Somewhere in the last half century, it became “average” to assume that brilliance was the exclusive territory of youth. Pish tush, I say. While there have certainly been memorable flashes of brilliance, works of genius are not generated only by the fresh and the new. Sometimes it takes the gnarled and wizened to bend language into unrecognizable forms, to roam into the darker depths of spirit and drag out the great, hoary beast. There are reasons for this: we are, after all, staring daily into the maw of old age and death. We know loss and the value of gain. We lie awake nights, eyes made wide by biology and its various clocks, listening to our youth creep off into the darkness.
But some of us insist the fiend leave empty-handed. The baggage is ours to keep, to open on occasion and root about for story ideas and emotions to explore. The seas are rich fishing here, the waters deep and mysterious, enticing and terrible. So why does the myth persist that older writers are “lost” to greatness? Because we might not live long enough to finish the requisite sequels if our writing is a success? Because our health problems will make us cranky interviewees? Because our walkers are not allowed on flights?
No, the dirty secret is that some suspect we will not bend to suggestion; that we will take too much revision and are locked in some Bermuda Triangle of cognitive loss to be worth the effort. (Obviously, these concerns are clearly from those who have not watched Jeopardy lately.) There are studies about such things, comparisons of gray haired writers with toddlers, college freshmen with mysteriously aged “older students,” and ever the trumpeting of those lucky enough to find publishing success barely out of their teens as some kind of preferred norm.
Studies like one by Carl Bereiter and Marlene Scardamalia (“The Psychology of Written Composition”; http://www.ikit.org/fulltext/1987thepsychology/Preface.pdf) show that older adult writers manufacture writing that consists of more complex sentence structures, and more sophisticated main points even though it may take longer to find its way to paper. It just shows that good things come to those who wait. We may be older, but we have a lot more depth to offer the writing world. That may be why so many older writers find blogging to be a comfortable venue. It’s more than venting; it’s sharing and comparing. It’s exploring our ability to put words on paper and wrestle with those who challenge our cognitive place in the writing world.
Besides, many of us are not so fortunate as to have been “properly discovered” in a timely fashion. I myself notice a huge disconnect between the academic world and the professional one. When I was young, teachers said mysterious things to me like, “No – this is good” and looked at me with speculative wonderment that I was at a loss to interpret. I now know that it was the “this one is going to do something” look. But for me – and others like me – that “something” never happened. Double shifts at minimum wage happened. Illness happened. Bills led to more double shifts. Relationships came and went, and before long, half my life was gone and the most appreciation my writing would garner came in the expectation that I would (of course) compose letters, reports and other people’s “stuff” for free. Because writing in the professional (nontechnical) arena has no marketable value; there is no pay differential, no job security, no free lunch. This whole mythic thing had gotten horribly personal.
Waking the Bespelled
So I did what was natural for a malcontent and workplace rebel: I went back to academia. I needed validation that I had not hallucinated those earlier (seemingly misplaced) votes of confidence. For me that was the best thing I ever did for myself and not because the world wants college graduates. It was about ‘going home again’ and reconnecting with that part of myself that had become so marginalized that the Muse was too insulted to come out. I needed praise, pure and simple. But I also needed to work for it – to stretch writing muscles, sneak up on the Muse and take the old girl out for a spin. So here we are…two Old Girls, hanging out in a Greek garden together, wondering what it takes to get noticed these days.
College has done its job; I got to venture into philosophy and philosophers, to explore rhetoric the way the ancient Greeks like Aristotle and Cicero meant it to be explored; to learn about how we learn and process language and how language forms have evolved; how to use those forms and devices to say what is felt and desired; how to communicate in cold, hard academic fact; how to consolidate excessive verbiage into sweet, small nuggets of usability in technical writing; how to critically analyze writing that has gone on before; and how to connect with how I feel about it. I’ve learned how to look at language in its various states as its creator, its customer, and its critic. I’ve learned how to separate myself from my own writing and analyze it, to rationalize why there must be self-performed surgery without anesthesia. And I’ve heard it again – that pronouncement that what I create is “good” and may be “good enough” for multiple happy endings.
