After the age of 21, your body slowly stops releasing an important hormone known as HGH (Human Growth Hormone), which covers everything from gray hair to sex. It’s all downhill from there—that’s all I have to say.
When I was recently invited to speak on “Aging Successfully,” I agreed, then hung up the phone in shock. Apparently I was old. Old enough to be asked to talk about how to grow old, which meant other people thought I was old. Heck, I thought, should I get a face lift or a new saddle for my horse? I meditated on that for a week, then figured a pair of those big rubber bands you use to bind manuscripts would just fit around my face if I really needed a lift once in a while. And I really needed a new saddle more.
The great literary critic Groucho Marx once said, “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to see.” It makes you wonder, doesn’t it, why I would begin with dogs and books—perhaps my subject is to be canine and hardbound or paperback.
If there is one concern all writers share, it is how to invoke, instill, reintroduce the element of wonder into our readers, and sometimes even our loved ones. I for one, would like my husband—oh, never mind. If characters in fiction are bound by the three D’s (dreaming, desiring, damning), why is it that we end up so often only experiencing the last—damning?
Gabriel Garcia Marquez said that his novel 100 Years of Solitude leaves a margin to the reader—and therefore he did not wish to see it made into a film, although he himself began life as a screenwriter.
It is that margin, that sometimes minuscule, sometimes vast landscape of the imagination where our readers often dwell without us. Or just as often cannot enter, fail to find the door, or have lost the key for entry.
Writers define their job in various ways: To inform, to introduce certain material, to persuade, to give solace, to put order in chaos, to entertain. Novelist Brent Spencer says, “I started to write to try to get the world to listen to me.” Wright Morris said that “writers have an island, a center of refuge, within themselves. It is the mind’s anchorage, the soul’s great good place.”
If we wish then to both provide the means to be heard, and the means for the reader to discover the refuge within one’s self, how are we to begin our task? A task which seems to grow more difficult as we grow older, when it’s not that we necessarily grow wiser, we just grow more careful. As writers age, they ask themselves if their work has been worth it, has it made a difference, and later, is anyone out there still listening? How do I speak to younger readers?
As a writer, I go toward the mystery, hoping to take readers with me. Writing a thing has to be just beyond your ability to do to keep it interesting. Because of difficulty, it’s more satisfying then. One of the ongoing arguments I have with myself as a teacher of literature and writing concerns the difficulty of the work I’m assigning, often wondering if it’s possible even to teach some of my favorites like William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor or Louise Erdrich to today’s students because so much is required in terms of explanation and background. I know other writers who worry that their work is too hard, too arcane, too outside popular culture to attract younger readers. Have we simply aged out, like cartons of half-spoiled milk or softening strawberries in the fridge? Does art have an expiration date? Plenty of writers have thought so before me, Tolstoy and Chekhov, for example, but I don’t think I can quit. I’ve done this for so long, it would leave this huge emptiness in my day. What the heck would I do with all that time? And I come from a very long lived family where the women especially last into their hundreds. I just can’t imagine watching that much television.
One lesson I have learned as a writer is that readers want to encounter the real thing. They may have to learn how to grasp complexity, how to confront difficulty, but regardless of age, they know when the experience has the concreteness of the real. It seems odd that as a writer concerned with aging and relevance, I would choose to go back in time to recast and re-vision our country’s history rather than embrace contemporary culture in my novels. What I’ve discovered is that the younger readers are searching for a way to see, to frame the past that helps them make sense of their present.
In my novels, I work to introduce readers to the notion of wonder and mystery underlying the difficult. I want to teach them about Marquez’s margin, where their own imaginations can come to create, and about the larger landscapes where they can invent for themselves. In going back historically, I rediscovered the wonder in myself, and approached areas I’d personally been afraid of for years, and began reading in biology, astronomy, physics, and mathematics, for instance. As an aging artist, I feel the urgency as never before to gather facts, to learn, to absorb, to embrace the world, to try to finally understand.
Edward O. Wilson says that “people must belong to a tribe, they yearn to have a purpose larger than themselves. We are obliged by the deepest drives of the human spirit to make ourselves more than animated dust, and we must have a story to tell about where we came from, and why we are here.”
As a writer then, my job is “to wake the sleeper” in myself, as well as in others. Because as Sophocles said in the 5th century BC, “Numberless are the world’s wonders.” But as we age, we are posed with the problem of “shrugging off the known, the familiar.”
“All human evil comes from this, man’s inability to sit still in a room.” Pascal’s words are great advice to the writer of fiction. The most accurate description of plot and action you could ask for. What he’s also suggesting, of course, is that the human mind cannot stand enclosure for very long without inventing some kind of larger landscape for itself.
Since consciousness is the spinner of narratives about the self, stories we continually edit and which edit ourselves, stories are where my narrator meets yours, it is up to all of us to enlarge that meeting place.
