Dig Deep & Mine Your Mind
After I read a middle-grade novel, I take time to reflect, to “read” it on a deeper level. If it’s been a particularly good book, I think about the main character’s motivations, actions and emotions throughout the book and reflect on what was captured from the writer’s own childhood.
Seldom do I really know the answer to this, of course, but I can guess. The confirmation comes back every time: those who write good middle-grade books know their own childhood. They remember what it felt like to be bullied, popular, left out, friendless, feeling stupid, resisting or clinging to parents. What it was like having younger or older siblings and relationships with them.
This kind of inside job—digging mentally into one’s own childhood—is endemic for writers of children’s lit. It’s not easy. I think back to fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh grades, the terrain of my own writing.
I remember the “little” events, like Mom’s regular chili on Friday night–a tradition of delicious food and when we all gathered (us siblings are spread out in age over a 17-year span). Then I go deeper, recalling the my Friday satisfaction of another school week done, two free days ahead, the fun family conversations on Friday nights and togetherness we felt.
Sometimes I think I’ve remembered everything there is to remember.
Sometimes I look through my old photos to try to eke out new memories, things I’d forgotten all this time.
Sometimes I simply imagine within the context of memory. What this means is focusing on one particular item and trying to figure out what was going on at a level I couldn’t see at the time. I can look at a photo and think, “Yes, that girl did come to school dirty every day.” Then I picture the inside of her house, where I’d never been, and developed a scenario. Her parents didn’t value personal hygiene. They were poor. There were serious troubles at home, perhaps an alcoholic father or negligent mother.
I’ll do this with my own family’s common events. I can think, “What did my oldest brother think when Mom gave me money to buy candy and records, knowing he didn’t get that at my age?” (my dad made more money when we younger sibs grew up). Or, “When that happened, I know how I felt, but how did my little sister feel, or my older siblings? What was going through their minds?” Then I imagine the answer.
In a way you are creating another fiction, but a fitting one. You can ask your family, or even childhood friends if you think they would remember or care. The important process is to pull yourself back into time and toy with people, places, circumstances, and actions that you have not fully remembered, and might be only retrofitting the emotions of that time.
Your own past is a rich mine of knowledge when it comes to understanding that emotional terrain. It builds your children’s writing and serves you well. There might be fruits you gather but do not use. They are not wasted, though, because your mind is circling those years, sniffing out the motivations, actions and emotions that fertilize your own story.
This is not an easy process. Sometimes it’s not even cathartic. After all, you’re not trying to give yourself therapy. You’re doing research, the deep inner study that can’t be had by a class, advisor, or anyone else.
It’s all you, and only you can do it.
The process is worth it. So worth it.