On Being Retired

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My top three blessings, in order of appearance, are my sisters, my spouse, and retirement. I can’t imagine the hollowness of a life without loved ones; as for retirement, I am still marveling over the perks.

Who knew that a clear calendar could have such salubrious effects? Free to be no one but yourself, you become intrigued: Who are you? What do you want? What do you shun, and why? You glimpse your infinite layers and begin to peer inside. What will you reach for? What might be out there, beckoning?

At first you flounder. You have never been in open water and it does not feel natural. What if you’re doing it wrong? What if, god forbid, you are wasting your hard-earned time?

Months will pass before you learn how to float, before you understand that you will have all the time you need when you stop looking at the clock. There are, of course, some reasonable conditions. There are bills to be paid, clothes to wash, groceries to buy. These are the actions that keep back chaos, the last thing you need in your golden years.

Having written short stories and essays throughout my life, I assumed that retirement would find me sitting before my computer dreaming up new characters or researching the nesting habits of the scarlet ibis. How glorious it would be! No more leaping up from my desk and rushing off to work, my head clogged with abandoned words. I would be, at long last, an unbridled, full-fledged writer.

Imagine my bewilderment when I found myself with nothing to say. It wasn’t a case of the dreaded writer’s block. I had simply, unknowingly, wandered down a path to a place where words didn’t matter. Odder still, I did not feel bad about it. So what if I couldn’t write—I had written plenty in life, to scant notice, and who cared if I closed my laptop? Maybe I had written myself out, said all I needed to say. Honestly, it felt pretty good, not having to pry meaning from everything I encountered.

I put out a few passive feelers, tested my interests. Maybe I could do something with my hands, something of substance. I had always liked miniatures, and one day in a seaside restaurant I spied a delightful shadow box: a beach scene with a dock, a couple perching pelicans, a wee surfboard, a glowing metal sun. I could do that, I thought. I could be a maker of tiny perfect worlds.

My first attempt was a dinosaur diorama for which I used a thumb-size Tyrannosaurus, stones for boulders, sticks for trees; the background was a photo of a sunset I pulled from a magazine. One day I tried painting my own sunset, just for fun. I had no expectation of success and predictably the results were childish. But the difficulty intrigued me and I persisted. Now, 18 months later, I am painting animal portraits, a few of which have actually sold. Who knew?

A comparison of the art forms—painting and writing—is inevitable. What strikes me most is the disparity of delivery. Unlike a picture, which can be absorbed all at once, a story unfolds across pages. The smallest slip in the first couple sentences and the reader might not bother to continue. Right out of the gate, the author is at a disadvantage, and more so these days as millions of new books pile up on the internet.

Another hindrance to writing is the process itself. There you sit, closed off from friends and family, hunched over a keyboard, shuffling words. Often you cannot produce a single satisfactory sentence, and for this agonizing bout of literary constipation you have given up a day of boating. With canvas, the brush at least is moving. You may not be producing anything of value, but you are painting.

I could never listen to music when I wrote, and any sort of interruption unhinged me. Painting is more permissive. Working with acrylics, I can enjoy my Amazon music playlists or the latest New Yorker podcast; sometimes I hum or sing. Assembling my brushes and tubes of paint, I am reminded of art time in elementary school, when the books were put away and the blunt-tipped scissors, construction paper and Elmer’s glue came out, unleashing a collective imagination.

When I finish a painting I am satisfied with, I send its image to Facebook or my blog. This instant, easy sharing feels friendly: no strings attached, no ego involved. I am just one of many offering the world a bit more tenderness—take or leave it.

In contrast, a short story manuscript has a rough journey to its audience. As most publishers will not consider work that has already appeared online, even on a personal blog, writers must forego their social media followers, assuming they have them, and seek the approval of editors who can take several months to respond. Owing to a multitude of submissions and the caprice of editorial staffs, a manuscript, however worthy, is typically rejected. Because writing exposes our most private selves, rejections can feel like brutalities, while acceptances come as validation. A story lucky enough to be published in a literary journal will have a few weeks of modest visibility before it is buried in the archives. Money is almost never involved.

But it seems I’ve painted myself into a corner. In citing the advantages of painting, I have proven the utility of writing, falling back on the thankless task of sending words into a void. Clumsy, imprecise, maddening words.

The best thing about retirement? Never knowing what happens next.

What is a Writer Worth?


What if writers were paid for their effort instead of their product? Many skilled professions involve more labor than financial reward, but writers seem particularly short-changed. Inventions, fine pieces of art, these can still command appropriate prices. Authors cannot negotiate book sales, cannot hold out for the highest bidder. Not only are print editions on the wane, digital copies are continuing to lose value. Ninety-nine cents has become a common price tag, and authors are often compelled to promote their books by giving them away for free.

What are writers worth? What would be a fair wage? A landscaper friend of mine told me last week that he always charges by the hour, not the job, as unforeseen problems can cause delays. This makes sense, and I admire him for his business acumen, for insisting that he be treated fairly. SURVIVAL SKILLS and LOVERS AND LONERS, my short story collections, include stories that were written over several years, and some of these pieces took months to write. One of the stories actually started out as a novel that grew flabby; I wound up scrapping about forty thousand words. Untold hours went into the making of these two books. Even if authors earned minimum wages, most would be rich beyond measure. Writers would rule the world.

Hard labor, that’s what good writing is. A dedicated writer is a slave to herself. Unlike inventors, who achieve their goals by fixing failures, writers continue on faith, not knowing if their revisions are improvements. No one can help them. Sentences are paths, and writers must blunder down one after another, hoping they have made the right turns and will not wind up lost. The journey is loaded with trip hazards, and writers must avoid them all: the pitfalls of clichés, the slopes of sentimentality, the sloughs of despair, the dreaded stasis of writer’s block. If an author is lucky enough to arrive at her goal, to finish a story she is pleased with, she must then work to acquire readers. For authors, who are generally introverted, marketing is far more onerous than writing. It is not a labor of love, and there is no end to it.

Writing is a three-step process: seizing an idea, putting this idea into words, and then into the right words. Of course, the right words for one author may be, will be, the wrong words for another—there are any number of ways to write, and mediocre writing can result in stunning sales. Writers must work to please themselves, knowing their stories may never be appreciated or even read.

I will work on one sentence for hours if need be, shuffling the words around and around until they click into place. As I wrangle words, I often think of Raymond Carver, who considered himself not a minimalist but a “precisionist”—what an apt term to describe the love he brought to his craft. Carver knew he’d never achieve perfection, but he kept reaching for it anyway, struggling year after year to bring out his best.

You can’t put a price on a good book, but you can buy one for under a buck. Most writers will never produce the stunning book they envisioned, nor will they reap the monetary rewards they have earned. As readers, we can at least offer them one dividend: the courtesy of a review. Reviews posted on Amazon or Goodreads cost nothing and require scant effort. Just a couple sentences is all it takes to let a writer know her words have not vanished.