08 April 2024

Do not go gentle into that good night. Bring a flashlight.

I’m in my seventies, which makes me officially an old person.  In our euphemism-afflicted age, the preferable term is Senior, though I still think that label is better suited to someone in the twelfth grade of high school.

Another sop to this PC frenzy is to call someone like me older.  Okay, older than whom?  My brother is older than me, and always will be.  He was when I was ten and he was fourteen.

They say you’re only as old as you feel.  I feel like I’m in my seventies, at least with regard to aching joints and memory lapses.  The rest of the brain appears to still be functioning, surprisingly, given how I’d mistreated it as a younger person.  It’s a known fact that when one part of the body declines, or is abruptly taken offline, the other parts compensate, growing stronger.  This is a pleasant thought, which suggests I might be getting even smarter as I stagger out of bed in the morning and lose my car keys.   

I’m not sure what effect this all has on ones writing.  I’ve had the displeasure of reading some of my juvenilia, and it’s predictably callow and risible, though I can hear my voice buried in there, yearning to be free.  There’s no certainty that being on the other end of the age spectrum means your writing will improve, or decay.  But there are plenty of examples of the former, and precious little of the latter, barring critics’ mercurial tastes, not known for their discernment at any age. 

Thorton Wilder wrote my favorite Wilder work, the novel Theophilus North, when he was seventy-six, back when that age meant something.  And nothing good. 

I published my first book when I was fifty-three.  When checking Google on this subject, I noticed that people over fifty were categorized as “starting late.”  I didn’t know that at the time.  I did write about three books in the decades before, none publishable, but it was good exercise.  And I got to enjoy a blizzard of rejections, which strengthens the spine. 

Arthritis aside, the only physical demand of a starting-late writer is typing.  And staring at the computer screen through bifocals.  What we do have, as compensation, is a lifetime of accumulated knowledge and experience.  This is a quality that’s revered in Eastern cultures.  In America, it mostly qualifies you to be ignored by the middle aged and ridiculed by your children (the grandchildren instinctively know better, though they’re too young to copy edit or help you find an agent.)  However, if you’re lucky enough to not reprise your old mistakes, writing becomes a much more efficient process.  The key here is knowing more quickly when the work sucks, and much more willing to swipe it into the trash icon with little or no regret.  When you’re young, you don’t know that it’s possible to compose thousands, if not millions, of sentences.  That you’re capable of drastically revising a hundred-thousand-word manuscript.  So every line on the page is more precious, more deserving of life in perpetuity, even though they might, in a word, suck.

At writers conferences and panel events, when I look out at the audience, most of the heads are white or grey, or would be if not for hair dye.  So writing and reading are largely pursuits of the not-so-young.  We have more time, and fewer pressing responsibilities, and if fortunate, greater resources to sustain the habit.  And unlike Olympic-level gymnastics, something you can do until you face-plant into the keyboard. 

I just had a birthday, an occasion once celebrated, now more regrettable, since it marks less potential for repeat performances.  Some say it’s just a number, though these people can still count the numbers off on their hands and feet without losing track. 

As I’ve noted in prior posts, short term memory does not improve with age.  If I need to carry an item from Room A to Room B, I immediately put it in my pocket.  Then it will find its way to the destination, even though I might not remember why it should have gone there in the first place.  Long term memories, on the other hand, become seasoned over time.  Leavened by recurring recollection, burnished through sharing with old friends and family.  These may not be quite accurate – actually, they probably aren’t – but if you’re a storyteller, all the better. 

Ones life becomes a kind of artform of its own, where the rough outlines of events are curated and shaped into reflections both material and inventive, true by Hemingway’s definition, faithful and well aimed.  


  1. Always remember, there's no need to make such a fuss about another birthday, because everyone else is another year older, too. Meanwhile, the great advantages of age are you no longer have to give a damn about so many things, from fashion to the latest culture war. Arthritis comes to us all, but so do memories, and polishing those up to a good story is one of my favorite activities of all time.

  2. As someone who (a) will shortly be 90 years old and (b) is gratefully still active, I want to reassure you that much is yet to come for you.

  3. Elizabeth Dearborn08 April, 2024 13:42

    Na zdrowie sto lat! (To your good health for 100 years)

  4. I smiled reading this, Chris. I am just over the senior threshold and really do wonder how many novels I have left in me. As I write number 19, the memory feat just seems daunting. I think my future suggests a lot more short stories to come! And isn't that nice, that we can write both. Melodie

    1. I'm also writing more short stories, which have the advantage of being short. The novels also seem to be appearing, so there's that.

  5. My mother and I debated terms for those beyond a certain age. I felt ‘seniors’ was condescending. She argued ‘grey panthers’ was more so, that it implied old and catty.

    We settled on a phrase from Dickens, ‘Aged P’, meaning aged parent and pronounced ‘EYE-jed pee’. It’s both classy and fun.

    Funny thing is my mother always wanted to be old. In her time, age carried implications of venerability and deep respect. The family matriarch wouldn’t know what to make of today. A village elder doesn’t mean much these days, especially when it takes 25 minutes to figure out where Reddit and Facebook rehomed you current topics and threads.

  6. I was in Ireland recently where they refer to seniors as pensioners, since they all actually have some sort of pension. In a few towns they have privileged parking, I assume with wider spots to accommodate weaker eyesight.


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