Writing about one’s youth requires using the right voice

In writing a coming-of-age story, the voice of the narrator is crucial to nail.

Either your young narrator only knows as much as she would know at that time in her life or she is looking back on her youth with the wisdom of an adult.

Author Anne Panning successfully captures the believable voice of an 11-year-old in “Butter” without making her look stupid or unsophisticated. Here’s a scene where the protagonist, Iris, tries to make sense of her mother’s miscarriage (a word she doesn’t know) and the news her family is expanding:

“Iris,” my father said, hugging me around the shoulders, “you’re going to get a brother soon. Adam.”

I looked at my mother to check if this was true. She nodded several times, smiled, and came to hug me. We were all three crammed up on one chair, but I wasn’t sure I understood.

“How?” I asked. “How are we getting him?” I thought of the bleeding Melanie had told me about, how there had already been a baby inside my mother that had died.

“We’re adopting him, just like you,” may mother said. “It’ll take a while, but we’re so lucky, all of us. Aren’t we lucky, Iris? It’s going to be so much fun.”

“To check if it was true” and “crammed” capture the diction of a prepubescent.

On the other hand, Tina Fey looks back on her own awkward childhood in “Bossypants” with humor and humility:

Tristan would egg me on to trash-talk the little blondie who had “stolen” my boyfriend. Of course I know now that no one can “steal” boyfriends against their will, not even Angelina Jolie itself. But I was filled with a poisonous, pointless teenage jealousy, which, when combined with gay cattiness, can be intoxicating. Like mean meth.

Using “I know now” helps the reader see the understanding that developed between one’s teenage years and adulthood.

In my work in progress, I’m writing about the year I turned 15 and learned to French kiss. I’m vacillating between using the language I used at 15 (“Oh for gross!!! It was the pits! Gross! Dirty! That was the first time I ever kissed a boy, and I am so sad it happened on a dare”) and using the language of a 46-year-old who knows better (“I admired Valerie for her never-say-die attitude, but she scared me sometimes, too. Maybe she was so bold because she lived in a home without a dad, and none of my other friends lived in situations like that”).

I’ve found it’s difficult to maintain a developmentally appropriate context without allowing one’s adult experiences and knowledge to intrude.

Since creating a likeable protagonist is necessary for enticing the reader, finding the right voice is important. What’s exciting for a memoirist looking back is working out personal and psychological issues on the page so that the reader (and the writer for that matter) experience what the character experiences. When crafted appropriately, the young voice can appeal to a broader audience – both those going through adolescence and those of us who made it through alive.

More about “Butter”:

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One thought on “Writing about one’s youth requires using the right voice

  1. Pingback: ‘Butter’ captures the small-town flavor of the 1970s | Minnesota Transplant

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