On Boyhood and Writing (and Then and Now)

I watched Richard Linklater’s Boyhood this weekend, which he filmed over twelve years, beginning when his main actor, Ellar Coltrane, was six years old. In the final scene of the moviea grown-up Mason — about to start college — sits with a new friend in the wilderness of Texas. Riding a nice, mellow high, he says: “It’s constant, the moments, it’s just — it’s like it’s always right now, you know?”

In the film’s 164 minutes, you watch the organic evolution of Mason — it’s a fascinating experiment in storytelling, and time and the self. I wasn’t bothered by the length; I felt every moment and scene were needed. There wasn’t much of a plot, but life, to unfold. And life happens at its own pace, often in the small moments, and in afterthoughts and quiet glances. Linklater packs twelve years, and the process of boy-to-man, in just under three hours. To do this, unforced, is quite a feat, and so I appreciate each minute, and any ostensible lull, all the more.

What Mason says at the end — it’s always right now — resonates the most. Sure, the scene gets a bit cheesy with its we’re-high-in-the-woods-and-life-is-profound-and-we-need-to-seize-the-day moment, yet it reminds me of a recent exchange on Twitter that has made me rethink my writing.

I’m not as active and dependent on Twitter as I have been in the past several years, but I dip in just enough for the right dose. That desire to be part of now, as now happenshas lessened. Perhaps I’ve found my place within it and am satisfied with lurking, or maybe I just don’t care enough to keep up anymore. It’s exhausting, really, and exacerbates the feeling of being a hamster on a wheel.

Still, I love the random moments of serendipity and magic on Twitter, which Teju Cole describes in a Wired interview on “Hafiz,” his distributed storytelling experiment. For me, these are tweets and exchanges in which I find clarity and enlightenment — moments that come and go so quickly, washed away from the stream.

Recently, after revisiting some of my older writing, I tweeted:

I had a brief exchange with Matt Pearce, who eventually said this:

That moment came and went, and yet it was just what I needed to crawl out of my writerly trough. I’ve been thinking a lot about what stunts me as a writer, and I realize how much I swim in the past. It’s lovely to reflect and make sense of then, and easy to fall in love with your Big Ideas. But when you rely too much on looking back — and perspective to drive your writing — you dig a hole for yourself that’s much too big.


I often think back to my most vivid childhood memory: I was sitting in front of a mirror on my fourth birthday, and having a conversation with my aunt about what it felt like to be four years old — “it feels just like being three,” I told her — and I’m pretty sure I remember this exchange so clearly because of the mirror in front of me. Whenever I picture this little girl in my mind, I wonder: Was that me? Is that still me?

Thirty-one years later, I say yes — that was me, and that’s still me.

I suppose I’ve become too comfortable wading in my memories and pondering past selves. And so I appreciate what Linklater achieves with Boyhood — an experience that allowed me to ponder and celebrate the past without longing for it, without sucking the present away. It’s forcing me to get my head out of the fog, and to think about time in a different way.

I also ask myself: isn’t it sad that I’ve spent so much time writing about the past? Is this the only note I know how to play? While I can shape memories that are malleable, like play-doh, they crack when I leave them out to dry. The process of writing memoir is indeed delicate, creative, beautiful. But it can keep you from life itself — and make you a slave to your past iterations.

After watching Boyhood, I wonder if I’ve been looking at it all wrong. Perhaps there are no versions, but just me. And maybe that shift could help me get excited about writing again, to push me to create new stories — ones that don’t exist in a vault.

Published by Cheri Lucas Rowlands

I am an editor at Longreads. For over a decade, I've worked on curation, editing, and storytelling projects across Automattic, including WordPress.com.

19 thoughts on “On Boyhood and Writing (and Then and Now)

  1. Beautiful piece. I’m glad I read this, while I was reading along I was remembering things from my past. I never realized the past could have so much impact on our lives.

  2. Though not quite on the same level as the main character in “Memento”, I have certain disabilities that render what I can remember of my past into snapshots, stills, very often stills of people I don’t recognize. So I don’t write too much about my youth, and probably for that reason, what you might see as a “rut” is something I can only dream about. Strange how one’s perspective shows everything in a different light. P.S. One of the only clear memories I have of my childhood is of a little boy jumping up and down on a bed, happy as a lark. I know its me, I just wish I knew what I was thinking about that was making me so happy that I just had to jump like that.

  3. Cheri, I absolutely can’t wait to watch Boyhood (in fact, I’m doing it tonight). In the meantime, though, this sentence popped out at me: “I also ask myself: isn’t it sad that I’ve spent so much time writing about the past?” As an unapologetic nostalgic, I don’t feel like it’s sad at all, but even as a pragmatist, I would ask: If, say, you wrote about the future, wouldn’t you say that this is also sad, constantly living in anticipation? And if we only ever wrote about the present, then how could our present selves ever be informed by the nostalgia and marks of what came before and the hopes for what may come after?

    Thank you for another beautiful post. Your writing is such a gift.

