Published in Tiny Lights, January 2012
How to become a writer after sixty
(homage to Lorrie Moore)
First quit your full-time job. You’ve said that the lack of time and energy have kept you from writing all these years. Now’s your chance. Be glad for the maturity that enables you to understand and extract the essence from life experiences, the people and places, the episodes and events that will be the foundation of your writing.
Embrace the simple life. Regret—just a little—that you didn’t seek a government job thirty years ago that would now pay you a generous lifetime pension. Supplement your early (and therefore reduced) social security and paltry savings with occasional consulting gigs. Remind yourself that wealth was never your goal, that you were happy in low-paying nonprofit work. Write an essay on living the simple life.
Read. Read a lot. Read good writers. Reread them. Read some bad writing and learn what not to do. Read about writing (but not too much). Copy passages that inspire or delight you onto multicolored index cards and display them around your desk. Discover writers who got a late start, like Mary Wesley, whose first novel was published when she was seventy. When people ask, “Who is Mary Wesley?” tell them to read Jumping the Queue.
Take classes and workshops. In moderation. Admire the craft and creativity of some of your peers. Chortle and “tsk” silently, just a tad smugly, at the lack in others. Let people read your work, both those who will praise you and those who will give you constructive (but kind) feedback. Take notes when they tell you to “show not tell,” that your endings are feeble, your metaphors trite, that you add an appalling amount of alliteration. The pain is short-lived.
Write. Write every day. Write and rewrite. Write some more. Write in your journal, from prompts, in restaurants, at the park and the beach. Observe and write—about your cats, your garden, your walks. About family and friends and your exes, the frogs and princes. Mine your memories, plunder your past, dredge up the dirt. Write about your grandmother’s detention at Ellis Island, the view of Paris from Sacre Coeur, your first taste of sushi—redolent of the sea with the texture of butter—your best friend’s cousin’s wife’s affair with the famous Red Sox pitcher. Write about the monster under the bed, the wretched days of childhood. Be surprised at the happy memories that emerge out of the squalor, but remember that the squalor makes better reading.
Tell people, “I’m a writer.” If you say you’re retired, people will dismiss, discount, disparage you. Practice aloud until you can say it with conviction: “I’m a writer.” Or “I write.” But not “I’m trying to write” or “I’m sort of writing.” When they ask what you write, as Emma Goldman asked Louise Bryant in “Reds,” don’t respond as Bryant did, with a cringe-inducing self-dismissive giggle, “Everything.”
Squelch negativity. Strangle the whining voice that tells you it’s too late to start, asks what makes you think you can write. Don’t get complacent—just when you think the beast has gasped its last, it rears its gruesome head. Remember the monster in “Alien”—it returned for several sequels. Take rebuffs in stride. Frame and hang your first rejection slip. Just the first one—after that it’s disheartening. You’ve been validated—every writer gets rejections; ergo, you are a writer. You sent your work into the cosmos, and someone took the time to read it and respond, even if it was a form letter on a third of a sheet of paper roughly torn with a ruler and smushed into your own stamped self-addressed envelope. Submit your work again and again.
Weather the tide. Be patient but firm with yourself. When you’re not inspired or productive don’t call it “writer’s block”—bowels and sinuses get blocked, not writers. Write nonsense, make lists. Find distractions. Your bromeliads need repotting and your bookshelves need to be alphabetized. Diversions can be stimulating. You may get an idea for a story about the sex life of bromeliads.
Celebrate Success. Laugh and shout and cry, jump and skip and dance when you get your first acceptance. Again—louder, higher, faster—when you see your name in print and your creation in a publication, however obscure. Tell friends and foes; enjoy their applause and their envy. Call yourself an “author”—swirl the word around in your mouth, savor the taste and texture. Then get back to work.