Last week, I had a new author photo taken. I’m a little embarrassed to say that it was the first one in eight years, a drought that has less to do with my wanting readers to think of me as eternally young (or at least eternally mid-forties) than it does with my being innately stiff and antsy and uncomfortable in front of a camera. But a photographer friend took the photos, out of doors, in natural light, and it was a surprisingly not-excruciating experience. When I got the proofs a few days later, I was a little startled, as I am always a little startled, by the difference between the Marisa in the picture and the Marisa I picture, but while my friend let me know that she could soften and blur and retouch as much as I wanted, I found I didn’t want her to after all. I didn’t mind the way I looked; there were things about it I liked. And in any case, I wanted to look like myself. Like myself with makeup on, turned to the right angle, and bathed in honey-colored late afternoon light, but like myself all the same.
I was never an ingenue writer. When I began writing my first novel, Love Walked In, I was thirty-seven, thirty-nine when it launched, but the writer in the new photo is squarely and unmistakably middle-aged, which alarms me. I really don’t mind the age thing in and of itself. In many, many ways, fifty-three is wonderful. Fifty-three is freedom and choices and true friendship and daily interludes of joy. Unlike other eras of my life, I manage to spend the vast majority of my time with people I love.
No, what alarms me about middle age is the sense that, by now, with all those writing years and eight novels (two co-written with my husband) under my belt, I should be seasoned. I should be capable. Not wise, yet, maybe, but surefooted. At the very least, I should be better at both writing and being a writer than I was when I began. So, as corny as it sounds, seeing that author photo caused me to do what I rarely do: pause and take stock. I decided to be methodical about it. Methodical and brutally honest. I got out a notebook. I made lists: Better, Worse, The Same.
To my relief, the “Better” list has actual items on it. Mostly, these items fall under the category of knowing what to leave out. When I write conversations, I am better at not taking the reader by the hand and guiding them. Despite all the anti-adverb common wisdom, I still like them, but I use them more judiciously. Much of the time, instead of saying “wryly,” I make the dialogue convey wryness and trust the reader to get it. I’ve become less afraid of letting people just talk, without stopping to fiddle with their fork or tuck their hair behind their ears or note the skeletal (or lush or new-spring-lemon-lime-frilled) tree outside the window, unless the moment truly calls for fiddling or tucking or noting. I still love figurative language (I think in figurative language; figurative language is my natural habitat), but I am better at knowing when to pare things down, when to speed up the pacing with an austere, noun-verb, noun-verb staccato, and when to pull out the big poetry guns. I am better at moving people around, getting them from one scene to the next without a lot of fuss.
What’s gotten worse? I am worse, much worse, at entering that pure, locked-in writing space, that inside-a-car-in-the-rain mode in which the real world blurs and fades and it’s all characters and story and sentences on the screen. It’s no longer just a matter of quiet and time and a shut door.
The care and feeding of my writer brain has become complicated.
I have to spend time every day outside, walking under the sun and blue sky, which means winter is hard. I have to silence–for at least a few hours–the big, clamorous world of politics, injustice, climate change, school shootings or at least to box up and put away my reactions to this world: sorrow, outrage, fear, anger. Which means that these years, the ones happening right now, are hard. I need to read certain books and not read others, depending on what I’m writing. I start books and find them either hitting too close to the bone or not close enough, to be boring me with their flat language or intimidating me with their glorious language, and so I put them down. And some days, even when I manage to walk and silence and box up and read exactly the right pages of the right book, I am tired or distracted or restless, and I can’t fully immerse myself in writing. Honestly, this is more often than not the state of affairs, and so I write anyway, in a tense, tenuous, partial, in-between state, because I have to, but it’s hard.
What’s stayed the same: Writing scares me. I am painstaking, setting down words, one after the other, with enormous care, as if they’re bombs that might go off or fizzle. I want my sentences to convey meaning but also to beat out the proper rhythm, to sing or murmur or slash or sting like sleet. I want to get the vowel sounds pitched perfectly and get the consonants to brush or slam or bump hard against one another. And I want to do it the first time around. Words feel so crucial to me; I am afraid of getting them wrong, even though I can hit a key and delete them. I listen to other people–my children, my husband–write at their computers, composing so quickly and with such assurance, flurry after flurry of clicks, and I vow to write that way next time. With every book, I swear I’ll bang out a draft, fearlessly, and then go back and revise, revise, revise. But I never can, and I think, after all these decades, it’s probably hopeless.
But these things also haven’t changed for this middle-aged writer: what good company words are, old friends; the privilege of spending time in the company of characters and sentences; the joy when a piece of the story gets told, when the music inside my head matches the music on the page; how a character or the plot can surprise me; the gratitude when I realize there is a new idea, more work to do, another book to write.
Do you have time to pause, reflect, and share? How have you changed as a writer?