Arthur Koestler in The Act of Creation says that “like the universe in which he lives, (man) is in a state of continuous creation. The exploratory drive is as fundamental to his nature as the principle of parsimony which tends towards the automatization of skilled routines …”
Here is another example of what I’m speaking about: One of my oldest friends and writing companions, who just turned 60 and teaches at a private university, recently told me that he had a new plan for his life. His goal was to go in the opposite direction of achievement in terms of points gained for salary increase, merit pay, recognition. What he wanted was to become middling—middle of the road—to achieve a modest life, one that allowed him to sit and talk and read and think, to enjoy those pleasures which initially led him to reading and teaching literature. So he was going to go to the chair of his department and say, “Don’t give me any more superior or outstanding ratings. Give me ‘average’ from now on. Please, give the merit and money to the younger teachers, they need it. I’m fine. Stop praising me. Stop asking me to serve on committees, to give expertise, to pretend. I won’t do all that. I’m just a middle-of-the-roader now. Not worth your attention. I won’t screw up, I promise, but I won’t work as hard either. You can count on that and me. I’ll be there. I’ll meet my classes, don’t worry.”
My friend had gone to sleep being outstanding. He had to turn his life around, much like Thoreau, and go to a place, a landscape, which was new to him, where he could explore and create again.
He’s become my model. We all have models for aging—complaining relatives half-destroyed by time, or the other, luckier ones like my friend Nancy, who tells a story of a hot afternoon encounter with a small airplane swooping down and buzzing their farm in the Berkshires of Massachusetts until finally she yanked up her T-shirt and in her words, “waggled my bare breasts at him.” She was 75 at the time.
To paraphrase American poet Galway Kinnell: To build the biggest fires, sometimes you have to throw yourself in.
What is the mystery locked in each human heart? What is the mystery each of us is destined to confront and attempt to understand? This is the subject of our life’s endeavor, the state of wonder that drives us, the effort it takes to free the mind. Whether successful or not, it is in doing that we achieve honor and worth. Like Icarus, whether we burn up in the sun’s heat or not, at least we have attempted to free ourselves to imagine another landscape.
Albert Einstein said, “The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle.”
Thus, not only must we wake the sleeper in our self, we must help her enter and reenter the state of wonder.
Fiction writer Lorrie Moore in an essay titled, “Better and Sicker,” says, “Art has been given to us to keep us interested and engaged, rather than distracted by materialism or sated with boredom—so that we can attach to this life, a life that might, otherwise, be an unbearable one … so much of art originates and locates itself within the margins, that is, the contours of the human self, as a form of locating and defining the self.”
In facing the challenge posed by our aging selves, we are forced to become searchers, forced to reconfigure, reconstruct, reimagine the place we inhabit, the locus of our own psyche. Searchers are not purely researchers. We are not necessarily trying to confirm theories, preconceived notions, or plans. Sometimes we are trying to eliminate possibilities, but mostly, we are looking for possibilities, opportunities to which we can respond. The act of imagining, as much as the act of creating writing and reading, requires living in a prolonged state of psychic discomfort. Wonder, the most essential ingredient for the searcher, makes the familiar strange, even unknown, wonder cleanses memory along with eyesight, wonder makes our encounters raw and new again so that we see for the first time, hear words, the names of things in all their oddness so that they reverberate, ringing across time to become specifically our own—delivered to our sensual doorstep with a note: This is yours. Regardless of age, the reader has two choices: to close the book and refuse to enter the unknown, or to enter the state of wonder and travel as searchers into the strange new land.
I used to mock the caravans of RVs and campers filled with older people crowding the roads while I traveled. Now I recognize them as a tribe.
An 86-year-old friend recently told her daughter, “I don’t invite you to my dinner parties, though my guests are sometimes your age, because you make me feel old. When you’re here, I’m just your mother.”
What is necessary for us as we age is often unpredictable, and requires that we free ourselves to encounter what actually is of importance, rather than being told. We need to follow the advice of poet Richard Wilbur: “Step off into the blank of your mind, something will come to you.”
Everything has potential in a state of wonder, and that’s a difficult place to spend much time in. Sight is the last sense to develop. You can only see what you know. There is so much weighing against our wonder. Our inclination is to fill in the gaps with what we do know when confronted with the unknown, rather than to sit for any amount of time in wonder:
A young New York editor recently traveled to Nebraska for a visit, and when she returned home, and was asked about her trip, she reported that she hadn’t realized there were so many round barns in the Midwest. Silos, her audience finally realized, she was talking about the grain silos.
We often see round barns, it seems, when something takes us to an unfamiliar landscape, and we have to resist the urge to settle for that. We have to learn that wonder is an excellent travel companion, then we can discover the beauty of new languages.
“The real voyage of discovery,” says Marcel Proust, “consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
I leave you with my best advice for aging, which is also one of the primary Rules of Scientific Research: “Make your mistakes quickly.” In other words, don’t dwell—move on!
Jonis Agee is the author of numerous stories, essays, screenplays, and novels, the most recent of which, The Bones of Paradise, was published this month. She lives in Nebraska and owns 20 pairs of cowboy boots.