Young or old, a writer sends a book into the world, not himself. There is no Senior Tour for authors, with the tees shortened by 20 yards and carts allowed. No mercy is extended by the reviewers; but then it is not extended to the rookie writer, either. He or she may feel, as the gray-haired scribes of the day continue to take up space and consume the oxygen in the increasingly small room of the print world, that the elderly have the edge, with their established names and already secured honors. How we did adore and envy them, the idols of our college years—Hemingway and Faulkner, Frost and Eliot, Mary McCarthy and Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty! We imagined them aswim in a heavenly refulgence, as joyful and immutable in their exalted condition as angels forever singing.
Now that I am their age—indeed, older than a number of them got to be—I can appreciate the advantages, for a writer, of youth and obscurity. You are not yet typecast. You can take a distant, cold view of the entire literary scene. You are full of your material—your family, your friends, your region of the country, your generation—when it is fresh and seems urgently worth communicating to readers. No amount of learned skills can substitute for the feeling of having a lot to say, of bringing news. Memories, impressions, and emotions from your first 20 years on earth are most writers’ main material; little that comes afterward is quite so rich and resonant. By the age of 40, you have probably mined the purest veins of this precious lode; after that, continued creativity is a matter of sifting the leavings. You become playful and theoretical; you invent sequels, and attempt historical novels. The novels and stories thus generated may be more polished, more ingenious, even more humane than their predecessors; but none does quite the essential earth-moving work that Hawthorne, a writer who dwelt in the shadowland “where the Actual and Imaginary may meet,” specified when he praised the novels of Anthony Trollope as being “as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case.”
This second quotation—one writer admiring a virtue he couldn’t claim—meant a lot to me when I first met it, and I have cited it before. A few images, a few memorable acquaintances, a few cherished phrases, circle around the aging writer’s head like gnats as he strolls through the summertime woods at gloaming. He sits down before the word processor’s humming, expectant screen, facing the strong possibility that he has already expressed what he is struggling to express again.
Among the rivals besetting an aging writer is his younger, nimbler self, when he was the cocky new thing.
My word processor—a term that describes me as well—is the last of a series of instruments of self-expression that began with crayons and colored pencils held in my childish fist. My hands, somewhat grown, migrated to the keyboard of my mother’s typewriter, a portable Remington, and then, schooled in touch- typing, to my own machine, a beige Smith-Corona expressly bought by loving parents for me to take to college. I graduated to an office model, on the premises of The New Yorker magazine, that rose up, with an exciting heave, from the surface of a metal desk. Back in New England as a freelancer, I invested in an electric typewriter that snatched the letters from my fingertips with a sharp, premature clack; it held, as well as a black ribbon, a white one with which I could correct my many errors. Before long, this clever mechanism gave way to an even more highly evolved device, an early Wang word processor that did the typing itself, with a marvelous speed and