Using Childhood Memories In Fiction

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A couple of weeks ago I attended a talk at the Bath Children’s Literature Festival by David Almond and Nadia Budde. The pair discussed their recent books and how they were influenced by incidents of their childhoods. The talk was inspiring and reminded me that I could use my own childhood experiences in my writing. Memories can be used to create a character based on a real life acquaintance, to borrow realistic settings and to craft a narrative that is a mix of real life happenings and fiction. David Almond’s novels take place in the area he grew up in, and Nadia Budde included elements of her childhood spent behind the Berlin Wall in her latest book.

It made me think about when you smell or hear something from your childhood, those memories come back to you and for a moment you feel like the person you were the exact second you smelled or heard those things. This happens to me when I open books I used to read, and younger versions of myself are still clinging to the pages, and I remember how that particular story made me feel and what sort of heartbreak or happiness I was going through at that point of my life. It is fascinating how the brain divides these sensations into compartments, locking away all these different selves at different ages, and the key comes in the shape of something familiar that triggers it all over again. If we can harness these fleeting remnants of past life, we can use them to create authentic stories with memorable characters readers can relate to.

The authors discussed why childhood experiences are so vivid, and how we can remember such tiny details, like the ripples on the water at the park or the tangy taste of the cat biscuits you knew should not be in your mouth.  Perhaps it is because when you are a child life is so new, and we are seeing things for the very first time.

A question brought up at the talk was: Do children romanticise adulthood the way we do childhood? Perhaps not, because childhood is something we miss years later, yet adulthood is rarely considered by children. They are without a sense of time, absorbed in fleeting moments that seem to them as forever lasting, and are too preoccupied to think about what might happen when they become  “grown- ups”, which seems light-years away. Childhood is a whole world of innocence and simplicity that adults cannot penetrate and that all children must eventually leave. One step out and they cannot find their way back in. And suddenly the place they used to belong to becomes hazy, and time takes on a different scale, and things are not magical anymore. The nagging feeling arrives, that one constantly reminding you there is something you have to do, something to worry about. Suddenly, all things must have a purpose, or else be a waste of time. Time. We suddenly look at clocks. Count the minutes. Have place to be. We are afraid of being late. And that blissful feeling and question “what shall I do today?” is gone. And you don’t get it back.

Children live with belief, not reason. Despite their tendency to question everything, they are happy to accept that a dragon lives at the end of the road and that Grandma is a witch (a nice one, of course.) Remember just how magical the world seemed? Their lack of reasoning gives the feeling that there are endless possibilities, and that you really can do anything. This fades with childhood, often giving place to a lack of confidence and pessimism.

I must share with you a beautiful book that takes us straight back to childhood, “The Night Rainbow” by Claire King. The story is from the point of view of five year old Peony, and I was struck by her ability to see minor details adults would never notice, her innocent way of saying things and the twist and the end of the book that shows us just how real childhood imagination is. The author gets into the heads of children and portrays their marvellous insouciance and pure viewpoint with thoughts like:

  • “She turns her back to us, starting up the stairs slowly, her legs shaking with every step.
    I think she forgot to put her skeleton in, says Margot.”
  • “Maman walks ahead, leaning back as she goes down the hill, walking so fast her hair can’t keep up.”
  • “Boys have to wear brown, grey and blue and girls have to wear the beautiful colours.”

Perhaps by looking at life through a child’s eyes, or through the eyes of the children we all used to be, we can appreciate the details and forget the trivial things that take up so much space in our lives. It could not also make us better writers, but also make us better at living, better at appreciating, better at empathising, better at believing. Perhaps it would help us bring a bit of magic along with us from the utopia we call childhood.

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1 Comment

  1. Some time ago I said something to my mother which triggered a memory from long ago. She described it as if she were still there – the sounds, the feelings, fear and laughter. Talking with older people can give useful and sometimes surprising insights into life in earlier times. How I wish I’d listened more to my grandmother!

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