Photograph by Christa Lohman.
A basic but serviceable simile for memory is the mirror: you look into it and it shows you as you once were. Most of us recognize that the analogy is simplistic at best, and the novelist reaching into his past for material knows it better than most.
I was a fifty-year-old writer trying to breathe life into the character of a seventeen-year-old boy. It was a daunting prospect, perhaps, but I was not to be put off by the presumptuousness or difficulty of the task; after all, inventing people is what I’m (occasionally) paid to do. I naturally intended to draw on my every memory of myself as a seventeen-year-old. Like me, my protagonist would be somewhat bookish but in no way a nerd; deeply introspective but not withdrawn; a peripheral figure on the margins of the in-crowd, longing to be admitted yet vaguely contemptuous of the object of his desire; chaotically libidinous but physically uncertain of himself; and above all a strenuously ethical being, ever seeking and ever falling short of the moral high ground. He would make a rather handsome character, I thought.
But it soon became clear to me that I was peering thirty years back with luridly rose-colored glasses. I couldn’t possibly have cut such a romantic, conflicted figure as I remembered, and my boy would never come alive burdened with such feeble DNA. He would instead be merely the charming, irresistible, precocious, and utterly disembodied reflection I saw when I stared into the mirror of my memory.
Fortunately, I did not need to rely on memory alone. I had a real, live adolescent in the bedroom right next to mine: my daughter, in all her beautiful, contradictory, imperfect glory. I couldn’t observe her as I might have liked, as an astronomer might a planet, openly and at my leisure; often entombed for days at a time in her crypt, she was more like the dark side of the moon, a surface of mystery and rumor. But she could be studied nonetheless, covertly and sidelong. What were the triggers to her fits of impatience, disdain, or despair, her unexpected laughter, her tsunamis of hysteria? Was there some alien, fun-house logic to the conclusions she reached about the world around her, or was it mere spontaneous generation, as untainted by evolution as a Texas schoolroom?
I watched her at mealtimes, eavesdropped on her videochats, dispatched her younger sister as a double agent. And as I parsed her behavior, as dispassionately as possible in the circumstances, a strategy slowly took shape. My boy, I decided, would be a judicious amalgam of the two of us. From me, he would get his deep love of books, his impish insecurity, his adorable sexual confusion, and his lofty moral aspirations; from my daughter, his unaccountable angers and mood swings, his ingratitude, his sloppiness, his aloofness, his vampire habits, and his inability to see anyone’s point of view but his own. I counted myself very lucky to be able to draw my study from life. I set to work.
Still, as I wrote, I sensed that all was not right with my boy. I found myself inside his head yet more as an uninvited trespasser than as a commissioned portraitist. As with my daughter, I had to watch him surreptitiously, hidden behind the furniture, if I didn’t want him to turn on me. I was compelled to admit that I was missing something. I blamed my daughter, naturally. My teenage memories were static, or at least flaccid, but she was a moving target. Even as I wrote, she turned seventeen, and then eighteen. Gradually the storms of adolescence began to abate as she sailed into calmer waters, and I was left trying to draw her, too, from memory, even as she began to present me with a whole new dimension of her personality—one that, suddenly, was able to describe itself to me in words I could understand.
But that, as it turns out, was exactly what I needed. Memory is not a mirror but a scale, weighing you not just with what you had for breakfast a whole lifetime ago, but with the very clothes on your back as you lean upon it. It probably goes without saying that no plausible fictional character can be constructed out of three dimensions, let alone two. Now I had four perspectives from which to observe my character: my daughter as I saw her and as she saw herself, and me as I saw myself and as she saw me. I found that if we stood in close proximity and clung tightly to each other, we could step up on the scale together and weigh roughly the same as a healthy seventeen-year-old boy.
My daughter’s now gone off to lead her life unobserved, but I still have my boy to remind me of her. My wife is probably not fully consoled by his addition to our family, nor is our fourteen-year-old daughter, the youngest of the family. I’d promised myself no more teenage protagonists in future novels, but I’ve been eyeing her very closely these days. People say she looks a lot like me.
Jesse Browner is the author, most recently, of the novel Everything Happens Today, which Europa will release this week.
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