ELDER MUSIC: St Louis Blues
Tuesday 7 April 2015

Writers and Age

In 1985, the American poet Stanley Kunitz said he had found

"...more rewards and compensations in my mid-eighties than I ever expected.

“Just to be rid of the hang-ups and anxieties of your youth – that in itself is a lightening of the load. And then, there's an assurance that comes out of having learned so much about yourself, why you are here, what you have done, how much is left for your to do.

“There is a – I wouldn't call it serenity – but a feeling of relief that you haven't completely wasted your life. Maybe you can take a lttle pride in having triumphed over many difficulties and disasters that beset you...

“There's a kind of exaltation in waking up each day not out of an emptiness of accomplishment or of fulfullment, but out of a sense of having used your resources. Not as well as I might have hoped, but maybe well enough to feel that there is time still to justify the life.

“The persons I've know who have aged badly are the ones who don't feel justified. They can't forgive themselves for having abused or squandered their talent.”

I quote that at some length because it's hard to find that much good thinking about what it's like to grow old.

There are more than 100,000 books about ageing listed at Amazon. Based on my 20 years of reading widely on the subject, I have no doubt that 90 percent are a waste of paper and pixels.

Kunitz's thoughts, however, are from a marvelous new book that sits firmly in the other ten percent: Writers and Age: Essays on and Interviews with Five Authors.

WritersAgeCover The author, Esther Harriott, a former managing editor at The New York Public Library and a contributing book reviewer at Newsday, gives us a book rich in the thoughts and ideas of ageing from some of the 20th century's most important thinkers, along with their personal reports from the country of old age.

In addition to Kunitz, these five include V.S. Pritchett, Doris Lessing, Mavis Gallant and Russell Baker. Ms. Harriott's knowledge and understanding of their work is admirably extensive and each writer's chapter is divided into two parts: a review of their body of work as it relates to ageing and Ms. Harriott's in-person interview with each.

As I wrote to her following my first reading, “God knows I've tried many times, but Lessing has always bored me and I'm not sure I've ever finished anything of hers I've started. At least I know something more about her now but I doubt I'll go back to her works.

“Nevertheless, as with the other four, there is plenty in her section to learn about age or to nod in agreement with. In her case, especially the discussion of time and energy in old age and other little things few people think important enough to mention, but are.”

Lessing was 73 when she spoke with Harriott, one year younger than I am now and regarding energy, I agree with her (as, generally, do the other included writers):

”...I have much less energy – much, much less energy...So you don't rashly undertake things you might have rashly understaken ten years ago. You have to husband your resources a bit...

“It takes me longer to do things. Not physical things...but where it shows is the energy for writing...not ideas. I've always got too many ideas. It's the organizing of the ideas and getting down to it that takes longer. And also, energy runs out more quickly than it used to.”

Lessing also made an important point when Harriott suggested that perhaps people not engaged in creative work suffer more in old age from lacking relevant work.

”How do we judge who is irrelevant and useless?” asked Lessing. “By what criterion? That they're sitting in an office from nine to five, and doing some job that is pretty irrelevant anyway, or what? We don't know what's useful and what isn't. Who judges this?

Harriott quotes British writer and critic, V.S. Pritchett from his essay, Midnight Oil, on the death of friends as the “great distress of old age”:

”If we are not struck by mortal disease many of us in our seventies nowadays feel little different from what we were at fifty...except that we now know time is shorter. If by luck of vocation or temperament we are incurably active we have little time to think of our decline.

“But our sense of the mysteriousness of life becomes sharper and we are jarred by the more piercing grief, for the dead have taken away a part of ourselves. Indeed, it might be said that what the old learn at last is how to grieve.”

Pritchett was 90 when Harriot interviewed him in 1990, and asked about the pleasures of age.

”The way the affections increase. When you're younger, your feelings are very strong, very excited. They are constantly spending themselves. You haven't so many feelings to spend when you're older, so you think more of them. They are more lasting.

“Another pleasure is walking. I like to walk across Regent's Park and look at the trees and the changes in the sky. If I see people I might watch them or I might think, well, they're not very interesting, let's see if there's a more interesting lot somewhere else.

“I can't say I've ever had 'a great thought' or whatever they call it, walking across Regent's Park. But sometimes I've noticed things which have stuck in my mind. I think noticing is a great thing. The tendency in old age is not to notice, but to accept.”

