Essays

Can Writers Retire? Let Us Count the Ways

By posted at 6:00 am on February 7, 2013 34

While living in Durham, N.C., back in the 1980s, I met a guy who was studying creative writing at Duke University. I have come to think of him as the doomed acolyte. One day he told me that his teacher, venerable Reynolds Price, rolled into the classroom in his wheelchair and gave the class a curious assignment. Price told the students they were not to touch the short stories they were working on for the next week. Don’t change a single word. Don’t add or delete a comma. Don’t even look at your stories.

When the class reconvened the following week, Price asked how many had fulfilled the assignment.  About half of the students, including the doomed acolyte, raised a hand. Price then stunned the room by advising those who were able to follow his instructions that they should consider dropping out of the course. His reasoning was brutal and simple: Anyone who is able to stop writing for an entire week — even for a single day — does not have the right stuff to become a writer.  True writers, Price was saying, are in the grip of a compulsion. They have to write, and they are powerless to stop doing it. It is why they are alive and it is what keeps them alive.

That story came back to me — and it came into question — when I heard the news that Philip Roth has quit writing fiction. “To his friends,” Charles McGrath wrote in The New York Times, “the notion of Mr. Roth not writing is like Mr. Roth not breathing.” I’m sure Reynolds Price’s friends felt the same way about him. Roth, author of more than 30 works of fiction over the past half century, has stuck a Post-it note to his computer that reads: “The struggle with writing is over.” Roth said he looks at that little sticker every morning and it gives him “such strength.”

I’ve been writing every day for the past 40 years or so, sometimes getting paid to do it and sometimes not, and through all those years I’ve assumed I will keep doing it until my wits leave me or I die. In other words, I’m a long-time disciple of the gospel according to Reynolds Price, a believer that writers are people who are both blessed and cursed by the compulsion to distill their experience of the world into words on a page. But Roth’s startling announcement caused me to begin rethinking this assumption. Why shouldn’t writers be free to stop writing when they they’ve lost their appetite for the grind, or when they feel they’ve lost their edge, or when they’ve said everything they care to say? Isn’t it liberating to think that writers are not slaves, after all, but are actually free to walk away from their desks and never look back?  And even though many writers remain productive into their eighties and beyond– James Salter, Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, and Elmore Leonard come immediately to mind — isn’t it preferable for some (most?) writers to quit rather than keep going through the familiar motions?

Of course Philip Roth was not the first writer to retire. Writers have been putting down their pens for many years. Here is a selective and thoroughly incomplete list of the ways half a dozen writers have retired — or tried to — with wildly varying degrees of success:

570_rimbaud
1.  Retiring Prematurely: Arthur Rimbaud
coverBefore reaching his 21st birthday, Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891), fueled by a diet of hashish, absinthe, and bad behavior, produced dazzling works of poetry and prose that became pillars of modernism. Then he quit writing. He spent the rest of his short life demeaning his literary output while wandering from Indonesia to Africa, working as a soldier, a foreman in a stone quarry, a merchant of coffee and guns. No one has ever solved the great mystery — why did this brilliant wild child quit writing? — though in Bruce Duffy’s novel about Rimbaud, Disaster Was My God, the poet’s lover Paul Verlaine may have come close. “Well,” Duffy’s fictional Verlaine says, “one big reason, perhaps obvious, is he grew up…the child in him died.” 

forster2.  Retiring Selectively: E.M. Forster
coverAfter publishing four novels in a six-year blaze, E.M. Forster (1879-1970) was silent for more than a dozen years before producing his most famous book, A Passage to India, in 1924.  Then — no more novels. But Forster did not stop writing. He continued to produce essays, plays, film scripts, criticism, biography, and travel writing, even worked as a broadcaster and collaborated on the libretto for an opera. One theory has it that Forster, who was gay, stopped writing novels because he did not feel free to write about the theme that interested him most: homosexual love. In 1971, the year after his death, Forster’s novel Maurice was published. Begun in 1913 and revised several times, it tells the story of two men who are in love with each other, and happy.

Lionel Trilling wrote that his personal feeling about Forster’s abandonment of novel writing “fluctuates between disapproval of a dereliction from duty and a sense of relief that a fine artist has not seen art as a grim imperative.” That notion of writing as a “grim imperative” opened my eyes wider to the possibility that my original thoughts on compulsion were far too narrow. Trilling was relieved that Forster had overcome such a view. Maybe I — maybe all writers — should overcome it too.

