Business Musings: How Writers Fail (Part 4): Aging Writer Edition

Business Musings: How Writers Fail (Part 4): Aging Writer Edition

Do to unforeseen difficulties, I didn’t have a chance to write up the rest of the Expo. I’ll do so in the next week or so. Instead, the planned series continues.

I have never read Michael Chabon’s book, The Wonder Boys, but I love the movie. It has two of my favorite actors—Michael Douglas and Robert Downey Jr.—and a stellar supporting cast.

It’s also an excellent movie about writing, if you boil it down to its essence.

Michael Douglas is a professor of creative writing, who is writing a book that no one has seen. Most of us assume he’s like every other professor-writer in every other movie we’ve ever seen, not to mention most of the professor “writers” we’ve met, those people who think good thoughts about their “book” but never write anything down.

Nope. SPOILER. Douglas’s character has been writing on the same book for a very, very, very long time. It’s a behemoth of a book. It’s so big that no one can really hold it.

And then, through machinations I don’t recall, the book literally blows away. This scene says it all:


Yes, it was the only copy. No, he doesn’t know what he was writing. Mostly he was typing, trapped inside the words with nowhere to go.

Sometimes I’m afraid that will happen to me. I write huge books, and I write them out of order, so sometimes, it just feels like I’m typing away with no purpose at all. Of course, I back everything up and if I get stuck, I work on something else, because there is no such thing as writer’s block. There’s only project block.

And I hit project block in November of 2021. Hard. Big time.

I was working on the newest Fey novel. I hadn’t yet carved out the novella that we just published. I hadn’t figured out where any of these threads were going.

My subconscious stopped me cold. I could type, but I knew I would be going nowhere. The work was going slower and slower and slower, a true sign, for me, that my subconscious said I was missing something.

I wasn’t sure that was the problem though. I was in school and that part of the semester was tough for me. I also had a huge deadline from an important editor friend, and I was afraid that the short piece I was working on was actually a novel. (Another spoiler alert: it was.) We had visitors, one of whom got ill. I got my booster and it knocked me down for an unexpected day. And I fell, injuring my knee, so my refuge—running—had become both painful and hard.

To say that it was a difficult November is wrong, because it sure as hell wasn’t 2020, but it wasn’t the best November of my life either.

I figured my problem with the Fey project was twofold: My brain was busy with the budding novel that had a real deadline, and I was exhausted.

Both of those things were true, but neither were the problem.

I set aside the third week of December to organize the Fey and figure out where I was going. It started well: I finally figured out everything I needed to know about the novella, and I finished it.

And then…nothing. Every single time I sat down, I couldn’t go any further.

I talked to Dean, gave him the various plot points, and he (Fey fan that he is) got excited. I think you’re nearly done! he kept saying. Nope, I said. I’m not even through the first third.

He read my chapter sketches. He listened to me rant. He knew that this project, because of all its traditional publishing baggage, was hard from the get-go. The Fey broke my heart and nearly broke me as a writer twenty-some years ago. Going back to it was giving me a kind of PTSD.

So he suggested that I set the project aside and come back to it. Considering that I had spent half the year just getting up to speed, I didn’t think that was feasible. In the future, I would have to waste another half year doing the same thing. Not to mention that I probably wouldn’t. Once was enough.

I said that fairly vociferously. And he offered a solution that I thought of, kinda sorta. No one was forcing me to write this. I’d finished the novella.

Maybe I should just give up on the project altogether.

I seriously considered it. And I had a vision of what it would be like. There’s a deep lake of Fey stories in my head. If I abandoned them, then they were never going to be finished, because I wouldn’t let anyone else write them.

But if I was stuck, they wouldn’t get written either.

And then there was the 250,000 words that are already written. I know what happens next in each scene. I know what’s going on. I thought about sending them to Fey fans and saying, here’s all there is. That would piss them off.

And me too.

But what came out of my mouth was this: I would have wasted an entire year’s worth of writing. Nothing would come of it.

Dean reminded me that I had written the surprise novel, the novella, and 15 other short stories, a respectable year by any standard.

But not my year.

For the first time in my entire writing life, I would have a lost year.

It would crush me.

And I suddenly understood how the Michael Douglas character in The Wonder Boys felt as he wrote. Not after he lost the only copy of the novel. But how he felt as he wrote that never-ending, hopeless manuscript, trapped in a cycle he didn’t know how to break.

I was trapped in some kind of cycle too.

We finally figured out how to break it. I am just writing along, and if the novel is 750,000 words, we will deal with that. We’ll probably have to deal with that.

The story wants to be big, and what was stopping me was that my critical voice was trying to constrain it and/or force it into three neat boxes labeled Book One, Book Two, and Book Three.

