A few days ago, I made the following post on Facebook:
One of my boyhood friends died yesterday (here we are in the middle row of this photo: I, on the far left with my arm over my eyes, and he, on the far right wearing a white T-shirt). Although I hadn’t seen him or talked to him in many, many years, the news saddens me because once upon a time we were pals who looked forward to seeing each other. When you grow up in the country, your circle of friends is small, and the absence of one can be deeply felt, as it is now. We rode our bikes over the gravel roads between our two farmhouses. We explored haymows and woodlands, shot BB guns, played “Button, Button, Who’s Got the Button” at each other’s birthday parties. When I heard that he’d died, I remembered him the way he was when he was a boy and the way I was when I was a boy. I remember calling him on the phone. “Can you come over?” I asked, and he said, “Hold on. I’ll ask my mom.” I waited. Like me, he was an only child; we were eager for companionship. “She said yes,” he told me when he came back to the phone. “Hurry,” I said. Then I went to stand in my front yard so I could look down our lane, my heart thrilling at the first sign of him bent over the handlebars of his bicycle, pedaling fast, both of us ready for our day’s adventures to begin.
I was touched by the responses to this post and the expressions of sympathy, perhaps guiltily so because as I made plain I’d had no contact with this boyhood friend for many, many years. In fact, I can’t claim to know the man he became, only the boy that I remember from childhood. It’s that boy for whom I grieve. One response to my post, this from the poet, Cathryn Essinger, seems particularly relevant. “At any given moment we are all of the people we have ever been,” she wrote, “but mostly we are forever children.”
Cathy’s thoughts about the eternal children inside us make me think of the importance of that awareness, not only to the people we are but to the writers we are as well. As we age and hone our craft, we often develop a vision that’s more ironic, worldlier, more sophisticated, and we can use that vision toward good effect as we explore more fully in our work the nuances of the lived life. Still, we shouldn’t forget the raw emotions of childhood—those fears, joys, disappointments, sorrows that showed us that we could feel and feel intensely, that our tears, our dreads, our shouts of glee, were valid responses to the world around us. Sometimes real life comes along, as it did for me a few days ago, and reminds us of that.
Do you remember your public displays of emotion from your childhoods? The times you cried, the times you went silly with joy, the times you got unreasonably angry and lashed out or threw a tantrum? If you’re like me, it embarrasses you just a tad to recall the specifics. Discomfort is good for a writer. Don’t be afraid of the children you were. Don’t be afraid to feel what you felt then. I bet you weren’t embarrassed by your emotions at the time; you were too busy feeling what you felt. Now as a writer, if you can tap into those raw emotions from childhood, even if not replicating the events that sparked them, you can create a more genuine experience for your reader. Sometimes we’re tempted to run away from these emotions in our writing. Sometimes we rely on tricks of language to substitute for authentic feeling, but we can wade into that messy emotional territory while still having the aesthetic distance necessary to shape it, as Robert Hayden does in his poem, “Those Winter Sundays”:
Those Winter Sundays
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
Notice the direct gathering of facts—the cold, the cracked hands, the banked fires, the polishing of the good shoes. Notice how those details wouldn’t resonate if Hayden didn’t allow the expression of emotion when the speaker says, “No one ever thanked him.” That and “What did I know, what did I know.” In the caesura, we hear the catching of the breath, the choked emotion, the hard thing felt.
I fear that when we come to the page as more experienced writers, we sometimes forget what it was to feel the hard emotions in our childhoods. Maybe we need to daydream more, to travel back into the past, to revisit those uncomfortable moments, to feel again, as Cathy points out, the children we are inside.