3.  Retiring Aggressively: J.D. Salinger
No American writer became more famous for being silent than the reclusive J.D. Salinger (1919-2010). After producing an indelible novel and a book of short stories, he retired from the literary world — indeed from the world — in 1953, moving from New York to a 90-acre hillside compound in Cornish, N.H. He produced two more books of stories, in 1961 and 1963, then published his final work, the long story “Hapworth 16, 1924,” in The New Yorker in 1965. He never published another word, though in a rare interview in 1974 he revealed that while he had retired from publishing, he had not stopped writing. “There is a marvelous peace in not publishing,” Salinger said. “It’s peaceful. Still. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.”

3.  Retiring Half-Heartedly: Alice Munro
coverAlice Munro, one of the undisputed living masters of the short story, published a collection called Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage in 2001, when she was 70 years old. Ben Dolnick, a hard-core Munro fan, wrote here last year that Munro then entered what he considered the “cruising phase” of her career. When Munro announced in 2006 that she was retiring, Dolnick found himself, curiously, remembering the one time he saw Michael Jordan play basketball, then thinking of Jordan’s unpretty habit of over-staying his welcome after his best years were behind him. “When (Munro) announced her retirement in 2006,” Dolnick wrote, “I confess to feeling a certain relief; she was too proud and too self-aware to leave us remembering her like Jordan on the (Washington) Wizards.”

coverMunro’s retirement didn’t last. But unlike Jordan’s, her return to the game was not unpretty. Her 2009 collection, Too Much Happiness, was a critical success. Even Dolnick was delighted when Dear Life followed it late last year. He wrote, “Much of the material here will be familiar to anyone who has ever read her — the train trips and heartsick letters and unpaved roads — but the voice is newly sharpened, as if she were freshly aware of only having so many words remaining in her allotment.” Surely a writer’s desire to use up her allotment of words is justification for coming out of retirement.

In an interview in 2010, the year after Too Much Happiness appeared, Munro was asked what advice she would give to young writers. She replied, “If you’re going to be a writer you’ll probably take a lot of wrong turns and then one day just end up writing something you have to write, then getting it better and better just because you want it to be better, and even when you get old and think ‘There must be something else people do,’ you won’t be able to quit.” Munro is now 81, and still writing.

570_kertesz4.  Retiring Ambiguously: Imre Kertesz
The Hungarian writer Imre Kertesz, who survived the camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald and went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2002, announced his retirement last November. Or did he? In an interview with a German magazine, Kertesz, who is 83 and suffering from Parkinson’s disease, said, “I don’t want to write anymore. I consider my oeuvre, so closely related to the Holocaust, as closed, whether I succeeded or not.” Sounds like a retirement announcement to me. It did to the French journal ActuaLitte, too, which picked up the news. The Millions followed suit. As these reports spread, however, Kertesz’s American publisher, Dennis Johnson, posted a recollection of visiting Kertesz and his wife in Berlin last March. “The only really somber moment occurred when Imre spoke of his fear of not being able to finish the new book he was working on,” Johnson wrote. “Still, he was making progress, he insisted, and was determined to get it done.”

When the reports of his retirement began circulating several months after that meeting in Berlin, Kertesz wrote to Johnson that the rumors were “a bit too hasty.” He added, “Naturally, I will try to write as long as I can.” Ah, ambiguity.

570_2spencer5.  Retiring Richly: LaVyrle Spencer
It’s always refreshing to meet writers who admit they’re in it for the money, and it’s important to remember that they’re not always hacks. As Flannery O’Connor once noted, no writer was hotter after the dollar than Henry James. The Master gets some competition from LaVyrle Spencer, who wrote her first romance novel when she was in her 30s and working as a junior high school teacher’s aide in Minnesota. She went on to produce 23 novels, including a dozen New York Times best sellers, and was inducted into the Romance Writers of America Hall of Fame. Then, at the age of 54, she retired from writing. Why did she quit cold when she was selling millions of books and making millions of dollars? It’s downright…un-American. “I want to feel free!” she told Publishers Weekly. She added that she had set a financial goal when she was starting writing novels, and once she reached it she promised herself she would retire. Unlike so many others, she kept her vow. She told PW she planned to enjoy her two young grandchildren and travel with her husband. No grim imperative for LaVyrle Spencer.

6.  Retiring Gradually: Roberto Bolaño
You can’t get any more retired than dead, yet writers of a certain stature have a tendency to keep publishing from the grave. Recent examples have included Vladimir Nabokov, Ralph Ellison, David Foster Wallace, and James M. Cain. (Many fans are hopeful that J.D. Salinger did indeed keep writing during his long silence in New Hampshire, and that eventually he will join the club.)

coverBut no dead writer has out-produced the Chilean novelist, poet, and short story writer Roberto Bolaño, whose estate has put out a torrent of titles since he died of liver failure in 2003 at age 50. The posthumous output peaked with 2666, a novel of breathtaking sweep built around the disappearance of hundreds of women near the Texas-Mexico border. The torrent is finally subsiding, but scholars, critics and biographers are sure to keep picking over Bolaño’s life and work for years to come.