But here’s the thing: I’m 62 years old. I hit a weird wall, and if I focused on that wall (and not on getting around it), I would literally have been done. Not just with the book. But with writing itself.

Oh, I would have been pecking away, and yeah, I would have written some short fiction or maybe a short novel or two. But the real work of my career would have ended.

And as I had that thought, I thought of writer after writer who got trapped in this mess. We haven’t seen much of anything from George R.R. Martin since he got trapped inside his Game of Thrones saga. Robert Jordan knew how his Wheel of Time series was going to end, so well that he could dictate the storyline on his deathbed. But he didn’t write it. He hadn’t gotten to it, for reasons known only to him.

When I was a young writer, I talked to dozens—literally dozens—of old-timers who had one novel that they were still working on or thinking about. They had either abandoned the manuscript or had decided to stop writing altogether.

Particularly if they were male and raised in the part of the culture that said once you hit 50 or 60 or 65, your important working years were behind you. They believed it—from Harlan Ellison to Damon Knight to Algis Budrys. They all put the writing behind them, and even though, in public, they said they had done enough. In private, they kept circling their typewriters, trying figure out a way to make them work again.

This is an upper level of failure, a willingness to accept “the inevitable,” that your career always ends.

Yes, it does. But it should end like Ursula K. Le Guin’s career ended, with her death. She was still producing stories right up to the time she breathed her last.

So did Kate Wilhelm, who was married to Damon Knight. Kate switched genres, though, somewhere in her 50s and 60s. Because she had an unwieldy project? Because she had said all she wanted to with science fiction? Because she couldn’t figure her way out of a particular book?

I don’t know.

I do know that she and Ursula both are writing heroes of mine, because they always strove to write something new and different, and sometimes, to write something hard.

They were challenging themselves up until the end.

If you Google brain health and aging, you’ll find all kinds of crap about cognitive decline. Cognitive decline does happen to people and we’re all afraid of it. We also have this idea, in western cultures, that old people are dumber than young people. That youth culture thing, I guess.

Because most cultures revere their elders. Older people are renown for their wisdom. They’re valued.

If you Google wisdom and 60, you’ll find a series of studies that show that older people are, in general, wiser than younger people. (Here’s an article from November, and here’s one from 2010, just to sample two.) Why? Because life experience translates into knowledge, and people who actually pay attention to patterns learn how to use that knowledge to their or their tribe’s advantage (whatever that tribe might be).

So many of us accept the societal prescription. A writer friend of mine, who just turned 83, has been trying to quit writing for a decade now. He keeps saying he’s too old to write, and the next thing you know, he’s written another novel.

Couldn’t help myself, he always says.

So different from the writers I listed above, all of whom let a single project spell their doom.

I just walked along the edge of that cliff.

I’m finishing this essay now, so that I can do my pages on the Fey novel. I had been mentally trimming it down so that it would fit into those prescribed boxes. I have a lot of scenes to add back in, scenes that my critical voice claimed had no place at all.

My critical voice was wrong, as it usually is.

The other bad thing about listening to a chronically wrong critical voice? It leaches all of the fun out of writing.

My subconscious was very, very sad when Dean and I discussed me ending the project permanently. I was tearing up, the way that a toddler tears up when they’re told their favorite toy is gone for good. If I hadn’t been on public street, there might have been actual top-of-the-lungs toddleresque wailing.

I’ve never quite had a moment like that before, where I could see all those possible writing futures. I think that was a function of age, and all of those writers who taught by example. Most of them hit the wall I just hit and quit for good.

Only a handful—the ones I admire the most—continued forward.

I’m going to keep my eye on them. Because I want to go out of this world with my boots on, typing away furiously so that I finish that one last project before my body gives up the ghost.

We never know how we’re going to end. But I think in this instance, it’s better to prepare for the long well-lived life rather than shut the door on the things we love prematurely.

So, off I go to wrestle yet another ginormous project to the ground. Apparently, I like doing that.

It must be my way of challenging myself. Some writers do it by actually challenging themselves to hit a numerical goal or some other big (and seemingly impossible) goal. Dean loves doing that. It inspires him.

Me, I just try to get that morass of fiction out of my head and onto the page in some semblance of order. Think Michael Douglas in The Wonder Boys. At the end, he’s writing again, because that wrong turn of his was a blessing in disguise.

Those wrong turns usually are. If we listen to them—and to what the subconscious is telling us.

And that might be the hardest thing of all.

*****

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“Business Musings: How Writers Fail 4: Aging Edition,” copyright © 2022 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / hKuprevich.

