Life stories are made of turning points, which in many cases are also rites of passage, those turning points that everyone in a shared culture is familiar with, either by direct experience or by common hearsay.
And since a lot of fiction is to some extent autobiographical—inspired by the authors’ own life stories and turning points—rites of passage are a common ingredient of our novels and short stories.
To illustrate this point, here are three experiences I’ve had during my life, which I call not only points of change, but also rites of passage.
1. In 1959, when I was seventeen, I had my first summer romance. I was working for a hotel in South Texas, and I fell in love with a nineteen-year-old waitress. This thrilling summer fling was a breakthrough for me. Fortunately for me, the fling ended with the summer, and nobody got in any trouble. I went off to my senior year in boarding school with some sweet memories and some bragging rights.
2. In June 2010, I attended the 50th reunion of my class at that boarding school where I had been cheerfully incarcerated for four of my teenage years. I went to this class reunion with considerable trepidation, because I expected that all my old friends and classmates would have by this time become world leaders, academic geniuses, and powerful lawyers who drove Lexuses. I, on the other hand, had spent the past 50 years studiously underachieving. I was afraid that at this gathering I would be barely acknowledged, that I would stammer in every conversation, and I might drink too much to quell my nerves, and then I’d throw up in chapel.
Turns out I got along just fine with my old gang. The only person who was in the least competitive was me, and the only person I was competing with was myself, and once we got over that, we had a great time.
3. The following year I had a book published, Behind the Redwood Door. Having a book published was not new to me, so that wasn’t the rite of passage. The rite of passage I experienced in 2011 was a relatively new one in our culture: I joined Facebook. I learned and practiced the art of blatant self-promotion and social networking via the Internet.
This passage was not an easy one for me. I’d been raised to be modest, no matter how brilliant I thought I was. My public motto has always been “Aw, shucks.” But I felt I owed some BSP to my indie publisher, Oak Tree Press, so I bit the bullet. I joined Facebook. I also did an email blitz; I created and maintained a blog, visited the blogs of my colleagues, and participated in an exhausting blog tour. Signings. Conferences. Panel discussions. But the big one was joining Facebook, something I’d sworn never to do.
The big promo for Behind the Redwood Door is over, but I still check out Facebook once a day.
So there they are, three rites of passage: a summer romance, a 50th reunion, and joining Facebook. The reason I clump these three rites of passage together is because they all drive the plot the novel I’m currently writing.
In the novel, Kit Sawyer, a has-been popular folksinger in his late sixties, is trying to make a comeback. His domestic partner (Kit’s bisexual, and in a committed relationship with another man) is running this campaign, and he persuades Kit to get on Facebook. Kit does so, reluctantly, and then discovers there’s an audience for his new recordings among his classmates from boarding school. He’s lured into returning to the school for the 50th reunion, mostly because of what else he learns through Facebook. What is that? It involves an affair he had—his first affair—with a sassy and pretty housekeeper at a Colorado dude ranch, back in 1962, when Kit was twenty years old.
How do these rites all intersect in the plot of my novel? I won’t tell you any more, partly because I don’t want to give away any surprises, but more because I’m only halfway through my first draft, and my characters have the irritating but charming habit of making their own decisions, so I’m sure to be surprised myself.
One thing I’ll make clear now: I’m not a bit like Kit Sawyer, and the events in my novel are entirely fictitious. But I do confess that had I not had a summer romance in South Texas in 1959, if I had not attended my 50th school reunion, and if I had not joined Facebook in the fall of 2011, I wouldn’t be writing this novel.