6 Min read
2 Book recs, by elderly writers
Explicit language, 13 to 103
If you believe 10,000 hours of practice will help achieve mastery, say, on the violin or as a volleyball player, then the professional 80-year-old writer who has been writing all her life is well past the mark.* Naysayers and criticism aside–quality of practice is important and averages do not capture outliers–these folks have been writing so long as to be immortal. Their words outlive them.
Talent helps but work is everything.
Lately, elderly people have been inhabiting my world. My mother turns 82 today which means she’s 84 or more, we’re not sure. She knows she’s older because paperwork was lost or burnt in Vietnam. Whatever the actual date, she’s older than 82 and we’re thinking she’s 84 since it is evenly divisible by 12. Why’s that matter? She’s fairly sure she was a tiger and the Vietnamese zodiac repeats every dozen years. And, 2022 is a Tiger year. The water tiger.
Truman Capote, writer of In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (yes it was a novella first), said he began writing seriously at a young age.
I began writing really sort of seriously when I was about eleven. I say seriously in the sense that like other kids go home and practice the violin or the piano or whatever, I used to go home from school every day and I would write for about three hours. I was obsessed by it. (Capote Interview / Bio, PBS)
By the time he was an adult, he’d written more than the requisite 10,000 hours (for most of us that means 10 years worth of doing, 333 days a year at 3 hours a day). He had the highest IQ at 215 of any child in the United States–not far behind Marilyn Vos Savant, the highest on record, 228. He may have been a wunderkind but he also worked at his craft.
Capote had a sense of his outsized talent and work ethic but for the rest of us, the poet Donald Hall tells it like it is in his Essays After Eighty. In a chapter on his work he writes, It’s okay to be pleased with an audience that loves you, or treats you as deathless, but you must not believe it. Later in the same paragraph he continues, It is best to believe the praiser and dismiss the praise. And in closing he shares the honest and God-awful truth:
Interviewing T.S. Eliot, I saved my cheekiest question for last. “Do you know you’re any good?” His revised and printed response was formal, but in person he was abrupt: “Heavens no! Do you? Nobody intelligent knows if he’s any good.” (Donald Hall, Essays After Eighty, “Thank you thank you”, p. 46)
It’s problematic for subjective fields of human endeavor such as writing and art. In the sciences less so, it seems. From what I’ve been able to gather in my short After-Fifty take, readers and advocates make a difference. Who is reading your work and who will champion it? A writer does not know if she will still be read fifteen or fifty years from now because prevailing tastes may have little to do with durability.
Here’s Hall on what it means to go deep–which can be true of any field–to make the effort to be masterful.
Once I worked with William Shawn, editor of the New Yorker from 1952 to 1987, who is well remembered for his fastidious scrutiny of sentences, his polite and fierce insistence on repair. First from the magazine I would receive galleys of text with suggestions or requests for changes, maybe a hundred each galley. When the pages of the correct version arrived, there were thirty more queries on each. A week before publication, my telephone rang at six pm. “Do you have time, Mr. Hall, to go over your essay? It might take a few hours.” “Go ahead, Mr. Shawn.” “In the first sentence we have found a serial comma* we think we might with profit remove.” (Hall, p. 14)
How beautiful is the closing line spoken by Shawn? The manner of address and the concern for the reader are paramount in the labors of wordsmiths committed to making the work most elegant and effective, with profit here meaning not dollars, but sense. What else can an eighty-something-year old poet and writer teach us?
No matter how good or right you may be, civility matters. A dean at a small Christian college informed the U.S. Poet Laureate, “Donald if you say ‘fuck’ in chapel tomorrow, Ah’ll get fahrd.” (p. 49)
In the opening essay, Out the Window, Hall describes the sedentary life of a man in his dotage confined to his chair. His mind is sharp and his prose as good as ever, maybe better. He’s given up on poetry. He spares nothing.
