Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

the tired writer

Two years ago, soon after the release of her novel The Maytrees, Annie Dillard said — it wasn’t a formal announcement, just a comment, but apparently a thoroughly considered one — that she was retiring from writing, and from all the . . . stuff that accompanies the life of a writer: book tours, public readings, and so on. “I’m tired,” she said. “I worked so hard all my life, and all I want to do now is read.”
I’ve thought about this often, and my considered position is: Good for her. I’m going to miss her writing, but she’s earned a break. Writing well is really, really hard — it demands a great deal from one’s whole being — so much so that it’s rather surprising that more writers don't call it quits. And yet it seems that as people (people in the Western world, anyway) live longer and longer, so writers write longer and longer. John Updike wrote right up to the end; Philip Roth is clearly going to do the same. Maybe I’ve missed something, but I don't know that any other major (or at least celebrated) writers of the same generation — Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Tom Stoppard, William Trevor (to pick a few names from the air) — are planning to call it a career. And Dillard is about a decade younger than those figures.
So why aren't there more writerly retirements? The obvious answer is that “being a writer” is an especially intense form of identity, and that writers who don't write anymore feel like ciphers. (Writer - writing = zero.) But it seems to me that there’s an old belief that applies to the writer just as much as to the carpenter or cabinetmaker or nurse: after decades of hard work, you deserve a break, a period, in the last years of your life, of rest and contemplation. Dillard is obviously of that mind, and again, good for her. I wish her happy reading, and decades of it.

6 comments:

  • Do you think it would be fair to say there are those who write out of necessity (writing to live) and those who fall into a more "work-like" camp (writing as vocation)?

    It seems odd to me that anyone in the first camp would "retire" from writing. Then again, the just desserts of tolle lege sound pretty good to me right now.

  • I wonder also if a writer ought to have some sense that they can more or less finish saying what they have to say -- not that they burn out, but that they accomplish their central tasks. I think writers will always have more to say about something or another, but I like the idea that there can be a sense of conclusion and completion in a writer's career.

  • Maybe another reason for there not being more writerly retirements is that a lot of creative writers, at least, describe the process of writing as not so much a decision on their part as a feeling of compulsion. One example would be the way Marilynne Robinson spoke about writing *Home*: "I realized that I was persistently distracted by Gilead characters who seemed to be insisting on lives of their own." To call it quits on writing means saying no to characters like this, and that seems like a pretty momentous decision for someone of Dillard's abilities. I don't begrudge her for it, but it does make me a bit sad.

  • I hadn't heard this, but am glad to hear it now. It shows that there is both a person and a reality beyond her writing, which is what gave ut such richness.

    It was reflecting reality; it was not the reality.
    Neither was it smoke and mirrors. There was a Reality there to be reflected.
    She has now gone to it.

  • I mean, she is demonstrating that what she says in some of her (earlier, nonfiction?) books is true.

  • Martin Amis, in his terrific piece on Nabokov's *The Original of Laura*, makes the case that maybe some writers should do the same as Dillard, before their talent leaves them: "Writers die twice: once when the body dies, and one when the talent dies."

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