Liminal

Leaping Man, by David Dalla Venizia, the print I brought home with me from my trip to Venice. It’s framed and hanging in my pool room.

We tell ourselves stories in order to live.

Joan Didion

I believe that we organize our lives around narrative principles. That is, we are the protagonists of our own stories, defining ourselves through the roles we fulfill and the roles we’re remanded to by others, defining ourselves by our goals and our settings, and encountering others as we go along. Our “stages of life” are the periods in which the story is more or less coherent.

Every so often, though, the story stops making sense. Stops being readable. Stops being satisfying. The old story is broken, and we haven’t crafted a new one yet. That narrative gap is normal, more regular than we think, and yet wrenching every time we have to go through one. Although journalist Gail Sheehy laid out some of these in her 1976 book Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life, I think she oversimplifies in an effort to make everything fit into decades—The Trying 20s, the Catch 30s, the Forlorn 40s, and so on. Let me try a different take at it.[1]

Here are some of the common wrenches that we’ll have tossed into our gears during our lives, in kind of a common chronological sequence. School, sexuality, college/work, legal independence, serious relationship(s), breakup(s), work failure, children, menopause, first serious health scare, retirement, major physical/intellectual limitation. Add your own. At every point, the easy prior self-definition can no longer be taken for granted, and some new self has to be constructed.

The Adjunct Underclass is, at its heart, about the psychic destruction of a formerly understood story. For decades, we were told that we were smart. We were given harder things to do, and we did those. We got accepted to new schools, thrived there, met new challenges at every step and were acknowledged to have mastered every one. We had a story, we had an identity, we had a path. We knew how to behave, how to be rewarded.

And then one day, the rewards just stopped. Not through any failure of our own, but simply because the treat bag was now empty. There were no more tests, no next committee to satisfy, no next semester to enroll in, and no next career step to take.

This is a particular instance of a common occurrence. The factory closes, the kids leave home, the heart lurches, the ovaries close up shop with only the occasional clearance sale.

Mom used to pack my lunch, but now I have to go to the grocery store myself and understand how to cook and not just eat Cheerios and Bud Light.

I’m good at my job, but it isn’t fun any more, and I haven’t learned anything new in five years.

It takes a while to learn how to construct a reliable new self when the old one breaks down. And it takes a while to fully acknowledge that the old self can’t be salvaged… we often hang onto it for too long. We can’t rush that, even though we’d like to.

We build the new life by feel rather than by plan. We fix some pieces to an understood foundation, even when we don’t know what the upper floor might look like yet, or where the stairs are. Sometimes that means we have to take stuff apart, because it doesn’t get us to the right place.

I feel like I’m there, in that space between, building without a plan.

I’m pretty much done with higher ed; I’ve got nothing left to say, and increasingly no credence left upon which to say it. It’s been at least six years since I led an accreditation, wrote an assessment plan, led undergraduates through a curriculum, sat on a dissertation committee, created a new course. I’ve written three books, and don’t have anything left in that tank, by current experience and by interest. That divorce is more or less finalized, only seven years since I walked away from a daily identity in higher ed.

I’m trying to construct a new identity as a fiction writer, and I’m doing some of the things that I can understand. Mainly, I’m writing. A lot. That feels like the right thing to do. I’ve taken on different forms of formal and informal coaching, from writers’ groups to conferences to the endless reading of writers’ guides and website advice. I show up and do the work.

But there are steps yet to go. I’m working, more or less blindly, to find readers. Maybe, in order to do that, I’ll have to take some things apart that feel secure, because the stairs aren’t where I expected. Maybe there aren’t stairs at all. There’s no way to know. I’ll just keep building, and occasionally raise my eyes and look around.


[1] I refer you, for the best treatment I’ve seen of “stages of life,” to Hugh Klein, “Adolescence, Youth, and Young Adulthood: Rethinking Current Conceptualizations of Life Stage,” Youth and Society 21:4, 1990. If you can get this through interlibrary loan, you absolutely should.