“They did not know that lumpy, aged, and wrinkled bodies were as needy as their own young, firm ones, that love was not to be tossed away carelessly . . .”
Sandra Neily here:
Today, I want to explore (just a bit) how an author might write about age. Not just write about it, but actually write age. I was motivated by a very recent post, “Never Too Late?” (Thanks, Maggie Robinson!)
I found lots of authors who paused in the story to have a character give us some aging philosophy—as if from on high. Nope, not what works well I thought. Breaks the story, the tone, the plot’s trajectory.
So I went back to the Pulitzer Prize winning Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth’s Strout’s first Olive novel.
The novel still stuns me, but the first jolt happened many years ago when I read Olive’s lines about loneliness after her husband’s death. For the first time, I understood why my mother, alone after a long marriage, drove daily to the ocean to sit and stare at the water. With tears, I could feel her loneliness because of Olive’s loneliness.
I was so sad that I had not met Olive before my mother died so I could sit in the car with both of them. Not talk much, perhaps. But just be there.
That’s an author bringing you inside in a very intimate way as Strout also does in these lines from the novel. It’s Olive’s voice though (“what pieces life took out of you”). The author does not intrude.
(The lines are also a master class on how to craft an extended metaphor that only gains power as it grows. Oh my.)
“What young people didn’t know, she thought, lying down beside this man, his hand on her shoulder, her arm; oh, what young people did not know. They did not know that lumpy, aged, and wrinkled bodies were as needy as their own young, firm ones, that love was not to be tossed away carelessly, as if it were a tart on a platter with others that got passed around again. No, if love was available, one chose it, or didn’t choose it. And if her platter had been full with the goodness of Henry and she had found it burdensome, had flicked it off crumbs at a time, it was because she had not known what one should know: that day after day was unconsciously squandered.
And so, if this man next to her now was not a man she would have chosen before this time, what did it matter? He most likely wouldn’t have chosen her either. But here they were, and Olive pictured two slices of Swiss cheese pressed together, such holes they brought to this union—what pieces life took out of you. Her eyes were closed, and throughout her tired self swept waves of gratitude—and regret. She pictured the sunny room, the sun-washed wall, the bayberry outside. It baffled her, the world. She did not want to leave it yet. … (Here’s the trailer from the Emmy-winning mini-series with Francis McDormand.)
I will be seventy-four in a few days.
I was hesitant to write age issues into my novels until a teacher said I was “holding back,” that I was not going where the pain was—that I had to write pain I intimately knew and enrich characters with it so they might be real as well. “Bring the pain,” she said. “Bring the kind you feel.”
So I worked on writing age, not writing about age, but writing age in ways that felt especially familiar yet also creative—in ways that moved the story forward. I’ll admit that giving familiar pain to my characters was a bit cathartic.
From Deadly Trespass:
My fingers had terrified my husband. When I reached for Evan across the sheets, I could almost feel his private parts freeze under the covers.
“There’s an arthritis treatment that restores your hands to what they were, right?” he’d asked, rolling away and offering me his back.
In the dark, I struggled with my wedding ring. I spent the night in the bathroom, greasing my finger until the ring pinged musically to the tile floor. Nothing was going to restore the marriage, not after he’d welcomed smooth hands under different sheets.
I looked down and tried to see myself as Chan saw me. I wore an old paint-stained shirt with sleeves cut off at the elbows and Baptist Thrift Store pants so soft and ancient they were like wearing air. My hiking boots look attacked by jellyfish because I’d patched worn spots with globs of Aquaseal.
My pony tail had no gray hairs because Cousin Liz treated me to appointments that returned my blond highlights. “You should not,” she said, “resemble old moss on old trees.” My face had forehead worry lines. My lips had enough wrinkles to give up on lipstick. I’d never liked lipstick anyway.
If I hid my arthritis-bent fingers, I could be anywhere from age fifty to sixty. I didn’t think young people guessed our ages after forty. We were a foreign country.