Which brings us to the paradoxical answer to the question posed in this essay’s title: It turns out that, yes, it’s possible for any writer to retire, but the good ones live on long after they die, and the great ones are never allowed to die. William Faulkner wanted the epitaph on his tombstone to read, “He wrote the books, and he died.” More fitting would have been: “He wrote the books, and he died, but the books were so good that people kept reading them for years and years after he was gone to dust.”

Images courtesy of the author.





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34 Responses to “Can Writers Retire? Let Us Count the Ways”

  1. Jack M
    at 8:42 am on February 7, 2013

    A writer may officially retire, but he or she will always be a writer. It’s not just a profession; it is what one is.

  2. Michael Walsh
    at 11:43 am on February 7, 2013

    The late writer Jack Williamson had his first story published in 1928. His last was published in 2005. He died in 2008. (Interestingly he was born in 1908 in Bisbee, Arizona Territory and in 1915his family moved to New Mexico in a covered wagon.)

  3. Vfrancone
    at 1:21 pm on February 7, 2013

    I assume you’ve read Bartlbey & Co., right?

  4. LauraL
    at 1:38 pm on February 7, 2013

    I’m surprised Harper Lee isn’t on here.

  5. Richard Grayson
    at 2:16 pm on February 7, 2013

    The author profiles are interesting, but people who sentimentalize and over-romanticize a profession are people with vapid and limited imaginations.

  6. Jack M
    at 2:33 pm on February 7, 2013

    I happen to enjoy sentimentalizing and romanticizing the profession of writing, thank you very much, and I will continue to do so in future.

  7. Theresa M. Moore
    at 2:36 pm on February 7, 2013

    Nothing can retire a writer faster than the fact that the books are not being read, no matter how good they are. When there is no incentive to write, the author is stuck in a moebius loop of despair and deperation, leading him/her to conclude that the work is not good and engaging in constant editing to excess. At that point, the work in progress becomes an excercise in futility. If the books are not being read to begin with, there is no point in continuing. I would rather stop writing than kill myself trying to please people who would not know a good book if it walked up to them and kicked them in the posterior.

  8. sandi
    at 3:23 pm on February 7, 2013

    Now I would like for some brave soul to write about the writers who should have retired.

  9. Ramsey Campbell
    at 4:50 pm on February 7, 2013

    I don’t know, Theresa – I think quite a few writers just write in order to do the best work they can without anticipating who or how many will read it.

  10. paula
    at 6:30 pm on February 7, 2013

    That Reynolds Price incident is awful. I’d say the students who will end up being the best writers are the ones who figure out that that was a terrible thing to do to a classroom full of impressionable young writers.

    Bukowski quite writing for ten years and said it was the best thing for his writing. The idea that there is one “way” of being a writer strikes me as silly. I think this piece points that out rather nicely.

  11. DAS
    at 9:51 pm on February 7, 2013

    Every profession deserves to be sentimentalized and over-romanticized.

    Those who are incapable of seeing that have cramped and fetid imaginations.

  12. Lisa F.
    at 10:54 pm on February 7, 2013

    For writers, writing is oxygen.

  13. Critical Linking: February 8th, 2013
    at 6:00 am on February 8, 2013

    [...] Retiring from writing seems to me quite different from retiring from publishing. I bet even if Roth never publishes again, he is still writing. [...]

  14. Charlotte
    at 11:23 am on February 8, 2013

    The convolutions of promotion are reason enough to withdraw
    (If not retire).

  15. DR
    at 12:03 pm on February 8, 2013

    Suggest they drop because they were following their instructor’s directions, a man who is much more knowledgeable in the field? Stupid.

  16. The Writer and Rejection | Long River Review
    at 1:47 pm on February 8, 2013

    [...] as I poked around some other literary blogs, I found this thought-provoking article from Bill Morris over at The Millions. He explores the topic of whether writers can ever really retire, and he has some really [...]

  17. Ramsey Campbell
    at 4:24 pm on February 8, 2013

    “The idea that there is one “way” of being a writer strikes me as silly.”

    Worse than silly – wildly inaccurate, or to put it another way, ignorant. In general, when we talk about how to do it we really mean how it works for us.

  18. Marc Iverson
    at 5:15 am on February 9, 2013

    “Price then stunned the room by advising those who were able to follow his instructions that they should consider dropping out of the course.”

