“Well,” I said to myself, “the day has come. Your career is over, at least that major part of your career that is writing novels for young people. You have lost the energy, the spark that keeps you deeply engaged with a story, a character. You have lost the drive that takes you—and your readers—to the story’s end. Clearly you are too old to do this any longer.”
It seemed a reasonable thought. I have been writing novels for young people for well over forty years, and I am, by anyone’s definition, old. Seventy didn’t slow me down, but looking eighty in the eye seems another matter entirely.
Surely a diminishment of energy, both physical and psychic, is a natural and inevitable part of aging. No career lasts forever.
I had been working on the novella for a few months, not quite steadily, but moving in and out of it as I tend to do these days. (One of the blessings of this time of life is that going off with a friend often wins out over time spent alone in my study, and I don’t even feel guilty about the choice.) I have enough experience to be able to see that the story is working pretty well. My themes are nicely interwoven. My main character is complex and interesting, and his dilemma both universal and unique. But when I finished Chapter 5 and stood balanced on the edge of Chapter 6, I found myself filled with ennui. I didn’t care what my character did next! I didn’t care today and I wasn’t going to be able to care tomorrow. Maybe it was time to call a friend and go out to lunch!
What I had in front of me was a nine-year-old boy and his imaginary dog plopped down in a cabin in the wilderness of northern Minnesota. The boy is there with his mother, whom he hasn’t seen since he was three. A loaded situation. And suddenly I not only didn’t know what was supposed to happen next, but far worse . . . I didn’t care. Not even a little bit.
It was all artifice anyway, wasn’t it? What was the point of caring?
The middle of stories is always hard. Beginnings and endings practically write themselves. But the middle—the term I’ve often used is “the muddle of the middle”—is plain hard work. This was more than that, though.
This, I decided, was about me. I’d lost the spark necessary to keep going. Which felt a bit like losing myself.
Then one morning, over a tall mug of tea and an egg, I remembered something. Something I’d completely forgotten. I’d been in this place before! This exact place! Not just a year ago when I still qualified as old, but ten years ago and thirty years ago. More. I had stood in the muddle of the middle multiple times and felt the marrow run out of my bones.
I had known I couldn’t move forward another step because on the most profound level I no longer cared . . . about my main character, about my story. I couldn’t imagine any source I could reach into powerful enough to restore the energy I needed to continue writing. And ten, twenty, thirty years ago I wasn’t blaming old.
Then I remembered something else. Each time this happened, the answer to my dilemma was the same. It lay in the work itself. My energy for the story relied on my main character’s energy, and I had the poor kid caught into a situation where he could only react. React he was doing, subtly and richly . . . and passively. Now he needed to begin to struggle. Struggle makes story!
Ah, I said that fine morning to my tea and to my egg, the problem isn’t old! The problem is inaction! And suddenly I knew what had to happen next. My character had to do something. Almost anything. He had to act, even if he did the wrong thing. In fact, he had to do the wrong thing, because if he did the right thing my story would be over too quickly.
And suddenly energy for my story filled me right down to my old toes.
What has more power to do us good or to take us down than our own minds?
The advantage of having that mind be an old one is that it has visited so many places before. The challenge is to remember what I’ve learned!