So you want to tell a story…….be a writer. Lots of us have dreamed that dream at one time or another.
And hand in hand with that seductive possibility comes an all-important first question. What sort of story should you tell?
Today, as I continue my weekly visitation of earlier blog posts, I find myself wondering once more why and how my late-life storytelling efforts turned out the way they did.
After all, the path I chose, what they call ‘the genre,’ was miles out of the mainstream……so commercially limiting. Yet those were the stories that came so naturally. Why was that?
Not only did that question arise from time to time……as the following post from several years ago illustrates, it literally became part of the story I was telling.
THE OLD GUY WRITES WHAT?
Over the years you and I have learned a thing or two about stereotypes, haven’t we? I can remember a time or two when I was troubled or embarrassed because I had misread or ignored stereotypical clues.…..reading something into a person or situation that was simply not there.
So it seems to me that here, in what I claim is a “writer’s blog,” is a fitting place to address my own stereotyping dilemma. Take a moment to consider the possibilities. What kind of stereotypes might be applied to someone like me? How about ‘old,’ or maybe ‘grouchy.’ I suppose I could relate to those.
But there are other stereotypical labels I am unwilling to accept for myself. For instance, perhaps you can imagine how I cringed when my first e-book publisher told me he had cataloged my story as “senior romance.”
“My God,” I grumbled. “What was he thinking?” There I was, seventy-some years old. Do they still call such tales “romance” at our age? And even if they did, what self-respecting old geezer would admit to writing “romance” novels?
I can assure you, these stories of mine do not resemble the paperbacks you see on the supermarket shelves….the ones picturing muscular Alpha Males cavorting across the book cover in a torn shirt, swooping up a swooning and seductive maiden in one arm. I guarantee, the tired old Beta Males whose stories I tell are not into “swooping up” anything or anyone.
Instead, they and the appropriately mature ladies they pursue are stumbling toward the hopeful promise of a late-life connection, a way to share whatever it is their uncertain future holds. True, in the process they are apt to resurrect adolescent memories….ones they had filed away decades earlier and never expected to revisit. It was that new and altered reality of October/November life that long ago had me setting aside the “romance” label as descriptive of the tales I tell, and settling instead on “relationship” stories.
After all, in the course of our lifetime most of us have learned that relationships….whether casual or deeply personal….are the stuff of life. No matter what our age or intent, when relationships work we thrive. Beyond that, for my purposes relationships also make for a good story.
Having said that, I find myself face to face with another basic question….why should I be embarrassed about writing about something that everyone can relate to, whether they admit it or not? Would I be more authentic if instead I wrote vampire and zombie tales, spy thrillers or fantasy, or sinister who-dun-its….none of which have ever been part of my life?
Each of us, based on our own experience, knows how complicated and intimidating the “relationship seeking” process can be. For the October/November friends I depict it is all that and more.
They and their world have changed dramatically since their youthful, first-time excursions into that exhilarating territory. Yet, though everything looks different through October eyes, some things remain the same. The world around them may have changed, but my seekers are still looking for the affirmation and hope they craved as teenagers.
Yet, even with a new, more acceptable label, it took a while for me to move beyond the self-induced embarrassment of writing relationship stories….to convince myself that relationship episodes are an elemental part of life….something that everyone understands.
Granted, not all of our October/November friends who are alone are seeking a new relationship. For many, perhaps even most of those ‘loners,’ the continuing satisfaction of an earlier relationship is enough for them. And who would argue with that?
I, however, choose to focus on those who are still seeking. If I tell it well the resulting story about good people who find themselves alone and hoping for a relationship should be a good read.
I understand, of course, that fiction is a favored form of escapism. We read a vivid fantasy, a murder mystery, or time-travel adventure to escape the ordinary….a perfectly valid reason. And truth to tell, the real-life relationship stories I tell, may sometimes take the escapist to the very space he or she is hoping to escape.
In that case, I can probably write off that portion of a potential audience. As for the rest of fiction readers….how many are looking to curl up with an October Years relationship tale that is not on anyone’s best-seller list….especially one that addresses the kind of challenges that may clutter their own late-life space?
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. Thankfully, I’ve learned to live with that, taking my satisfaction from the dozen or so paperbacks on my bookshelf. Still, not everyone agrees with that form of capitulation….as the following scene from the story I called ‘Becoming’ illustrates.
As Jack and I got to know each other better we naturally cultivated a curiosity about each other’s work. 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 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 claim they were called to be a writer,” he explained. “But what you’re doing with that calling of yours doesn’t make any sense at all. Of all the things there are to write about, why settle for a love story about old folks? Why not something more ……”
“Something more masculine.” I interjected, completing his thought. “More macho….with lots of 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 an old guy and an old gal trying to get it going again, that’s not exactly mainstream is it?”
“You’ve got that right.” I tried to make light of his observation, though it didn’t feel light at all. “The couple publishers who read that story seem to agree on that. They were 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.”
To be sure, Jack’s objections were not new. My dad had registered those same complaints, although his exact language was a bit more colorful.
In any case there I was, obsessed with the liberating freedom of telling my stories, even when those same questions intruded from time to time….should I spend my time exploring the low-key relationship tales that flowed so naturally, or should I 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 finally asked. “How many homicides and spies have you come across in your lifetime? 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 stuff of yours is so damn ordinary.” Jack was struggling to understand. For a moment I wondered if he was about to suggest a four-beer lunch. “Why would I want to read about something that’s going on 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. It’s what they want to remember and dream about. The people in your stories are too damn old.”
About then we fell quiet. All around us the busy pub crowd carried on. The overhead television screens were showing their ball games. Blustery 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 a lot of time thinking about this. When that relational stuff happens again at our age 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. Sure, parts of it may feel like coming-of-age all over again. That’s the ‘geriatric adolescence’ I sometimes mention. But at our age each of those folks brings along all sorts of baggage. They’ve spent a lifetime creating their own experiences, making their own memories. There are probably some highs they’d like to feel 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, certain that he knew better than that. “Do you know the odds of that happening?”
“Come on, those folks aren’t 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 judgments suspect. “Near as I can tell,” I added. “Lots of folks do have those feelings. If I tell my stories in a believable way, maybe some readers 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.”
With that I drained the last of my beer and stalled a bit while Jack, my wage-earning buddy, dug in his wallet for the tip.