  4. I don’t believe it is sad that you have written so much about the past. After all the past shapes who we are in the present and it makes for great narrative. On reading your thoughts, I am reminded of a Khalil Gibran quote, “Yesterday is but today’s memory, and tomorrow is today’s dream.” It is a difficult task to truly enjoy the present while taking stock of the past.

  5. aloha Cheri Lucas Rowlands. it appears to me you are on the right path in your last statements. while reading i felt you had missed the point you were actually making. [to be clear i know about Boyhood—the premiss and plot/non-plot, however have not seen the movie—and i agree with you, to condense 12 years of life into 164 minutes seems not only reasonable for viewing but a potentially packed-with-ah-awe-and-ah-ha movie.]. however moments are meaningless unless they are your own (imo) or can relate to your own or you can relate to them. so twitter (and i confess i am not on twitter. or facebook—yet) is not a moment. a social moment perhaps, yes. yet each person on or off twitter can only be in their own moment(s)—this is your moment on twitter. this is your moment off twitter. same moment—now.

    the idea of writing from the moment is of course not new. haiku and related forms are often that. even when they explore past moments. writing by exploring your past is a beautiful moment. i see that as fun. and fine. however, the point is to continue making wow moments in each now (whether in a writing or not writing moment). that way you generate new memories as source/resource for future words.

    the moment of writing. the moment beyond writing. each is new and only always the same moment. the one now we are always in. reflecting on our past is still now. and valuable to now (as i see it). otherwise why have memory as part of our being? just as we have recognition of now-awareness as part of our being.

    we also grow in stages (of life). you are in this one. i am in this one. (which maybe different yet we both most likely will go through similar or “some” overlapping stages—yes, it works that way for most of our species. perhaps 7-9 12?? stages). still our individual moments, each individual moment, is exactly unlike any other being’s moment(s)—yet many moments relate to the moments of other beings on our planet (okay and possibly off our planet too, which is another territory to enter into. at another time of course). in that relationship i see value. which also means sharing your moments has value. especially when you can share them in well written words.

    to be sure, i too can easily look back at past work and say, “wow, that was better than i thought it was then, and i liked it when i did it. so. . . . what happened and why isnt my current work that good now?” then i laugh. because when we write (create) new. truly new. we have never seen it before that moment. so in that moment we really dont know too much about it, how to think about it, how good it is or might be. it is only with the passage of time that we gain something of that perspective on work (ours as well as the work of others).

    when work stands that test of time (among others) then i think we see the work a little more clearly. good. not so much good. so yeah, it’s fun to look back at past work and rekindle (no i do not have a Kindle either) the spark. flame. passion. for the new now moment.

    i’d say make the moment you are in now, fun to be in as well. writing or doing. make it fun. exciting. to you. that, i believe will come through in the writing. when you look back at it, a few years from now, if you get that wow feeling reading it, then cool. and if not, push forward on that wow writing trail and go after the wow again.

    i have no doubt the trail is there. step onto it. step onto and into now. in this moment. and clatter away on your keyboard. wait. is your keyboard silent? you get the idea. just click on in your now. and make it fun. because if it’s fun. you’ll most likely want to do it again. oops. over rambled. again. fun read. fun on. aloha. r.

  6. “when you rely too much on looking back — and perspective to drive your writing — you dig a hole for yourself that’s much too big”

    I can relate on this. Sometimes being in that hole just stunts me to get on with my writing but in turn I always find myself looking back editing my thoughts this time.

  7. Sometimes, at my age, I feel a responsibility to my readers to share some of the wisdom I have obtained from a life lived. Thankfully, I am not the same little boy. I have grown and changed as the lessons have dictated.

  8. I love how you explore this. I also know, sometimes it is easier to write about something when there is a bit of time between the present you and the time that needs reflection.

  9. I really enjoyed this piece, thankyou. We can write about the past with some authority of what happened from our perspective, and the future with our perception and dreams. Blogging and writing about the now is opening a window into your life for others to see.

  10. Since I haven’t seen Boyhood, I won’t comment on the movie. The way you describe your writing process, your concerns, and hopes about it is interesting and valid. Wondering if you wasted time diving into the past is a legit concern. You are still very young and I was surprised to read about memory and past, topics that often obsess older people. The past is a rich field to dig through when we write but finding a fresh voice that speak universally is a challenge.
    I fully agree with this sentence:
    “…while our limbs may lengthen, they grow out of, and are woven inextricably with, their original iterations.”
    I don’t think that we are different from the child we were. We often forget this child, still inside us. Of course, life experiences – the wonderful and the traumatic alike – force us to adjust in order to move on, but I strongly believe that we are still the same person. If we pause and listen to what truly matters to us, I think that we always find the same answers.
    As always a great post to read, Cheri. Best to you on your writing journey.

  11. Sometimes I have felt at my most present in my writing when I am interacting with the past. Whatever I am now, especially on the page, or in this message, is always going to be an outcome, at least in part. And on those occasions when I am weaving my way into the past, it is a special kind of biography: it is a very profound reflection on the nature of voice itself, and is therefore what I understand to be Life Writing – or one part of it. I do love the cracks in the play-doh, I must confess; their patterning is so unexpected, so vital and expressive. They are to me the true reflection of what’s present.

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