Fear, Aging and Their Impact on My Writing

I turned 40 last month. It felt different than turning 20, or 30, or even 39 for that matter. Perhaps it was that I was still recovering from dislocating my shoulder the week before, and my body still hurt. Maybe it’s a normal thing for guys my age. Forty is a bit of a milestone, after all. Some men see it as a perfect time to manufacture a mid-life crisis. If I hadn’t had at least a half dozen other life-crises in the last ten years, I’d admit to the concern that was possible for me as well. But I think I’m actually well past my mid-life at this point—at the rate my body is falling apart, eighty looks to be an optimistic goal.

I think I’ve always been a bit of a gerontophobe. When I was in my twenties, I always tried to set high physical goals, in the fear that it wouldn’t be long before trying those things would be beyond my body’s capability. I cycled a hundred miles in a day multiple times. I played fairly competitive soccer  and softball on corporate teams (though not very well). I hiked in the mountains and biked in the desert on solo trips that I would honestly think twice about now. I travelled around Europe for a couple of weeks by myself. I wish I had been more wrong than I was, but I’m glad I did those things. There’s no way I could do those things now, and I don’t regret any of that, even though some of those things brought me very close to never seeing my next birthday.

I did a lot of those things because I doubted I would be able to do a lot of them later in life. Similarly, I didn’t do a lot of things earlier in my life because I feared how it would limit me later in life. I refrained from taking public stances on political issues because I was never sure if politics was in my future, and I didn’t want anything people could hold against me. I refrained from taking a stand (for the most part) when faced with moral and ethical decisions at work for fear of losing my job or endangering my abilities to get future work. Every time I look at someone who has blown the whistle on Corporate America I shake my head and wonder how they ever got the nerve to do that. Not because I thought they were crazy, but because they were incredibly brave.

One of the thoughts that struck me the other day, while I was contemplating the meaning of forty, is that I’ve been in the workplace now for seventeen years (not counting the jobs before and during college). My first day of work after college was September 6, 1994. Based on my current life expectancy, and my prospects for retiring early due to some sudden windfall (very low), I’ll probably be working for another 25-30 years.

That’s a long time to be scared.

Seriously. That’s what I was thinking. I was no longer thinking about what I will or will not be able to do physically. I was thinking about how long I will be afraid to take a stand, and how those decisions will impact my career, my life, my family, and my writing. Not that I have anything that I am super-passionate about that is controversial about at this time, but I suspect that I have long closed my mind to becoming passionate about issues because I am afraid of the consequences. I am one of the mindless millions, commuting back and forth to work to keep the American cash registers ringing so we can go out and buy the next electronic toy we’ve been told we all can’t live without, and hoping that someone else will solve the world’s problems.

In a round-about way, this fear has affected my writing. At times, I find my own writing dull and cliché, as if it is a copy of every ordinary book I have ever read. I write books I would want to read. Books that are entertaining and comfortable… and safe. I don’t write deep investigative journalism, because that might put me in harm’s way. There’s no sex in my books, because, OH MY GOD MY MOTHER WILL READ THIS! My characters play it safe (more often than not) because I overthink the consequences of their actions, and hence, they do too. Emotions are left out of the decision making, because that would lead to illogical decisions, as if every character in the book is some sort of Vulcan.

What I need to remember, as I write characters of different ages, is that fear is a great motivating, and sometimes debilitating factor. A young character may be afraid of not doing something. They may act with more emotion. An older, and supposedly wiser character, may be afraid of acting because they see the consequences. They may have more to lose. They’ll rationalize their decisions. Both characters will fear something. But their fears will change their motivations.

Understanding what the character is afraid of, helps to sketch out their profile, and may be far more important than their height, weight or gender. Going forward, I’m going to make sure I document those fears for all of my characters, so I know their motivations just a little better.

So what am I going to do about my own fears? I didn’t say I had a plan. I just said I knew I had a problem. At least I’ve gotten that far. And it only took me forty years.

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