I was listening to NPR the other day, an interview with Judy Blume, who is much in the news lately for several reasons. A movie has been made of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. In conjunction with that, a documentary of her life, Judy Blume Forever, is forthcoming, as well as adaptations of a couple of her other novels. But the most notable bit of the interview for me was when she confessed that, at 84, she was unlikely to write another novel. ”I’m an extrovert,” she said. “I like people. I don’t want to coop myself up any more.”
At the same time, I’ve been reading Don Winslow’s gangster trilogy, the first two of which, City on Fire and City of Dreams, are out now, with the third and final book due next year. He, too, has publicly announced he’s not writing any more novels. If you’re active on Twitter, you’ve seen him become more and more politically minded, to the extent that he is putting all his energies into activism and political commentary.
And, more worrisome to me, I heard Dennis Lehane say in an interview that he didn’t know if he was going to write more novels, though his new release Small Mercies, is by all accounts an example of him at his best. He did say he would write another if something grabbed him the way this book did, but the notion of quitting?
I spent most of my working life shoehorning my writing in and around a challenging career and family. I write every day and have done for forty-some years. Before I’d heard these people talk about it, I would have said you’d have to pry my pen (keyboard) from my cold dead fingers to make me quit. I didn’t know you could do that.
And yet—age brings a growing awareness of the limited nature of time—my time. All the things I planned to do and haven’t done, the people I’ve sworn to spend time with and haven’t, the other modes of building and creating that attract me. And trout fishing . . .
So maybe at one level I can understand the impulse to step away from a work that is difficult, unheralded for the most part, a work that no one much cares whether you’re doing it, a work without much in the way of tangible recompense. Very few of us are going to make even a small fortune at this, very few of us are going to see much acclaim. It is a temptation, I think, to throw up one’s hands and say Fuck It™.
On the other hand—all three of the writers I mentioned have had their work heard, have tasted success in the way the world defines it. Is it easier to give up what you’ve had? In most of our cases, it would be more of a discard of hope.
Then I think of Robert Parker, who literally died at his desk, John Updike revising poems while he was dying of lung cancer. Maybe there is a spark there that cannot give up the ghost.
It’s a conundrum. I love my chicken-scratching, ticky-tacky keyboard tapping too much at the moment to give it up. And I’ve gone without much acclamation for long enough it doesn’t bother me particularly to know I’m unlikely to see the success a Winslow or a Parker saw.
It is the work. Still and now. A former teacher, afflicted with lung cancer, used his limited time to write a memoir of his dying. I have no answers, other than to know that it’s not time to quit yet. Like the urge to write, the urge to quit is personal. And I hope that if I ever do give it up, I’ll be able to do that with the grace of a Judy Blume. It is all any of us wants, I think. The grace to know our own minds.
This really spoke to me. At almost 85,I find myself slowing down, less intrigued by the big projects, and yet unwilling to say it’s over. Thanks for helping me sort my thoughts–I think.
We, your readers, would selfishly be very sad if you stopped writing. I’m still hoping there will be another Elder Darrow at some point…please?
It’s an important question. I have always said a writer never gets to retire and puzzled at fellow writers who walked away when they didn’t have great success. And yet…I have slowed way down, not willingly, which is frustrating to me. Recently, I’ve been toying with the idea of taking the summer off. Just the summer. Like your fishing, I could spend more time reading and in the garden. It seems very attractive. But can I? It’s a mystery.
Perhaps take the summer off — but schedule one hour each day (no more) to write. And write snippets, nothing cohesive. That maybe could be assembled into a book in the fall.
At 82, I can attest that writing and other intellectual activities can be increasingly frustrating as one ages, including the loss of focus, health, memory, intellectual ability, and drive.
But writing, as I do with short stories and a dream journal I keep is good for overall health, per: https://www.storiicare.com/blog/6-reasons-every-senior-should-take-up-writing:
“[W}riting has powerful health benefits? Most people don’t associate writing with the elderly, but there are many advantages to starting this habit or keeping it up well into your later years. Writing can take on many forms unique to an individual’s needs and preferences.
