On April 1, a group of writers I admire (Carla Spataro, Cynthia Reeves, and Alison Hicks) and I launched this anthology published by PS Books at AWP in Los Angeles, reading from our work and sharing our experiences.
As I told the audience, you probably don’t know my name—because I am a professional finalist, warmer of the wait list spot, acting director filling in without coveting the job, mother of grown children, daughter managing my mother’s memory loss and dealing with the sad aftermath of my dad’s and in-law’s deaths. Like many of you, I’d guess. Though our circumstances are particular, this is what 50-somethings have in common: we’ve arrived at the bottom of what researchers who study life satisfaction describe as a happiness U-curve. Though in our 20s we hoped for a steady rise, many of us have experienced an almost imperceptible fall—from happily hectic to sadly stressed—as career pressures, kids, and crises piled on, progressing along with us to the half-century mark.
And yet, I’ve made—still make—a living at creative writing, steadily and stealthily writing stories and novels, articles and essays, college viewbooks and book reviews, a few obituaries. A decade of witnessing the death and decline of friends and family has put some things in perspective for me, which I write about in my column for the Bryn Mawr Alumnae Magazine, “The U-Curve: Mawrters at Midlife,” and which I’d like to share with you.
Existentially speaking, we’re ALL FINALISTS. So why not stop worrying about what you’ve accomplished and get back to work: rediscover something you love but gave up, revise your idea of what constitutes success, repurpose the talents and skills you’ve worked so long to cultivate, and do something entirely different?
Once upon a time, I started a file—the manila kind that fits in an actual file cabinet fashioned from metal or wood—and labeled its now worn and curled tab, “Inspiration.” Among other cherished documents, the file contains Carolyn Heilbrun’s New York Times essay from 1989, “Women Writers: Coming of Age at 50,” in which she laments that women have lived too much with closure—Jane Austen-style endings we’ve updated to include not only romantic partnership, but the published manuscript and the dream job. “This is the delusion of a passive life,” Heilbrun declared, giving me a head’s up about what, nevertheless, I had to learn the hard way: that literary success often means exchanging one level of rejection, uncertainty and disappointment for another. The only power we have—a power men, for some reason, are less hesitant to claim—is the power to continue. Citing Toni Morrison and May Sarton as examples of women who did their best work in what Heilbrun described as the “last third of life”—a phrase that sent me on a brief detour doing mental math—Heilbrun promised, “When the hope for closure is abandoned, when there is an end to fantasy, adventure for women will begin.”
In an era before email, this essay was Xeroxed and passed around my office comprised of 20-something feminists when I was in graduate school and working fulltime to pay for it. This was a time when short story collections were earning six-figure advances, when the Big 5 publishers were still the Big 25, holding auctions to bid for writers’ work—but I never expected to write fiction fulltime, thanks to the sane guidance of my advisors at Warren Wilson, who juggled jobs and writing skillfully, reflecting reality and modeling the discipline and sense of humor required to live a writer’s life. And yet, I nurtured my own youthful delusions. I read Heilbrun’s article—Virginia Woolf and the trough of despair: check. Rage against the patriarchy: check—and put it away in a file, certain in the way you can be, when you’re 26, that your life will be exceptional, that you will never actually be 50.
Friends, that day has come.
“The point is not the joys of old age,” Heilbrun said, words I read again this winter when I pulled the creased and yellowed essay from my file. “The point is, probably, death, and the intensity of knowledge it brings.” Though this fact can lead some writers to the trough of despair, Heilbrun insists that this “coming of age portends all the freedoms men have always known and women, never—mostly the freedom from fulfilling the needs of others and from being a female impersonator.” All too often, she says, “Women cling to a life and conditions they have in fact outgrown, instead of launching off into another world.” At 53, I know grief and the rope burns left behind when I’ve tried to hold on to what I’ve lost. But how to let go?
By shifting my focus to what is in my favor, now that I’m older and I’m still here. To (as Heilbrun advises) “make the most of security and seniority, to take risks, be noisy, be courageous, be unpopular.”
By this point in the game, I have amassed a body of work—some of it published—and the work has hurt my body. I have tendonitis in both arms, and after a summer of physical therapy with an athletic trainer who put me on the “thrower’s program” for my competitive sport of typing, I bought a Fit Bit to recalibrate my sense of what makes for a successful day. Trying to better balance mental and physical activity, I’ve become acutely aware that writing prolifically—which I finally have time to do—conflicts directly with living healthfully. And this realization has made me wonder if too much butt-in-chair discipline—and the tyranny of long-held goals I have outgrown—can wear out my mind.
While I strive to take ten thousand steps every day—I know, pathetic—I also seek literary fitness through work that encourages movement—in my thinking and in my subject matter. Instead of seeking answers, I want to be alert to the questions I might pose. For every time I page through my memories to harvest meaning from the past, I want to venture out to gather new material: book a trip, attend a lecture, look at art. For every certainty I defend, I want to converse—in person, on the page—with someone who doesn’t think like me, to freshen and sharpen and open my ideas. In other words, I seek the literary equivalent of balance between puttering around the house and taking a long, meandering walk. I have time for both now. And both ways of working—like both kinds of steps—count, and are necessary to continue to write for the long haul.