First of all, let’s just get this out of the way: yes the article I am writing about today comes from AARP Magazine. Why am I reading AARP Magazine? Am I secretly over 50? Or is it that I will read anything that’s in front of my face and has words on it? Probably the latter. It would at least explain why I have memorized the strange poetry of the list of ingredients in my shampoo.
Whatever the reason, I found myself reading an article in AARP Magazine by John Updike, The Writer in Winter. It is about the difference in the writing process as a writer ages. While I can’t exactly call myself an Updike fan, I found the article a pleasure to read. I thought Updike’s points (not only about changing technology — turns out he’s a PC) about the approach to and style of writing as a writer gets older were interesting. For example:
I can appreciate the advantages, for a writer, of youth and obscurity. You are not yet typecast. You can take a distant, cold view of the entire literary scene. You are full of your material—your family, your friends, your region of the country, your generation—when it is fresh and seems urgently worth communicating to readers. No amount of learned skills can substitute for the feeling of having a lot to say, of bringing news. Memories, impressions, and emotions from your first 20 years on earth are most writers’ main material; little that comes afterward is quite so rich and resonant.
For one thing, just because I’m a pain that way, I think it’s funny for Updike to appreciate obscurity. But I do understand what he means, to an extent. Since it turns out that I’m not actually secretly over 50, and am still under 30 and get told all the time that I have no concept of how young I am which I’m sure is true, I also know from experience that it’s hard to compete with the excitement of being unfettered by things such as knowing what you’re doing. As someone who has written pretty much since I was literate, I know that my earliest attempts were the most joyful. I wouldn’t necessarily call those attempts good writing, though I can look at some of that stuff and see fledgling skill there, but while I’m not advocating for writing crap, I do think it’s a lovely thing to be able just to write. As I got older and worked on the craft of writing, to the point that I spent a long time being stifled by my own perfectionism, I lost that initial joy of feeling like I had something to say. There’s a balance in there somewhere… and I think I’m on a tangent. Let’s move on.
An aging writer wonders if he has lost the ability to visualize a completed work, in its complex spatial relations. He should have in hand a provocative beginning and an ending that will feel inevitable. Instead, he may arrive at his ending nonplussed, the arc of his intended tale lying behind him in fragments. The threads have failed to knit. The leap of faith with which every narrative begins has landed him not on a far safe shore but in the middle of the drink. The failure to make final sense is more noticeable in a writer like Agatha Christie, whose last mysteries don’t quite solve all their puzzles, than in a broad-purposed visionary like Iris Murdoch, for whom puzzlement is part of the human condition. But in even the most sprawling narrative, things must add up.
Reason #9,327,622 why I will probably never write a novel: if one must have a sense of the completed work when beginning, I am screwed. Oh well. My issues aside, I wonder — is this truly an issue unique to aging writers or is it just an occupational hazard?
Finally, Updike gets into the longevity of writing as a career that doesn’t exist in other fields such as sports. A baseball player isn’t going to be playing in the World Series when he’s 80, yet a writer can continue on as long as possible.
By and large, time moves with merciful slowness in the old-fashioned world of writing. The 88-year-old Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Elmore Leonard and P.D. James continue, into their 80s, to produce bestselling thrillers. Although books circulate ever more swiftly through the bookstores and back to the publisher again, the rhythms of readers are leisurely. They spread recommendations by word of mouth and “get around” to titles and authors years after making a mental note of them. A movie has a few weeks to find its audience, and television shows flit by in an hour, but books physically endure, in public and private libraries, for generations. Buried reputations, like Melville’s, resurface in academia; avant-garde worthies such as Cormac McCarthy attain, late in life, bestseller lists and The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Updike closes with the following:
Among those diminishing neurons there lurks the irrational hope that the last book might be the best.
I remember in a former incarnation of LitKicks, in the section of the site where we accepted member-contributed articles, the submission guidelines said to close author biographies with the writer’s death or his later works, which in many cases is the same thing. I immediately thought of that when I read that line of Updike’s. And I want to ask — are the issues he raises in his article (there are more I didn’t quote here, so I guess you’ll have to read it) unique to the writer’s aging process or are they just parts of the act of writing itself? Discuss.