The Big Idea: Pamela Ribon

Every time Pamela Ribon does a Big Idea here, I inevitably note she is one of the funniest humans that I know. I note that because a) she is, b) I think at least some of her humor springs from a place I recognize — that is, being a yearny, awkward teen whose internal world of feeling things massively outstripped the ability to express those things in a manner comfortable to one’s self or others.

This is why, even though I am a boy who likes girls, Ribon’s memoir Notes to Boys (And Other Things I Shouldn’t Share in Public) is hilariously perfect. It’s a combination of the teenage Ribon’s letters to boys and the adult Ribon’s commentary on the letters, and reading it, I was cringing and laughing simultaneously, because I was there, man, or somewhere close enough to there that I could wave. I’m happy to say we both survived.

Here’s Ribon now with her notes to you on Notes to Boys.


High school sucks. It sucked then, it sucks now, it sucks in theory, and it sucks in memory. Those four years stretch time and become infinite. Every day is all the days ever. If you were anything like me, back then you found yourself sitting in Pre-Cal with a million factorial amount of insecurity.

Even worse: this was back when there wasn’t an Internet to reach out to. No world that would listen, no place for me to carve out my “voice.” There was no way to tweet the injustices I suffered in the lunchroom. I couldn’t Tumblr my way out of a broken heart.

All I had was a whole lot of loose-leaf three-hole punch paper, and a handful of crushes.  So, I started writing notes to boys.

Sure, sure. Lots of teenage girls write notes to boys. “Hey. How are you? I’m in English. Bored. Should we see a movie on Friday?”

Not mine. My notes stuck with you.  …Probably because they were sort of stalking you.

“How can I tell you how much you mean to me? Shall I harness the sun to show you how bright my love for you burns? I will do it! Just tell me to do it and I will obey.”

I know I was only thirteen, but I was just so ready to be a woman. I wanted a loving, mature relationship that would help me survive the four years of hell I had before me. I knew if I kept writing, I would one day find the boy – nay, the man! – who was ready and willing to handle all of me. My heart. My brain. My mixtapes. My notes about my mixtapes.

I wrote hundreds of notes to boys, and almost always delivered those notes to those boys – but not before making a copy. The boys got the second, more carefully handwritten draft.  But I saved every scribbly, emotion-soaked, hormonal first draft for myself.

And I still have them.

There’s the eight-page note I’d written to a boy in my homeroom class. He sometimes talked to me on the phone after school while we did our homework and watched television. I wrote asking for advice about a boy I liked – acting like he wasn’t the boy I was talking about – hoping he could help me tell a boy who doesn’t know I like him that I might actually love him. Yeah, I was smooth like that.

Eight pages of awkward love, and then I immediately called that boy and I read him the entire letter.

Over the phone.

Things ended there. So, I spent another month writing notes to other boys I liked, wondering what I’d done wrong with this boy.

Basically, I was Carrie Bradshaw without a nightlife. Veronica Sawyer minus all of the cool.

There’s a giant folder stuffed with handwritten letters I’ve carried from city to city, apartment to house, for decades. I’ve shared some of these letters in the past at stage shows or readings, but this is the first time I’ve ever pieced them all together to try to understand why my teen self needed to share just so much of herself with boys who didn’t really want to handle that much me. I mean, they physically couldn’t: the pagecount alone was probably pretty taxing on their backpacks.

It’s scary to share them in such a permanent way as a book, that’s for sure. But every time I’ve read these letters in public—when I’ve stood in front of people and let them hear what it’s like to be in the middle of such raw, teenaged angst – a funny thing happens. Almost all of them shelter their faces as I talk, as if my words become air daggers, slicing the vulnerable spots. Other people make that gut-deep sound – that horrified moan that turns into a belly laugh – which I love so very much.

But the best part is that at some point someone will come up to me or write to me later to say, “I was just like that. I thought I was the only one. I wish teenage me could’ve been friends with teenage you. I think we would’ve helped each other through it.”

All these retroactive best friends and bodyguards, protective of my younger self. It is both beautiful and humbling. I might have felt alone, but I wasn’t. You were all there, each in your own bedrooms, wondering how you’d ever get out alive.

That’s the big idea behind Notes to Boys (And Other Things I Shouldn’t Share in Public). I’ll tell you the most mortifying things I’ve done in the name of teenaged love, and in exchange, I’ll just blindly assume you did pretty much the same. (I mean, we all almost accidentally lost our virginities to a Skinhead, right? No? Just me? It was a small town in Texas, you guys. I didn’t know.)

I’ll remind you of that time when not having the right lunch period could pretty much destroy your social standing. Of those days when your heart could slam into your throat because The One You Love But Does Not Know You Live unexpectedly walked past you in the hall. I will remind you of that time you tried to be a vegan (because you love animals), listened to Metallica (because boys love Metallica), or started an underground newspaper (because you love Pump Up the Volume and Sassy and you are afraid of getting grounded if you put your name on something protesting the dress code).

This is a memoir for the misfits of grunge. For the ones who walked around looking like they’d just left the set of Reality Bites. But it’s also for anybody who is fifteen or was once fifteen or might have to be fifteen someday. It’s both a warning and a little therapy.  I’m sorry it’s so awkward at times. It’s because I didn’t understand how sex worked.


Notes to Boys: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.