Pen pal correspondence
Life story/memoir writing
Here are reasons every senior can benefit from writing:
1. Stimulates Cognitive Function & Memory Retention
Writing something down helps you to remember it. This is how we learned all those years through school. Seeing things on paper and reading them back to yourself boosts memory and comprehension, which leads to improved cognitive processing. If you’ve been out of the habit of writing, engaging in this regularly will form new neural pathways and connections, which help keep the brain sharp, too.
2. Reduces Stress
There’s a reason therapists suggest writing in a journal. Transferring overwhelming thoughts and feelings onto paper helps our brains process and organize our emotions and reactions to what is happening in life. Writing down what we’re experiencing helps us examine, understand and move past difficult situations. Essentially, it helps us complete what author and psychologist Emily Nagoski calls ‘the stress cycle’.
3. Improves Sleep
Ever lie there awake at night unable to sleep because your brain is going a million miles a minute? When we’re overwhelmed with anything from to-do lists to big life decisions, it’s hard for our brains to shut off and relax. Writing helps. You can make task lists for the next day to help put your mind at ease so you won’t forget anything. Or, you can get your thoughts and feelings out on paper so that they’re not living so much in your head. Replace screen time with journal time and you’re guaranteed to see a noticeable difference in the time it takes your mind to quiet and enter a sleepy state.
4. Fights Depression
It is widely accepted that writing in a journal has been shown to reduce symptoms of depression. Specific to seniors, this habit can support coming to terms with aging and subsequent lifestyle changes. It can promote mindfulness and help older adults to live in the present moment rather than worrying about what the future holds. Furthermore, journaling can help process complex emotions and difficult medical situations one may be facing.
5. Creates Peace of Mind
Some older adults treat journalling as if they are writing a memoir. They might craft letters to their children or grandchildren as part of the legacy they want to leave behind. They may also see their journals as something special to leave to their descendants. It can give older adults an enormous sense of peace to know that they’ve communicated their wishes, hopes, proudest moments, best advice, life lessons, etc. with the people they love and care about the most. It is truly a gift to pass something like this onto future generations.
6. Helps With Rehab
Seniors who are in the process of recovering from a serious injury or illness can benefit from journaling about their rehabilitation. Writing down what helps, what they’re finding difficult, how they’re feeling, and what symptoms they’re experiencing can help inform health practitioners and caregivers involved in their therapy. In turn, this can lead to a quicker recovery and better health outcomes.:
What an interesting conundrum! Maybe it’s different for those who have been successful enough to write full time and make a living from it. Like you, I wrote around raising a family and teaching. It’s my therapy, I guess. Thought provoking blog, Dick.
It comes down to a personal comfort level, I think. I still love writing, but give myself permission to ‘skip school’ when the moment feels right.
What a thoughtful essay. Like everything else, the decision is individual, but as long as it remains fun, I intend to keep plunking away!
Writing is an individual effort as is the decision to write or not. I say? Write on.
Perhaps for these writers who make announcements about being done are managing expectations of readers? I have a hard time believing a writer ever TRULY stops writing. Publishing, maybe. Writing? Mmmmmm…
Ten years ago, I would have said the same–I was planning to die at my computer keyboard! But after 70 published books written since 1976 and a general dislike of the non-writing demands publishers now make of their authors, I’m “retired” in the sense that I’m not doing any “new” writing except the occasional blog, I’m saying no to writing more novels or short stories that might sell (or might not), and saying no to most self-promotion “opportunities,” which (in general) have always turned me into a nervous wreck. On the other hand, I’m still writing in the sense that I’m going back over my out-of-print books, revising them to suit myself, and reissuing them in omnibus editions with author notes. And, of course, I get to be as opinionated as I like in print in my blogs here at MCW
Purely a personal decision, to be respected with gratitude for past gifts. <3