Like a Child

Writing from a child’s perspective is one of the greatest challenges of memoir writing. Almost all memoirs begin with the writer’s early stages of life, and for good reason: pivotal moments in your early years shaped the person you became. In fact, if you are writing a memoir and haven’t mentioned your childhood at all, chances are that you should.

There are two ways writing in this perspective can go wrong.

  1. Too childlike. Your reader is (probably) not a child. Writing like a child will annoy your reader. Dialogue, however, is immune to this problem. Anybody can say whatever they want, but the narrator (you) does not have that luxury. You are probably tempted to capture that childish innocence, the joy and the fear, that you felt. The truth is that you can’t. You are an adult. Your vocabulary is huge, comparatively speaking. Your range of expression cannot and should not be held back. To recap: It’s annoying. Don’t write like a child unless you are one.
  1. Too distant. The reason you are writing a memoir, especially one about your childhood, is most likely that you have been through hardships. As readers, we appreciate that you don’t want to get too sappy with us. All of our lives are hard and we don’t want to read your whinings. However, simply recounting facts does not make a memoir. Memoir readers want a book that reads like fiction, not a dictionary.

It’s the difference between a death announcement and an obituary. We want neither. Give us something in between.

It is magic when a memoirist accurately portrays childhood events and thinking with the clarity (and even, in a way, detachment) that the memoirist has achieved as an adult. It is as if he or she, as an adult, is watching, a neutral observer in the events, the traumas, and the joys of childhood. The adult perspective acknowledges the horrors of his or her past with maturity, acceptance, and growth: These things happened, I write, and you are welcome to keep reading to find out how I got from There to Here.

Jeannette Walls, author of The Glass Castle, is a master of this technique. Her memoir has been widely recognized.

One of my favorite memoirs, which I read at age twelve, greatly affected me as a beautiful piece of literature, but has been for the most part overlooked. I have never come across another person who has read it (before I told them to, anyway). The Unwanted, by Kien Nguyen, is the story of the author’s childhood in the aftermath of the war in Vietnam. One scene in particular I will never forget. Nguyen, who was a young boy at the time, recounts bullies using his beloved dog as a football. Nguyen recounts lying on the floor for hours, thinking nothing as his dog is killed. The scene was graphic and emotional, but tastefully so. The trauma this young boy underwent could have been told much differently, but the adult Nguyen tones down the scene and removes himself ever so slightly from the intense emotions he surely felt at the time and which the reader empathizes with. He tells this story with heartbreaking simplicity and eloquence that has haunted me for years.

Consider the passage of time a gift, a literary technique you can use to entrance, to haunt, to compel your readers to find out who you were and who you became.