I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, aging. Not so much the deterioration of the body, though that calls itself to my attention many times a day and sometimes in the middle of the night. Not so much the diminishment of the mind, either, though I fear that kind of diminishment the most.
What I think about more often than either of those inevitabilities is another matter entirely: What does it mean to be an aging writer whose primary audience is children? What does it mean to be so far from my own childhood, so far from the children I reared, even to see my grandchildren moving into the adult world? How do I keep contact with the child within this aging psyche, the one I have always written out of?
When I began to publish forty years ago, I wasn’t the brightest star on the horizon, but my work got noticed. I wrote on the cutting edge, topics few other writers for young people had dared touch at that time: alcoholism, sexual molestation, religious abuse, mental illness, homosexuality. I wasn’t trying to get noticed. I was writing what was in my heart. Sometimes I was writing what I didn’t know was in my heart, which was why I had to write it.
I divested myself of some powerfully repressed depths in those novels. Having grown up in a family and a culture in which feelings of any stripe were not to be acknowledged or expressed, I had found the perfect way to make good use of all that energy without ever breaking my family’s rules. (It isn’t my life, my feelings, after all. This is story, don’t you know?)
And it worked. My stories gave me a reputation for honesty and forthrightness. They also gave me a career.
For a time.
But everything changes. That’s one of the pieces of wisdom we old folks come to by default. We have, after all, seen so many changes. These days my youthful struggles, even the carefully repressed ones, seem to have happened on another planet. And when I reach into my psyche for story, I emerge with very different stuff.
Rubin Pfeffer is both my agent and my touchstone. He does far more than sort through the gobbledy-gook of contracts, far more even than find places to present my work that I didn’t know existed. He watches both the market and what I’m producing and gives gentle guidance to help me shape my work.
And the word I hear him using these days to describe what I present to him is “quiet.” Sometimes he says, “too quiet,” nudging me gently in the direction of greater action, higher thresholds of risk, more modernity.
I hear him, understand his intent, accept his insight, want to accomplish what he’s asking of me, but find myself feeling . . . well, quiet. The person I am at this stage of my life is quiet. The powerfully repressed feelings that gave energy to my fiction have been, to a great extent, put to rest.
A good thing for my life. Not necessarily such a good thing for my work. The truth is, though, I wouldn’t put on a younger skin, return to a younger psyche if I could. That skin, that psyche were too limiting, too painful.
So what do I do with that quiet when I sit down to write except bring it to the page? Even if I try, I can no longer return to the fierce wanting of my younger years. And one of the rules of writing—at least for me—is that if I try to be something I am not, what I produce, however carefully crafted, will miss the mark.
Does this mean I am approaching the end of a long and satisfying career? Or will it be possible to reinvent myself? I have done it before by turning from novels to board books, picture books, early readers. But even those are beginning to be called “quiet.”
Is there life after quiet?