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Digging for Perspective

April 12, 2010

Fifteen and goofing off for the camera (note the typewriter on the desk in the background)

Getting into the skin of your characters isn’t always easy. For the past year I’ve been trying to touch base with a character who keeps ducking away from me at the last moment.

The story which revolves around her came to me last year after I met up with a guy I’d gone to high school with. We hadn’t seen each other in twenty years and I was pretty sure we’d never actually had a conversation, so immobilised I was by my crush on him (and the fact he had a girlfriend). It is quite possible up until that lunch date I’d never uttered more than a ‘hello’ to him.

The crush was an easy to fess up on Facebook at midnight (and twenty years removed from the event). When we did get together in person it was amazing to enjoy a conversation and lots of story telling without the pressure of adolescent desire or peer censor. The thing which struck me the most, and this isn’t the first time this has happened, is having the opportunity to see your life through someone else’s eyes.

It makes me wonder if this is the experience of those characters we write about? It is certainly a humbling way to get perspective.

Since that meeting I’ve been gestating the idea. Other than time, the only thing holding me back from writing is my reticence at being able to write with a genuine teenage perspective. When I get a handle on this I’m certain the character will step up and make herself known to me properly and we can move past this shadow-boxing version of writing.

But how do you go about getting a teenage perspective? And do we as adults really want to go back there?

I guess I’m rather lucky. Much of my teenage years are well documented in diaries, letters and photo albums. I’m planning in the next few months to repatriate the teenage letters of my friends in the hope I will be able to get mine back. A return trip to Victoria (where I spent a good chunk of my teenage years) next month looks promising also as plans fall into place to catch up with my old girlfriends from that time. We’ll laugh, we’ll cringe and possibly even shed a few tears and I’ll be mentally filing it away.

Sometimes things just come to you though.

Last month I read Richard Jay Parker’s debut thriller “Stop Me”, which seems like a rather unlikely place to trip over a teenage recollection.  It turns out Parker’s main character Leo and I share some rather odd behaviours, which until reading the book, I’d totally forgotten about.

In the book Leo is bereft and barely functioning after the disappearance and suspected murder of his wife, Laura, and falls into the obsession of superstitious thinking. What’s superstitious thinking – in Leo’s and my case, its not simply about black cats.

“He looked at the telephone for a while and marvelled at how long the person on the other end was waiting for an answer. Whoever it was knew what it took.

If they ring off before I reach it, Laura is alive.

He picked it up.

“Leo. It’s Matty…”

The first time I read one of these lines of thinking it was as though Parker had cast the torch beam about and found pay dirt in a dark and dusty area of my memories.

… if it only takes six steps to get to the bin, he does love me.

… If I get an A on this exam then he’ll smile at me.

… If Mum doesn’t ask me to put my clothes away I’ll get an A on the exam.

That sort of stuff.

It also reminded me of the fact I was a compulsive ‘over thinker’ – where I would consider any and every possible consequence or outcome of any given situation. Small wonder my head didn’t explode. Gratefully I no longer indulge in either of those teenage neuroses (I’ve acquired new and more exciting ones!)

The teenage perspective is coming about slowly but surely, and these chance encounters are grateful milestones on the road to somewhere. And one day soon, I know it will all fall into place – then I won’t be able to drag myself from the page and will be complaining about my characters following me into the toilet or the shower because they won’t shut up nor leave me alone.

Have you ever attempted to write from a teenage perspective? If not, what is the oddest teenage behaviour you’d like to share (it doesn’t have to be your own)? What was your favourite reading material as a teenager? (I was a huge fan of Judy Blume and Paul Zindel)

Jodi Cleghorn “…if I get this article posted up by 5pm then I’ll win lotto.” I really should just have wished for sleep! “Thieves and Scoundrels” in which my story “The Chameleon” appears is now available for purchase at Amazon or Smashwords. You can find more of my musings at Writing in Black and White.
  1. April 12, 2010 2:58 am

    Did you make it? is our movie night on you then??

    I have to admit the teenage years was a painful time full of blushing and embarrassment and one I am not keen to revisit – even in a story.

  2. April 12, 2010 3:51 am

    Nice piece, Jodi. Thanks for picking up on the behaviour of my main character in STOP ME. I think in times of desperation we look for any small crumbs of comfort – in Leo’s case using the outcome of everday events to divine whether his missing wife is alive or not.

    When we’re teenagers every new adult situation seems monumental because we don’t have the benefit of knowing there will (hopefully) be plenty of time to get things right.

    It’s strange looking back to the person you were when you were a teenger. Worth remembering that you wouldn’t be the person you are now if not for a procession of mortifications in those years. Being a teenager is like having your adult driving test.

  3. April 12, 2010 5:21 am

    Thanks for stopping by Richard. Reading Leo’s idiosyncratic behaviour was a real slap in the face for me… because it was an element of my teenage personnae and psych which I had totally blotted out. I am glad it is back though.

    Reading some of the comments over on Facebook from highschool friends, I realised the superstitious thinking belongs to a very set period in my life – and was perhaps bought on by shifting schools when I was 14. I don’t remember behaving like that before moving – but then again, I shifted not just schools and states, but went from an all girls convent school to a co-ed state school… enough said!

    I love what you wrote about being a teenager is like having your adult driving license… how bloody true. Here in Australia on your “P” plates you have to have a BAC of 0.00, you are speed limited in many states (to 80km rather than 100km) and there have been many debates about limiting the number of people in a car and the horse power of the engines. Lots of interesting parallels.

  4. erica Blythe permalink
    April 12, 2010 5:48 am

    Wasn’t that your Mum’s dress?R.

  5. April 12, 2010 8:29 am

    Yes Riki… it was my Mum’s dress. And there are two wonderful photos of Mel Burgess in my Mum’s bartik number. And no guessing for you as to who the boy in question was!!

  6. April 12, 2010 9:53 am

    Great article, Jodi. I don’t think you are going to have any trouble finding that teenager inside you. I think she’s in there, just waiting to get out, and that you will only need to encourage her to be a teenager of the time and situation that you want her to live in. They may all whine with the same voice as those from another era; they may flounce out of rooms and situations just as dramatically as their former selves, but they have had differing role models in different eras, and different places to stay out too late in.
    Good luck with her, Jodi. I think she will will be a rich cornucopia of attitudes and thoughts and interests, when she appears, but Pandora found the same thing when she opened her box, didn’t she?

  7. adampb permalink
    April 12, 2010 4:53 pm

    A great article, Jodi. Over the last few weeks I’ve used a teenage protagonist in my Fiction Friday pieces. Not a conscious decision, but somehow writing as a teenager allows you some perspective and maturation.
    It’s great fun to write as a teen, trying to make the experiences authentic, infused with the awkwardness of teenage naivety, yet with the benefit of an adult’s wisdom. I wonder if it is a form of catharsis for a writer to purge those teenage demons and to make sense from them? Maybe it’s also a way of regaining some perspective, that of the boundless vision and unbridled hope of being a teen (change the world kind of stuff) which we lose as we get older.
    Being a high school English teacher I get lots of source material everyday. Some things change (technology) but the fundamental human experiences are still the same awkward messy stuff.
    Was a big Judy Blume reader, also.

  8. April 14, 2010 1:02 am

    I tend to write from a teenage/young adult perspective often. Often it’s because the original first drafts of some of my stories were written from when I was a teenager as I’m not that much older than one and often find it hard to call myself an adult.

    I think I have weird habits now, that could be associated with adulthood, mainly the overthinking think. I overthink everything.

  9. April 16, 2010 2:54 pm

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