New York Times readers of this blog might recall the many decades Russell Baker's Op-Ed column both entertained and enlightened us. Often, particularly on the topic of aging in America, he seemed prophetic back then. Harriott obviously has made a close study of Baker's evolution. Listen as she explains about his last years at the paper before he retired:

”There were occasional outbursts of moral indignation, as in his otherwise funny 'Saps of Today and Yesterday,' in which Baker wrote, 'Today's boomers now confront a world of their own making which cannot much comfort their spirits. What do they see? A society ruled by greed and moral license. A nation whose governing political theory is devil take the hindmost.'

“Then, as though to apologize for losing his temper, he immediately offered a self-deprecatory explanation. 'All of the above, I hasten to say, is the kind of highly doubtful speculation we fall into when generalizing about decades, generational antipathies and the flow of history. I hope no one will swallow it whole.'”

But of course, he expected us to do so and we did.

In one of his memoirs, Growing Up, Baker had written that there is a dividing line beteen people born before and those born after World War II. When Harriot asked him to elaborate, he jumped ahead a few decades to compare then and now and arrived at a sense that has recently been growing within me:

”I feel that now. Another generation has taken over. You're not of their world anymore. The experience of growing up in the Depression and pre-war America make you a very alien character. You have a sense of being displaced by time.”

Esther Harriot, who is in her ninth decade, is a wise woman who has written a wise book. She chose the writer and physician, Lewis Thomas, (a personal favorite of mine) for the epigraph: “To get a glimpse of what it means to be old you have to leave science behind for awhile and consult literature.”

In doing so, Harriott has produced a singularly rich, intelligent and learned book about “what it's really like to get old” written, as she explains in her introduction, not by younger people imagining old age but by people who are old.

Writers and Age is available at a variety of outlets around the internet.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Trudi Kappel: What's in a Name?


This sounds like an interesting book. Just yesterday I was looking through a lovely book titled The Wild Braid that is a record of an ogoing conversation with Kunitz in his final years, about poetry and his garden and of course about life.

Alright! You have presented a most interesting review that gives me a reason to go searching for the book. Thank YOU!

My thoughts of late have been about the generation that is taking over now and the feeling of being displaced has been the reason for that mulling.

I've felt for a few years now that I am no longer one of them -- the younger generations that for better or worse are running the world. And like us before them, they think they know best and seem loathe to consult their elders. Elders, after all, are so "out of it."

I was struck by the sentence "I think noticing is a great thing." Too few people notice things, much less care, as they go rushing about their day-to-day lives. Such a pity. The present is only the present for a moment.

I am one of those "very alien characters" and I do have a sense of being displaced by time.

As a writer I've always been keenly interested in other writers' experiences. Thank you for telling us about the book.

I think one of the most disheartening things about growing older in the internet age is that the experience, knowledge, and wisdom we hold in our brains and hearts are all too often ignored because our children, grandchildren, and others most often first turn to "the net" to find answers and advice. I often feel I've been replaced by Google...

Wouldn't it be great if only people over 75 were allowed to write "Do it yourself" instructions or advertising copy. There would be fewer parts left over and simpler, more to the point commercials.

Wouldn't it be nice if they had as many books on how to be young as they have on how to be old.

The main thing I want to know about aging is how to stay reliant and I see that as a lost cause in this day and age that worships youth.

“The persons I've know who have aged badly are the ones who don't feel justified. They can't forgive themselves for having abused or squandered their talent.”

That will never be you, Ronni.

When I think of you and the essays you present to us every day,I am reminded of the words of a writer I greatly admired for her wit and wisdom, Erma Bombeck. Here is what she had to say on this very subject.

"When I stand before God at the end of my life,I would hope I would not have a single bit of talent left,and could say," I have used up everything You gave me."

Thanks Ronni....I will get one.

Feeling justified when you're old depends on two things - what you did with your life, and what you demand of yourself.

Contentment in old age, I think, usually has more to do with adjusting expectations. You re-examine the past and, for the most part, you'll see that what you accomplished is not at all what you thought you were going to, back when you set out. Things happened, directions changed, obligations had to be attended to. It's less dazzling, less glorious, less famous and world-shaking... but it's there. You lived in the world. You experienced good and bad times. You affected other people's lives.

By the definition of average, most people are average! Some are above, some below, but pretty much everyone turns out to have been much humbler in ability and potential than the dreams of unrealistic youth. Maturing involves accepting that yes, this means you -- and that's all right!

Thank you for discussing this book. It is one I should read. I appreciate the helpful information about it.

