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Friday Fable: The Old Writer and Oblivion

skullYou may have heard the old story about The Old Man and Death:

An old man was out gathering a bundle of sticks for his fire. He cut a dozen thick pieces in the forest and began to carry them home. He had a long way to go, and he was tired before he was halfway there. Throwing his bundle on the ground, he called out to Death, “Release me from this life of toil! I’m sick of working so hard just to warm myself! I’ve seen it all and I have nothing to add. I’m ready to die. I’m too old to keep doing this when it’s so hard just to scrape by let alone enjoy myself.”

The words were barely out of his mouth when Death arrived in his path and said, “So nice to hear you’re giving up, old codger. I’m ready to take you any time.”

The old man stared at Death — cold, dark, ghastly, reeking of the void. The old man imagined letting himself be led to eternal nothingness — no more fires, no more birdsong, no more Netflix, no more complaining about how his kids never called. When Death reached out its hand, the old man had just enough wits intact to stammer, “Um, what I meant was, could you give me a hand picking up sticks? I’m planning to make a fire tonight.”

And the moral is: No one wants to leave before the end of the movie.

That is a good old tale. But if Aesop were a modern slave to the written word, he might have called his fable, The Old Writer and Oblivion:

An old writer was gathering a collection of stories for publication. He revised one of his dozen new pieces and began agonizing over its not-quite-right ending. He had a long way to go to get it right, and he was tired before he was halfway through the kazilionth revision. Throwing his laptop on the ground, he called to Oblivion, “Release me from this life of toil! I’m sick of working so hard just for one lousy story in a litmag! I’ve read it all and I have nothing to add. I’m ready to stop writing. I’m too old to keep doing this when it’s so hard just to get the setting right, let alone the point of view.”

The words were barely out of his mouth when Oblivion arrived in his office and said, “So nice to hear you’re giving up, old codger. I’m ready to silence you any time.”

The old writer stared at Oblivion — shadowy, vacant, reeking of buried secrets and silent screams. The writer imagined letting himself be led to eternal quiescence — no more flashes of fully-formed characters, no more plots to unfold, no more digging for the right words to evoke an exact mood, no more letters from readers saying how his fiction felt so real. When Oblivion reached out its hand, the old writer had just enough wits intact to stammer, “Um, what I meant was, could you pose for a character portrait? I’m planning to add a graphic element to my story tonight.”

And the moral is: Old writers have lots of new stories to create.

old hands

I’d been searching for an appropriate fable to commemmorate my 50th birthday, and this was the best I could find.

(No, I’m not old. I’m middle-aged. I run with the modern demarcations of:

  • Youth age 0 to 35;
  • Middle age 36 to, oh, 70;
  • Old age 71 and up.

I’ve got decades before I’m old!)

I searched for a fable that might be called, say, The Old Woman and her Muses:

Once there was a woman who’d done lots of creative work in her youth and early middle age. Then when she turned 50 things really took off. Her mind sharpened, her discipline hardened, her drive went into overdrive, and she came up with mind-blowing interdisciplinary works of art that set the world on fire.

And the moral is: Older is better.

But nope, I couldn’t find that fable among Aesop’s leavings. (Because older isn’t better. It’s worse. But still good.)

If I’d found such a fable, I’d have written this post on awesome older writers. But no need — there are numerous posts out there on writers who succeeded in later years. (Laura Ingalls Wilder features strong in these: having published her first novel at 65, she went on to write 12 books in the Little House on the Prairie series.) So if you aspire to be a writer and you’ve yet to be published, there are precedents for making your way quite well in later years.

You might find that most of those “Writers and artists who thrived after 40 or 50” posts just recycle the same few authors who came late to authorship. But don’t fret over that. Such lists are nothing more than statistics based on the age of someone’s first book. Once you leave out the stats and look at the arts themselves, many more inspiring stories appear:

  • Emily Carr's 1929 Indian Church (painted when she was 57)

    Emily Carr’s 1929 Indian Church (painted when she was 57)

    Emily Carr‘s best work was in her later years — if she’d stopped painting at 50, we’d never know what she was capable of.

  • By age 50, Anne Carson was receiving the MacArthur Fellowship for creative genius — but she’s no less a genius now at 65.
  • Anne Tyler is 74, people, and still writing Booker Prize-listed novels.
  • David Ferry will turn 92 tomorrow! (He’s one of my all-time favourite poets.) He won the National Book Award for Bewilderment in 2012, when he was 88.

Age did not slow any of those creative souls down. It doesn’t slow most writers down. (Not their writing, I mean. Everything else gets a little creaky.)

So celebrate every new decade, as I plan to do. Turn your back on Oblivion and let your voice be heard, no matter your age. (Unless you’re under 10, in which case, please keep it down. Old writers are trying to concentrate here.)

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11 comments on “Friday Fable: The Old Writer and Oblivion

  1. Welcome to the second half of life! This is good – just what I needed to read after getting yet another rejection from Canada Council, despite the fact that although the assessment committee “highly recommended financial support, a grant could not be awarded due to a lack of funds.” Sometimes this writing business really is like banging your head against the wall, but we keep at it:)

  2. Happy birthday. As my sister-in-law told me when I turned 50, enjoy the decline in GASF (Give A Shit Factor).

    • Yes, there’s something freeing in it, isn’t there? If you can cope with the fact that no one has much GASF about you anymore, if you can embrace being perceived as totally irrelevant and on the sidelines of life, then you can soar with your own GASF decline. The world opens right up. 🙂

  3. Joking aside, do you think it’s tougher for an older person to be published for the first time? I sense that publishers are interested in authors as products, ones they can invest in long-term, with an older author being perceived as having a shorter creative life-span, so why bother?

    • I must think so, since I recently advised a friend to delete all mention of his age from a query letter (with the gut feeling of “are you nuts telling them you’re that old?!”). But for me the worry is that they’ll think, “hmm, if you’ve been around so long why have you never published anything?” rather than, “hmm, you’re likely to kick the bucket before the book launch.” You’re not as likely to become a darling of the publishing world if you’re older, but if your work captures an editor, you’d have to be very old for them to perceive you as not having a long enough creative life-span to take on.

      I have heard that it is tougher for someone who has had several middling (sales-wise) books to get published by a big house than someone with a clean slate. So if you are unpublished at 50, you may be in a better position to sell yourself than if you’ve had three books that sold 2,000 copies in your 30s and 40s.

      I haven’t heard older writers disparaged in terms of the quality of their work as much as older people in some other arts. Not that 50-year-olds can’t record their first album or choreograph a dance or get an acting role for the first time — but those fields are much harder for old codgers to break into. In writing, the editor or agent first judges the work without knowing the age of the author. That’s how we oldies but goodies slip in there. Plus there’s an idea that writing requires wisdom, which might increase with age. (I’m not in full agreement with either of those assumptions but who am I to blow against the wind?)

      • I don’t know if I’m wiser, but I’m certainly more disciplined and less indulgent of my self-indulgences. I find the ideas harder to come by, though, or perhaps that supposed wisdom has made me less convinced of my brilliance.

      • Haha, yes. It’s easier to believe you’re astonishingly original when you’re young and have so little to compare yourself to.

  4. Many happy returns, Catherine! Forget Aesop; “The Old Woman and her Muses” is 50 kinds of inspiring. ^o^

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