Writing Later is Better Than Never

Now that “aging brains” have been much in the media, I am sure that most people understand the adage “use it or lose it.”

Without working brains we humans are hulks of protoplasm without purpose or joy. Of course, a lot of people with supposedly intact brains also seem to lack purpose and joy, but I can only urge them to get some through writing.

The important thing is to use what brain one has, for as long as one has it. You can, they say, build brain synapses by doing hard puzzles or learning a new language, but I am incapable of either, and although I try, I can’t seem to grasp string theory.

A recent article in the journal Neurology shows that people who read books—always or just lately—had a “slower rate of decline in memory” than non-readers. Since I’ve been called a bookaholic, I was delighted with this.

Another way of keeping the brain alive is by writing—with pencil or pen or typewriter or word processor, or even talking into a gadget that puts speech into the printed word. Do it even if you think you’re “too late.” You are not.

I am a “late” writer. I started out in childhood wanting to write books for children. I didn’t succeed in that until far into middle age but those books were and are (I’m still doing them) fun to write.

I had another career for most of my life, which reminds me of a cartoon of a dean handing out diplomas to a graduating class saying, “Umtum Medical School congratulates you, and may your first novel be a huge success.” Lots of doctors have not so secret yearnings to write novels. Perhaps it’s a way of putting down, fictionally, some of the life we witness. Or to escape from it.

I always wanted to write fiction, long before I found out that being a doctor was a great way to spend a life. I was a child of the Great Depression, when my various relatives were all out of work. Their spouses had college degrees but no training for a career. My doctor father, however, was working, for a salary of $3,000 a year, which in the early thirties was considerably better than nothing. This taught me that it’s good to have a profession that, however noble and satisfying, still made money. As the years went on I supported myself as a doctor, not as a writer.

There is a four letter word that describes most writers—poor. I am not referring to the quality of their writing. Isaac became one of the very few writers who actually made a good living writing (after some years of using his Ph.D. teaching biochemistry at a medical school).

The income generated by my writing reminds me of another well-worn cartoon of the IRS man saying to the scruffy individual in front of him, “You’re saying that as a professional writer your expenses totaled $30,000 more than your income?  What kind of way is that to make a living?”

It isn’t. But we do it anyway.

Lots of people don’t write because they hate the thought of sitting in a room alone with the inside of their heads. Isaac and I were lucky because we were the sort of children who have no choice—our imaginations are always up and running. We made up and told stories to ourselves, and to other children.  I remember vividly that if I didn’t like the ending of a story or a movie, I would rewrite it in my head.

It’s as if writing was something I always did, even if just in my head. It makes standing in line at the checkout counter not unbearable, because one can always use the time thinking, seeing one’s latest plot go on inside the skull. It isn’t that I love it, although I do. I just can’t help it.

Although I had written stories, poems, essays, TV scripts and three novels after I finally finished medical and psychoanalytic training, all of my efforts had been, deservedly, rejected. I felt lucky that, unlike Snoopy, I didn’t get letters from publishers saying, “To save time we are enclosing two rejection slips—for this story and for the next story you send us.”

At the age of 39 I finally sold a little mystery story to a magazine, but I was too busy to write much, what with private practice plus active involvement in teaching and administration at my analytic institute. After Isaac moved to Manhattan, I was even busier.

Then, when I was 46, I had breast cancer and was afflicted with intimations of mortality (sorry, Wordsworth) which propelled me into writing another novel that had been on my mind. I worked on it but not very quickly. The intimations of mortality had not been strong enough, and I was living with a guy who could churn out great prose without a sweat.

One of my aunts, whose name was the same as my middle name, had always wanted to be a writer, but at the age of 47 she died of a subarachnoid hemorrhage without having published anything.  Another female relative had died of the same thing, so presumably there was a genetic problem.

When I was 47, I too had a subarachnoid hemorrhage but I survived. One of Isaac’s editors visited me in the hospital when I had not fully recovered. Somehow I found myself woozily reciting to him the plot of my unfinished novel (this is something writers should never, never do—tell anyone about something you have not yet finished writing).

The editor was kind and said I ought to finish it. I did. Many revisions were requested by the editor, and on November 30, 1973, he phoned to tell me it was accepted. Although the editor did not know it, his call came half an hour after Isaac and I were married in our apartment, and Isaac said, “Just my luck—I’ve married a competitor.”

So in spite of my life-long indulgence in imagination and the wish to write, I was certainly a late bloomer as a functioning writer.

In my old age I am fascinated by the number of people both younger and older than I am who are writing—some only to amuse or instruct grandchildren—but nevertheless, writing a lot.

There’s the former modern dancer who is finding fulfillment in retirement by writing plays, some of which have been produced. Another friend, still practicing law, is having publication success with romance novels. And I know someone who spent retirement in adventurous travels which she then put down in words, not for publication but so her family will know.

So somebody will know. It’s one way of coping with mortality, looming on the horizon.

Any kind of writing has an autobiographical aspect to it, for it comes out of the unique person who is you. I think that writing helps people find out that their particular lives have meaning—a meaning they may not have noticed while they were busy living them.

Research has shown that depressed, often mute residents of nursing homes do much better when they are encouraged to write or dictate stories about their own lives.

In old age, it’s important to accept the end, and that’s easier when there’s been a summing up, a giving back to others what life has given you.

Suggestions About Writing Later in Life:

Believe you’re going to finish and try doing so.

Think, as much as you can, whenever you can. This means giving up endless phone conversations, tweeting and twittering. Don’t get hysterical about it, especially when you are inevitably interrupted.

Trust what your unconscious may be throwing at you. It may be grist for the word processor. The 19th century chemist August Kekule woke up one morning after a dream in which a snake curled around and grabbed its own tail. He thought about it and realized that he had just discovered the ring structure of organic compounds like benzene, a discovery that revolutionized chemistry.

Don’t worry too much about inventing stories. They will come. One thing I learned over and over as a psychoanalyst was that each person’s life is like a story, with a beginning, an ever-changing structure, and an end. Finding out how you helped create the structure of your own life, and what you can do about the damn thing, is almost as good as reading a mystery story.

I think it’s important to accept and appreciate the structure of your own life as a work of art—perhaps flawed, but certainly interesting. This is easier to do if you write about it. From there it’s an easy step to start imagining other stories, preferably (I am very prejudiced about this) with a beginning, a middle, and an end, like life itself.

Read. Most writers are great readers, giving them vast knowledge about writing that they don’t know they know until they start writing. You get to know whether something sounds right or doesn’t. You can’t really be taught this—you absorb it by reading. Isaac always recommended that beginning writers read people who are masters at using the perfect word for the job—like P. G. Wodehouse, or Mark Twain.

As we said in our book How to Enjoy Writing, writers use “tools that are almost all inside the head—insight, humor, knowledge, and wisdom. None of them is much use without the basic tool of language.” So read other people’s words, and learn how.

Never assume that you must have a big block of uninterrupted time for writing. The motto for writers should be carpe diem—seize the day. Or the morning or the time sitting on the john or while stirring the stew, or whatever.

Try writing more than one thing at a time—this is a sure preventative for writer’s block.

Write simply and clearly, at least to begin with. This helps organize your thoughts and shows how you are handling words. In The Elements of Style, E.B. White quotes Will Strunk’s advice: “Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!” Well, I try, but it’s also fun to prattle on, which is so easy to do with a computer.

Which brings me to my favorite quote (I use it over and over) by that master word person, Russell Baker:

“The computer, enabling a writer effortlessly to include absolutely everything, is a priceless tool for writers to pride themselves on showing the reader no mercy.”

Sorry about that. Hope some of the above is useful.