Next week my daughter will be performing in her first high school musical. Proud Mama that I am I will brag that as a Freshman she has nabbed the principle role of Cinderella in Into the Woods. For those of you who aren’t musical theater people, that’s the Anna Kendrick role in the movie. She’s been rehearsing non-stop, and we’ve heard all about “The Steps on the Palace” a million times. Still, I’m looking forward to being at every single performance just like my mom was for my school shows.
Yeah, I was a high school theater geek. Like my daughter, I landed a big, juicy leading role my Freshman year. Not in the musical, though. My big part was in the dramatic play, The Diviners. A couple months later I was July, an orphan, in Annie. Not quite as impressive as Cinderella, but still, we have the show thing in common. As her opening night approaches, I find myself reminiscing a lot about my school shows and other good times I had when I was 14.
Comparing her current existence as a young teenager to my life way back when is not a new thing for me. Often when she or my two older step-daughters hit milestones in their lives, I will think back to what I was doing when I was their age.
For example, my oldest is 25. She works as a preschool teacher at the same school as me, and she is a dancer. This summer she’s going to be dancing in a show in Germany! I’m so excited for her. Where was I at 25? I was living in Hollywood, still pursuing my career as an actress. I was in a touring production of The Three Musketeers and singing regularly in a country/folk music act. Although performing with Mystery Café wasn’t a regular gig anymore, I was occasionally stepping in to do special performances. I was a substitute teaching assistant in Special Education and later in the year would land a permanent position at a private school in L.A. That year I sold my first short story and had my first children’s play produced.
My second oldest is 22. She just started a new job with much higher pay and seems jazzed about it. She’s become an excellent belly dancer and is now teaching classes on Saturdays. She’s got lots of hobbies and interests, far too many to count, but she’s passionate about them all. What was I up to at 22? About to graduate. I left school a quarter early, because I had my credits and was so DONE with it. (I actually still have nightmares that I didn’t really finish.) My job was doing touring children’s theater at schools around Los Angeles and Orange County, and right after graduation I started performing with Mystery Café and substitute teaching. I moved out of my parents’ house that year. I had an agent and was doing lots of auditions. Got my SAG card that year for a TV show episode that never aired. I had finished writing my first novel and was working on my second, although I still wasn’t serious about being a professional writer yet.
Ah yes, writing. What does any of this tripping through my scrapbook have to do with my writing? Reminiscing not only helps keep my mind sharp, but it also forces me to remember the way I was thinking and feeling at those ages. What were my goals? How were my friendships? What did my love life look like? How were things between my parents and me? When I remember my achievements, I also think about how they affected me on a personal level.
Now, as I write my teenage characters, I can pull up those vivid memories and help fill my characters with real desires and anxieties. Using my kids’ activities to slingshot me to the past brings my young life back into focus. I can empathize with my characters and not just sit outside of them like a director or omnipotent being. In this way, I hope I create more authentic characters.
Yesterday I had lunch with my mother, and she said that she enjoys looking at me and thinking about what she was like when she was my age with children turning into young adults. If she were a writer, she could use it.
As always, I’d love to know your thoughts about my post. And please sign up for my newsletter if you haven’t yet (to the right in the margin, or here). I have yet to send out a newsletter, but someday I will, and it will be awesome.
D. G. Driver
Author of Young Adult books Cry of the Sea and Passing Notes.