Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Aging and Writing

Marking the passing of a great American novelist, The New York Times Weekend Review carried an outstanding essay "John Updike’s Mighty Pen" by Charles McGrath http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/01/weekinreview/01mcgrath.html?emc=eta1

Especially interesting was the Video A Conversation with John Updike, taped in October 2008, with Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of the Book Review, “about the craft of fiction and the art of writing.” Disquieting to think he died only a few months later, but listening to the interview I was struck how much he ruminated about aging and writing. He said that he was currently working on an historical novel set in the 1st century, but not knowing much about the period he was trying to educate himself, lamenting, though, that “maybe I’m too old to be educated.” He also said he was thrilled that the New Yorker had recently accepted two of his short stories as he was “trying to keep [his] name in the New Yorker after a long draught.” “It makes me feel like a real person to get a short story in the New Yorker.”

He went on to observe (and much of this is paraphrased here) that there comes a moment in a writer’s life when you are full of material untouched in your mind and seemingly urgent and it merges with enough skill to get it down, but this skill tends to peak in an American writer’s late 20s or early 30s. In those years I could bring a naiveté and therefore a sense of wonderment to my writing. “I’m not ashamed of my later work, but feel there is an unforced energy in the earlier work.” We never idolize anything beyond youth in this country. Consequently, we’re all failed youths, as we don’t believe in the wisdom of the ages especially now that so many people live forever in old age homes. Some of our greatest writers were Hemingway and Fitzgerald; “their idea of happiness is to be young.” And those words concluded the interview.

I closely identify. In Florida that sense of aging, a feeling of irrelevancy, is particularly pervasive. As Updike says in Rabbit at Rest, “There’s a lot of death in Florida, if you look. The palms grow by the lower branches dying and dropping off. The hot sun hurries the life cycles along….Even friendship has a thin, provisional quality, since people might at any minute buy another condominium and move to it, or else up and die.”

I thought my feelings might be confined to those of a retired businessperson living in the “sunshine state.” But my friend Bruce, a teacher and a writer living in Massachusetts, to whom I sent the New York Times link, seems to have had a similar reaction. This business of aging, still trying to stay productive, moving forward with learning as being the very essence of living, is something I would like to think we share with Updike. Here are Bruce’s comments on the Updike interview:

I listened to the interview and was, of course, attentive to his remarks about aging and youth. Naturally, I immediately applied what he said to myself to see if I thought it was true. My conclusion about me is that I am profoundly and forever naive. Thus, I'm surprised that because I am old I am invisible. I am surprised that my students don't realize that I am wise and learned. Oh, they do to a degree, but their best perceptions of me are ones that leave out my age. I'm surprised that young teachers with a few exceptions do not seek me out. I am surprised I am not valued because I have so much experience. Perhaps, I am, but it's not apparent to me. I like what Updike said about the unforced energy of youth. I think that's true, but an older man needs to seek to find what imparts an unforced energy to his own endeavors. I keep returning to Bronte's remark about being appreciated and expecting to get credit for what you do. Don't she says, or you will spend your life waiting. Then again in our own conception of ourselves we are never appreciated enough. Thus, we are back to Ecclesiastes and vanity. In any case, I liked the interview, especially the remarks about America and youth

See http://lacunaemusing.blogspot.com/2008/02/old-friends.html for more about Bruce.