Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Going gentle, or not

In my last post about forks and roundabouts, I talked about having an open vista ahead now that I'd completed my existing book contracts, and I mused about what writing project to tackle next. Thanks to all the readers who wrote in to ask for one series or the other, I've suggested a three-book contract for two Doucette novels and one Green. At my current publication rate, this would bring me to the early 2020's.

When I did the math, it gave me pause and forced me to consider the question of how long I want to continue writing. And the more important and more ominous question of how long I should continue. Writing a mystery novel is a complex task. It demands not just verbal fluency and sophistication but also stamina, determination, novel thinking and creative, unusual mental leaps. And perhaps most importantly - memory. Keeping track of all the characters, their stories, actions and motivations, the subplots and twists inherent in a mystery is a tremendous feat of memory, particularly for a mostly pantser writer like me who pulls things together on the fly.

I've been writing since I was six years old. Even though I had school, a busy career, and children along the way, I've always been a writer. An inventor of stories. I can't imagine my life without a story percolating in my brain. And now that I have retired from other things to become a full-time writer, it shapes my every day. Apart from the activity and the purpose it brings to my life, it also brings me a community of friends, opportunities to travel, and constant interaction with new people.

That is a lot to give up.

I've always said that I would continue writing as long as I had the brains to do it. But who knows when that will be, and whether I will know? In a recent interview with the New York Times, Philip Roth was asked about his decision to retire from writing when he was in his late seventies. He replied: "By 2010 I had a strong suspicion that I’d done my best work and anything more would be inferior. I was by this time no longer in possession of the mental vitality or the verbal energy or the physical fitness needed to mount and sustain a large creative attack of any duration on a complex structure as demanding as a novel."

Powerfully honest. How does a writer recognize that their time is up? This decline in mental vitality and verbal energy sneaks up on you. All of us, as we age, find we have to work harder to remember that perfect word that dances just out of reach in our mental storehouse. To compensate, we develop tricks, one of the most useful being the thesaurus. I love that "Ahah, that's it!" moment. We find it more difficult to keep track of details, but can use notes, lists, and outlines to jog our memory. When we forget where we are in a story, or where we left off, we can reread the last chapter as a way to relaunch ourselves.

As I've grown older, I've changed my writing process too. As I wrap up my writing for the day, I jot down a sentence or two about what comes next in order to have a place to start the next day. Like all writers, some of my most brilliant ideas come to me during the "off-writing" hours such as driving down the highway or walking the dog. I now use my iPhone to record those ideas before I forget them.

There will likely come a time when all these tricks are not enough, but I hope it's still a few years off. My mother lived to 97 and wrote a book when she was 86. Some people maintain their mental acuity well into their nineties whereas an alarming number start cognitive decline in their late sixties. In many ways, life is a roll of the dice and who knows what the next roll brings. All we can do, to fight that dying of the light, is stay active and engaged, eat well, and keep challenging our brains. Luckily, what better challenge than trying to write a novel?


Marianne Wheelaghan said...

Hear,hear! A Scottish writing colleague, Alanna Knight, is now 94 and has published 60 books and is still actively writing. For some us there is no better challenge than trying to write a novel at any age! Onwards and upwards :)

Irene Bennett Brown said...

My twentieth book, Miss Royal's Mules, a historical western, first in the Nickel Hill series,
will be released by Five Star/Cengage in November. I've received more than a half dozen wonderful pre-publication endorsements for the novel. I'm 86. Knew when I was twelve years old this is what I wanted to do.

Barbara Fradkin said...

Thanks for the inspiring words, Marianne and Irene. And Irene, congratulations on your 20th book!

Sybil Johnson said...

Wow, Irene, 20 books! So cool. Unlike a lot of writers, I never set out to be one. I enjoyed the creative writing assignments in grade school and junior high, but never thought I'd write a book,let alone a mystery. Seemed way too hard to me.

I started writing in my 40s and, I believe, it's what I was meant to do at this point in my life. Who knows how long I'll keep writing. Only time will tell.

Mar Preston said...

I'm of divided mind on this. I've lost the energy, the ego, and especially the sense that it matters. But on the other hand, I don't seem willing to quit.

I'm birthing another right now. We'll see.

Thanks, Barbara