When DB was at Law School he was aware of how much younger his fellow students were than he was. I find the same in my MFA program now. My peers are really the lecturers. I wonder how much time I will have left over for writing once I finish the degree, and I was struck by a recent essay in The New York Times Book Review . It was written by the American novelist and short story writer, Gail Godwin, who has been five times on the NYT best seller list.
Gail Godwin was born in 1937 and she was reflecting on how productive writers can be towards the end of their careers. Admittedly, they have been honing their writing skills all their lives, not coming to it late, as I have, but still I found it encouraging.
December 10, 2010
Working on the Ending
By GAIL GODWIN
When you’re a young writer, you subtract the birth dates of authors from their publication dates and feel panic or hope. When you’re an old writer, you observe the death dates of your favorite writers and you reflect on their works and their lives.
This past year I outlived Henry James, who died two months short of his 73rd birthday. In his final years, he wrote an autobiography of his childhood, befriended badly wounded World War I soldiers and changed his citizenship. I have catapulted myself out of many writing setbacks and humiliations with the rallying cry of the dying novelist Dencombe, in James’s story “The Middle Years”: “We work in the dark — we do what we can — we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task.” The words have the stride of a march and the echo of a mantra. Already I have missed being able to ask James, “When you were my age, what did you do when . . . ?”
“How does what you want out of writing change with age?” Terry Gross asked Philip Roth on NPR’s “Fresh Air” in October. Roth, 77, told her it hadn’t changed much for him. He wanted to be as alert and energetic as ever at the keyboard, he wanted to be taken seriously, and he wanted to make a work of art out of his subject.
You want to be taken seriously; that doesn’t change. What has changed for me is the degree of compromise I am willing to inflict on my work in order to see it in print. As a young writer, I was told by the fiction editor at Esquire that he’d publish my story if I took out the woman’s dreams. I took them out. “It will make her more inscrutable,” he promised, chuckling. It certainly did. Forty years later, “A Sorrowful Woman” is my most anthologized story, and I get regular e-mails from bewildered high school and college students asking why this woman did what she did…
…When I was a young writer, I would jump-start the next project as soon as I completed the last. “You have been too damn lazy,” I scolded myself after having lost faith in a story started the day after sending off the final draft of my first novel to its publisher. Back then I believed it was more productive and honorable to hop into the saddle and strike off for somewhere rather than just lying around.
Now I do a lot of lying around. Finally I have accepted that my supine dithering is fertile and far from a waste of time. As a young writer I heard the old Borges tell his rapt audience at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop that blindness had taught him to write his stories in his head. Ah, to be able to do that, I remember thinking, if only you didn’t have to go blind. I still have my eyesight, but within the past year I have discovered I can compose whole paragraphs in my head and find them waiting, intact, next morning. [Incredible!]
Inevitable for the old writer is the slowdown of word retrieval. You pause over the keyboard and summon in vain a word you need. This happens oftener and oftener, until you find your jotting pad crammed with thesaurus numbers (74.17, 658.11, 215.22, 236.2). All it once took was the slightest tug at the bell for the vigorous servant, accompanied by backup synonyms, to report for duty. Now you wait, and this waiting offers a variety of responses. You can rail at your “senior moment” like those tiresome people who bring a conversation to a halt because they can’t remember the name of a place or person. You can, of course, resort to your ragged thesaurus, unless your moment is so dire you can’t even remember any words for the concept you’re trying to describe. You can do without the word and perhaps realize how little you needed it, especially if it happened to be an adjective or an adverb. Or you can leave a blank, to be filled in later. You can also take a break from your work and read some poetry (which is all about compression and word selection), or dip into Samuel Beckett’s late novel “Worstward Ho,” an old writer’s celebration of reduced options. (“Fail again, fail better.”) If you are not thrilled by how much his stripped language (he called it “unwording the world”) can do, you will come away with a revised perspective on how many words a writer can do without.
For me, a consolation prize of word delay has been an increased intolerance for the threadbare phrase. I don’t want anyone on my pages to “burst into tears” or “just perceptibly” do anything, ever again. Better to take a break and ask: “What exactly do I want to say here? How does this really look?” I’ll ask myself, “How do you describe the way an old couple walk that shows they have been walking together for decades?” That in itself may turn out to be the best description.
The old writer hopes to do credit to the material that has been hers or his alone. “I was there / Me in place and the place in me,” Seamus Heaney testifies in “A Herbal.” You become more urgent about your vital themes (what I really care about is whether this girl will develop or abandon her moral center) and less patient with peripheries (how much more war research do I need for this minor character, anyway?).
Another seasoned writer, the 82-year-old Cynthia Ozick, pays homage in her new novel, “Foreign Bodies,” to her lifelong idol Henry James by marrying her quite different strengths to his in “The Ambassadors.”
In his 79th year, Carl Jung wrote to his friend the Rev. Victor White that a complete life consisted of accepting without reservation “the particular fatal tissue in which one finds oneself embedded,” and trying to “make sense of it or to create a cosmos from the chaotic mess into which one is born.”
The old writer wants to use up his fatal tissue like biscuit dough, pushing the leftovers into another and another artful shape — down to the last strange little animal…The 81-year-old Saul Bellow’s slim novella “The Actual,”published three years before the heftier “Ravelstein,” distills his abiding attraction to “first-class noticers” into a Chicago romance with fairy-tale elements, in which a lifelong noticer is sought out and rewarded for his gift.
I will be very interested to meet my strange little animals.
Gail Godwin’s new book, “The Making of a Writer, 1963-1969,” will be published next month.