I’ve been doing this for six years, and it feels like we all need a break. Maybe we’ll get together down the road. Maybe not. Time will tell.
In the meantime there are stories I want to concentrate on. The twentieth novel-length book is almost ready to publish. Number twenty-one is in the drafting stage.
So, how to end this run of October Years posts? I had already reworked a couple of posts from 2013 and 2014 into the following article, hoping to explain my rather unorthodox approach to what someone called “late-life fiction.” In those early days it seemed to say what I wanted said. I believe it still does. As it notes in the first paragraph, I want to remind myself why I chose the path I did.
He Writes What?
Do you ever pause to remind yourself why you do what you do? Perhaps it is an October/November thing. For instance, why do I tell the stories I tell? Since this has always been a “Writer’s Blog,” it seems like the appropriate place to remind myself why that is.
I will admit that I cringed a bit when my first e-book publisher wanted to list my story as “senior romance.” My God, I was an October guy at the time. Do they still call it “romance” that age? And even if they do, what seventy-some guy would claim to write “romances”?
I can assure you, the tales I tell are not about muscular Alpha Males in torn shirts swooping across a book cover to rescue a swooning and seductive maiden. At best the tired old Beta Males who populate my stories are stumbling toward the promise of a late-life connection. In the process they may resurrect adolescent memories, ones they had filed away decades before and never expected to revisit. In the face of that October 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 our relationships work we thrive. When they are absent or injured, we suffer. Beyond that, relationships are often at the heart of a good story. So why should I be embarrassed about writing something that everyone can relate to? Would it be more authentic if I wrote instead about zombies or vampires, spy thrillers or who-dun-its——none of which are part of my personal experience?
I was sixty-nine when I set out on what I labeled an “October adventure,” telling my stories. Fact is, many seniors believe they have a story in them, one they want to tell. For anyone who has come to that conclusion the next question is……what sort of story? What does a wannabe storyteller write about? Let’s see if I can explain my answer to that question.
I called them the October Years, that time of life when sixty and seventy describes us. (Though some of us have since moved on to November.) I knew from experience those October Years were a time when priorities were changing and so were we. There was a landscape of new circumstances and unforeseen challenges, where tried and trusted answers no longer applied……when it felt like life was coming at us from a totally new direction.
Some of our October peers, alone for the first time in decades, found themselves facing surprising new relational circumstances……a late-life coming of age that I labeled Geriatric Adolescence. How would they react to the surprising realization that urgings they were certain they had outgrown still had a hold on them?
To be sure, the world my October friends inhabit has changed dramatically since their youthful, first-time experiences in that often intimidating “relationship” territory. Yet one thing remained unchanged. They were seeking the same comforting affirmation they had longed for in a younger time, and hoping to fill that same existential void.
So who are these October people?
The October Years stories that I call the Tanner Chronicles are set in Tanner, Oregon, a mythical location that happens to look a lot like my home town. Each of the tales I tell shines a light on a particular part of the Tanner population---those who have reached their October or November years.
That universe of aging, often solitary survivors is larger than you might think. And though they are a disparate bunch, each of them has spent decades dealing with life "up close and personal," creating experiences that lend depth and texture to their stories.
You will meet the lonely ones---seeking the "someone" who can help him or her overcome the emptiness of life lived alone. Some, confronting those "first time" feelings for the second time, will be as timid and confused as teenagers. Others will find that "geriatric adolescence" surprisingly familiar.
Others will be coping with life-changing circumstances they had not seen coming---a spouse's infirmity, financial realities that threaten their very relationship, or couples torn apart by incompatible priorities.
But why these stories?
I realize that fiction is a favored form of escapism for both readers and writers. People read a vivid fantasy, a murder mystery, or time-travel adventure to escape the ordinary……a perfectly valid reason. On the other hand, reading a true-to-life relationship story, like the ones I tell, risks taking the reader to the very space he or she is hoping to escape. In that case, I can probably write off a sizable portion of a potential audience. How many folks are looking to curl up with a late-life relationship tale that’s not on anyone’s best-seller list---especially one that addresses head-on the challenges that come with that 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. I guess I’ll just have to live with that.
Late-life fiction in action
In closing I offer the following scene from a story I called Becoming to illustrate the inherent frustration that comes with writing “October relationship” stories. It’s a bit long, but it says what I want to say.
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 taken 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 want to write,” he began. “But what you’re doing doesn’t make any sense at all. Of all the things there are to write about, why would you choose a love story about old people? Why not something more..…..”
“More masculine?” I interjected, completing his thought. “More macho……with lots of fights and bad guys, maybe a homicide or two. Stuff like that, eh?”
“Yeah. That’s it. And why not 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 books 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. “They have 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. Still, there I was struggling to pay my bills, obsessed with the liberating freedom of telling my stories.
Beyond that, 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,” I asked. “How many homicides and spies have you come across in your life? How many times have you been asked 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 your story 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 a story about ordinary people and some of their special times. It feels like it’s real. And most of all, it’s the story I want to tell.”
“But can’t you see? It’s a “love” story 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, hoping to resurrect our conversation. “I’ve spent some time thinking this through. When that relational stuff happens again at our age I think some of it must be like the first go round. 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 own history, enough to render his judgments suspect. “As near as I can tell, a lot of people have those feelings, even at that age. If I tell my story 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.” I paused to drain my glass, looking for a way to put my confession into words.“
"Look, I used to apologize for telling a story no one wanted to read. I’m pretty well over that. I just keep doing what feels right and try to do it better.” With that I leaned back, stalling while Jack, my wage-earning buddy, dug in his wallet for the tip.
And so, friends, with that, here’s hoping you have a lot to be Thankful for in this Thanksgiving season. I know I do.