Club and you can’t kick the ball if you’re not in the Club!”

But the most exclusive club was the most enigmatic: The Cool Club. This was a collection of kids who were just cooler than other kids. They had known each other since preschool. One day, when my mom came home from work and asked me how school was, I started crying.

“I tried to join the Cool Club! The members told me that I could join if I ran around the jungle gym three times!”

“So what happened, Ned?”

“I did it—and then they told me that anyone who ran around the jungle gym three times could NEVER be in the Cool Club EVER!”

My mother’s face cracked. Of course, seeing her sad made me feel worse than anything that had actually happened at school. We both started crying. She hugged me and told me that kids could be very mean and that if I just ignored them, eventually they would like me.

Maybe if the Cool Club locked me out these days, we would call it bullying and sue. But in 1988, the only cure was to go to my room and start my homework. My homework was one of those easy first-grader assignments . . .

. . . and as I did it, I had this incredible realization:

My homework would never lie to me.

My homework wouldn’t tell me to run around the jungle gym and then reveal that running around the jungle gym was social suicide. My homework wouldn’t keep the kickball away from me by tossing to his other homework friends. Homework could be hard, but it could never be cruel and unpredictable the way human beings could.

That was the first time in my life that I substituted work for human interaction, and in many ways I’m still doing it.

Right now I could be on Twitter, but I’m writing this blog entry. Why? Because it’s work that I need to do. And because I can control this world. I can’t control Twitter, and when I go on it, I feel jealous, scared, put-upon, besieged, and ignored all at once. But I can control these words I’m writing now.

This is the dilemma that I gave Perry, the hero of my new book The Other Normals.

The Other Normals -- Cover

Perry can’t control his friends. He can’t control his family. But he can control the role-playing game that he’s obsessed with, Creatures and Caverns.

This is what I mean when I talk about how “adolescence is scary” and it’s easy to lose yourself in something you can control:

Ultimately, Perry learns that he has to interact with his peers. He can’t live a full life while completely immersing himself in Creatures and Caverns. And I stand by that . . . for teenagers.

But the nice thing about being an adult is that you no longer have to join the Cool Club. All you really have to do is make money and be a decent person. And both those things are easier than being cool.

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