Friday, June 24, 2011

Mining the past

Now that I'm working on a young adult novel, I've found myself thinking about high school and trying to remember what it was like to be a teenager all those years ago. Grades were important to me then, as was band (I was definitely a bank geek!), but boys made my "Things That Matter to Me" list as well. I dated one guy, Greg, during my last two years of high school and while I was studying for my undergraduate degree, and it was a relationship that we both thought would last forever. We talked marriage and kids... I shake my head when I think of that now. We were so young and knew so little about life and love and what "forever" really meant. Still, the memories I have of the relationship are mainly good ones, and unearthing those experiences has been both fun and useful for my writing.

Greg inspired this 100-words exercise I wrote last February:

I've thought about my high school boyfriend occasionally throughout the years, and sometimes I wonder what life would have been like if we had stayed together. We dated for six years--two years of high school and four of college--and I was the one to end the relationship. I was restless, fearful of becoming so comfortable with life that I would miss out on whatever it was that could be ahead for me. I've always felt bad about the way I ended things. He's a good person, and I hear he's doing well. I'm happy for him.

Do you ever think about your high school relationships? What about that girl you thought was out of your league or that guy you'd had a crush on for years but were afraid to ask out?  There's such a rich mine of writing material to be found in our pasts! How do you use your memories to add realism to your writing?


  1. Aaah, my only high school relationship was with a boy I dated from 15-18. Because I did high school in three years, (a) I didn't pay much attention to the kids around me and (b) that period encompassed my sophomore year of high school through half of my first year at university. We, too, thought we'd be together forever, but familial disputes were something we decided we weren't interested in facing for the rest of our lives. (Fortunately!) I'd say we write each other once a year in addition to being Facebook friends. I didn't date much in college or law school, so . . . that was by far my most significant relationship prior to the one I have with Ba.D.!

    I don't know if you read that poem "An Uncomplicated House" about my mom and mental illness, but the line about "packed my backs, grew young and moved on" is absolutely reflective of my life. I was so serious and sad when I was younger; my late teen years through moving to L.A. for law school were really the point where I started reading YA and embracing the sweetness of youth. Now, when I write about the lighter stuff, that's the me of now . . . but the darker stuff? That draws on my earlier life.

  2. I actually enjoyed high school, but I don't find myself reminiscing too much. I was awkward and if I lingered on past memories of that time I'm sure I'd spend a lot of time shaking my head and wondering what in the world I was thinking back then!

  3. Deb: It's all about hindsight, I guess. I look back at the years I spent with Greg and realize that even though we shared so much, there was really no way we could be together "forever." I don't have any contact with him now, although he's one of my sister's Facebook friends, so occasionally she'll give me updates on him. He's doing well--married with four girls--and I'm glad, but I think there will always be a small part of me that wonders what if?

    Steven, welcome to my blog! I was awkward in high school, too, and when I think back to it, I often have those "what was I thinking" thoughts you mentioned. Now that I'm writing YA, memories of those years are coming back to me, and even though some of the stuff I did (and endured) is embarrassing, I'm trying my best to embrace it and use it in my writing. But yes, I cringe. I definitely cringe! :)

  4. I think to an extent yeah, I do rely on my past experiences in high school. Just like I rely on all of my past experiences when writing. In high school I was an awkward kid who hung out with theater kids, but wasn't a theater kid myself. My junior year I transferred from my 7,000 student high school to a nontraditional school where I did my work at home and went in once a week to test. You know, if I went at all.

    But I think it's important to rely on your experiences from high school because, for a lot of people, high school is such an important part in their young adult lives. Even if you're not writing young adult, c'mon, your character has to have a past to be who they are. The relationship that you spent years in that turned ugly, the time spent searching for gas stations that wouldn't card for cigarettes, the nights you lied about where you were to impress that one guy at the party.

  5. I agree that it's important to rely on what we experienced in high school. To a teenager, high school is the world--everything is important. So many of the things that don't seem crucial as I look back were so critical when I was experiencing them. It's good to remember that as I write.

    I love what you said about using high school memories for all genres, not just YA. You're absolutely right that all of those experiences shape us--and we should use them to shape our characters as well. We can make them real that way.

    Thanks for your insightful comments!