• Gary Seigel

Becoming Sixteen Again

I often wondered how authors wrote stories from the perspective of a much younger narrative voice and made that voice sound real and convincing. Mark Twain, for example, was forty when he channeled Tom Sawyer as a twelve year old and fifty when he wrote Huckleberry Finn. And today, many successful young adult novels are about angst-ridden teenagers, written by writers twice or three times the age of the protagonist.

This process scared me. How do I keep the voice consistent so the reader believes Haskell is sixteen and not in his sixties?

Last summer I took a writing seminar from Sapphire, the amazing author of Push, the bestseller that was adapted into the double-Oscar-winning film Precious. She was very encouraging and insisted I stick to the first person narrative voice. She said use your imagination, don’t rely too much on research, and channel that kid’s personality.

In an interview she gave a few ago, here’s what Sapphire said about her experience writing from a much different narrative voice than her own.

"I remember when Push came out, there was shock when people saw me – they'd say: 'You're not 16, you're not obese. We thought this was your life story.’ It was as though they thought this was some illiterate teenager's life story and I had spoken it into a tape recorder, and some white editor had written it."It's as if black artists are only able to tell autobiographical horror stories and don't have an imagination. There was an idea I wouldn't have been able to conceive of Precious's life unless I had lived it; …But the idea that I could not read and study and use my imagination and create and craft a character has been very real and very painful to me.”

Her encouragement was a great gift. Yes, write about what you know, but you can also write about what you don’t know and let your imagination create the story.

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