When a writer finds success, he or she is also visited by the pressure to sustain that success, and with that a constant pursuit of new stories, characters, and themes. A Story Larger than My Own (University of Chicago Press, 2014) explores the frequent crises of confidence faced by women writers as they approach middle age. Janet Burroway collects the thoughts of writers who are all over the age of sixty, and shares their challenges of a changing publishing scene and the difficulty of combining writing with the ordinary stuff of life—family, marriage, and jobs. In this selection from “What I Know,” Hilma Wolitzer writes about continuing to find inspiration as she ages, and a severe bout of writer’s block that threatened to derail her writing career.
One of the perks of the writing profession—if you don’t go on television to plug your book or plaster your photo on the back cover—is that nobody really has to know how old you are or what you look like. Your wardrobe doesn’t matter, either. You never even have to change out of the pajamas in which you may work, as I do, going directly from bed to desk each morning (or, as Amy Tan puts it, “from dream to dream”). Sometimes, lost in a fictional universe, as a writer or a reader, I’ll be surprised by my reflection on the way to the kitchen or the bathroom. So that’s who I’ve become! Yet an author’s age is often mentioned, if not stressed, in reviews and discussions of books, especially those written by women “of a certain age,” that coy euphemism for old.
I’ve always been aware of the limits and advantages of a writer’s particular age. At seven or eight, I sat under the kitchen table, eavesdropping on the grownups and storing that thrilling stuff—the coming attractions of life—like a squirrel gathering acorns for winter. That is, until someone noticed me and they all quickly lapsed into Yiddish or Pig Latin—“Ixnay, the idkay!” Still, there was my own experience to mine. Flannery O’Connor once famously said, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” I believe she was referring to writers and their material. But all I wrote back then was the usual juvenilia about the seasons, as if I’d invented them: “Spring has come all over again / Out of the houses come women and men / Young and old with a joyous cheer / Did not you know that spring is here?” I have no idea where that odd locution came from—no one I knew in Brooklyn sounded like that.
At twelve, advised by an English teacher to write about what I knew, but already prevaricating (like a true preadolescent), I penned verse about being blind, or a refugee, or an unwed mother. In my twenties and thirties, mired in domesticity, I wrote domestic stories in which Jell-O appeared almost as frequently as it did at my dinner table. The first of those stories to be published was called “Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket.” Taking that English teacher’s advice, at last! And with a first novel in print at forty-four, I was sometimes billed as the “Great Middle-Aged Hope.”
Now, in my eighties, and with a photo to prove it on the back of my latest book, age has become both a positive and negative factor in my career. Isn’t that great—she’s still working! But who wants to read something written by somebody’s grandmother? As science extends longevity—there will soon be more of us than of them—society remains stubbornly ageist, ravenous for the newest, youngest best thing. And although we’re gaining on them in numbers, those kids keep coming up like chorus girls, in all the arts.
Actress Estelle Parsons, who first appeared on stage when she was six years old and is still going strong almost eight decades later, doesn’t feel displaced by younger actors because she’s “still able to inhabit characters from sixteen to one hundred and five.” Novelists, of course, have similar freedom. We can all be ingénues or ancients in our minds and on the page.
The painter Gerald Monroe isn’t fazed by the culture of youth, either. In his own youth, he says, he had “unrealistic” fantasies about fame and fortune, about galleries, collectors, and reviews. At eighty-six, he’s unencumbered by that consuming ambition. The work is what draws him to his studio, and his ongoing sense of himself as an engaged, functioning artist, whose influences are now interior. Process, for him, from that first mark on the blank canvas, is everything.
That brings me to the blank page, where a first mark must also be made. But what does one write about late in life? The prolific Philip Roth, nearly eighty now, an age when people are more likely to exchange biopsy results than reports of sexual conquests, has expressed surprise that illness isn’t a more popular subject for fiction than adultery. They both still seem like viable and nonexclusive themes to me, but a new self consciousness has set in with my dotage. Shall I look backward or forward? Inward or outward? Who is my audience now? And what do I really know, anyway, after all those years of experience? If I’d only realized I was going to commit myself to this occupation, I might have lived a more interesting life.
All that fretful consideration can stymie the creative impulse or even take the place of writing itself. It probably contributed to the twelve-year block I suffered in that (relatively youthful) period between my early sixties and mid-seventies. It was a terribly restless time, when my very identity seemed at stake. A writer is someone who writes, which I agonized about daily without effect. I had chronic insomnia in bed, but would fall asleep immediately at the computer. If anyone asked what I was working on, as my more productive friends were given to do, I’d try to appear suitably discreet rather than stricken.
I’m not exactly sure how what threatened to become a terminal block was finally resolved. Several of those fallow years tripped miserably by until, reluctantly and without much hope, I entered psychotherapy in search of a cause and a cure. After a stretch of pondering the possibilities of inhibition, depression, lowered energy, or simply having lost my writing ability—without coming to an absolute conclusion—I began to write a novel about a woman with a mysterious psychic ache who goes into therapy to figure it out. She and I were both saved by the strategy (although a two-book contract was another incentive for me).
