Seniorhood need not be the slow, uneventful homestretch of life that it’s widely thought, but rather a new frontier. In fact, as only befits such sense of homestretch as a free and final dash to victory, it should be a lively time.
Which it is exactly, as I’ve observed, for some of my fellows. They have entered the territory bravely predisposed to new adventure (indeed, for what and when else does one reserve one’s last ounce of courage?), and most notably the adventure is undertaken in the field of writing.
There seems here this universal personal longing to be a participant, no mere spectator. On the other hand, there’s something so intimidating about writing that any attempt to fill the longing to write is put off until the last moment.
Well, here and now is that precise moment.
Fitting in as it does with the very essence of seniorhood—rounding off, summing up, setting down—writing would seem a natural choice, but it is pursued, if at all, reluctantly due to the fear fed by the well-bandied notion that writing of any worth is produced by a craftsmanship so fine and so exclusive it simply cannot be learned, only innately possessed.
The writer and writing teacher William Zinsser has observed this fear at work even in the most routine cases: “Most people have to do some kind of writing just to get through the day—a memo, a report, a letter—and would almost rather die than do it.”
And there’s yet the fear of taking on subjects “we don’t think we have an aptitude for,” he adds.
At any rate, he says, “I now think that these fears are largely unnecessary burdens to lug through life.”
But not to raise the opposite notion either, that it could be a breeze, he warns that writing is “slow labor,” and himself admits, “I don’t like to write, [although] I take great pleasure in having written… Perhaps in no other line of work is delayed gratification so delayed.”
Zinsser has an exact, extreme case in my friend Joe Crisanto: He certainly has not lacked for longing, but as for fear he’s got it thumping ceaselessly in his heart, suppressing “all these things, all this life’s experience—of 89 years!—packed inside me, struggling to be set free, set down and shared,” he says.
Although not exactly unfamiliar with working with words, being a lawyer, he’s convinced—and to no small extent probably rightly so—that the language alone that he has been trained professionally to speak and write is unsuitable for readable lay writing. Anyway, he’s begun to make his adjustments.
In fact, I’ve seen one of his first attempts—“at freedom and immortality,” he says, trying still, I sense, to convince himself of the worthiness of the undertaking—and found his fear altogether unfounded: His piece, a poignant morality play from boyhood, is easily editable and definitely publishable. Joe, I’d say, may just be due for his very much delayed gratification.
My wife, Chit, is herself no first-timer to writing: She’s a prodigal child to it. She has the proper academic degree for it (AB Journalism), but she, too, has been in constant fear of it. Thus, she was diverted easily by motherhood, and, her situation made even more anxious by divorce, she found a compounded excuse to procrastinate.
But, again, the longing wins in the end, and for her it also comes in seniorhood. With a well-sold book to her name and a column in this section, she battles her fear bravely week after week, and earns her gratification. She feels so gratified, indeed, that she spreads the cheer and the courage around, and has in fact inspired first-timers and laggards like her once to contribute to the section.
No, I’m not one of them. I’m one of those old hands who work words for a newspaper for a living—maybe even one of those jaded hands writing just to get through the day (no serious work, really, if you ask the Faulknerian literati). But while the territory is not new to me—why, not only have I worked in it all my life, I’ve lived in it!—I, too, don’t like to write, but go on doing it because I like the gratification.
Rather, drawing and guitar—art and music, if you please—are my new frontier. And I do them absolutely without fear, confident that if you do something to no great expectations, you cannot bomb.