Aging Writers

The fact that V. C. Andrews didn’t have any success as a novelist until her late fifties (a benchmark that has already slipped for me), gives me hope.  Another thing I didn’t realize about Cleo Virginia Andrews is that she was confined to a wheelchair.  She didn’t want that fact advertised and she didn’t want peoples’ pity.  She wanted to write.  Many of the books published under her name were ideas she had but that were only brought to fruition by others after her death.  She became a legacy.  Writers are fascinating people.  I only recently learned that Anne Rice was transgender.  I had assumed from her public persona something that I had taken for granted.  Gender is a complex thing, no matter how loudly religions shout.  The sheer number of people born intersex should make that obvious.

Writers express the human experience.  Some perspectives aren’t really considered worth pursuing, as I know from personal experience.  But learning about writers’ lives always gives me hope.  There are those whose lives will always contain mystery—was Washington Irving homosexual or just inept with women?  What really happened to Edgar Allan Poe in Baltimore?  Who was Homer, really?  No matter how much those of us inclined to write do so, there are still huge swaths of life that are left off the page.  (Much of it boring, spent at work, or mowing the lawn.  I try to imagine Herman Melville on a riding mower, but I just can’t do it.)  Writing successfully involves a publisher or agent willing to take a chance on you.  But if you’re old enough to be a one-hit wonder (sorry John Kennedy Toole), they don’t see dollar signs down the road, so move on down to the next door, please.

I had a novel under contract a decade and a half ago.  It never materialized, so don’t look for it.  My nepenthe consists of learning about writers, whether one-hit wonders or not.  I can still look to the Frank McCourts, Laura Ingalls Wilders, and Harriet Doerrs of the literary world.  For most writers it’s the story of what happened before success that is the most compelling part.  Especially those who were older and just kept on trying.  Some had to die, ironically, before the world realized they had something important to say.  You can’t blame the world.  The world’s busy.  But the fact is nobody would remember what it was like if somebody hadn’t bothered to write it down.  So we continue to chronicle the human experience.


Literary License

Whenever I orient myself to a new place, I tend to do so by the writers who’ve lived there. As a family we used to take “literary trips” to visit locations associated with famous writers. While in the Midwest it was often Laura Ingalls Wilder, and once, Mark Twain. Here in the east there has been considerable diversity. Several locations associated with Edgar Allan Poe have informed our travel plans. H. P. Lovecraft (although, to be honest, we always had other reasons to be in Providence) naturally followed on from Poe. We visited the property of Edna St Vincent Millay in Austerlitz, New York, and later in the same trip Sleepy Hollow, to find the haunts of Washington Irving. Famous writers can be found in just about any major city and many small towns. Now that Ithaca is in our regular orbit, I’ve begun to consider the implications.

Carl Sagan is probably the most well-known of the city’s past celebrities. His premature death added an almost Gothic element to his fame. Certainly among the sphere of his fellow academics known for fiction is Vladimir Nabokov. An entomologist by trade, Nabokov turned to writing and teaching. His lasting renown in this field was for the novel he tried to burn before it was published, Lolita. Before I knew Ithaca would be in my future, and indeed, before I knew that Nabokov was either a former resident or an entomologist, I read the novel. It’s a challenging book. Humbert Humbert is as flawed a protagonist as one might find, and any character guilty of child molestation is difficult to read even in the protection of fiction. Perhaps that’s why the novel won such acclaim. The experience of men and women who read it, I suspect, is very different. It’s a novel of moral urgency.

In perhaps a more innocent time, E. B. White attended Cornell. Apart from The Elements of Style, his book-length oeuvre was mostly in the realm of literature for children. This brings the the focus back to youth. Our childhoods—whether we acquiesce to what fate seems to demand or challenge our lot hoping to improve it—make us who we are. As the years increase in number the memories become more fiction and less fact, they nevertheless remain the touchstone for anchoring our understanding of self. Some of us constantly measure ourselves against the future we clawed for as a child, like those pencil marks on the doorpost showing our physical progress. Having been unable to afford the luxuries of travel when I was young, I add a notch to my literary belt every time I travel to Ithaca, knowing full well that only the slimmest of minorities could find my very obscure hometown on a map. If I remember correctly.