Writing As Your Younger Self
June 24, 2021 § 6 Comments
When I’m not writing nonfiction and blogs for Brevity, I write Young Adult novels. I’m gonna put modesty aside and say I’m good at it. Specifically, what I’m good at is voice. Teachers and fellow writers have said so, and the people whose opinions I care about most—high school students—have said so, too. “I think that all the time,” one girl whispered to me. “But I didn’t know you could write about it.”
I’ve put a lot of practice into writing fiction, but that’s not the secret sauce that lets me write YA, or essays about my younger years.
It’s not having kids.
Once we have children, I’ve observed, we’re parents. Duh—but parents are different than people.
People remember their childhood. Parents remember their childhood but hope to hell it was better, because they’re watching childhood play out right now, and it’s really, really important that it be a good experience for their own little people. Tragedies fade and blur. Adventures polish up and outshine them. But some of the greatest adventures of our childhood could have been terrible tragedies if chance had gone the other way. Nobody wants to imagine that roulette wheel spinning for their own kid.
Parents see how young children are. In the movie The Tale, based on director Jennifer Fox’s own experiences, the protagonist imagines herself in the past at age 13 as sophisticated, mature, wise beyond her years. She has fond memories of intimacy with her track coach. Then she sees a snapshot of herself at 13, small and childlike. She was a baby! What happened to her wasn’t her “first relationship with a caring older guy,” it was victimization by a predator. Even those of us without children in our homes can see that. But when you have kids, you see the baby first. It’s harder to recapture that feeling of invincibility, grown-up-ness, the sheer power of being young, and feeling beautiful and exciting because you don’t know how young you are.
My writing buddy Jessica Jarlvi says, “Writing Middle Grade has been quite challenging—I have to look through my children’s eyes and see how they’d react to a situation.” Seeing what childhood’s like—experiencing it fully enough to show it on the page—means becoming for a short time the person who thought getting in that guy’s car, lying to your parents, having that drink or smoke, was a great idea. And it’s damn scary to imagine that in your own child’s head. Parents have a biological imperative to believe childhood was, on balance, pretty OK, with maybe a bad moment here or there. We want to think we can create that for our own children, and it goes against every instinct to truly, honestly believe, that your own tragedy wasn’t some exceptional, never-to-be-repeated lightning bolt. It could happen to your kid. It could be happening right now.
Even when we’re not consciously aware of these feelings, they must be moved past to write our younger selves on the page. This is one reason why it’s easier to write childhood memoir in our retirement years. The kids are out of the house. We did the best we could. We’ve heard about some of their near escapes and talked through them—or laughed about them—over wine (they’re old enough to drink! Bizarre!) They’ve mostly survived.
I’ve had the experience Jennifer Fox’s character had in The Tale, of seeing how my outside was wildly different from how I felt on the inside, because I teach circus to K-12 students. Going into the same schools year after year, I see kids cross that threshold from child to not-really-a-child and marveled at how young they still are. They’re stage managing a 150-kid show and handling boxes of uncounted t-shirt cash and protecting each other from falling off the trapeze. Very focused. Very mature. But picturing my 9th-grade boyfriend, age 28, pulling up on his motorcycle outside the gym to pick up one of my trapeze girls? I’d kick his ass.
To successfully write as our younger selves, or as younger characters, we have to let go of the ass-kicking, no matter how righteous our anger. We have to listen to the music we listened to, eat the food we ate, revisit the schools we ruled or crawled through. We have to accept that we took big risks, that we caused or experienced great harm. We have to forgive ourselves for lying, for doing that stupid thing, and see why that felt like the right choice at the time. And we have to let go of imagining all those things happening to kids of our own until the writing session’s done.
Go hug them.
Join Brevity’s Social Media Editor Allison K Williams next week for a free keynote: Writing Memoir for Middle Grade and YA, or the paid masterclass ($20) or roundtable live-editing workshops ($60), June 28 and 29, hosted by the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Editors of Western Washington.