Return to us
Yesterday, I was leafing through my copy of The Conversations: Water Murch and the Art of Editing Film, in which the novelist Michael Ondaatje interviews the movie editor whom Lawrence Weschler has called “the smartest person in America.” Murch, who worked on many of the films of Francis Ford Coppola and directed Return to Oz, has long been one of my heroes, and it’s worth listening to just about everything he says. (When my wife recently asked me if I could stand to hear anyone talk for four hours straight, I mentioned Murch first, followed by David Mamet and Werner Herzog.) As I was browsing through the book last night, however, I came across a line that I didn’t remember reading before:
As I’ve gone through life, I’ve found that your chances for happiness are increased if you wind up doing something that is a reflection of what you loved most when you were somewhere between nine and eleven years old.
I was very moved by this, because I’ve often thought the same thing. In the past, I’ve said that my ideal reader is myself in fifth grade—which doesn’t mean that I’m writing for kids—and that I judge my life by how closely it lives up to the hopes and expectations of that eleven year old. And although I haven’t always met that high standard, it’s still the closest thing that I have to a reliable moral compass.
Murch evidently agrees, but he also goes much further in identifying why this would be true. He continues:
At that age, you know enough of the world to have opinions of things, but you’re not old enough yet to be overly influenced by the crowd or by what other people are doing or what you think you “should” be doing. If what you do later on ties into that reservoir in some way, then you are nurturing some essential part of yourself. It’s certainly been true in my case. I’m doing now, at fifty-eight, almost exactly what most excited me when I was eleven.
And I think he’s getting at something immensely important here. The ages between nine and eleven strike me as a precious island of rationality, in its deepest and most meaningful sense. A boy of ten is a miniature adult in a lot of ways: it’s an age at which he is able to systematically follow up on his interests without much in the way of outside guidance, which may explain why the obsessions that he acquires around that time can be so lasting. For a few years, he’s thinking independently: he’s old enough to know that there’s more to the world than the toys and television shows that his schoolmates happen to like, and still young enough that he hasn’t started to feel anxious about his own preferences. In the language of biology, which obviously plays a central role here, it’s the narrow window of time in which the brain has achieved a certain structural maturity, but it hasn’t been taken over by puberty yet.
As Murch implies, it’s the choices that we make in that relatively objective life stage that reflect who we really are. A lot of complications are around the corner, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing—they’re the individual experiences that make us special, even if they assemble themselves in ways that we can’t control. I’ve noted before that I’m essentially the product of a handful of books, movies, and other media that I happened to encounter around the age of thirteen, but I don’t think I’ve ever made the connection with the more profound turning point that occurred a few years earlier. By the time I was ten, I knew that I wanted to be a writer, but for the specifics of how that would look, I had to wait until the world had given me a unique set of material. Elsewhere, I’ve described this process as a random one, but that isn’t really true: you’re exposed to dozens or hundreds of discrete influences in your early teens, and if five or six of them survive to shape who you are as an adult, that isn’t arbitrary at all. The result is such a useful source of insight about what truly matters to us that we probably should try to access those memories of ourselves more diligently. I haven’t accomplished everything I’ve tried to do, and I’ve got my share of regrets. But if I’ve been relatively happy in my work and life, it’s because I combined the goals that I set for myself at the age of ten with the pieces that stuck in my head when I was thirteen, as refined by the perspective of an adult. The closer I’ve kept to that standard, the happier I’ve been, and whenever I’ve strayed, I’ve been forcibly corrected.
The trouble, of course, is that the ages between nine and thirteen are exactly the ones that our culture tends to neglect. We’ve never been able to figure out what to do with kids in middle school, in part because they present such a wide range of development that there’s no single approach that makes sense, and perhaps because we’re still too traumatized by our own memories to look at it very closely. It’s also possible—and while I don’t want to believe this, I can’t rule it out entirely—that the neglect is intentional. Adolescence enforces conformity and undermines a lot of dreams, and I doubt many people get out of high school with their childhood ideals still intact. (If anything, it takes a conscious effort, in college and afterward, to go back and retrieve them.) But there’s an incentive for society to allow it to happen. Middle school and high school are particular kinds of hell that are designed to produce functional adults, and individual happiness isn’t a priority. At best, when we grow up, we’re allowed hobbies and side interests that appeal to who we were as children, even if our adult lives take us ever further away from those values. For most people, this isn’t a bad compromise, but it tends to separate the two halves, when we should be trying to bring them together. Our culture only becomes infantilized, paradoxically, when we no longer take our childhood selves seriously, or if we underestimate what we wanted for ourselves as grownups. And if it’s important to return to those dreams whenever we can, it’s not for the sake of the children we once were, but for the adults we could still become.