Well, I gotta say, I ponder this sometimes. Unless it will be through death, illness or dementia, I do not foresee "retirement" in my future. Nor do I imagine anyone is going to fire me.
I suppose there are artists who actually choose their art. I have met multi-talented folk who apparently can choose from among a number of abilities to concentrate upon. But, as Alden Nowlan, a fine Canadian poet dead long before his time, once opined when asked how he became a poet [and I paraphrase]: 'I' m six feet three; I have brown hair; and I write.' Each was as equal and as unchangeable as the other.
So, I doubt that an author can retire. We have a more divine chore than even the Pope. [DE]
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DO WRITERS REALLY RETIRE?
BY IAN CROUCH
The recent PBS documentary “Philip Roth: Unmasked” buried the lede, as the expression goes—so deeply, in fact, as to not mention at all the most pertinent bit of news about its subject: Philip Roth has retired from writing. One of the filmmakers, Livia Manera, speaking to the Random House blog Word and Film, explained the decision to leave it out:
Honestly … do you know many former writers? Is that a category that exists? If you want my opinion, he has given up something. He’s given up the obligation to write and this is an obligation, very powerful, he had with himself, first of all. And this did change his life and made him much more available and made life easier for him … But it’s one thing to stop feeling the obligation to write and another thing to never write another line again. I just don’t believe it.
Manera asks a good question: Can a novelist retire? Do retired novelists exist, like retired accountants? It does seem unusual, as odd for a writer to be in retirement from words as for a man to be, as William H. Gass once wrote, “in retirement from love.” (Gass, meanwhile, has a new novel out. He’s eighty-eight.) And her skepticism seems warranted, though Roth’s declaration is not unprecedented. Anne Tyler has said that her twentieth novel will not appear in her lifetime—as she recently told the BBC, “I said that I want to not ever finish a book again. I’m seventy-one years old, and theoretically I could just go on writing it and writing it, and then when I die, if it’s good it can be published and if it’s not I’ll never know.” But then, realizing the limits of her interest in the family she’d invented as her subject, Tyler now concedes that the book will likely be published rather soon, hopefully while she is still alive. Tyler’s proposed retirement was not from writing, exactly, but from publishing. Even J. D. Salinger, that notorious early retiree, is said to have gone on writing. But the way Tyler speaks of her next book sounds wistful, so perhaps it will be her last: “I’m beginning to see that eventually I’ll finish this novel. I figure, another couple of years—I’m just trying to make it last as long as I can.”
Tyler’s description of writing, as a delaying of various days of reckoning that come with publication, is haunted a bit with that other, final day of reckoning. Writing, retirement, death: they are connected, and, mostly, a writer’s only real retirement occurs at his or her death. In the poem “Writers Writing Dying,” C. K. Williams, who is seventy-six, offers what might be an ironical creed for aging authors: “Think, write, write, think: just keep running faster and you won’t even notice / you’re dead.” And later, he writes: “Such fun to wake up though! Such fun too if you don’t! Keep dying! Keep / writing it down!”
Last year, Gabriel García Márquez’s brother announced that the Colombian author, who is in his mid-eighties, was suffering from debilitating dementia, and would never write again. This is a retirement of sorts, but vastly different from what the AARP is selling—borne out of illness and decline and the grostequeries of time. Stephen King, a younger man, tried to retire a decade ago. Folks wondered back then what it all meant for such a hugely popular writer to give it up in middle age. King may have been the first novelist to attempt the modern public retirement, but it didn’t stick. He has spent his retirement writing books, dozens of them, and so is a failed test. Older models are hard to find. Shakespeare might have retired. Some historians note that no written work has been attributed to him after 1613, when he moved out to Stratford. Others have argued that he remained more active, and that the idea of full retirement is anachronistic and misapplied. Milton seemed a good candidate for retirement, blind and increasingly ill. But he kept at it, and was still disparaging Catholics right up until near the end. Dickens gave a series of “farewell readings” throughout Britain in his final two years—placing a kind of full-stop on his living legacy. Dickens is the early model of all kinds of later public fame, and so it seems fitting that he originated all those rock-star farewell tours that have followed. Yet he’d not really retired, and was still working on “Edwin Drood” before he died.