Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.

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Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Retirement?

At the arguably early age of sixty-two, Annie Dillard has announced her retirement.

No tours, no blurbs, no letters, no panels. No writing. She wants to sit and read. This, after all, is the woman who wrote "Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading--that is a good life." (33) I read that sentence over a decade ago in the Humboldt State University Library. I was not a student at the time; only after two applications did the English program deign to accept me. But there I was, reading my used copy of The Writing Life in their decidedly underfunded stacks. Now Annie Dillard wants to retire, depriving me of further memories.

(You can see I'm taking this a little personally.)

Dillard has dozens of magnificent sentences; hence her joking remark to New York about selling off her unused metaphors.

More from The Writing Life:

"A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days." (32)

"Write as if you were dying, At the same time, assume you are writing for an audience consisting of solely terminal patients. That is, after all, the case." (69)

Here are a few sentences plucked at random from For the Time Being:

"An infant is a pucker of the earth's thin skin; so are we. We arise like budding yeasts and break off; we forget our beginnings." (8)

"Is it not late? A late time to be living? Are not our generations the crucial ones? ... No, we are not and it is not. These times of ours are ordinary times, a slice of life like any other." (30)

I could go on. Better you read her books yourself. Then you can join me in lamenting her retirement.

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Dillard is not the first to announce her exit from publishing: Alice Munro is stepping down, and Stephen King has made some serious noises.

It's understandable that some writers, no matter how successful, grow tired of the head-banging experience known as writing. Writing is exhausting. It never gets easier. Even for Joyce Carol Oates.

Even more exasperating is the business side of writing, which may be likened to a parasite on the writer's time and energy, or more charitably, an octopus.

But--speaking as a little-published, thus-far (don't give up hope yet, kids!) unsuccessful novelist, I can't imagine waking up one morning and just ... stopping. Sure, I've had my moments of desperation, but these were related to external factors. The difficulty of breaking into publishing is enough to destroy anybody's ego. But Dillard, Munro, and King have all paid their dues. Dillard is a Pulitzer prize winner, for heaven's sake. Why stop when you're on a roll?

There's always quitting whle you're ahead. Munro and King both cite declining creativity. In this Edmonton Journal article, Munro noted that "it's rare for outstanding work to be produced in a author's later years." We all have contrary examples, but Munro alone knows her own mind. Let her exit on the strengh of The View from Castle Rock.

King fears--and is often accused of--recycling plots, but in fairness, taking potshots at King's work has become the literary equivalent of NASCAR.

But back to the idea of just stopping. Will these writers unlpug their word processors, cap their pens, box up their papers and sell them off to Thomas Staley?

What then?

Real life, long marginalized: travel, friends, family, golf, reading. All that free time. How liberating.

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Over the past few months several famous ballerinas have retired: Kyra Nichols, Alessandra Ferri, Darcy Bussell, Muriel Maffre. All are in their early-to-mid-forties. A lifetime of standing on their toes has exacted a physical toll.

I studied dance for twenty-five years. I danced the way I now write: daily, obsessively, for hours at a time. Like all dancers, I endured a continual series of injuries, some minor, a few major. In my mid-twenties my left hip began, literally, to go: I had worn away to connective tissue securing my femur in its socket. Below this unstable hip my kneecap, bearing up under the pressure of a failing joint, dislocated. By age twenty-nine, my dancing days were over.

And I was heartbroken. Bereft. Depressed. For years afterward I could not bear anything associated with dance. I threw away my leotards, cancelled my subscription to Dancemagazine. Even watching televised figure skating was impossible. Compounding the loss of my beloved art was an accompanying physical decline: the tiny, solid muscles of my inner thighs softened. My abdomen, still muscular, is now wrapped in gentle layer of fat. Not flab, not a muffin-top, but what was once rock is now pillowy. The continuing instability of both joints means vigorous exercise is out. I am advised to do nothing more strenuous than walking.

This retirement left me without a means of self-expression. Annie Dillard will never again experience "...life at its most free. It (writing a novel) is life at its most free, if you are fortunate enough to be able to try it, because you select your materials, invent your task, and pace yourself...The obverse of this freedom, of course, is that your work is so meaningless, so fully for yourself alone, and worthless to the world, that no one except you cares whether you do it well, or ever." (11)

True enough. But nobody ever says that about macrame.

So what happens the next morning, when Alessandra Ferri awakens to a day without class, rehearsal, or evening performance? How does she contemplate her body, with its many injuries? Does she get that wayward hip replaced? Learn to eat breakfast? What, exactly, does she do?

Many dancers become teachers, or coach younger dancers. A few stay around for character roles, which are less demanding: Cinderella's Wicked Stepmother, The Sleeping Beauty's Carabosse. A few open catering companies or attend college. None of these things is remotely like being onstage, holding a bouquet of roses as the audiences calls bravo! Nor do any of these activities encompass the wordless joy of moving well, cradled in music.

Writing is less dramatic, but that study looms. And the public announcement of retirement, heard by the masses, may be missed by the subconscious. What if a gripping idea suddenly leaps to mind? Does the retired writer ignore it, sighing resignedly, muttering go away under his breath? Or does he start making a few notes on the back of the grocery list? Or do retired writers really become what I've always privately called "normal" people? Normal people do not feel compelled to move in ways that lead to arthritis, or write stories nobody wants to read. Normal people do not, as Helena Maria Viramontes did, spend two decades writing a book about their Latina childhoods.

Normal people watch tv. They play golf. They drive their children to soccer games. They never castigate themselves about not writing enough, or compare themselves to other, more successful writers. They do not spend hours trying to capture a fleeting feeling evoked by a certain song.

I have always secretly felt normal people are better off. I wonder if Annie Dillard will agree. I hope not. I hope she finds retirement loathsome, and ends up back in a windowless cabin, living a life..."colorless to the point of sensory deprivation." (44) I hope the writing life continues to hold her down, wringing out those incredible sentences for her greedy audience.


Annie Dillard. The Writing Life. New York: Harper and Row, 1989.

For the Time Being.New York: Knopf. 1999.

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