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September 7, 2016

The Seminal Summer After High School Graduation --- Guest Post from Jane Ozkowski, Author of WATCHING TRAFFIC


Many of our readers are just entering high school, starting college, or somewhere in between. For those of you in-betweeners, you've probably heard a lot about the summer after high school, the one where everything has the potential to change. In author Jane Ozkowski’s novel, WATCHING TRAFFIC, 18-year-old Emily has just finished high school, but has no idea what she should do next. As she tries to figure out who she is, her story is accompanied by witty, sharp descriptions of small-town life, dealing with tragedy and coming of age. In this post, Jane Ozkowski describes the potential of the summer after high school graduation and why it makes for such compelling stories.

It took me almost seven years to write WATCHING TRAFFIC. I started writing the book when I was 20, and as I changed and matured, the story did as well. I wrote dozens of different drafts where everything from the setting to the characters to the actual plot were completely different. One of the only things that remained the same in every version of the book is that the story always took place during that exciting, liberating and also terrifying summer after high school graduation.

I think for a lot of people, that summer after high school graduation is a seminal time period in their lives. For the first 18 years of your existence, there’s a plan set out for you. You will go to school at this time, and then you will do your homework and your chores. You will have two months off in the summer where you will go to summer camp or else work a shitty job. There’s piano lessons, soccer practice, debate club and then all of a sudden high school ends, and almost overnight the blank slate of every single day of the rest of your life opens up before you. You can go climb Mount Everest or bike to Argentina or work the night shift at the gas station and get high and play video games in your parents’ basement all day. Your life is suddenly yours to control, but also yours to ruin forever if you happen to make a poor decision. That summer after high school graduation is that moment in time when you’re on the edge of the infinite abyss known as the rest of your life, standing on the diving board and about to jump in.

Like Emily, the main character in my novel, when I finished high school I had no idea what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Most of my friends were headed to university in the fall, and although I had been accepted to a few schools, university life didn’t really appeal to me at that point in time. I ended up deferring my acceptance, and while my friends picked out bedsheets for their dorm rooms and compared class schedules, I worked long hours as a lifeguard at a pool down the street from my parents’ house. I spent my days off binge drinking or else staying up late and wandering through my suburban town waiting for something to happen.

Eventually, I found a really fantastic program that allowed me to volunteer and travel across Canada for the year following high school, but even after deciding that that’s what I would do, I was equal parts excited and terrified that I’d made the wrong decision.

In writing WATCHING TRAFFIC, I wanted to capture that time period after high-school graduation and all the feelings that come with it. On one hand I felt so free. No one was telling me when to go to bed or do my laundry or what to eat for dinner, and on the other hand I had to figure out who I was outside of the precisely scheduled life I’d been living up until that point. I had to figure out what kind of person I wanted to be as well as what kind of life I wanted to lead. Everyone that I knew was headed in a different direction and while we were all excited and couldn’t wait to get the heck out of town, we were also simultaneously trying to hold on to and appreciate the last few weeks we had together before “the rest of our lives” began.