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.

Alabama For Beginners in bioStories

A big thank you to editor Mark Leichliter for featuring my essay “Alabama For Beginners” in bioStories. This is my fourth appearance in bioStories, and I am honored to be among the many talented contributors.

“bioStories offers word portraits of the people surrounding us in our daily lives, of the strangers we pass on the street unnoticed and of those who have been the most influential and most familiar to us but who remain strangers to others. We feature essays from an eclectic variety of viewpoints and seek out writers of literary excellence. We particularly look for work that offers slices of a life that help the reader imagine the whole of that life, work that demonstrates that ordinary people’s experiences often contain extraordinary moments, visionary ideas, inspirational acts, and examples of success and failure that prove instructive. In short, we believe every life displays moments of grace. bioStories wishes to share pieces of these lives and celebrate them.”

 

Lovers and Loners in Snowflakes!

Many thanks to Darrell Laurant, for featuring Lovers and Loners in the latest edition of Snowflakes in a Blizzard. Please visit this book-saving site and take a look at some fine work you might not otherwise encounter. In the meantime, here are a few words from Darrell:

“Given the current technology, virtually anyone who wants to publish a book can now do so.  And that’s a good thing, because I believe everyone has something of value to say and something to teach the rest of us.

But it’s also bad news for individual writers, because the chance that someone will randomly pick up or click on a particular book has decreased exponentially. I chose the name for this blog because getting noticed for a writer in this market — especially a new, unknown writer — is like a snowflake trying to stand out in a blizzard.”

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When Living Isn’t Enough

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Thomas Mann wrote that a writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. Could there be a better definition? While others use words to communicate, writers understand that words hold greater magic, that when pieced together in just the right combination, words give us passage into our deepest selves. We write to discover what we know. We write to set ourselves free.

I often think of words as blackbirds wheeling above a wire. I know I can coax them down; I’ve done it before. I know they will settle into a tidy line, and that this line, while not perfect, will at least be coherent. As I am no Shakespeare, this process will take an absurd amount of time, and some of the birds will have to be shifted around many times. Eventually I’ll recognize that I have exhausted my potential, which is when I stop and click save. One more idea wrested into words, one more swipe at the great mystery. Tom Stoppard wrote: “I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little.”

Others might pity writers, might call it tyranny, this compulsion to hunt down the meaning of our experiences. Why isn’t living enough for us? I don’t know. I need to write about that.

How peaceful it must be to be done with each day when the day is done. All this sifting and sieving, this endless analyzing—I can’t say I’m any happier for the effort I’ve expended (nor a penny richer, but that’s another blog). And many times I wind up with nothing. Words are tools and sometimes they come up short, sometimes they fail me. Or I fail them.

Scant recognition. Slight compensation. Dubious value. Impossible odds.

Life is short. Mine will be over long before I’ve learned how to live it. You’d think I’d just stop this mad chase. Go play. Have fun.

Maybe I will. After.

 

 

Photo credit: derekbruff via Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Lovers And Loners in the Summerset Review

I am deeply grateful to Joseph Levens, editor of the Summerset Review, for reviewing my short story collection Lovers and Loners. Mr. Levens has published several of my stories over the years, and I continue to benefit from his kindness, guidance and wisdom. If you are not familiar with this fine journal, please take a look. “Founded in 2002, the Summerset Review is exclusively devoted to the review and publication of unsolicited fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.”

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