Capturing Childhood/Engaging the Adult Reader

The world of childhood is terrific material for writers, both memoirists and fiction writers and everyone in-between.  We all went through childhood, after all, so we can relate, and we know childhood to be intense, sensual, weighty.  Does anyone buy the myth of a happy childhood anymore?  Well, certainly some childhoods are happier than others, but regardless of how lucky we were in this regard, we usually can identify with children’s pain.  We “get” as adults how much things can hurt, how innocent or unprotected by our adult coping skills children can be.  We also can relish the freshness of experiences, the wonder of it all.  We seem drawn to see the world again through the eyes of children — and often that world, in writing, is more vivid than the one we experience through our own present weary vision.  Children are not “lesser” humans; they’re just at a different stage of the life experience.  They have the same ability to feel things (sometimes more intensely) and to have a whole consciousness, albeit not a particularly verbal one.  Therein lies the problem.  We didn’t have much language as young children; it was all sensation.  So the challenge for the writer of childhood stories is to capture the non-verbal felt experience of children while still appealing to the adult verbally sophisticated reader.

Begin to notice, as you read pieces about children, from a child’s point of view, how there is often (always?  I don’t know) the sense of the adult narrator, either overtly looking back (“I remember…”) or there as a kind of omniscient presence, setting the scene or providing the descriptive language that the child would not have had for herself at the time of the experience.  There seems always to be this dual or double voice in childhood stories.  It is hard to come up with a story in which there isn’t this adult intervention in the material at some level, in some way.  That’s because, I suppose, there is an adult WRITING the material.  And that adult is speaking to other adults, not other children.  And the writer has the possibility to both capture what it felt like to be a child and at the same time to be interpreting or shaping or even commenting on that experience from the adult perspective.

Let me say, too, that these two perspectives (the child’s and the adult’s) do not always have to be singing duet.  Sometimes they have “solos” by themselves in the piece or story.  And one may be much more pronounced than the other.  And in that sense, this is another “voice” lesson because again it’s a matter of finding the right voice that will let you tell the story.  In this case, finding the voice has to do with finding the right combination of adult and child, of finding a method to do what you want to accomplish.

Let’s look at some examples:

Angela’s Ashes is a brilliant memoir about an horribly impoverished childhood.  Readers have responded to this book by making it a best seller, and it has won about every prize there is.  A lot of the appeal is how authentic the child feels in this book, how close to childhood we get.  BUT — it isn’t all written in just the child’s voice and perspective.  It seems significant that the voice that begins the book is very much the adult narrator’s, whom we trust to shape the material for us, to tell the story, to write the book.  From the second paragraph of the book: “When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all.”  Clearly this is the adult looking back, and reflecting. We get the sense that he has absorbed his experience, and is now going to recount it for us, having made some sense of it.   A lot of the rest of the book is the “showing” of that childhood.  A few pages later, after a section break, McCourt goes right into a pure child voice:  “I’m in a playground on Classon Avenue in Brooklyn with my brother, Malachy.  He’s two, I’m three.  We’re on the seesaw.

Up, down, up, down.

Malachy goes up.

I get off.

Malachy goes down.  Seesaw hits the ground. He screams. His hand is on his mouth and there’s blood.

Oh, God.  Blood is bad.  My mother will kill me.

And here she is, trying to run across the playground. Her big belly slows her.”

This is practically “See Dick run” type writing.  Very simple sentences.  Experiential.  Present tense.  We’re right there with the child.  And from there on the book takes off in this present tense child’s voice (for much — but not all — of it).  The interesting question is, What would it have been like to start the book off like this?  To write it all, from the start like this?  What difference would it have made?  A lot, I think.  We need that sense, in this book, of someone telling us a story, framing the material with something in mind, not just pure sensation.  We first communicate with an adult about the childhood we will soon experience.

Likewise, in Mary Karr’s very successful memoir, “The Liar’s Club,” the story is framed and narrated by an adult looking back.  “My sharpest memory is of a single instant surrounded by dark.  I was seven, and our family doctor knelt before me where I sat on a mattress on the bare floor.  He wore a yellow golf shirt unbuttoned so that sprouts of hair showed in a V shape on his chest.  I had never seen him in anything but a while starched shirt and a gray tie.  The change unnerved me…”  This opens the book, and we hear both the adult narrator and the child who is experiencing the moment (“sprouts of hair showed…”).  Obviously both the language and the commentary is not that of a seven year old (“unnerved me”).  But we will accept this adult commentator if we also feel we’re really getting the scene, the experience of the child.  Her details are concrete and sensory and original and therefore make us feel we’re experiencing the moment along with the child, even though we’re aware we’re “hearing” the narrator too.  The classic duet.

What about fiction, however?  Those two examples are from memoir, and it’s easier to see how the duel perspective works in memoir, since someone is looking back.  Well, some “fictional” stories about childhood are written in memoiristic style.  I put “fictional” in quotes, because we don’t always know how autobiographical a short story is, or which parts of it are.  Few arise purely from imagination, of course (whatever THAT is).  “The Secret of Cartwheels” is a short story that appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and then was reprinted in Best Short Stories of 1990.  In her bio notes, Patricia Henley says it’s her “most autobiographical story.”  It opens scenically, with just the perspective of the little girl protagonist:  “The winesap trees along the road were skeletal in the early evening light.  I stared out the school bus window and cupped like a baby chick the news I looked forward to telling Mother: I’d decided on my confirmation name.