More Fairy Tales
So here I sit, painfully and arthritically aware that graduation is not that far off; and that I don’t have much of a clue as to what that means. How can a person be so comfortable in the academic environment, do generally well there, and yet have such a train wreck in their professional life? Why is it that this being in university classes and having a competitive GPA does not translate to the real world as meaning there are some good, productive years left?
Some like to say that academic life is such a world unto itself that it represents a kind of fishbowl from which one views the Real World; it is safe and nonthreatening; it doesn’t deal with Real World issues like wars, economic meltdowns and vindictive coworkers. But I disagree. Those issues may not body-slam you there, but in my college experience there is every effort made to attach the student to Real World expectations. There is a high emphasis on collaborative work and writing, on the presenting of facts and self, on the embracing of the constant rhythm of change in technology. This has pushed my brain cells and social skills to the limit. I feel far from coddled; I feel constantly exposed. So I have stretched also in that direction, and started looking to figure out where all this places me and writers like me in the world.
There is a disturbance in The Force.
Reattaching to my writing roots, nurturing the little buds of creativity that have been brought to the surface by so many good professors that have graced my university experience, I am appalled at the discourse I am encountering in the Real World about my age group. Excuse me? I think to myself… You’re really going to stand there with a straight face and call me selfish for going back to school? For saying that pursuit of a degree that is not “directly” translatable to a vocation is proof that I would not be a team player? That I obviously expect special treatment? That this “course correction” is proof of bad judgment and unfocused ambition? This after years of watching people gain promotion and pay increases because they purely had a piece of paper of their own? No lie; all of these things have been said to me at interviews. I wonder if the same things are said to twenty-year-olds…
Then of course, there is the argument that I would come to expect more money to pay for my supposed growing list of infirmities. Wow, I think. Really?
And then there is publishing and its impact on an older writer’s dreams… With so many financial constraints on the industry, what are my chances that writing will save my bacon? How can I compete against so many unemployed writing professionals with irreplaceable industry experience even if I “settled” for just working near successful writers? The facts are daunting. But some “facts” are just not factual. Older writers are not failures if they have not published…yet. Publishing doesn’t know what to do to save itself… yet. We are not dead... yet. In fact, older writers are historically a downright formidable group. Examples abound, fellow Gray Panthers:
· Harriet Doer published her first novel at 74 (Stones for Ibarra)
· Mary Wesley with her first novel at 70 (The Camomile Lawn, including 10 best sellers in the last 20 years of her life)
· Pulitzer Prize winner Frank McCourt at 66 (Angela’s Ashes)
· Laura Ingalls Wilder in her 60’s (Little House on the Prairie)
· Kenneth Grahame after retirement at 51 (The Wind in the Willows)
· Mary Alice Fontenot at 51 (Clovis Crawfish children’s books and Louisiana history books, writing into her 90’s)
· Richard Adams in his 50’s (Watership Down)
· Raymond Chandler at 45 (The Big Sleep)
· Henry Miller at 44 (Tropic of Cancer)
· Anthony Burgess at 39 (A Clockwork Orange)
We Old Folks are in good company; there is less reason than ever to give up the dream of a writing life – “successful” or otherwise.
Myself, I have never had more words at the ready to say what I want to say exactly the way I want to say it. I have never felt more determined to write a novel and take satisfaction from the task in and of itself. I have never felt more accepting of the world finding ways to take care of itself. Sure, it may take a thesaurus now to ferret out the word I know is just beyond my memory’s ability to retrieve it at the exact moment I want it, but then I recall having had and used a thesaurus when I was in high school…back when dinosaurs roamed the earth. At least now I am not afraid of blank white paper…I don’t have to start writing on paper that has been doodled on so that I do not feel like the words are too full of self-importance.
Being published would be nice. But older writers are like Cthulhu – Lovecraft’s great monster asleep at the bottom of the sea, waiting in the ocean’s turbulent and moody depths; we are all waiting for kairos…the right thing, at the right time. We do not subscribe to Old Age mythologies. We are adepts with powerful word-spells. We peel back brains with our gaze and stroke the tendrils of the dreaming mind. We are Old and Eldritch. And we are just biding our time until we can take over the world.