As soon as I reach the end of the lane, I’m out. I push up from the bottom of the pool and pull myself over onto the deck. My knee hits the ground right where it’s already bruised, gray and dark. It’s fine, though, doesn’t hurt very much anymore. I just get to my feet, a bit shaky and sore from the earlier freestyle sprints. I grab my water bottle, goggles, and cap. Wave at Coach before heading out into the hallway. He’d only asked the boys to pick up after practice, just like usual. He might have given some of the girls a hard time for putting the kickboards back. He likes to say that “the boys should always take care of the girls.” Usually I’d just ignore him and grab the most boards I could possibly carry and put them back, spending a bit more time to make sure they’re neatly arranged (can’t really stand them being all over the place). But today’s an aerobics class day, so all the older women have been patiently waiting on the side benches for practice to be finished and the lane lines to be taken out. Given the choice, I usually prefer getting the lines.

Elliot Park

Elliot Park is a novelist and author of short stories and essays. Their work focuses on the complexities of neurodivergent, queer, and transgender identities, and the intersections that exist between them. Elliot is currently studying at the County College of Morris, where they are studying computer science and English. They live in New Jersey with their family and many pets.

Patrick Ryan on “Locker Room Talk”

The new issue of One Teen Story is about the power of words. Specifically, the power of words to hurt. It’s also a story about a teen experiencing and thinking their way through an unintentional body shaming while longing for control and order in their lives.

In writing workshops, we would call this a voice-driven story. Meaning, its narrative voice is its driving force. What’s especially impressive to me here is that, because the story is told in the first person, and the narrator is so guarded and in-the-moment, we learn about them almost entirely from their immediate responses to exterior stimuli. To read “Locker Room Talk” is to watch a character being built in front of our eyes, thought by thought, reaction by reaction. It’s almost like a performance piece—creation in the act.

We receive hundreds of stories for our annual Teen Writing Contest and can select only three winners. “Locker Room Talk,” by Elliot Park, is one of those winning stories, in part because it so honestly and vividly depicts the experience of feeling othered. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did.

Q&A by Patrick Ryan

PR: Where did you get the idea for “Locker Room Talk”?
EP: I was a competitive swimmer throughout middle and high school, and much of the inspiration behind the story came from my own experience with locker rooms during that time. Like my narrator, I felt very othered during this time. I didn’t know it then, but a lot of that had to do with my undiagnosed autism and my genderqueer nature. Both of those things are incorporated into this story.
PR: How long did the story take you to write?
EP: I usually write on Sundays. It’s the only day I can dedicate the time and brain space to actually write. During the week I look over my work and make small tweaks and edits. I wrote this story over the course of three Sundays.
PR: How long did the story take you to write?
EP: That really depends on how far back I go into the history of this story. Initially, “Locker Room Talk” was conceived of as a play for a theater class I was taking last fall. Ultimately, I was unable to finish the class due to health reasons, so that led me to look for another way to share this story, which eventually led me to the One Teen Story contest. In terms of the actual writing process, it took me no more than two weeks. I outlined the story first, knowing that I wanted to submit it to this contest. I then wrote it all in one sitting (as I typically do). The rest of the time was devoted to revisions. I worked with maybe two friends on feedback, and that helped a lot with the finishing of it.
PR: Was there anything in the writing of the story that surprised you? Another way I sometimes ask this question is, how different is the finished story from the one you set out to write?
EP: The biggest surprise for me came in the actual form of the story. I expected to write it as a short play, so it was a bit of a shock when I actually wrote it as a first-person short story. It worked well in that format, however, and I am very happy with the end result. The other thing that surprised me was probably how much of my experience with autism came through in the story. I honestly described things according to my own experiences with them, which in hindsight was very much impacted by my experience with autism. In the end, the story ended up having themes of undiagnosed autism, which was not necessarily in the original outline.
PR: One of the things I found interesting about “Locker Room Talk” is that the talk the narrator overhears in the locker room isn’t about them, but its impact is the same as if it were. The implication is that this sort of talk can hurt everyone, not just the person the remarks are aimed toward. Can you say a little about that?
EP: That was very much intended from the beginning. My original thought behind the piece was that we hear a lot about toxic talk in boy’s and men’s locker rooms, but we don’t pay the same attention to the toxic talk that happens in girl’s and women’s spaces. Growing up, this toxic body talk really impacted how I saw myself and my relationship with my body, and I wanted to show in writing just how awful that impact can really be. That kind of talk affects everyone; the language is harmful to those it is shared with as well as those who overhear it. That kind of language is so pervasive in these spaces, and I really wanted to shine a light on that. It is something that we really need to tackle because it is actively hurting the self-image of teenage girls and those socialized as girls.
PR: Is your narrator’s preoccupation with cleanliness and order an extension of how they feel about their body (and the phenomenon of body-shaming)?
EP: Yes and no. Their preoccupation does interact meaningfully with their worries about and fear of their body, but that is not necessarily all I had in mind when writing those parts. A lot of inspiration for how the narrator describes their environment came from my experience with autism. I was the autistic swimmer who could not stand these sensory inputs, so I became preoccupied with them. I think that is mainly what I was describing in those instances. That said, there is, of course, a strong relationship between poor body-image and this need for control and order. Adolescence is a time when a lot of people feel that they have no control over their ever-changing bodies. When such a time interacts with fatphobia and body-shaming, we run into issues of people feeling that they need so much control over something they really cannot control. This is where we run into issues of unhealthy relationships with food and exercise and, as a more extreme example, eating disorders. The narrator in this story is very much someone who is navigating these uneasy waters and really must confront these awful realities going on around them.
PR: If you had to finish this sentence in one word, what would that word be?  “‘Locker Room Talk’ is about __________.”
EP: Otherness. The story very much is about this feeling of being an “other” to one’s peers—in terms of body, neurotype, gender, and more. This story really is for anyone who has ever felt isolated by an aspect of themselves.
PR: What did you do when you found out you were one of our Teen Writing Contest Winners?
EP: I immediately ran to tell my mom I had won. I texted everyone I know about the news, and I just could not stop talking about it. Honestly, I could hardly believe that I won, since it was my first time submitting my writing anywhere. I was never really one to show off my writing, so this certainly came as a huge shock to me.
PR: What are you working on now?  ?
EP: Currently, I am working on editing the novel I wrote back over the spring and summer. I would describe it as a medieval revival fantasy with themes of religious tensions, queer identity, heritage, and destiny. I have also become rather interested in reading and writing poetry lately, so I have been branching out in that direction as well.
PR: What’s the best piece of advice about writing you’ve ever received?
EP: Write about what you know. I know that sounds cliché, but some of the most powerful pieces of writing are incredibly personal to the writer. Everyone’s experiences are so different, and that makes for some really insightful writing. Personally, I think my best work tends to be the most personal to my own lived experience, and there is a lot of power in that.