A writer reflects on the age-old dilemma of publishing young or waiting for the ripeness of experience
We wake up to the persistent dawn chorus of paeans sung in praise of youth every morning, with literature in no way exempt from the youth-before-age mantra
On the cusp of 45, I was told I had tested positive for cancer. But that it would be two weeks, and a brace of tests, before they could confirm it. A strange fortnight followed that was neither tragic nor difficult, but dreamlike. Everything glowed brighter and took on greater importance than before. Including the act of writing.
But if I had cancer, I wrote, in what began as a note to myself, if my time with my beloved family, my children aged 9 and 10, was more finite than I had imagined, should I waste another second of it writing, with all the uncertainties that attended it?
For a start, would I be well enough to write as much, and as fluently, as I would like to? Illness wears us down. As hospital visits, invasive treatments and their side effects take over, we have little energy and even less time to expend on an activity that requires plenty of both. But as I enumerated the changes I would have to make to cope with a faltering body, I was reminded of the authors who had written through periods of grave illness. The Brontë sisters, Anne and Emily, battled the consumption that killed them as they wrought their masterpieces. John Keats, too, was seriously ill for most of his brief poetic life. Jorge Luis Borges turned his progressive blindness into a strength, recording his exquisite sonnets when he could no longer type.
Perhaps you don’t need your full physical strength to write, I considered, unlike running, dancing, or anything that requires more than your mental faculties at full throttle. Would they hold up as other parts of my body broke down? Or would anxiety about my condition, and the fate of my young family, swamp my thoughts, rendering lucid thinking impossible? Yet, the agonies of the mind are better documented by writers than most others, and the passion and insight in such testimony is proof of the resilience of writing. From Sylvia Plath to Saadat Hasan Manto, writers have brought forth inspired work from the depths of depression.
And if distressed states of mind can be turned to the writer’s advantage, why not memory loss, so often the result of illnesses and their treatment? Ernest Hemingway complained of his electric shock therapy: “What is the sense of ruining my head and erasing my memory, which is my capital, and putting me out of business?" But Agatha Christie made the most of her amnesiac spell, by putting memory and its tricks at the heart of subsequent whodunits like Sleeping Murder. Despite a strangely selective memory of my own—the result, I’m told, of injuries over the years from falls caused by epilepsy and a former disgruntled husband—it did not get in the way of writing a memoir in 2017. If anything, the fading of memory in my life has been a blessing rather than a curse, and in my writing it has opened up the floodgates of irreverent invention.
Then there’s age, most often blamed for the declining mind. None of us is getting any younger. The passing years have hobbled our feet, knobbled our knees, and set everything else awobble, we bitterly complain. But recent studies show that ageing brain cells committing mass hara-kiri is nothing but a myth. If they deteriorate with time, they do so slowly, leaving our cognitive abilities largely unaffected till we’re good and 80. And if we’re truly good, not even at that age, as the likes of Ursula K. Le Guin and Ruskin Bond have proved. In fact, writers like them probably still find writing to be better insurance against age than something to abandon as the faculties fray.
But, my pessimistic alter ego prodded, if I did carry on writing in my new, challenging circumstances, would it be read?
We wake up to the persistent dawn chorus of paeans sung in praise of youth every morning, with literature in no way exempt from the youth-before-age mantra. With apparently only a small window in which our writing is worth anything, the newspapers are awash with lists of young authors we must read, and numerous prizes, from the Dylan Thomas to the Betty Trask, are ring-fenced for the under-40s alone. Along with the still-brilliant-at-64 Kazuo Ishiguro, they all appear to agree with John Updike that “writers are not scholars but athletes, who grow beer bellies after 30".
There should be many opportunities for bright young sparks. Who doesn’t need a leg up in an increasingly difficult field? And the newer you are to it, the more steer you require. Yet must we discount the bounty brought to the table by experience? The brighter side of age and wear is a kind of wisdom. Experience means more stories to tell, each polished to perfection by practice. For most of us with ordinary lives and everyday tragedies, profundity can come with time. William Wordsworth, whose poetry blossomed into his 80s, was convinced that experience instilled depth, and Toni Morrison, writing powerfully at 86, is famously known to have said, “I feel like today we always glorify the young, just-plucked-from-college writer. But it’s much harder to start writing later, in middle age, struggling on a book around a full-time job and family."
For many, war, poverty, parenthood, and other life-consuming events would have put writing careers back by decades. It took a war or two to transform Walt Whitman from the lacklustre author of Franklin Evans to the poet who learnt to sing with “original energy". Attia Hosain is now remembered mainly for Sunlight On A Broken Column, which she wrote in her 40s. And Anita Brookner, Booker Prize winner at 56, hadn’t written a novel till she was 49.
According to The Guardian, the top-selling fiction of 2017, too, was from seasoned authors like Margaret Atwood (79), Philip Pullman (71) and Lee Child (64), and both Booker and Pulitzer, the world’s best-known literary prizes, went to the over-40s that year: (then) 59-year-old George Saunders and 48-year-old Colson Whitehead, respectively.
So literary talent can flourish with age, in good health and bad, and readers seem to know this. Should I keep writing then?
Setting aside my laptop that crisp morning I was to get my cancer verdict at the hospital, I already knew the answer to my conundrum. Even before the specialist told me I was ill and would need treatment but that it was not cancer, even before relief and then elation flooded me, I knew I would continue writing for as long as I could make sentences appear out of nowhere. Sentences that gave me joy, and sometimes to others too. In the very working out of my dilemma, it had proved its worth. And writing would not desert me, if it hadn’t for that brief space when I believed my time was up. Getting back from hospital that day, I held my children tight, kissed my husband, and finished this piece.
The writer’s first book, Memoirs Of My Body, was published in 2017.