The Writer in Winter: Less is More

by Ed Davis on May 21, 2011

While reading Brooke Allen’s review in The New York Time Book Review of Nicholas Delbanco’s Lastingness: the Art of Old Age, I began thinking about how my own creative process has changed as I’ve aged. At fifty-nine, I’ve pared it down to “deep essentials,” as others apparently have. But what does that mean?

Inception vs. Reception

Delbanco claims that while, in youth “it’s the reception of the piece and not its production that counts. But to the aging writer, painter or musician…it no longer seems as important that the work be sold.” That rings true for me. While I still seek markets for my finished manuscripts, I’ve lost the fervor of former years. Instead, it’s getting meaningful words on paper (or screen) that occupies my writing time much more than when I was forty. Now that I’m retired with presumably a lot more time, I find myself fascinated with the process rather than the product. And wondering what that means, exactly.

Pure Joy

It’s about joy, for one thing: having fun and feeling good about what I’m doing rather than slaving for any perceived “audience.” I mostly don’t know who’s going to read my work anyway, so I do what I believe most of us do, which is to imagine our toughest critics reading what we produce. If, after many revisions, a story still pleases me, I assume it will please some readers, too—and if not that they’ll tell me why, so I can do better next time.

Sweet Surrender

My fascination with the process means learning more and more about it. Many years ago, I thought I’d figured out the one true way for me to write. However, if I’d stayed with that model, I’d still be writing deep into the night. I’ve learned that mornings are so much better for me; whoever said to approach the writing desk as soon as you can after leaving dreams is very wise. Before major cares of the day come, I’m in a purer state. After reading some spiritual literature, say, Thomas Merton, a Psalm or two, I’m ready to surrender to my better self and attempt to leave my ego behind.

Writing, like spirituality, is mostly surrender for me nowadays. In the morning that’s more likely to happen, before ego has a chance to sink its claws back into me after the release that sleep usually brings. I’m more open, more likely not to censor and edit, to prematurely decide that every idea, phrase or word that comes easily is a cliché. I’m capable of being nicest to myself then. Nothing good comes of berating myself for every flawed word choice.

The Essential Thing

Delbanco says, “creative artists who continue to work late in life so often undergo a sea change: a distillation, a new intensity, a sloughing off of excess and ornament in favor of deep essentials.” Ah, yes. So much of my writing—I’m talking more about rewriting now, which requires a lot more of me, both time-wise and intellectually—is about cutting. So while younger writers are concerned with being more prolific and amassing an impressive list of publications, getting published by increasingly prestigious publications, and even making money, these have lost a lot of their luster for me. The essential thing is just to write, anything at all.

The Marathoner

Seeing myself as a receptacle rather than an omniscient god-like author is another change that’s come with age. And the process requires great discipline if I’m to be able to receive. Thirty years ago, I was as ego-driven as the next Hemingway or Fitzgerald wannabe, but now I’ve learned to seek the humility of a Thomas Merton or Wendell Berry, although my efforts often fall radically short.

Back when I was a long-distance runner, I trained every day, in various ways, to be ready for that long haul of a half-marathon; the same applies to long-distance writers (what else are novelists?). Writing something every day, including exercises and journaling, writing (and reading) in a variety of genres keeps me sharp and ready. So when it comes time to channel a new voice and deliver a poem, story or chapter like none I’ve ever written, I want the breath and the body to be strong enough to carry me—many miles, if necessary. Writing is a physical act, says Natalie Goldberg, in Writing Down the Bones. The most important thing is to keep the arm and pen moving across the page.

The Eternal

Channeling comes close to the way I feel about my process today: letting something—my Higher Power, Jung’s collective unconscious, the lingering souls of the departed—use my mind, body, even soul for a period and deliver something I shouldn’t be able to write, something so much better than anything I alone could conceive, something indisputably true and rich and potentially valuable, something eternal. Occasionally I’ve come close to touching the hem of God in this way—it doesn’t seem blasphemy or heresy or even egotism to try. After all I am His child and never feel it more than when I’m writing in this way, with God’s foot pressing firmly down on mine atop the gas pedal.

Grafton’s Journal

My addiction to the process also means I’m hungry to learn new tricks, new methods, techniques. Like the novelist’s journal.

While writing my latest novel as one file, I open another window, simultaneously keeping a journal that directly addresses issues and problems raised by the book. Inspired by Sue Grafton who taught this technique at Antioch Writers Workshop many years ago, it allows me to toggle between planning and fretting about the book—even rehearsing scenes—in one window, and composing paragraphs and pages that I hope to see published in the other.

Sue’s novel-journal is a real pressure-reducer, plus it’s just fun to plot, plan, rehearse, fret, laugh and curse about my project as if to a trusted friend, without fear or shame. On the novel side, I’m God’s warrior, absolutely fearless and as full of faith as I can be; on Sue’s side, however, I cultivate Goldberg’s “beginner’s mind” and try to be my own best friend.

Although I attach a date and heading to each entry (Thoughts on the Plot, Possible Endings), I don’t organize or edit beyond that. So far I’ve been able to find material when I need it (for example, to cut and paste a good idea above or in the middle of the chapter I’m writing or revising). In this way, my ideas are allowed to mature before I commit to developing them. And while many turn out to be ill-conceived, maybe even dead wrong, I honor their attempt to make sense rather than ridicule their wrong-headedness.

Joy vs. Job

So if I’m becoming less commercial and ambitious and more introspective, even as fussy as a stamp collector stewing over his lovelies, then so be it. I enjoy cutting back and paring things down, striving for less rather than more. After all, composing—not marketing or performing or selling my work—is the root of this joy I call “writing.” And I want it to remain a joy—and not an obligation, ambition and certainly not a job, even if I start getting paid for it—for the rest of my life.

An Afterword

By the way, Allen didn’t like Lastingness very much and, as alternatives, recommended two essays about the changing priorities of aging writers: “The Artist Grows Old” by Kenneth Clark and Rudolph Arnheim’s “On the Late Style,” both of which he believes tackle the issue better than Delbanco’s book does. I haven’t tried either yet, but if you do, let me know what you think.

I’d like to give Carl Jung the last word: “We cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning; for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie.”

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Geoff Porter May 22, 2011 at 4:53 am

I really think from my own personal experience, writers are constantly going through change if they are active in their craft. We are influenced by our own ambitions, plus teachers, and books on writing. We are also influenced by readers if we have a close relationship with them. I write for me first, and if I can write for other people at the same time, great.

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