After all this time spent writing children’s books, it’s hard not to get nostalgic for childhood (and I count the teen years as childhood too!!!)

After my post on not being nostalgic for college, I feel compelled to say that I do sometimes get nostalgic for my childhood. For years, this was not the case. For years, I never thought about being my childhood, because the trauma and unhappiness of college had, somehow, effaced all of that. But the process of writing all these young adult novels eventually brought it back.

It’s weird. It’s not that you recover a memory and then go on to write a book. It’s that you write a book and the process of writing entails recovering the memory.

And it’s not even a memory. To call it memory would be to misrepresent it. What you recover, when you write these books, is the feeling of being a child. And let me tell you, it’s a pretty powerful feeling! Things are so important! Emotions are so immediate! You can write about falling in love with zero irony. You can write about becoming a high school valedictorian as if it’s a matter of deathly importance. This would not be possible with an adult protagonist! But when you’re writing a child, it’s not only possible, it’s necessary.

Kid’s literature is full of precocious and worldly-wise teens who are probably more intelligent and witty than any teen ever was. However, even these kids don’t escape from the drama of being young. In many cases, they’re more susceptible to it than anyone. It’s a trite example, but take John Green’s protagonists. They’re incredibly intelligent (to the point where it’s annoying), but they also feel things so deeply.

And I feel the same way about my books. sad-kidSometimes I write these books that’re about these kids, and I actually resent my protagonists. It’s an incredibly perverse feeling, and I can’t explain it. But I hate them, a little bit, because they’re able to feel things so deeply.

When people talk about being nostalgic for childhood, they sometimes talk about how care-free it was. That, to me, is crazy. Childhood is not carefree. It’s true that childhood (for most kids in America) lacks adult cares: how to feed yourself, how to stay healthy, the fear of mortality, etc. But just look at kids. They’re so emotional. They’re always crying. They’re always worrying. They’re always agitated. They’re not faking. Those are real emotions. And their experience of those emotions is, in many ways, much more extreme than an adult’s.

I would say that, if anything, adulthood is more carefree than childhood. Because while the things we worry about might be bigger, we worry about them less. Partly that’s a result of more knowledge (we have a better idea of the kinds of things that can happen) and partly it’s a result of more freedom (true anxiety comes when you don’t have much control over your fate) and partly it’s just biology (our brains and hormone levels are more settled). But, for whatever reason, I think adults don’t feel as deeply as kids do.

For many, that’s a good thing. It seems like every book I read contains some reference to the author’s miserable childhood. However, to the best of my recollection, my childhood was not miserable. I did get really depressed at the end of my senior year in college (as my mother once reminded me). And I was bullied a bit in middle school. But otherwise, I was pretty happy. My childhood was pretty aimless. I didn’t do much. I didn’t have boyfriends or girlfriends or go to raging parties or even participate in much in terms of extracurricular activities. I read lots of books, but I also mostly read the same books over and over. I spent an insane amount of time playing video games. But I wasn’t unhappy. I had friends. I had hobbies. I had projects (I spent a lot of time working on my D&D campaign). And I had my vague ambitions (I wanted to be involved in space travel!) And that was all pretty satisfying.

Of course, I don’t feel nostalgic for those activities. I feel like I’ve spent a lifetime playing video games and planning D&D campaigns, and I have no need to revisit those activities. But I do feel nostalgic for the sense of aliveness that I felt back then.

I can’t be the only one who found college to be a pretty dark time

Was talking to an acquaintance yesterday about college and about how this person feels nostalgic for college. They’re happy enough now, but they also feel constrained. I joked that nostalgia for college was “the dark side.” Which was a bit facetious. I’m still astonished by how idyllic the setup for college (at least in the upper-middle-classes) tends to be. It’s all the privileges of adulthood and none of the responsibilities. You can do whatever you want, whenever you want. I mean, we pay lip service to the idea that you’re there to learn, but if you want to, it’s very possible to get through college with minimal effort.

However, I, personally, do not feel at all nostalgic for college. In fact, when I walked aroiund the old alma mater yesterday, I actually felt a vague sense of dread. It wasn’t overwhelming. I was still able to feel nostalgic. It was nice to reconnect with myself at a younger age, just because I usually feel so disconnected from my past self. I enjoy that sense of continuity. As in, yes, I am the person who once ate hot cookies (and ice cream? Or am I just imagining the ice cream?) every day in the Wilbur dining hall.

But the sense of dread was real. And I was profoundly glad, during my whole walking tour, that I was not in college anymore. Now that I’ve been out for six years, I feel like I can say that my four years in college were unquestionably the darkest time in my life. I had plenty of fun. I made lots of really good friends. I saw and did lots of new things. But I was also acutely miserable much of the time.

It’s no one’s fault. Not even my own. I don’t really know what caused it. I don’t think drinking was entirely the cause of the misery (though it didn’t help). I think I just wasn’t equipped to live in such close quarters with so many people. I remember I just felt really awkward, really shy, and really emotionally stunted. I felt like everyone was making lifelong friends and falling in love, and I was in stasis. I had no idea how to relate to people. No idea how to talk to them. Couldn’t understand how to make friends. And the only way I could face people was by drinking. But the drinking then led to more negative feelings and more fragmentation and confusion. And I really lost my sense of self.

In high school, I was relatively happy (most of the time). And I had my friends and my place in the world. I was elected Student Council President, and I was not unpopular. I kind of knew who I was. But in college, I felt completely helpless. I wanted desperately to feel close to people, but I just didn’t have the first idea how to go about it. All I knew how to do was go to parties and drink. But even there, I felt so shy. I’d walk around in circles in the hopes that the constant movement would obscure the fact that I was there alone. I’d stand silently at the edge of peoples’ conversations until I was finally drunk enough to break in. It’s still amazing to me. Nowadays I am so systematic in how I handle my problems. But back then I didn’t even know that being systematic was a thing. I didn’t even know that I had a problem which I could work on and get better at.

I think I was stunned by the environment. The crush of people was so constant and all-encompassing. There was no room to reflect, and no way to take stock. I’m struggling to articulate what I mean when I say that my sense of self was gone, because it’s a complicated and subtle thing, a sense of self. I guess what I mean is that everything was so immediate. I couldn’t even think about next week. I was in triage mode all the time, because each day and each moment brought such powerful waves of loneliness and anger. Part of me is wondering if I’m being overdramatic. But I don’t think so. It really was that bad. And I really did regress and become less capable of interacting with people and making plans for the future.

In contrast, every year since graduating has been great. Even my first year out, when I was jobless and still drinking, was much better than the year prior. a2ef41a19830e7fc4f1c4e03a0df46cc58And although I’ve had periods of depression in the time since college, I’ve always experienced that depression as something strange, something outside my normal mood, and something that I needed to work to address. I feel like in the last five years I’ve done all the things I didn’t do in college: I’ve learned to make friends and to relate to new people, experienced romantic entanglements; found my vocation; and learned lots of new things. It’s been great. You couldn’t pay me to go back.