20 Comments on “The Big Idea: Pamela Ribon”

  1. This sounds like such a great idea for a book. I’ll mention it to all of my YA writer friends and bookmark it for myself as well.

  2. Oh no! Oh yes! Oh no! (hands sheltering face from air daggers) That could *so* have been the teenaged me! ouch.

  3. I am one of the people in the audience sheltering myself from air daggers.

    The reason I do not have any such notes or diary entries extant is that I read them when I was a little older (in my 20s, probably) and was so horrified that I destroyed them.

  4. Basically, I was Carrie Bradshaw without a nightlife. Veronica Sawyer minus all of the cool.

    Um, Annie Wilkes without the axe????

    Hey, been there. I was a teenager.

  5. You know, I have a secret box filled with the love notes I got from my HS boyfriend. I probably didnt kill myself or try in HS because of these notes and that boy-now-man. They were much like those letters Pamela wrote (perhasp not quitte as creepy) but I adored them because I was in HS and they were the only romance I’d seen live. STill to this day, many, many lovers and a wife later, love that boy-now-man for being so a good guy.

  6. M.A. I would be fifteen again in a heartbeat, IF I can take back to that fifteen year old incarnation of myself all the stuff of 62 years of life crammed into my brain. Who wouldn’t want a massive replay of your life, if you could do the replay with the benefit of your lifetime’s experiences to help you re-navigate adolescense, your twenties, and on.
    Ms. Ribon. I am intrigued enough from perusing your Big Idea comments here to tackle reading your book. Only my time in high school from 1966-1970 did not suck. Not at all. Dad had an MBA and a BBA in accounting from Southern Methodist University. I was college-bound from birth with two parents to drill that idea into my head from before I could walk on two feet. So by the time high school rolled around I had internalized the idea that school was fun, learning was fun, and high school was only prelude to the big show: university. So I do wonder, will I identify (as most readers will) with your teenaged-self protagonist? Care to wager a hot cup of tea, creamed and sugared, in some Dallas cafe on the question?

  7. I slipped two poems in the locker of the boy I had a crush on in high school. One was free verse, the other had a rhyme scheme that I later set to music when I had aspirations of becoming a songwriter.

    I never spoke a word to the object of my desire. Ever. I couldn’t find the nerve to say anything around him, so I poemed him instead.

    Which is to say, boy howdy I’ve been through that thing we call high school and I completely understand the impulse this book chronicles.

  8. There will be an e-book, which should be out any day now, as well as an audiobook sometimes soon.

    Gary R. Willis– I loved school and learning, and college was all I wanted to do with my life ever since I was five. I also knew that the social aspects of high school was something I had to endure to get to my goal. So, I don’t know if you’ll identify, as I don’t know you, but I have to imagine there was at least one day in school where you didn’t feel like you were on your A-game.

  9. yeah, I don’t think there’d be enough money in the world you could pay me to go through high school again.

  10. Ms Ribon Thanks for the reply. I only ranked 82 of my 711 fellow graduates; not even the top 10%, so yes, I had many days I wasn’t on my A-game. As for the social aspects of high school, I was a guy. At the time we were the ones who did all the asking of the young ladies out on dates. All a young lady had to do to get my attention was talk to me. And a letter? Send me a letter? I would have asked you out on a date in a heartbeat.
    Greg Really? Even if you could have in your head all your memories of your life to the present date? Just think how easy the school work would be to do and score straight As. Why being Valedictorian would be a breeze. The payoff would be avoiding all the stupid mistakes you made from lack of life experience the first time through. Of course you could make new mistakes, but how likely is that with all those years of life experience stuck in your head. And you could use your yard-mowing money to invest in the odds at Las Vegas. Invest, I say, because you would know the winners. Why you could be rich by your mid-twenties the second time around.

  11. I’ve been reading Ms. Ribon since her ~squishy days. Do you think anyone ever knows how sex works? Maybe just for them, now, but it is always changing and the unknown stretches ever onward.

  12. You left a paper trail? And then published it? My gut tells me this will read like Nixon’s memoirs. I bet you will be the main topic (along with guessing who were your targets) at your next HS reunion.

  13. Pamela,

    Thanks for sharing this. I look forward to reading your book. I identify with that whole idea of feeling something so strongly in adolescence that you aren’t sure words can encompass it. Ah, perspective.

  14. Oh God. This was me. Except the emotion-soaked, hormone-laden letters (all eight-pages of minute detail of my life!) were to female teachers and I had NO IDEA being queer was even a thing. *hides face in hands* Oh dear. Oh dear.

    I may have to get this book at some point.

  15. Gary R. Willis No I wouldn’t want to be 15 again. HS was OK, and I was shy and geeky.
    But I’ve done it once and that was enough. Yes I’ve learned how not to be shy and slightly less geeky but isn’t that the point of HS social life in the first place? It would be like getting your virginity back, but what’s the point? Was losing it all that? It was fun but sex with experience is better. That sounds like I’m making your point but really Ground Hog Day?

  16. “I mean, we all almost accidentally lost our virginities to a Skinhead, right? No? Just me?”
    Definitely not just you. Fortunately some of us lacked a car to drive the hour and a half to accomplish it.

  17. I can tell merely from this Big Idea article that Ms. Ribon is a very funny author, but that book sounds incredibly painful to read.

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