The Seymour theater beneath the high school chapel is strange. The stage is too deep but not wide enough. The two Doric columns that stand on the edge of the wings always seem anachronistic. The three doors upstage are eyesores in any production, and you need to go through another three doors backstage before arriving at the dressing room. On the walls of the theater foyer, light blue frames wait to be filled with pictures.

But I love the Seymour.

The Seymour was where I presented my work to an audience for the first time. There’s a saying that if you can’t hear the audience breathe during the performance, you’re doing something right. So I held my breath on opening night, observing the actors just as much as I was observing the audience.

I remember one night during a show in the Seymour. My senior year.

F came back to campus to surprise C and me—he had a long weekend from his first semester of college. C, F, and I left the theater midway through the show and drove to McDonald’s because it was misty and cold out: the ideal conditions for fries and medium-sized Sprites.

Ethan Luk

Ethan Luk was born and raised in Hong Kong. His work as a multidisciplinary artist has been recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, 92Y, and Bridge: The Bluffton University Literary Journal, among others. He has performed and/or presented work at Tanglewood, Carnegie Hall, and New York Theater Workshop among others. He is currently a sophomore at Princeton University. www.ethanluk.com

Patrick Ryan on “The Frame Between Us”

As the end of the year approaches, it’s time for us to publish the third and final winner from One Teen Story’s 2021 Teen Writing Contest. With over 450 entries to read and consider—the most we’ve ever received—our goal was to pick an outstanding story in each age category: 13-15, 16-17, 18-19. The task wasn’t easy because there’s a tremendous amount of talent out there among our teen writers, but tough choices had to be made.

The winner in the 18-19 category is “The Frame Between Us” by Ethan Luk. This is a story about friendship and loveship, artistic ambitions and insecurities, and those last moments of high school when you feel the world you’ve built around yourself begin to crumble. Nothing gold can stay. Nothing young can stay young forever. And nothing innocent, when pushed out into the world, can remain innocent for very long. Ethan Luk has his finger on the pulse of this massively transitional period in a teen’s life, and he’s written a story that beautifully—and precisely—renders its challenges and its quiet rewards.

Q&A by Patrick Ryan

PR: Where did the idea for this story come from?
EL: The story is the result of a confluence of inspirations. The first draft came from an assignment in my senior year English class. Our teacher asked us to write about an important memory from our high school years. When I was thinking about which memory to write about, it wasn’t the school dances or the big football games that came to mind but being in the car with my friends. At the same time, I was doing a lot of self-reflection, since it was April of 2020, the beginning of lockdown. I thought about high school as a liminal state of bittersweet becoming. An intersection where you can look back at the person you once were, while waiting for the lights to change so you can rush into the person you want to be. Also, I was compelled to work on this story out of a general dissatisfaction with most coming-of-age films and novels. I had not yet seen myself reflected in mainstream media. This is a story I wrote for myself and for the friends who grew up with me.
PR: How long did it take you to complete this story?
EL: Half a year. The first draft took me two weeks. Then I abandoned the story over the summer as an attempt to grow out of high school. But when college started, I found that the growing pains began to emerge. Things my teachers said in class reappeared in my head, gaining new depth and relevance. The ghosts of the characters in the story came to haunt me. I could not let go. In other words, I wanted to make the fatal flaw of Orpheus, to look back one last time. I reopened the document on my laptop and worked on the story for two months before submitting.
PR: Was the scope of the story—the amount of time it covers, and where it begins and ends—always as it is now? Or did the scope change along the way as you drafted?
EL: I was always certain that the story should begin and end in the theater. What existed in between those two coordinates was the big question for me.
PR: The story focuses on the earnest and, at times, intense friendship shared by three young men. Near the end, the narrator says that there’s an “impenetrable distance between us.” That’s a powerful statement that sounds like the opposite of intimacy. Can you say a little more about that?
EL: I am fascinated with the limits of intimacy from the standpoint of adolescent masculinity. Even though the three young men share an undeniably strong friendship, there are secrets they keep from one another for various reasons. I wanted to explore how we hoist up these unspoken social boundaries. Our display of vulnerability is in a restless state of negotiation: sometimes we feel comfortable sharing our truest selves, sometimes we don’t. I read somewhere that in boxing, the athletes rest on each other in the middle of a fight just to catch a breath. I think vulnerability and masculinity perform in a similar way: they are two boxers in a ring, seemingly at odds with each other. But sometimes, if we are lucky enough, we can catch a glimpse of the two athletes embracing each other.
PR: Another line from near the end of the story: “None of us realized that it would be the last time we would be gather.” If you had to tether that statement to an emotion, is it regret? Shock? Lament? Likewise, would you say “The Frame Between Is” is about the loss of friendship, or about the inevitability of change?
EL: I think that statement encapsulates all of those emotions at once. I see this story as both a mourning for the boys’ past selves and a celebration of a beautiful, tender experience. I don’t think friendships, or relationships in general, are ever lost if we continue to uphold one another in memory.
PR: What did you do when you found out you were one of our Teen Writing Contest Winners?
EL: I was ecstatic. I really couldn’t believe that my story was chosen because I was going through a period of time in which I didn’t believe in the validity of my stories. I wanted to write about operatic themes: stories that had real, life-threatening stakes in order to appear that my writing was significant, especially during a pandemic that mercilessly took lives. One of the best pieces of advice I received was from a writing mentor who told me that I should trust my own memories again. She believed in the smaller scale narratives I wanted to tell but didn’t have the courage to, since I didn’t think my experiences were interesting enough to translate onto the page. Recently, I read a quote from poet Ada Límon that really resonated with me. She writes, “It wasn’t until I got older that I realized what I loved about love was not the drama at all, but the deep privacy of it. My kind of love was never made for an audience. My kind of love is a rapturous sort of secret...” Receiving this recognition from One Teen Story has given me the confidence to nurture this internal, private love that often goes by unexpressed in everyday life. I hope to write more rapturous secrets.
PR: What are you working on now?
EL: I am currently working on a play called Flight of a Legless Bird that premiered in Beijing over the summer and was workshopped through New York Theater Workshop’s Mind the Gap program.
PR: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
EL: I was in a poetry workshop led by Richie Hofmann last year. He told us that he has a Post-It with the question “do the images cloud or clarify?” stuck on the wall above his desk. I have the same Post-It stuck above my desk now. I think it’s a brilliant, succinct question that allows me to distill my writing, ensuring that every sentence on the page serves a purpose.