Failure to Launch Generates Dramatic Tension

by Jerry Waxler

According to the television shows “Leave it to Beaver” and “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” the process of going from child to adult was supposed to be easy. I expected to go to college, become a doctor, and raise a family. But the reality was far more complex. The turbulence during the Vietnam War shook me off course and sent me on a long journey that covered a lot of territory but never seemed to arrive anywhere.

Emerging into adulthood is sometimes dubbed “launching,” a term that reminds me of a woman in a fur coat smashing a bottle across the bow of a ship being sent to sea on its maiden voyage. My launching did not include getting hit with a bottle of champagne, but I was hit with other substances which contributed to my loss of focus.

During the first fifteen years of my extended search for my place in the adult world, I tried Plans B, C, and D, drifting on open seas, meandering from island to island, with no apparent route and for that matter no apparent destination. To gain control over my navigation, I began a decades-long course of talk therapy. Based on those discussions, my sense of purpose and direction came back into focus.

In my fifties, I realized that by writing a memoir, I could consolidate the knowledge I had gained from these years of experimenting and exploring. From this panoramic view, confusion gave way to wisdom. Dozens of alternate lifetimes later, I am finally regaining the confidence and purpose I felt before I fell off the launch pad. The whole point was to achieve a sense of empowered adulthood, and it appears I have finally achieved that goal.

I’m not sure that a memoir about this long, multi-stage life would be focused enough to sustain a reader’s interest. But since that’s the way my life actually worked, I intend to try. One of the few memoirs that offer a model for this long approach to adulthood is John Robison’s “Look me in the eye.” As a young adult, he pulled together relationships and career but something was missing.  My impression is that his life came into fullness much later when he realized he had Asperger’s, a mental “condition” that was preventing him from interacting with the world.

Robison was not the only one to have a difficult emergence into adulthood. Many memoirs relate the difficulties of this journey, and while each one offers its own unique slant, together they demonstrate that this developmental challenge of life, to go from child to adult, can provide an enormous amount of dramatic tension.

In my next blog essay, I will offer a number of examples of memoirs whose authors struggled on their transition into adulthood.
Writing Prompt
Consider the impact this period had for you. If you have had a curiosity or horror about your own transition from childhood to adulthood, you will find that the power of this period can make compelling material.

To read the essay I wrote about how John Robison’s memoir gave me permission to be myself, click here.