At camp, she led me to their equipment tent, where she’d spread my sleeping bag and Pock’s foam pad between crates and more jars of peanut butter. “Of course you don’t want to share a tent with the lad,” she said. “If you’re like me, you spend half the night mopping up.”
How did she know I dreaded a night sweating next to Ian? She undressed and slid her folded clothes into a crate, her cream-colored buttocks shining like twin moons. Naked, she pulled a wool hat over her hair and blew out the sputtering candles. “If women could connect batteries to hot flashes, we might light the earth. Don’t forget to leave clothes in with mine. It’s bear time, too. Hunters running dogs make the bruins a touch crazy.” She waved a few fingers at me and zipped her tent.
From Deadly Turn
The forest looked raw and naked. I knew that when blood stopped flowing into the weight of what male moose carried around, their antlers toppled off, but I’d never stood in a field of antlers.
Some were snagged in low, leafless branches. It looked like sculptors had entwined angular bones and twisted tree limbs as a wilderness commentary on arthritis. A few yards away from a snagged antler, I held up my hands, closed one eye, and saw how my gnarled fingers neatly fit into this artistic vision.
Of course my dog was up to no good up on Eagle Ridge. “Texas,” I panted. “Could use Texas right about now. Or Oklahoma.” On a flat plain, I could have dashed from wind tower to wind tower, maybe dodging cows, but in Maine’s north woods we all have to go up, up, up.
I dropped my pack and hard hat, tightened the band holding my pony tail, and tried to jog up the road. Nothing had changed since the last time I’d asked my knees to challenge elevations. Since I’d turned fifty, they just complained.
I could run if I had to. Arthritis paired with extra pounds isn’t a terminal disease. I was in the move-it-or-lose-it time of life when butts grow into soft cushions that fit couches. It felt good to have an excuse to run. I aimed for where I’d seen Pock take flight and found a grove of birch thinned by fire. I jumped black stumps and twisted around white trunks. My passing lifted sheets of loose bark that waved like a scattered cheering section.
I slid off the swing to stand facing Dan’s chest. I thumped it a bit with my most crooked, witch-ugly finger. Dan grimaced and backed away. I’d never thought of weaponizing arthritis, but there was always a first time and I had very ugly fingers. “Someone else local and not me will have to show up at the hearing to testify.” I poked Dan again.
From the working draft of Deadly Assault:
My first trip to the tree stand, lugging radio surveillance telemetry, night vision binoculars, and spotting scopes, I struggled to keep up and almost collided with the tree. The giant, yellow birch had gnarled, sideways limbs. “It’s all twisted and tortured,” I said.
Ken patted the trunk and unclipped a mess of cables connected to the birch’s upper branches. “Yup. Kind of like some of your fingers.” He chuckled and pulled my hands out of my pockets. “Now don’t hide ‘em. Your gnarled ones might tell the same story as the tree. Some tortured life there, too, I expect.”
Rubbing my fingers to return circulation, I was pretty sure trees didn’t get arthritis, but I said nothing.
Dr. Teague had closed my computer file and swiveled her chair toward me. “Recovery depends on all the systems that have suffered damage regaining their connection to health.”
“Do people my age come back?” I asked.
“Mid-fifties or so?” she asked? “You arrived in good shape. That matters. Someday this process of making someone seriously ill simply to restore health will look like something cavemen dreamed up. Chemo can kill cancer cells, but, as you now know, it often compromises fast growing cells elsewhere in your body. There could be some loss. You’ll have to wait and see.”
Sandy’s debut novel, “Deadly Trespass, A Mystery in Maine” won a national Mystery Writers of America award, was a finalist in the Women’s Fiction Writers Association “Rising Star” contest, and was a finalist for a Maine Literary Award. The second Mystery in Maine, “Deadly Turn,” was published in 2021. Her third “Deadly” is due out in 2023. Find her novels at all Shermans Books (Maine) and on Amazon. Find more info on Sandy’s website.