16 responses to “Business Musings: How Writers Fail (Part 4): Aging Writer Edition”

  1. Karen Myers says:

    Thanks for the revelatory discussion. I’m 68, just finished recovering from 2 years of health scare, and there’s Alzheimers all up and down one side of my everyone’s-dead family, so I’ve been getting spooked every time I misplace a noun for a while in my head.

    My personal inspiration is C J Cherryh — don’t know much about her personal life (I try not to get into that), but her continuing work on the Foreigner series in particular is a real model for me. I really, really, want to tell the stories of my current series, and I am determined to do so — if I don’t do it, no one will, and I don’t want those characters to just… die. I can’t control who will read the work and if it will ever be interesting to others, but after 10 novels I’m past the crippling concerns of “can I actually write books that some people enjoy?”

    So now it’s all on me. There aren’t any barriers other than my willingness to just sit down and work (and I like working). I don’t have plot mechanics issues that stop me psychologically or anything external — just the existential dread of potential dementia, and I suspect that’s just the boogie-man-du-jour and deserves to be laughed at. Time to start laughing accordingly.

  2. acflory says:

    ‘Because I want to go out of this world with my boots on, typing away furiously so that I finish that one last project before my body gives up the ghost.’

    Yes. I’m 69, and I’ve been facing that cliff too. Thank you for naming the elephant in the room. Like you, Ursula K. Le Guin is one of my heros. Frank Herbert is the other. I want to die with my gnarled hands still pounding away at this keyboard. lol Or words to that effect.

  3. I found this article to be very inspiring. I’m a middle-aged guy trying to start a writing career and it can be daunting. I just turned fifty-six this past Wednesday, and so my sense of mortality comes into play. Maybe I’m too old to start. When I say start, I actually started the idea for my kid’s book back in 2012, did shoddy release back in 2018 and have re-released it this year with professional help. I started writing back in the nineties, but left it behind for several years due to personal reasons and self doubt. But now I find myself working on the second novel in the series and It has ground to a halt mostly due to self doubt about whether it’s going well and will it at least match up in quality to the first book. It’s a middle grade book and it’s supposed to be light, funny and of course entertaining. I think 2020 and anxiety have stolen some of the humor needed to make this book funny and I’m slowly getting it back. I’m getting older and I’ve got to get something working while I still can. I’m glad to hear that age isn’t a factor, that that is a myth of the past. So thank you for your candor and I’m so glad that you were able to work it out.

  4. G.B, Miller says:

    I’m happily (early) retired and have been writing semi-sporadically for about ten years. After a basement flood last year, I decided to start going through the all the incompletes that were hanging around while I was moving things back into my den, and found a few incompletes from long ago that I could start working on again. So far, it’s been an interesting journey in trying to rediscover the mindset I was in back then when I wrote the stories originally. No sarcasm, but genuinely having fun times in working on these stories.

  5. Susan Kroupa says:

    Thanks for this post, Kris. I’ve had an extended dry spell partly due to health issues, but also because my subconscious seems to have shut down. And frankly, I’ve wondered if my writing days are over.. I don’t want them to be over because I have books I want to write–or think I want to write, but somehow can’t make it happen. But. This post gives me hope and new resolve.
    On a lighter note, I need to watch that film again! So very good. But how did they all get so young? 🙂

  6. allynh says:

    We finally figured out how to break it. I am just writing along, and if the novel is 750,000 words, we will deal with that. We’ll probably have to deal with that.

    The story wants to be big, and what was stopping me was that my critical voice was trying to constrain it and/or force it into three neat boxes labeled Book One, Book Two, and Book Three.

    I abandoned paper.

    – I was limiting myself each time I tried to fit the story to paper, causing massive stress.

    I spent way too long trying to find a way for POD to be cost effective with my stuff. I could not make the story fit in any size that didn’t cost way too much, waste too much paper when cut to size.

    Look at LOTR, it’s 500k, and it’s still compressed. If it were written today, it would be 1m to 1.5m words, beat-for-beat, with more “color”, more detail. That’s all. He had to compress the story to make it fit paper. He even complained about it being “too short”.

    Think in terms of millions of words to tell a story, all sitting in one ebook, and the stress goes away.

    BTW, don’t make the mistake that Brandon Sanderson seems to be making. He wants to be paid 10 bucks per 100k. That’s crazy, and you can tell him that I said that next time you see him. HA!

  7. My grandmother published non-fiction well into her eighties. We always joked that she was the “Energizer Bunny” because she never stopped doing something. She did a column in the newspaper for many years, only quitting after they got stupid with her. After that, a historical article in a book, a couple of plays. She did slow down when she hit 90. At that point, age caught up to her.

    Tough few weeks for me. A co-worker abruptly departed and I got her workload–essentially another full-time job. I’m struggling not to feel overwhelmed and not let it spill over to my writing side. I’ve had that problem in the past, though the two years of COVID gave me some time to build skills that I need now. I’m letting critical voice take the lead on things like work scheduling and protecting me and I’m still wrestling with my reactions to everything going on.