After a life of loving the old, by natural law I turned old myself. Decades followed each other –thirty was terrifying, forty I never noticed because I was drunk, fifty was best with a total change of life, sixty began to extend the bliss of fifty–and then came my cancers, Jane’s [wife] death, and over the years I traveled to another universe. (Hall, p. 7)
He continues with a detailed account of the senior as the other, a foreign physical entity society alienates, an alien in another universe. For me, the noticeable absence is the twenties. I could follow his line of thought even empathize with him, but I wanted to know why he skipped this most formative decade. I did my own research with twenty-somethings who visit with my son, close enough to college that they are like family.
Jon wrote, “In my late teens and early 20s (so far) I learned how to deal with the failure that resulted from my newfound independence.” Charlie wrote, “My answer for the 20s is live while you can.”
Ursula Le Guin writes in No Time to Spare about the twilight years and the absurdity of wishful thinking that youth will last forever for the young in heart.
I’ve known clear-headed, clear-hearted people in their nineties. They didn’t think they were young. They knew, with a patient, canny clarity, how old they were. If I’m ninety and believe I’m forty-five, I’m headed for a very bad time trying to get out of the bathtub. Even if I’m seventy and think I’m forty, I’m fooling myself to the extent of almost certainly acting like an awful fool. (Le Guin, p. 8)
Society obsesses with youth as if beauty were the monopoly of the young. Yet, wisdom and truth which come with age are beautiful in their own right and something we are quick to dismiss or put away because of inconvenience.
These days most old people die in profit-making expiration dormitories. Their loving sons and daughters are busy and don’t want to forgo the routine of their lives. One said he would not diaper his parents–so he handed them over to women who diapered at the minimum wage. (Death by Donald Hall, p. 96)
The old and the very young have always held sway for me because of bald and unerring candor, and the lack of affectation. They had either stopped posing or had not yet learned to pose. Both writers help me understand my mother who is there now, in her 80s, with Hall and Le Guin when they wrote these books. And the writing helps me see the path ahead, not only for her but perhaps for myself.
When I ask my mother about her age, whether she’d want to live with her peers, she tells me, Oh no! they’re so old they make me sad. Even when she knows that many would be her junior.
Maybe it was weird and uncomfortable at first, but I changed my father’s diapers, fed him, and bathed him in his old age. The hard realities of the body’s decline are a natural part of life. I am better for seeing and knowing that, as are my children. We visited his grave this weekend, 13 years to the day since he left this worldly plane.
Le Guin closes her chapter about the elderly.
I’d like a poster showing two old people with stooped backs and arthritic hands and time-worn faces sitting talking, deep, deep in conversation. And the slogan would be, “Old Age is Not for the Young.” (Le Guin, The Sissy Strikes Back, p. 11)
*Old age is not for the young. Title quote is from The Sissy Strikes Back, No Time to Spare. Ursula Le Guin, p. 11)
* Researcher on ‘10,000-Hour-Rule’ Says Good teaching Matters, Not Just Practice. EdSurge, May 5, 2020.
*Truman Capote Biography. PBS, July 28, 2006. “Throughout his career, Truman Capote remained one of America’s most controversial and colorful authors, combining literary genius with a penchant for the glittering world of high society.
“Though he wrote only a handful of books, his prose styling was impeccable, and his insight into the psychology of human desire was extraordinary. His flamboyant and well-documented lifestyle has often overshadowed his gifts as a writer, but over time Capote’s work will outlive the celebrity.”
*Essays After Eighty by Donald Hall. (2014)
*The Serial Comma is also known as the Oxford Comma or the Harvard comma. It is the final comma in a list. I fed the dog, the cat, and the pet bird. In this example the serial comma follows the word cat. Debate continues whether the serial comma is necessary. Journalists tend to omit the comma for space-saving reasons and most other writing authorities recommend using it for clarity. (Garner’s Modern English Usage, Fourth Ed)
*No Time to Spare by Ursula Le Guin (2017)