Growing Up

I learned how to do my taxes last week.

Clarification: I learned how to use H&R software to file my relatively straightforward federal taxes. It’s a step, though, and one that, as a 23-year-old looking to make another move toward independence, I need to take. I am growing up.

It’s a funny idea. We use that term—grown up—as if it’s a defined threshold, when of course it’s not. I think to many people, growing up means growing out. Maybe you grow out of your childhood bedroom, your childhood home, your hometown, your high school friends, your lifestyle—whatever form it takes, that snake-like shedding of skin seems to characterize grown-up-hood. But some things we never grow out of. Or perhaps that’s not the problem—we grow out of things just fine. It’s the other stuff we have to contend with.

I wonder if we ever really outgrow our childhoods. I doubt it.

A professor of mine once said, “Knowledge is the one thing that can prevent us from becoming victims of our histories.” Growing up often means growing out. It’s true. But parts of growing up require growing—going—into ourselves, into our pasts, into our worldview and perspectives.

So where is this all headed, this treatise on growing up by a twenty-something who’s new to the game?

I have a friend who approaches any new story by way of the backstory. For every page of finished product, he has at least five of setting research, world building, character profiles, and character histories. At times, I’ve wondered whether this is partly procrastination on his part, but when I think about it in this context—what we outgrow, what we don’t—I begin to think that in writing, as in all relationships, sometimes the things that are most revealing about the present happened five, ten, twenty years ago. When we make that connection, reach that new level of insight, it’s like a dissonant chord resolving.

The difference, of course, is that the best characters are victims of their histories. Well-adjusted people leading peaceful, contented lives, whose closets are skeleton-free and whose hearts are unscarred? Boring. Give me the woman plagued by her childhood phobias and the man who doesn’t know how to connect with his peers. (Or the charming sociopath. When in doubt, give me the charming sociopath.)

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