Why should a writer retire?

Helga’s Post # 56:

Why indeed?

I came across an article in Newsweek with this title that touched a nerve. Probably yours too, if you are an author. In case you are a ‘mere’ writer, it should ring true even more so.

I am fortunate that I am able to pursue my writing career unhindered by nine-to-five job demands. I also have the full support of my spouse who respects my career. Sure we all have busy lives, me included, but for most of us, writing takes priority over most other activities in our daily routines. We take our craft very seriously.

Try and tell some well-meaning friends or acquaintances. I recently felt thunderstruck when a friend opined that my ‘retirement hobby’ has taken too much time and I shouldn’t take it so seriously. Maybe just give it up entirely. Retire from the retirement hobby, in other words.

It amazes me how some people have an almost utopian vision of what a writer’s life looks like. As if it were a luxury that sucks away time and resources for no particular reason other than feed our greedy egos. How some people think good books get written and published remains a mystery.

Jimmy So, the author of the Newsweek article, has done a great job to speak to the myth of what a writer’s life looks like. Here are some excerpts:

“A happy life, according to the Scottish poet James Thomson, consists of ‘retirement, rural quiet, friendship, books,’ among other things. Alice Munro, perhaps the greatest short-story writer of our time, has elected to embrace this bliss, saying recently, ‘I’m probably not going to write anymore.’

Yet if you have ever imagined a typical day in the life of an author, your vision probably resembles Thomson’s. Writing seems like tender labor, and it’s not hard to picture all those quarterly Munro stories—the ones that appear in The New Yorker as regularly as fresh interns—being created from a diet of easy grace, fertilized frequently with tea, long walks, dinners on the porch, and Chekhov readings. Why would anyone have to retire from writing, as if it’s a job with regular hours?

Except it is. John Updike used to rent a one-room office above a restaurant, where he would report to write six days a week. John Cheever famously put on his only suit and rode the elevator with the 9-to-5 crowd, only he would proceed down to the basement to write in a storage room. Robert Caro, at age 78 still puts on a jacket and tie every day and repairs to his 22nd-floor Manhattan office.

Authors who corral their duties into daily routines help remind us of the industry of writing. A muse does not pour words into someone’s skull. The drudgery has conquered some of our best wordsmiths. “When you decide ‘to be a writer,’ you don’t have the faintest idea of what the work is like,” Philip Roth, another recent literary retiree, has said about the “stringent exigencies” of literature. “But working at it nearly every day for 50 years … turns out to be an extremely taxing job and hardly the pleasantest of human activities.” He even called it “just torture, awful.”


Thank you, Jimmy So. I needed that. I wouldn’t necessarily call writing torture as Philip Roth does, but yes, there are those times when it appears as such.  All to say, if anyone tries to call you a writer hobbyist, it’s time to put them on the straight and narrow. We happen to take it seriously. We work hard at it and we are passionate about our craft.

Starting next week I will spend a bit of time in the desert with my friend and writing buddy Paula. But it’s not all down time. My computer comes with me. Paula assures me that the blue sky and balmy weather will boost my creativity and writing. I can use some of that.

Last but not least, a quote from the late John Updike:

“Each morning my characters greet me with misty faces willing, though chilled, to muster for another day’s progress through the dazzling quicksand the marsh of blank paper.”

John Updike

John Updike 1932 – 2009

6 thoughts on “Why should a writer retire?

  1. Hi Helga,
    Woodpecker muse is up in the palm tree, tapping out a raucous cacophony, ready to welcome you to the desert. Cottontail muse, road runner muse and hummingbird muse promise to come calling too and I have even started to gather a circle of writers together to hold our first ‘Writer’s Cafe’ at my house to share the joy of writing, inspire and reinvigorate our creative spirits. Hurry south!

  2. Sounds like a great trip! And it’s encouraging to know that successful authors describe writing as sometimes painful and tortuous—because it is. Yes, there are times when the ideas are flowing and the words seem almost to write themselves. And those times are to be treasured and remembered on the days when the blank screen seems to grow even blanker!

  3. Thanks, JM. Yes, we have to treasure those successful days, because when they happen, more such days seem to follow almost without effort. Until we hit a snag again and then the torture sets in. I take comfort in knowing that writing progress comes in this repeating cycle.

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