“Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Our times are in His hand
Who saith ‘A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!'”
Rabbi Ben Ezra by Robert Browning
“The last of life, for which the first was made…” I like that. Rather than worrying about growing older, rather than believing the best is behind us, we can rest assured that all we have learned along the journey, all we have experienced in the past will come to fruition in the later stages of life.
In my thirties, I wrote for the markets. What sold at Waldenbooks and B. Dalton dictated what I wrote. In my sixties, I don’t care about the markets. Partly, this is because I no longer understand the markets. The downturn in the economy coupled with the rise of e-publishing are huge game changers in the book publishing world. So, I can honestly say that I do not understand nor do I care what sells. I want to write the stories that I want to read. Today, I’m writing for me.
David Galenson, PhD in Economics at the University of Chicago, writes about artists in Old Masters and Young Geniuses. In the book, he states that late bloomers have a more experimental approach to their art. His study concluded that artists who achieve success later in life see painting as a process of searching. “They aim,” he says, “to discover the image in the course of making it; they typically believe that learning is a more important goal than making finished paintings.”
I find the same to be true with writing. I’ve written well over a thousand pages on an historical novel that has maybe three hundred usable pages. And I started the story back in the mid-80s. Does that mean I have no idea what I’m writing about? Does it mean I’m an obsessive perfectionist? Does it mean I should just shelve the project once and for all? Or does it mean that I’m discovering the truth of the story in the course of writing it?
Learning has always been more important to me than actually finishing a project. I love research. I love discovery. And for all the hours of writing and for all the words I’ve actually written in my life, I have finished relatively few novels. For all the years I’ve put in on this profession, I have a meagerly modest collection of published works.
My oeuvre, you might say, is rather paltry.
But, I can say that my historical novel has evolved over the years, changed and morphed into adulthood. Like me, it has matured. Finally.
And the way I write at sixty—the choices of structure, of words, of character strengths and flaws—is very different from the way I wrote in my thirties.
“Eyes, ears took in their dole,
Brain treasured up the whole;
Should not the heart beat once ‘How good to live and learn?'”
Even if we are composing fiction, the way we write is a reflection of the life we live. And I’ve decided that I now like living more unhurriedly and more deliberately.
When I turned sixty last year, I felt as if there wasn’t enough time to accomplish all that I wanted to do. But, I am beginning to understand that I will finish what I need to finish. I will write what I’m supposed to write.
Helen Hoover Santmyer didn’t start her epic novel until she was almost 70 years old, and Ohio State University Press published it when she was 87. A year later, G.P. Putnam Sons bought the rights to the book and published it. The novel, And Ladies of the Club hit the New York Times bestseller list when Helen was almost 90-years old.
Success, perhaps, doesn’t always come to the young. It can also happen in later life. According to writer-essayist Malcolm Gladwell, sometimes success is “just the thing that emerges after twenty years of working at your kitchen table.”
Success in the form of doing what I love for reasons that have nothing to do with money feels pretty good.
“So, take and use Thy work:
Amend what flaws may lurk,
What strain o’ the stuff, what warpings past the aim!
My times be in Thy hand!
Perfect the cup as planned!
Let age approve of youth, and death complete the same!”