I'll admit that I cringed a bit when my first e-book publisher wanted to catalog my stories as “senior romance.” My God, do they still call it that in our October Years? And even if they do, what seventy-plus guy would claim to write “romances”? I can assure you, these stories of mine are not about muscular Alpha Males cavorting across a book cover in a torn shirt, swooping up a swooning and seductive maiden. Instead, the tired old Beta Males I write about are stumbling toward the promise of a late-life connection, resurrecting adolescent memories as they go---the ones they had filed away decades before and never expected to revisit. In the face of that reality I long ago set aside the “romance” label and settled instead on “relationship” stories.
After all, relationships---whether casual or deeply personal---are the stuff of life. No matter what our age, when they work we thrive. When they are absent or injured, we suffer. And for my purposes, relationships are also at the heart of a good story. So why should I be embarrassed about writing something that everyone can relate to? Would I be more authentic if I wrote instead about fantasy or vampires and zombies, spy thrillers or who-dun-its---none of which are part of my personal experience?
Each of us, based on our own unique experience, knows how complicated and sometimes intimidating the “relationship seeking” process can be. For the October friends I write about it is all that and more. They and their world have changed dramatically since their youthful, first time excursion into that territory. Along the way they have gained at least one important insight---everything looks different through October eyes. Yet, though the world around them has changed over the years, they are still seeking the same affirmation and hoping to fill the same existential void.
Yet, even with its new label, it took a while for me to move beyond the self-induced embarrassment of writing relationalship stories. I had to convince myself that relationalship episodes are an elemental part of life. More than that, they are highly relatable---sure to include recognizable snippets of our own lives. That’s what I enjoy the most, creating stories about good people who are in need, and hoping for the relationship that will help them heal.
I understand that fiction is a favored form of escapism for both readers and writers. We read a vivid fantasy, a murder mystery, or time-travel adventure to escape the ordinary---a perfectly valid reason. On the other hand, relating true-to-life relationship stories, like the ones I tell, is apt to take the escapist to the very space he or she is hoping to escape. In that case, I can probably write off a large portion of my potential audience. As for the rest of those fiction readers? How many of them are looking to curl up with an October Years relationship tale that’s not on anyone’s best-seller list---especially one that addresses head-on the challenges that come with that late-life territory?
Pretty clever of me, eh? Staking my claim in the tiniest sliver of the whole darn market, telling stories that few have ever heard of or considered reading. Oh well, I can live with that. After a time-out to spend a few weeks retracing the Oregon Trail, I’ll be back to finish my current "in-process story." Beyond that, who knows.
In the meantime I offer the following scene from Becoming that illustrates the inherent frustration that comes with writing “relationalship” stories.
As Jack and I got to know each other better we naturally cultivated a curiosity about each other’s work, until in time he had developed an interest in my writing. One of our earliest conversations about a story of mine took place on a Saturday afternoon at the Terrace, a busy pub not far from the local university. Jack had just finished reading the latest draft of my first novel-length story and was ready to register his opinion. As I recall it was a three-beer lunch, which may have accounted for his socially incorrect bluntness.
“I’ve read about people who thought they were called to write,” he explained. “But what you’re doing with this calling of yours doesn’t make any sense at all. Of all the things there are to write about, why a love story about old people? Why not something more ....”
“More masculine.” I interjected, completing his thought. “More macho---with action and bad guys, maybe a homicide or two. Stuff like that, eh?”
“Yeah. That’s it. Make your guys younger, with a thing for loose women. Something to hold the reader’s interest. I mean, reading about old folks trying to get it going again, that’s not exactly mainstream is it?”
“You’ve got that right. The publishers who’ve read that story seem to agree on that. They’ve been absolutely unanimous in their disinterest. So what can I say? I'm telling the story I want to tell. That’s all.”
“But why? People read stories to get away from ordinary stuff.” Jack was serious now, wanting me to hear his logic. “Just think about what sells. It’s mysteries and whodunits. It’s tracking down a killer or a cheating husband. It’s about terrorists and undercover agents who have to find the bad guy before he destroys the world. At the very least there’s a good chase scene. And, of course, some really steamy sex. Then at the end, on the last page, the guy and the lady get together.
“That’s what real stories are about,” he continued. “About suspense, and action, and mystery. They’re sure as hell not about some seventy-year-old guy deciding that a seventy-year-old lady is his soulmate.”
First of all, Jack’s objections were not new. The Old Man had registered the same complaints, although his exact language was a bit more colorful. In any case, there I was struggling to pay my bills, yet obsessed with the liberating freedom of telling my stories. The question was---should I spend my time telling the low-key relationship tales that flowed so naturally, or write the suspenseful action stories that Jack and the Old Man advocated? Of course, there was no evidence to suggest that I could do either one well enough to succeed. But that aside, should I focus on the stories I wanted to tell, or turn to something more commercially viable?
“Tell me Jack, how many homicides and spies have you come across in your life? How many times have you been forced to save the world from destruction?” I did not wait for his answer. “Why would I tell a story like that? It has nothing to do with me.”
“But this is so damn ordinary.” Jack was struggling to understand. For a moment I wondered if he was ready to suggest a four-beer lunch. “Why would I want to read about stuff that’s all around me every day?”
“Come on," I replied. "This isn’t literature, you know. I’m just telling stories about ordinary people and some of their special times. They don’t always end happily-ever-after, but it feels like they’re real. And most of all, they’re the stories I want to tell.”
“But can’t you see? They’re 'love' stories for God sakes.” Jack was ready to play his trump card. “Women write love stories, everyone knows that. Besides, real love stories are about young folks. That’s what all those little old ladies want to read about---young love. The people in your stories are too damn old.”
About then we fell quiet. All around us the busy pub crowd played on. The overhead television screens showed their ball games. Noisy college guys were trying their best to impress anxious college girls. The place was absolutely alive, yet I had managed to bore Jack into silent submission.
“You know,” I finally said, trying to resurrect our conversation, “I’ve spent a lot of time thinking this through. When that relational stuff happens again at our age I think some of it must be like the first time around. You do remember that, don’t you? When we were kids and it was all about hormones?”
“But the second time around, or maybe the third, is bound to be different. It may be something like coming-of-age all over again---only this time each of them brings along all sorts of baggage. They’ve each had their own experiences and made their own memories. There are some highs they’d like to live again---and some lows they’re hoping to avoid.”
“You mean they’re hoping to get it right this time?” Jack was shaking his head again, convinced that he knew better than that. “Do you know the odds of that happening?”
“Come on, they’re not thinking about the odds. They’re looking for something they want.” I decided not to ask Jack what qualified him as an expert on “getting things right.” I knew something of his history, enough to render his judgment suspect. “As near as I can tell, a lot of people have those feelings. If I tell my stories in a believable way, maybe some of them will see something of themselves in what I’m writing.”
“And you know how to do that?”
“I keep trying. Look, I used to apologize for telling stories no one wanted to read. I’m pretty well over that. I just keep doing what feels right and try to do it better.” I drained the last of my beer and stalled while Jack, my wage-earning buddy, dug in his wallet for the tip.