There are some lovely aspects to aging - all mentioned. I don't yet feel displaced, but I also don't spend time around young people who don't treat me with the same respect they afford their contemporaries. What I've noticed as I've aged is that people who were probably never very interesting, still aren't. But I treat them with civility and respect. Don't want to spend much time with them as the days grow fewer however. I've other fish to fry and I'm fortunate to have found a few people who are quite engaging and willing to help me fry those fish.

Too many interesting people out there, - - and too little time. As my contemporaries pass away I grieve and remember. Then I cultivate new and younger friends. If I stay relevant, my views are sought-out. We weren't put here to brood, - - but to actively make our mark and leave this place better than we found it.

“The persons I've know who have aged badly are the ones who don't feel justified. They can't forgive themselves for having abused or squandered their talent.”

What consolation is there for someone like me who did squander her time and talents?
Depression and alcoholism (someone once called them "the ugly stepsisters")dogged me for so very long.
What consolation? Perhaps, being a cautionary tale?

“The persons I've know who have aged badly are the ones who don't feel justified. They can't forgive themselves for having abused or squandered their talent.”

What consolation is there for someone like me who did squander her time and talents?
Depression and alcoholism (someone once called them "the ugly stepsisters") dogged me for so very long.

@Sweet Sue
I don't believe there's any such thing as aging badly, or squandering your time and talents. Every life and every experience is of equal value in my book. And whether we end our lives being feted and adored by society or lying drunk in a ditch somewhere, alone and abandoned, is completely irrelevant -- although admittedly it's probably a lot more fun to experience the former than the latter :) I'm not sure where this idea of a "good" life versus a "bad" life came from, although I assume it must be related to traditional religious beliefs in some way. But really, who's to say which experience is of more value? The feted person might end his life with a hugely inflated ego, while the abandoned drunk might end his with great humility and an expanded sense of compassion and empathy. For sure it's not up to me or anyone else to be the judge of that.

Personally I believe in reincarnation, so according to my belief, every experience we have in any lifetime enriches our soul and makes us more capable of understanding and empathy. However, even if you're an atheist who believes in nothing at all, I don't see how that would square with the concept of aging badly. If the world is meaningless, why would it matter in the end whether you aged badly or not?

All of this is just a roundabout way of saying that I suspect your "ugly stepsisters" aren't really ugly at all. And I bet you've learned a lot from them. Cheers.

Please don't confuse atheism with believing the world is meaningless. They are not synonymous.

I'll be on the lookout for this book.

Bruce, I like your style.

Please don't confuse atheism with believing the world is meaningless. They are no synonymous.

Oh interesting Ronni, I guess that's true! I'd be intrigued to hear you expand on this point. I confess it's not something to which I'd given much thought, as I don't actually care what other people believe, or don't believe. it's all fine as far as I'm concerned. But I do care a great deal if they feel that their lives lack value because of what society or religion may or may not have deemed important or acceptable. I disagree with the concept of "aging badly" and "justifying" or not justifying your life. There are huge numbers of people going around feeling crummy about themselves, when they needn't, because of ideas such as these. And that was my point :)

Ah, guilt. Seems to me we're still laboring under today's version of original sin. Born bad. Need to work hard in this life to earn heaven.

Ha, so true Charlotte!

I think Bruce has a good point, the problem is the over 75 age group are not well represented on Google. If we want to have an influence on young people we need to be where they are. Oh dear, now I might have to put my money where my mouth is lol...
@Sweet Sue Perhaps you have overcome much suffering, and perhaps you are simply human and, like most of us, are quite ordinary. Nothing wrong with that.

Another 'must get' book Ronni - thank you for that - have to disagree somewhat with Pritchett -for me 'noticing' has become more and more prevalent with ageing - details of nature, of people, music etc - perhaps it is a matter of having more time to observe - but acceptance also comes into it - not being as judgemental perhaps as I was when younger.Definitely some of the benefits of getting older.

Just added it to my library list. As a writer myself, I always put a little extra trust in what real writers say. We're supposed to be telling the truth.

I share some, although not all, of Sweet Sue's life experience. I also share some of her feelings--that I failed to take full advantage of what I started life with and the privileges I enjoyed such as an excellent education. This has nothing to do with religion for me, since I'm totally non-religious. I ended up working for 40 years in a field that helps others, and I think that was a good thing. In some small way, perhaps I "atoned" (again, not in a religious sense) for squandering my potential. I don't know whether I'm ageing well or badly. I'm just ageing, like it or not.

This column would be welcome just for the picture of the Beattles and for the music. But the review of Ester Harriott's book is so fine, I will buy the book post haste. (does anyone still write "post haste"? except me)?

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