First, the analogy:
People in the literary world criticize formula fiction as “less than” literary. With good reason. It is predicable, redundant, and can be decidedly boring. I’m speaking in general terms, of course. Some of those formula-based works are exciting; they keep your attention and on occasion surprise you with some plot twist toward the end.
The thing is the vast majority of written work follows a formula. And in cinema, plot-driven material is the bread and butter of film productions. Sometimes we might catch a glimpse of a work whose crisis is created by some setting, and more often these days, character-driven material has become more common—those works which receive the vast majority of nods from awards committees. But the public at large is comfortable with the tried and true; they like predictability, and they find some refuge in knowing what to expect.
We graduate high school, maybe college, in some cases post-graduate work. We find a job and then a career. We raise a family, we retire, pursuing those hobbies we either only dabbled in or hoped to learn someday. It is the Great American Dream. We live the best we can, we work hard, we play hard, we relax, we watch our children move further than we did.
My great-grandfather was a butcher, his father as well, came here from Germany with his brothers, presumably to “make a better life of it” than they had in 1850’s Bavaria. My grandfather owned a successful glass company in Brooklyn, was heavily involved in the Knights of Columbus, raised six kids, had an apartment in Brooklyn and a house on Long Island. All of his offspring moved on still, and my own father excelled on Wall Street, providing for us a childhood we could not have dreamed of being better (except for that one liver and onion incident). And when things got tough in the world in the early 1970’s, Dad stepped to the plate and kept everything in spin, eventually retiring and pursuing his passion since 1969—golf. He spent another solid twenty years living his life, enjoying his children, his grandkids, and eventually toward the end, his great-grandchildren.
Textbook successful life. Formula narrative line at its best, to be certain. Dad was one of my heroes. If I could have chosen a life of the people I’ve known, I’d have chosen his.
But I’m not a patient man. I’m not close to as intelligent as my father was, and I am too easily distracted by big picture stuff—I have trouble with the minutia in life, the details he was so good at corralling into a successful career.
But I can be creative.
I am sixty-two now, ten years an AARP member and now eligible for Social Security—all the stuff in life I was convinced I’d die before ever participating in. I had a terrific career as a college professor, as a writer, and I literally built my own home and have a son who I could not be prouder of—in fact, he reminds me in so very many ways of my father.
So—here we go. What’s next?
Sidebar: My boss at Saint Leo’s for a few years was a retired military man who went on to teach college math and become the director of the Little Creek amphibious Base college offices of the university. I know him well, and his daughter is a friend, having been in every class I taught as well as traveling to Russia on a study abroad. Just about at retirement age, beyond actually, his lovely wife passed away, and his children—now grown—moved out. He did his time—he served his country and then some by assisting military in pursing degrees so they can start their own second careers. He is a beautiful man, and just when you know he earned the right in his early seventies to settle into the “what’s next” in life, he made a left turn.
He joined the Peace Corps and did a tour teaching math to children in Ghana. After that he did a six-month extension in Micronesia. He remains, for me anyway, one of the more inspiring humans I’ve known.
While I have left my career at one college, I’m still teaching, and plan to for a while, and as a writer I will never be able to retire—my mind simply won’t allow it. It is why every writer, artist, and musician, dies with a pile of “unfinished” work. It isn’t an option for us, retiring. It isn’t a hobby. It is how we breath in and out.
But what’s next? I don’t know, but I know without question what’s next cannot be an extension of what was. It doesn’t work for me; that is not where this narrative arc is going.
I don’t want some great-grandchild to blog about me and write, “He taught college and was a writer and retired at” whatever age it is I can no longer tolerate twenty-year old’s.
No. Instead, let it read, “He taught college and was a writer, but then, get this, at sixty-five years old he…”
I like the blanks in life. I like that we get to fill in those blanks ourselves. I have great admiration for the formula—and there is not a day that goes by that I don’t wish I had set myself up to spend my waning years simply enjoying the passing of time. But my chemistry simply doesn’t blend like that. I really wish it did. Instead, I’ll stop worrying about the plot or the setting and focus on my character. It needs work, but this script isn’t finished yet.