  8. Catherine Mesick says:

    I’m so glad you decided to keep going! I’m looking forward to the next Fey novel whenever you get it done. And I hope you continue to heal from that bad experience you had in the past.

  9. Buddy says:

    As hope springs eternal, and even though this may be of little use, I turn 65 next month and just finished my first novel. Not that I haven’t started some prior to this one. And there is the novella that introduces my MC that took me 2 years and 3 countries to finally finish (the novel in only a few months).
    I’ve recently taken your Thriller, Mystery, Depth, and Novel Structure (which I am still doing) courses. The last two made me particularly excited about my ability to write.
    As well, I have two very successful author friends who have agreed that I may have some talent.
    And, as Col. Slade says in Scent of a Woman, “I’m just getting’ warmed up.”
    Buddy
    PS
    Also, being able to read your free short stories has prompted me to learn that skill at some point as well.
    Thanks for all you do.

  10. Another data point: James Gunn published in Asimov’s up until the end. He was in his nineties. I intend to follow LeGuin’s, Wilhelms, and Gunn’s example, and I fully expect you to do so as well.

    I’m starting a giant fiction project now that’s been on my brain for forty years. Maybe it’s late in my life to start it–but if I don’t write it, who will?

    ==ml

  11. The last four years have been rough. The medication for an illness caused depression, and the anti-depressants depressed every feeling flatter than a pancake. So, my current WIP has tasked me. Yet I still pursue it, it’s my great white whale.

    Starting to come off the anti-depressants and I’m having feelings of excitement again, and hopefully I won’t relapse.

    So, this is my long winded way of saying thank you for a piece of writing that has come at just the right time for me to assimilate.

  12. After my last health crisis six months or so ago, I was feeling my mortality and berating myself for all the books I HADN’T written and “how little time I have left.” (I’m about to turn 65, if you’re curious.)
    But a couple months back I had and assigned short story write on short deadline. Well, I spitball a weird take on the assigned there and ran with it. And it was FUN! Before I could slow.diwn, it was a novella, and it really wanted to be a novel, and that novel wanted to be the first of an open ended series. I’d found the joy that I’d lost from my writing.
    So I’m working on the novel now, and it’s still fun. In retrospect, I realized that the period mysteries I was writing, which I’d INTENDED to be fun, had turned heavy and “important.” Important real world issues had started to do dominate the stories, racism sexism, all the dark stuff of the times. It was good, but it seemed like every story had to top the last, and given THESE times that we live in, I couldn’t handle it. It was literally bad for my mental health.
    But the new series (ironically set just a few. Years later) is free of that. It’s a romp, and while it doesn’t white wash the era, my strategy is to push back that with positive, ahead-of-their kind characters always pushing the status quo of the period, and a hero that stumbles but always is an ally. It’s light, it’s fun, it’s action packed. It scratches all my itches for writing crime and weird fantasy and stuff set in the mid-20th century. Like I said, it’s FUN, and I had no idea how important that was, or how profoundly I had lost it.
    I may never get back to that “important” stuff, but I’ve decided that’s NOT important. From now on, I write what I want to write (and that I hope people will want to read as well. But I work for me, and my own satisfaction now, not the judgent of faceless people who decde which writing is “important”and “profound.”.

  13. Jean Lamb says:

    The spouse has medical appointments every day this week. I have had two meetings, for one of which I have to translate Hurriedly Typed Notes into actual minutes. Guess what, I only got 500 words so far this week. Stuff happens. Next week, when my week is hopefully less chaotic, I will get my usual 1k per week, and maybe a little bit extra if my husband takes more naps than usual. As a caregiver, I hate lowering my expectations, but there are some weeks it’s going to happen. I heartily envy people who have time and privacy to write in…

    • Oh, yes. There are times when life just gets in the way. When I was sickest with my chronic illness, getting 1000 words in a week was a major victory. As long as you know what’s keeping you from writing, you can either resolve or accept it. Fortunately and unfortunately, life is about change and sometimes it’s just about getting through the day. Good for you getting 500 words this week. Well done.

  14. I’m also 62, so this really resonated with me. I also plan to age well and write. Thank you.

  15. ML Humphrey says:

    Not to be that person, but Ursula K Le Guin actually talked publicly about how she had to stop writing fiction at the end of her life. Maybe the last five years or so? I found a few articles that mentioned it, but I couldn’t find the blog post I think I remember her writing about how keeping all the complex threads of a novel was too hard at the end. She did still blog and write poetry so she definitely did write until the end, but she had to shift focus to keep doing so. At 80+, though.

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