Writing a Childhood Through an Adult Lens

When I was a kid, I loved looking through our photo albums. I would sit on the floor and flip through page after page of the Kodak square images from the 1970s, depicting life with me as a baby, toddler, and preschooler, then later with the addtion of my younger brother. 

The images became so familiar, they were indistinguishable in my mind from actual memories. Did I remember playing on the backyard swingset? Or did I remember the pictures of me playing on the backyard swingset? 

This question never really mattered until I revisited those albums recently. Exhausted from revisiting the same stories over and over, I was trying to trigger memories for new writing. But the memory that was triggered was of me at age 12, 14, 16, flipping through these same albums. 

Something interesting did happen, though. 

As I looked anew at old pictures – me on the swingset, me on my bike, me wearing swim goggles with my nightgown on the couch (why?!) – I looked closely at my face. In almost every picture, I was grinning ear to ear; in some I was obviously belly-laughing. 

“Was I really that happy as a kid?” I asked my mom over coffee. 

“Yeah, you were,” she replied. “You were really happy.” 

This shocked me. I am an adult with decades behind me of overwhelming anxiety, depression, perfectionism, indecision, and running away from hard things. I rarely belly-laugh. 

You were really happy. 

Of course, many things might explain this change, hormones and experiences at the top of the list. 

But this struck me as a fascinating creative consideration, too. 

When I write about my childhood, I always look at it through the lens of my adult mind. 

There is no way to turn off our adult minds and revert to childhood perspective (although, what a joy that would be!)  But as writers we must remember that this is what we are doing. 

I am in the midst of a first draft of a memoir about my relationship with my father. The events I’m writing about mosty happened when I was a teenager. 

I am writing them through the lens of a 46-year-old, because that is the lens I have to work with. But I have to stay aware that this is what I am doing. I can’t insert my adult thinking into that teenaged version of myself. And I have to ask myself some questions with each and every internal detail I add.

Questions such as: 

  • Did I really think [this] at age 16? 
  • Did I believe he meant [this] then, or do I think he meant [this] now?
  • Did I feel [this way] then, or do I feel it in hindsight?

There is no one way to approach writing about long-ago memories. But I believe that if I can be open and curious about which perspective I am taking – that of the child version or of the adult version – and then intentionally choose my words to make this clear to the reader, the entire piece of writing will become more honest. 

Photo by Fancycrave.com from Pexels

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