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.