The Unexpected Aging Epiphany or Catching Up On My Character’s Ages

I have been writ­ing stor­ies all my life, but when I was around twenty, I slowly star­ted tak­ing my own writ­ing ser­i­ously. 2008, ten years ago, I was twenty-two and had a first draft ready of my first nov­el. A few years later I had sev­er­al book pro­jects going. So far, so good. I was a bud­ding writer with my fin­gers on the keys. A lovely image, frozen in time. Like a mam­moth in a block of ice.

Just after that pic­ture was taken, I star­ted on what would turn out to be a dec­ade of ill­ness. Of burn-out and fibromy­al­gia, of depres­sion and pan­ic attacks, of so many dia­gnoses that I have lost count. Which meant that my writ­ing pro­jects also got frozen, locked in the middle of the cre­at­ive pro­cess for ten years.

Fast-for­ward to 2018, today. I am thirty-two. Now I put my fin­gers on the keys again, everything has changed and noth­ing has changed. I open my writ­ing pro­jects, I thaw my cre­at­ive ideas one by one and review them care­fully, with awe. For ten years, every thought of my own writ­ing has giv­en me anxi­ety, I have been totally blocked in self-defense. Now, I have punched that damn dec­ade in the face, and my ideas are beck­on­ing me, call­ing for me, they want to be let loose again. And I read them, and I see that they want what is best for me, that I want what is best for myself in my desire to write. So I con­tin­ue.

That is when it hits me: I am ten years older, but my char­ac­ters have not aged. Now, I have nev­er felt bad about aging. On the con­trary, I have always wanted to be older — hurry up! And I enjoy get­ting older, enjoy gath­er­ing more exper­i­ences. But thaw­ing my char­ac­ters from the mam­moth ice is wak­ing some­thing inside me. I am faced with char­ac­ters that I have had clearly fixed in my head, but that I now see in a dif­fer­ent light because I have changed.

Chet, the main char­ac­ter of my first nov­el, is a fifty-four-year old writer from Chica­go. He travels to Sweden to attend his mother­’s funer­al. When Chet first popped up in my head, the year was 2006. I had just turned twenty-one, and fifty-four felt fit­ting. Not ancient, but still pretty old. He was more than double my age with a com­fort­able mar­gin, thirty-three years older. Now he is only twenty-one years older than me. And regard­less of if that nov­el ever gets pub­lished, he will always be there in my head. A worn-out, Amer­ic­an man, wan­der­ing des­ol­ately on the streets of Stock­holm and in the snowy north of Sweden, strug­gling to under­stand his own his­tory. He will always be fifty-four, even if I live to be a hun­dred.

It feels even more intrus­ive with the nov­el I am work­ing on today. The main char­ac­ter, The Wan­nabe Hol­ly­wood Mom, is a forty-two-year old single moth­er — now hav­ing a mid-life crisis in a Stock­holm sub­urb. When she first made an entrance in 2009, I was twenty-four and liv­ing in my first prop­er apart­ment. She was not really twice my age, but it felt like it. Her life was light-years from my own. Now, when I pick up the writ­ing almost ten years later, her life is still far from my own in many ways. But in some ways, it has crept closer. In ten years we will be the same age! And when I have reached Chet­’s age, The Wan­nabe Hol­ly­wood Mom will still be sit­ting in her shabby apart­ment with her mid-life crisis, long­ing for the glam­our.

These two people who live in my head, who are so close to me, des­pite — or maybe because of — the fact that they only exist in my mind. At their incep­tions, both could well have been my par­ents. In ten or twenty years I can share their life crises. In anoth­er thirty or forty years, we have gone full circle and I am the par­ent, age-wise as well as idea-wise.

I resume my acquaint­ance with my char­ac­ters, and I feel a new kind of sym­pathy for them, whom I have always liked but often laughed at. I feel closer to them, the twenty-something’s immor­tal­ity has been replaced by the thirty-something’s hum­bler aware­ness. And I am not just see­ing Chet and The Wan­nabe Hol­ly­wood Mom in my texts, I am con­fron­ted by anoth­er Laidi. A Laidi who was in the middle of the chaos, who struggled on for­ward in between the break­downs. Who had not yet star­ted on the psy­chi­at­ric med­ic­a­tion and ther­apy that now makes me feel bet­ter than I ever have in my life, men­tally and phys­ic­ally. In short: I am con­fron­ted by my own emo­tion­al bag­gage.

Sud­denly, I get a new per­spect­ive on my own life and aging, thanks to the char­ac­ters I have made up myself. I am no longer in the chaos I was in when Chet and The Wan­nabe Hol­ly­wood Mom came into exist­ence, I can let that bag­gage go and still keep them. I can keep the pos­it­ive and let the rest go. And even if I wish that I could have been without this dec­ade, or could have done things dif­fer­ently, I had to go through it to become who I am today. The body needs time and nurs­ing to heal, regard­less if the injury is phys­ic­al or men­tal. Now, I am finally cap­able of put­ting my fin­gers on the keys again, to con­tin­ue where I was inter­rup­ted.

And just like my char­ac­ters give me a new per­spect­ive on my own life, I get a new per­spect­ive on the stor­ies I write because of the dec­ade-long pause. If I had fin­ished my nov­els before the break, it would not have been so tan­gible. But now, I resume the work in the middle of the pro­cess, I go back into the text where I dropped it and make changes, addi­tions and sub­trac­tions. I pick up the pieces and see that the pieces have changed. I am ten years older, I am a com­pletely dif­fer­ent per­son now com­pared to then. And the stor­ies I now resume writ­ing will be dif­fer­ent because of that. Prob­ably bet­ter, too. My char­ac­ters are the same, but I treat them dif­fer­ently now com­pared to then. With both more care and com­pas­sion. And with anoth­er ten years of life exper­i­ence. Which will reshape the life exper­i­ences of my char­ac­ters, even though they will not age.

Then I pic­ture my char­ac­ters in pub­lished books, which is what I am work­ing towards. When I am dead, Chet and The Wan­nabe Hol­ly­wood Mom and all my oth­er char­ac­ters will still be there on the book­shelf, be there in the same time and the same age. It makes me feel dizzy. My grand­chil­dren will be able to take down a book from the shelf and think of grandma. I pic­ture a grand­child, maybe ten years old, flick­ing through the book about Chet, think­ing that he is really old, but that it is not so strange since grandma is (or was) really old. The way kids think, an older per­son has always been old. And a char­ac­ter in a book has always been as old as they were when you read the book.

Take it one step fur­ther, what if I am lucky enough to have my books being read a hun­dred years from now? With read­ers mar­veling or laugh­ing over the descrip­tions of the early twenty-first cen­tury. Just like we read books from the begin­ning of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, and reflect over all that is strange, and how far we have come since then. Noth­ing will be left of me except words on paper; the world I live in will have trans­formed into anoth­er world. I am faced by my own death, that I will end up as com­post like every­one else. I am not immor­tal, after all.

While Chet and The Wan­nabe Hol­ly­wood Mom will con­tin­ue to live their etern­al fifty-four-year old and forty-two-year old lives between the pages. And I gladly give them their etern­al exist­ence, and I am grate­ful that I do not have to share it. I am going to con­tin­ue to enjoy my aging, with my char­ac­ters as fixed ref­er­ence points through my pro­gress­ing life. They help me keep my course and my per­spect­ive. May we live long and prosper.

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