As I write this, I am staring straight into the rheumy eyes of middle age. Forty-six years old with hardly an idea where all of that time went, I definitely fit the mid-life crisis stereotype. Well, I fit it to the extent that I am in fact older than ever before, slower by a step or two, and act like the characters I see on television.
I can’t help it. When I go to a major event my thoughts drift to the myriad of ways I can beat the traffic. Maybe we should leave early? Being middle aged, I possess quite a bit less time on earth than I started with, and that precious knowledge affirms the fact I don’t want to spend any more time than necessary in traffic.
In some ways, I fit the stereotype. In others, l don’t. It’s that dichotomy that keeps me up at night.
The Shape Of A Mid-Life Crisis
Recently, I spent some time with my brother-in-law. We were attending a bar mitzvah in Houston, Texas (a city that inspires no loving feelings for either one of us). On the first night, in our dingy Air B&B, my wife’s brother, a tenured professor at a major university, dove head first into the dimensions of his mid-life crisis. I can summarize it in one line:
“Everything in life is,” he said. “At best, a B.”
The writer in me heard a great snippet of dialog and noted the moment for later use. On the other hand, someone I loved was confessing to a familiar malaise, so I listened. Everything in life was a B? After that talk, which delved further into the wreck, exploring more great dialog, I was spent.
Perhaps the weekend’s backdrop had something to do with this emerging train of thought. A bar mitzvah, for those that don’t know, is a ceremony, celebrating a young Jewish boy’s coming of age. He, in a symbolic sense, becomes a man through learning a Torah portion and leading the congregation. Here were two men, easily old enough to father sons of a similar age, in throws of another archetypal moment: the mid-life crisis.
Well, How Did I Get Here?
My brother-in-law and I, similar in many ways, took very different paths to where we are today. After graduating college, in four short years, I set about working on the “writer’s life”. I worked jobs, some crummy, others fantastic, on the way to where I am now. He was in school when I met him. He is in school now, leading the classroom instead of listening. Much has changed. Not much has changed.
I have always looked at my brother-in-law with loving fascination. He took a more conventional path, one that I could have taken. Instead of working temp jobs and in group homes searching for the writers life, I could have continued with school. I could have gotten an advanced degree, the tweed coat and mountain of debt.
Now that we’re here, on the wrong side of forty, it’s hard not to compare. Although I feel a similar pinch, the way he characterized his mid-life crisis felt foreign to me. Everything is a B? I experience an easy A every day. Sometimes it’s in a book I’m reading. Others, a new song I pick up on, leading to a rabbit hole of new music.
More often than anything else, however, the everyday A comes when I’m at work. When I’m deep into the writing, diving into the unexplored world of an entirely new story. Elvis Costello, surely unbeknownst to him, wrote out my job description in his 1983 indie rock classic, “everyday I write the book.”
The life of a writer is different. It just is.
Writing & The Mid-Life Crisis
I didn’t set out to write this blog to compare our mid-life crises. Neither is better. My brother-in-law’s mid-life crisis is inherently different than mine. Instead of comparing, I felt it critical to use his insight as a point of reflection.
I can hear an even older version of myself giving advice to my son: in life, take all points of reflection as opportunities, more precious than gold.
As writers, we invite a whole lot of suffering into our lives. Doubt about craft. Insufferable fear of the blank page. The need to reinvent ourselves on an almost constant basis.
Those are sharp peaked mountains, steep and difficult to scale. In facing them, however, comes the strength to keep climbing. Maybe all that youthful juvenilia actually amounted to something? They were down payments on the therapy needed to survive the middle passage.
I love my brother-in-law. I have a lot of hope for the next time I see him. For one thing, I hope it’s somewhere other than Houston, Texas. More than that, I hope to find him further on. I can’t, realistically, hope for him to bump that B to an A; not everything can be, that’s not realistic.
Whatever he’s looking for though, I want to know he’s gotten closer.
What writers save ourselves from, perhaps, is the middling feeling that everything in life is a B. The constant search for story demands a belief in inspiration; it begs for us to feel moved by something, whether that’s a character or plot setting or scenario.
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