The Aging Writer

My birthday is next week. A significant one, one with a round number at the right of a two-digit number. One, frankly, I never thought I’d reach given my family history. I’ve outlived the death age of my maternal grandparents, my father, my mother, and my younger brother. My paternal grandparents are a different story. My father’s father was my age now when my father was born and lived to father a final child in his seventies. (Men get all the breaks.) My father’s mother made it to her early nineties. I hope those were the genes I received.

Don’t go all science on me. I have those genes, and there are members of my mother’s family who are still around in their eighties and nineties.

But I worry.

Not so much about my health. On the whole it’s good, despite a couple of glitches in the past five years. I’ve worked hard at NOT getting COVID and will continue to do so. I’m wearing my mask on planes and trains still, despite what an ill-qualified judge appointed by an ill-qualified president says.

It was the pandemic, however, that got me worrying.

What if I die with ideas unwritten? What if I die with manuscripts unpublished?

From the Mundane to the Ridiculous

Most of the time, writers worry about deadlines, acceptances vs. rejections, writers block, getting royalties on time. These are such common worries, they fall into the mundane category.

But we also worry about whether our imposter syndrome is showing, whether people will love or hate our books, about how many stars per review we get, about how we’re going to get that character out of the locked room, dark basement, prison cell, deserted cabin, dense forest, or whatever corners we’ve painted them into. Oh, and here’s the kicker: Will anyone buy the new book when it comes out? This falls under “the ridiculous” because we have control over none of the above.

Not until a few years ago did I ever think it was a possibility to die in the midst of a manuscript, like my “mentor” John le Carre, who elicited a promise from his son to make sure his final novel was published posthumously.

When I had to have some surgeries in 2017 and again in 2019, I outlined to one daughter exactly what needed to be published, in what sequence, how to contact my editor, etc. She thought I was being overly morbid (I was), but what people often don’t understand about writers is that those words we throw at a page or computer screen are our lives, our souls. These are words we’ve wrenched from dark times and bright times, from writer’s block and a nagging imposter syndrome that tells us not to write another word.

And, yes, those words we’ve so carefully arranged, those words that tell a story we think others need to hear, are like our children, and we don’t want to be Stieg Larsson and achieve acclaim for our works only after we die.

Because writing is f**king important to us. Our published works are our legacy, and in the digital age, our works will live after us indefinitely.

In the long run, human beings simply want to be remembered, and every writer hopes for a Shakespearean outcome–that we’re studied and read 400 years after we scribbled our final word.

And not to worry. Despite that significant, ending-in-a-zero upcoming birthday, I still have a lot of words inside me to arrange on the page, to tell the stories I want to tell.

The late Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney put it best in a poem about his legacy versus his father’s and grandfather’s in the poem “Digging”:

“Between my finger and my thumb
“the squat pen sits.
“I’ll dig with it.”

I’m off to dig.

If you want to give me a birthday “gift,” please consider a donation of any amount to Doctors Without Borders (Medecins sans Frontieres) for their work in Ukraine.