‘What’s nine times seven?’ my sister Jan Mary said.

‘Sixty-three,’ I said.  Joan.  That was Mother’s confirmation name, and I wanted it to be mine as well.  She’d told me it was a name of strength, a name to carry you into battle.”

Later in the story, the narrator says: “When I remember those years at home, this is one of the things I focus on: how nothing ever matched — not sheets, not barrettes, not cups and saucers, not socks.  And sometimes I think the sad and petty effort to have matching things has been one of the chief concerns of my adult life.”  That’s the adult narrator speaking to the adult reader.

Of course you may not want the adult narrator to be so overt.  It’s possible to make the story more experiential than reflective; to have it unfold as if it is happening, not being remembered.

Here’s the opening of Julie Schumacher’s “The Private Life of Robert Schumann”:  “Before Mr. Zinn came to teach us music, we were bored every Wednesday and Friday afternoon.  We’d had to study with a woman named Miss Fox, who scratched herself with a pointer, and who died of a heart attack one day in the coatroom, clutching the sleeves of a dozen jackets in her arms.  With Miss Fox we’d had to learn “This Land is Your Land” and the national anthem on two different instruments: we had a choice of the autoharp, the recorder, the triangle, and a pair of blocks.  The blocks had sandpaper stapled to their sides.  If you couldn’t play you had to sing, so most of us banged and strummed away, while Miss Fox counted time at the front of the room, her worn heart pounding away like a tired drum.”

What do you notice about this passage?  It draws you in and holds your attention by the strong, specific writing — the details pin you to the page.  And of course, that’s the writer working the material, writing.  It isn’t the girl speaking, though we assume we hear her voice — and we do, but “written” by the author, who is working hard.  Is it the young girl’s language or idea that Miss Fox’s worn heart “pounded like a tired drum.”  No, not really.  That’s a simile, that’s writing — so — the girl has the sensation but the narrator/author has the language.

Also, it seems important to note that this is in the past tense.  The present tense, the tense of childhood sensation and immediacy, isn’t always the tense of story.  Using the past tense probably makes it easier for the writer to create the consciousness of the girl without having to write like the girl speaks/thinks, in an immature way (only because of underdeveloped language skills, not because of underdeveloped consciousness).  The author doesn’t fall into BEING the girl exactly.  Or it’s that this dual business goes on, of both being the girl, experiencing the story through her and with her; and being the author, writing the story, keeping an eye on the adult reader and her needs as well as the needs of the story.

One more fictional example: from The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy.  In a novel that beautifully renders what it feels like to be little children, Roy sometimes experiments with language to try to get at the non-verbal experience of children:  “”She turned to wave across the slipperoily marble floor at Estha Alone (with a comb), in his beige and pointy shoes.  Estha  waited in the dirty marble lobby with the lonely, watching mirrors till the red door took his sister away.”  But there is always a sense of the author/narrator providing information where needed, shaping the material, coming in when needed.  For example, the chapter opens, “Abhilash Talkies advertised itself as the first cinema hall in Kerala with a 70 mm CinemaScope screen.  To drive home the point, its facade had been designed as a cement replica of a curved CinemaScope screen…”  This is the omniscient narrator setting the scene, and then the children’s point of view takes over, but the narrator always remains in control, shaping, selecting, watching to make sure things work in terms of the effect she has in mind.

So in writing out of childhood, it seems important to be more than just the experiencing child.  I’m sure there are some stories in which there is just the experiencing child but the only one I can think of is James Joyce’s opening to Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in which he purposefully tried to capture the pure sensation of non-verbal childhood.  It opens “Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo….

His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.

He was a baby tuckoo.  The moocow came down the road where Betty Byrne lived: she sold lemon platt….”

But in general, stories about childhood involve not only the childhood perspective but an adult perspective, either in the form of an “I” narrator looking back, or in a shaping kind of omniscient narrator who knows the story and is telling it in adult language, so that we’re vaguely aware of that other presence behind the story, the author.  But these are not “rules” to be followed, but rather food for thought, so that as you read childhood stories and memoirs, you’ll pay attention to what is going on in the writing. And remember, you can do whatever you can get away with.  You get to decide what effects you want, what you’re trying to accomplish, what your vision is.  You get to be the authority behind your own work.  You pay attention to what others do, you learn from them, but then you get to do what you want to do, and you find your own means to do that.

Exercise:   Here is a list of words.  Beside each one write down a childhood memory or association.





Or: make a memory chain by writing, “I remember….” and writing down a childhood memory, and then returning to “I remember…” and just let as many different memories come to you as will, writing quickly and without filling in the details, just brainstorming, returning again and again to “I remember”.

Now, take one of the generated memories, and practice writing it two ways.  First, write it in first person present tense, as if you’re reliving it, without trying for a narrator.  “I am standing on our front porch watching the rain come down in hard spears…”

Next, consciously try to inject a sense of a narrator looking back at this experience.  Use the past tense.  Try to sing the duet of both the child’s experience and the adult’s language and maybe interpretation/ reflection on it.  In other words, search for a different voice for the same material.  “The summer I turned ten, I stood (or “I remember standing”) on the front porch watching the rain come down….”

In what ways are these two versions different?  What does either allow you to do that the other doesn’t?  Which feels like your natural voice?  Easiest for you?  Why?