Just hit 100 pages on my first draft of Herbert. Having a blast!

The other morning as I went for a run, I watched some teen girl walking across the street. They were loud and obnoxious. They were flailing and prancing around in their tight jeans and high boots. Hair all fussed up, mouths full of gum, lips fat with gloss. They ruled the world.

I had deja vu right in that moment, or I time traveled, or something. That is totally me, I thought.

Okay 12, 13 years ago. But I saw my teen self so clearly at that moment, and some of my hard repressed teen emotions seeped into my heart. Oh, ugh, I thought. Why can’t I just erase that period from memory and maybe the decade before that too?

I think many adults look back on their teen years, and maybe even much of childhood, with a sort of horror, and hope to distance themselves from the memories as much as possible. I know I often do. Yet as I watched those teen girls, I was suddenly aware of how much I want and need to still know that girl I once was. I want to understand her feelings and thoughts.

As irrational and dramatic as children and teens may seem, I do remember my feelings were very real. Everything was big. Everything I felt was important, and I just wanted to be heard and understood. My feelings and thoughts made complete sense to me, even if I couldn’t explain them to anyone else. And that is why I think writing for teens and children is so important. They deserve a voice too, one that accurately reflects their feelings and also one that can positively influence their malleable psyche.

How do we do that? How can adults do justice to the voices of children? What do writers do to get there?

Memory can help, but memory does not always accurately reflect past events or even present feeling. It can be like reaching through water to grab something that you see very clearly only to find that the object was not where you grabbed. It was two feet away.

Having my own children is helpful, too. I am constantly observing their world and point-of-view, but it is still limiting because I can’t fully see into their minds and know what they’re thinking, and they’re not always articulate enough to be able to tell me. For me, I find the most helpful and really only way to accurately portray a child is to actually be a child again, at least in my mind and heart.

And I do that…how?

I’ve kept journals from the time I was eight. I have somewhere around a dozen (rather large and thick) journals full of my experiences, feelings, and thoughts. Some of my entries are hilarious, some of them I would like to burn, some things I have no memory of, but the experiences were important enough to me in that moment that I wrote them down. It was an outlet for me then, but now it is a time-travel back to the world of my childhood. I read them, and suddenly I remember exactly what it was like to be eight and lock myself in the bathroom so my brother wouldn’t punch me in the nose, or to be fourteen and have such a huge crush I was sure the boy was “the one.” (Yeah, he wasn’t.) I also think, subconsciously, I didn’t want to let myself forget those feelings. Maybe I was just telling my future adult-self not to forget the girl she used to be. It helps me to not dismiss the seemingly irrational mentality of other kids and this informs my writing a great deal. How can I write about kids if I forget what it was like to be one?

If you write from the teen or child point-of-view, what do you do to make sure the point-of-view is authentic and age appropriate? Or even if you’re writing from the adult point-of-view, how do you write a character whose life experience is very different from your own?

p.s. My husband would have me add that I have the benefit of being married to an over-grown five-year-old, who will forever allow me to see into the heart and mind of little boys. Thank you dear.


8 comments

  1. Honoring childhood is so important to my writing. I think we are quick to brush of childhood experiences and emotions (“He won’t remember,” or “It’s just puppy love, ” or “Kids are resilient.”) when, honestly, those are the very things that in many ways shape our lives.

    • ali

    • October 26, 2010

    • 5:06 pm

    ROFL to that last line! *waving at hubby!*

    Honestly, I don’t know how we can accurately get the voice of a child/teen. For me, I kind of think that writers have a unique gift, an ability to live both in the past and in the present (and the future too!) Our feelings from childhood are so real to us still, that we can recall them with a snap of our fingers.

    Also, I truly love young people. I feel I can relate to them. Not in the typical “let me tell you what to do” grown up way, but in the “I totally remember that feeling” way.

    Maybe none of it is real. Maybe I don’t get child/teen voices like I think I do. But … this is all I’ve got!

    Great post, Liesl!

  2. Hahahahaha. I love this.

    Although I hope I’m not too irrational and dramatic, who knows? Maybe someday I’ll look back at my seventeen year old self and think, dear lord, why did she do that? Why did she wear those heels to school? What was the point of that fight with her best friend?

    Anyways, I just found out I’m going to the SCBWI conference on November 13th. I have an education fund at the bank, and my parents discovered I can get more financial aid from colleges if I spend that money before January. I hope you’re still going!

  3. Those journals are such a treasure trove, Liesl. I wish I had such a collection. (I have about the same number, but most of them don’t have more than a dozen pages filled:) )

    I think I write children’s literature because that’s the only stage of life I feel like I understand. The older I get, the more I think I could write adult fiction, but it’s all about having a base of experience to draw from. When I was twelve, I was trying to write about twenty-something super spies, and that didn’t work out so well. Big surprise, I know:)

    Thanks for sharing this with us, Liesl. Wonderful post.

  4. I find that if I pay close attention to all my feelings now (I’m 26), they’re not so different than those uber-dramatic ones I had as a teenager. They’re really just muted. When I write YA, I allow more of the characters feelings to come through in the writing- so she’s feeling what “I” would be if “I” were “her” and I’m just not really censoring. I let my character act like I’d act today if I was maybe a little extra tired or having a really bad day. That’s pretty much me as a teenager. 😉 I should add, the core of all characterization, for me, is about desire. All my characters want something, and desire is such an easy thing for me to relate to- so keeping in touch with what they want and what that means to them helps keep the writing really honest- even if what they want is to kiss the first chair trombone player in high school band.

    • Liesl

    • October 26, 2010

    • 8:47 pm

    Kate, you are not the typical teen as far as I have seen. You’re what I’d call and “old soul.” I am so glad you’re going to the conference! Yes, I am still going. I’d love to sit by you if you’re not too popular. 🙂

    Caroline, you are so right. I think kids just need to be validated, even if we can’t change anything, the least we can do is tell them that their feelings are valid.

  5. Yes! Please sit by me!
    Hahahaha popularity doesn’t generally occur when you don’t know anyone….

  6. You know, I just noticed this recently as I was reading Percy Jackson. One of my favorite things about those books is that his voice is so authentic. He doesn’t wax eloquent about the scenery, but his description and thought processes are appropriate for a teenage boy.

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