Guest Bloggers

Good Old Writers

Victoria Zackheim

Today’s guest blogger, Victoria Zackheim, writes about how to keep up the energy, faith, and courage to write.

I recently walked into my newly built kitchen and discovered a large, grayish rectangular stain on the quartz counter. Had I placed a hot pan there? Not likely. Spilled bleach? Definitely not. I wiped, scrubbed, gently scoured… nothing helped. And then I lifted my arm and noticed a change in the shape of the stain. I had been trying to remove a reflection of light coming through the kitchen window.

This is the opening paragraph of an essay I wrote about aging. I smiled as I wrote what I expected to be the preface of my new book. However, I’ve been told by literary agents and several editor friends that writing about aging might be cathartic for me, the writer, but it doesn’t stir up much interest among the public. Really? In a country with an increasing elderly population? The last count put us at nearly 17%. That’s a lot of old people, and I’m willing to bet that a good many are readers.

Forget that we elderly are climbing mountains, running marathons and, in many cases, the country. We are a presence, a power, a voting force, and a major supporter of our county’s economy.

And we can write … but do we?  

I often wonder how many of us older writers don’t write because we’ve been led to believe that no one gives a damn about what we have to say. I’m not talking about those gifted (and, by the way, older) authors who create exciting characters in literary fiction and mysteries, men and women who perform death-defying acts to catch the bad guy, or face society and its warped mores to find the truth about life. The work of writers such as Jeffery Deaver, Jane Smiley, Anne Perry and Caroline Leavitt sells like crazy, but they’ve spent years, decades, establishing their reputations both here and abroad. No, I’m referring to that world of writers who never get their place in the sun, and still refuse to give up.

And what about memoirs? The names that pop into my head are Abigail Thomas, Carrie Kabak, and Christine O’Hagan. They write with heart and soul, and they leave age behind.

Are you held back by age? By the who wants to read something written by someone my age? syndrome?

I teach Personal Essay in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, online classes only, and spend nine weeks working with students ages twenty to ninety, and who are motivated, excited, and energized by the joy and freedom to write. I also conduct workshops at writers’ conferences, which is where I learned a valuable lesson about age. I’ve had students in their sixties, seventies and eighties, but no one taught me more about the importance—and yes, the unimportance—of age, than a student who was about to celebrate his ninety-third birthday. At first, some of the younger students (mostly middle-aged) ignored him, until it was his turn to stand up and read the first draft of his essay. He stood, wobbled a bit, and then leveled those young whippersnappers with a poignant, beautifully written, and very funny piece, a vignette from his life. His writing was simple, straightforward, honest, and he didn’t give a damn about what he said, as long as he was telling his story. That was more than a decade ago. I hope he’s still writing.

So, how do we, as older writers, find the means to write? Or perhaps the real question should be: how do we keep up the energy, faith, and courage to write? My agent is pitching my first mystery novel. I have to wonder how many editors will Google me, discover my age, and then think, “Oh dear, oh my, at that age, we can’t nurture her along, and we certainly can’t count on sequels.” The responses to my agent have been “soft” rejections. Soft or hard, no is no.

Now, let’s look at another conundrum. As an older writer, what can you possibly write that anyone wants to read? Uh, hello! You have many more decades of life experience than up-and-coming (read: young) writers. Do they search for their glasses when they’re perched their head? Have they put their keys in the refrigerator, or tried to answer the phone with the TV remote? Or get frustrated when attempting to turn on the TV with their cell phone? When I do this, and casually mention it to my children or grandchildren, they smile. That is, they smile indulgently, hoping I don’t notice the pity or fear rushing through their hearts. But when I relate the same faux pas to friends of my age, I’m sure to get (1) a laugh and (2) a story about what happened to her/him that matches mine. We are a grand and wonderful people, we oldies.

So, what am I saying? I guess I’m suggesting that older writers need to forge ahead. Screw the age; write what you know. Write what you are. If you write what you think will sell, that’s fine, we all need to make a living. But be good to yourself and carve out some time where you can be you. Old. Wise. Funny. And, yes, even a bit tasteless! (You know, the stuff you don’t want your children to read until after you’re dead … or you’ve published under a pseudonym. My children still don’t know about the time I … never mind.)

Aging gracefully relies on accepting ourselves. If we don’t accept who we are, it will show up in our writing. Our older characters might be very well-behaved, pontifical, wise, which can be synonyms for dull. Create the characters first and see where they take you. I love Elizabeth George’s younger character, Barbara Havers, and Anne Perry’s new-series character, twenty-something Elena Standish. But I also gravitate towards the older and wiser. Is there a fictional character more fascinating and complex than Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge? Or Wallace Stegner’s Lyman Ward in Angle of Repose? And I would be remiss not to mention Santiago, Hemingway’s memorable and haunting character from The Old Man and the Sea. (I seriously doubt that The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea would have received such acclaim.)

So, yes, we are older writers, but in no way does that mean we are old. And I ask you, what’s more exciting: creating characters and plot lines, or worrying about sleeping through the night and having regular bowel movements?

Carol Channing lived to ninety-seven. That gives me nearly twenty years to write, fall in love, manage crepey skin and liver spots, learn to make pasta on one of those machines, and write several sequels to the mystery that will be published one fine day.  

What can you do to keep your creative juices flowing? Here are some ideas:

  1. Daydream. That is, daydream about the plot and characters of the novel, play, memoir, essay, screenplay, short story you always wanted to write— the one you imagined during that long drive, when your imagination was going wild. Now is the time.
  2. Be courageous. It doesn’t take courage to write at this age, but it does take courage to put the work out there to be judged.
  3. Trust yourself. I worked with a writer who held onto her essay for my anthology because she wanted feedback from her writing group. I convinced her to send it to me instead, since I would be her editor. It was brilliant. Over time, she has learned to trust herself.
  4. Ask for feedback. While it isn’t always helpful, there might be comments that lead you to better understand what you’ve written. But remember that you must be discerning. Not everyone has a good eye for good writing, so be sure you invite someone into your heart who is kind, trustworthy, and loves to read. And never forget the person you must trust more than anyone … you!

I have a dear friend, Aviva Layton, who is about to become eighty-nine. (Notice I didn’t say “turn eighty-nine” because that sounds too much like fruit going rotten.) She does Zumba twice a week and works around thirty hours a week editing manuscripts. Aviva believes that old age is absurd, but it also has its advantages. She can tell a gorgeously handsome and sexy man that he’s gorgeous and sexy without his thinking she has ulterior motives … even if she does. And she never has to hoist her luggage onto the overhead bin. If I’m putting together a new anthology that fits into anything relating to her life, she’s invited. Aviva’s work is passionate, funny, real and never sugar-coated. At this age, sugar-coating anything is a waste of time.

So, what can you do to bring joy and creativity to your golden writing years? Take your vitamins, try to exercise, wear your mask in public if you choose. And carve out quiet time. Not for resting, but for contemplating your next writing project.

Don’t be afraid to play with ideas. Play with scenes. Play with characters and plots. Play with fantasies about how to spend the royalties. But whatever you do, don’t play it safe.

Victoria Zackheim is the author of the novel, “The Bone Weaver,” and creator/editor of seven anthologies, including the international bestselling “The Other Woman,” that she adapted to theater and has been performed in several dozen theaters across the United States. She wrote the documentary “Where Birds Never Sang: The Story of Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen Concentration Camps,” which aired nationwide on PBS.

Zackheim is a playwright and screenwriter, with two plays and a feature film now in development. She teaches creative nonfiction in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and is a frequent conference speaker and writing instructor in the US and abroad. She lives in Northern California.  

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