The other day a friend lamented that she can no longer write the way she did when she was young. I think I know what she means. That wonderfully optimistic ebullience has vanished. You don’t just start scribbling with the confidence that something good will come of it, no matter how lousy it seems at first. Time is sharply finite, and language isn’t at your fingertips anymore. I lose about a noun a day lately. Words fall off and roll out of sight like loose buttons. I confess to needing my thesaurus more than ever, and to reading other writers in order to replenish my vocabulary as well as for the usual pleasures.
Another friend told me that her mother, an indefatigable knitter, began a new project as soon as she finished a previous one. Her family decided that her nonstop knitting was a superstitious hedge against death, which would never dare claim her while she was making a sweater for one of her grandchildren, who might be left with a one-sleeved pullover. Is that why I want so much to continue working—not just because it’s what I do, but because it might have some magical sway over my mortality? Or, maybe, as aging claims faculties like vision and hearing and memory and mobility, the world of the imagination becomes an escape and a solace.
I honestly don’t know. Perhaps I just keep doing it to feed my ego. There have been so many rewards over the years: the joys of friendship with other writers; letters from readers who’d felt the shock of recognition in my novels; the ability to earn a living (of sorts) from writing; and teaching gigs to make up the difference. Best of all, there’s the intense gratification of the work itself.
Praise and encouragement have been gratifying, too. Even when I was a child—the middle daughter of three and probably craving attention—my nonliterary parents saw some value in those awful early poems. They invited me to recite them during breaks in their weekly gin rummy game. The card players always clapped politely before dealing out the next hand, and the shuffling cards were like an echo of their applause. Then, during open-school week, my third-grade teacher, Miss Fredericks, told my mother that I showed “great promise,” news that she carried home with pride to my father and me. Later, I was voted poet laureate of my junior high school. And much later there was a spate of published books—novels for adults and for children that received prominent positive reviews. It was all pretty heady.
But of course there were also negative reviews—against which there is no defense, in the world or within oneself—and remaindered, returned, and shredded books. There were false starts to a couple of stories and novels, a few rejections along the way, and some critical letters from readers. A child wrote, “I just read your book. The first page was the best part.” Then there was that protracted work stoppage, as if my characters had organized and gone out on strike.
Once, in my fifties, I gave a reading at a small college in New Jersey. Afterward, a frail-looking elderly woman approached me and introduced herself. She was Miss Fredericks, my former third-grade teacher! I’m afraid I startled her with an embrace, and then blurted out my thanks for that crucial early support, for telling my mother that I showed promise. She merely looked amused. “Oh, honey,” she said, patting my arm. “I told that to all the mothers.”
In therapy, we investigated the disappointments and the losses as a possible source of my writing block. Those first champions, my parents, were gone, as was the power of Miss Frederick’s prophecy, and it was getting harder and harder to feel inspired. On top of everything else, that most significant age—the digital age—loomed, a threat to actual (as opposed to virtual) bound and beautiful books. Perhaps it was a good time to bow out. So why did I feel so resistant to quitting, so bereft at the very idea? People retire from other jobs with a modicum of grace and a gold watch. Unlike Gerald Monroe, I was still ambitious, but it wasn’t as if hordes of fans were clamoring for my next novel. And maybe I just didn’t have Estelle Parsons’s spirit and durability.
My therapeutic goal gradually changed to simple acceptance of the fact that my writing life was over. The therapist conceded the impact of the losses, from parents to optimism to language, and allowed that I might never write the way I had in the past. Perhaps I’d have to accommodate a new style and different content. But she said that everything I’d told her during our sessions had taken the shape of a narrative, that I was still making stories, in spite of myself. She urged me to put something, anything, down every day and see where it took me. It didn’t happen overnight, but as soon as I started writing again—with characters of all ages crowding my head, telling me their stories of love and loss, illness and adultery—I knew that I never wanted to stop. Here are ten thoughts I try to keep in mind with that aim.
1. All art is against death.
2. Writing isn’t lonely; not writing is.
3. With each new book, I’m breaking through the ice of another writer’s block.
4. I must always try to write something I’d like to read.
5. Everyone’s inner life is interesting.
6. I’m lucky to keep living multiple lives: my own and the ones I invent.
7. Jell-O, with its translucent shimmer, gaudy colors, and layered construction, is a better metaphor than a dessert.
8. It’s preferable to die with a novel (or a handmade sweater) in progress and the dream of finishing it.
9. Edith Wharton is still being avidly read in her 150th year.
10. Writing, at any age, is a way of discovering what one knows.
Read more about the creative process of women writers: Women Writers and the Creative Drive.
Reprinted with permission from A Story Larger than My Own: Women Writers Look Back on Their Lives and Careers, published by the University of Chicago Press, © 2014 Janet Burroway. “What I Know” © 2014 by Hilma Wolitzer. All rights reserved.