    He then prompted a windstorm of sighed relief from his startled audience by stating that anyone who would seriously consider taking the advice he had just given should be first to the door.

  19. Matthew Graybosch
    at 5:07 pm on February 9, 2013

    Nobody reads my stuff, Theresa M. More. Even my wife ignores my work. I keep writing anyway? Why? Because I can. Because I want to. Because the only way to stop me is to kill me.

  20. Matthew Graybosch
    at 5:09 pm on February 9, 2013

    It doesn’t help that I can’t type worth a damn…

  21. Cabinet | Notes from 21 South Street
    at 4:13 pm on February 10, 2013

    [...] Can Writers Retire? From Rimbaud to Bolaño, The Millions’ Morris explores the art of calling writerly quits. [...]

  22. Bill Morris: Can Writers Retire? | WritingCabin.com
    at 9:23 am on February 13, 2013

    [...] —Bill Morris | The Millions [...]

  23. Darrelyn Saloom
    at 12:50 am on February 14, 2013

    Thank you for this delicious piece of writing. And images. Truly, a work of art.

  24. First Links — 2.14.13 » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog
    at 8:58 am on February 14, 2013

    [...] Can Writers Retire? Bill Morris, The Millions [...]

  25. Maureen Murphy ("Moe Murph")
    at 4:13 pm on February 16, 2013

    In 2005, I became obsessed by a book of letters by Rimbaud (“I Promise To Be Good”). My gut instinct was that he quit writing his poems and asked for them to be burned because the words of a poem could never adequately capture his visions. I wrote some lyrics about his time wandering in Africa as a gun trader – See below:

    RIMBAUD – SISTER ISABEL (© Maureen Murphy)

    Ice poems, melting in the sun
    Metal dust, scattering of bone
    Iron bed, pillow made of stone

    Sister, Sister

    Time is an endless caravan
    Sound flies through hot sirocco wind
    Your beating heart leads me home again

    Sister

    I was an arrow shot, a violin at play
    Abracadabric ship, that sailed a silver bay
    Burn my words, they just get in the way
    Sister

  26. Bill Morris
    at 9:09 am on February 17, 2013

    Maureen Murphy,

    Very sweet. Thanks for these lyrics – and for reading The Millions.

    Bill Morris

  27. Maureen Murphy
    at 11:26 am on February 18, 2013

    My pleasure! Enjoy The Millions very much.

    Just realized I misspelled something. It is “Isabelle,” not “Isabel.”

  28. Maureen Murphy ("Moe Murph")
    at 4:16 pm on February 19, 2013

    Hello, one last comment, as this topic won’t stop prodding me and distracting me from my work today!

    Is the question so much whether a writer can or cannot “retire”? Not to dredge up old clichés, but I’ve been around house painters and brick builders in Galway who create a flow of images and wordplay as they go about their daily business, They can’t necessarily “retire” in that they never thought themselves artsy-fartsy enough to become an “Author” with a capital A. It’s just something they do. In the scheme of things, if this person has entranced an audience of four or five with a story, rather than four or five million as a published author, is it any less of a good story?

    I live in the US, and have found at local readings, the poetry scene can be very incestuous and dusty. Also rude and careerist, with people networking while speaking to each other, their eyes scanning the crowd for the officially blessed and designated “important” poets.

    My very favorite poet at one such scene lives in group housing, she sadly suffers from schizophrenia. The house drops her off in their van, and out pops whatever she has been working on, a story about a man from Africa sitting in a cafe, a rap song, a poem. Sometimes she makes something up on the spot. I always am happy when she shows up. Sadly, she is brushed off by some of the “scene” people, and I have gotten into it a few times when someone is talking during her reading.

    Patricia does her thing, the van shows up to bring her home, and that’s it. I think if the “venerable Reynolds Price” ever made the comments he did in his class to Patricia, she would tell him to “F” Off. What’s the big deal about a week off, anyway?

    Over and Out to the Wonderful People of The Millions!

    Moe Murph

  29. What We’re Doing When We Should Be Writing | grub street daily
    at 11:55 am on February 20, 2013

    [...] Millions asks whether retiring from writing is even [...]

  30. This Week's Top Ten Poetic Picks - Tweetspeak Poetry
    at 8:01 am on February 21, 2013

    [...] And after you do all that, maybe you’ll get to the point where you think you want to retire. Unless you’re a writer. Then we’re not sure whether you can actually retire or not. Bill Morris recently tackled this question with a handful of writers who’ve taken varying approaches to “retirement” from those who’ve stopped and started, those who stopped for good, and those who wrote until their last breath. I particularly loved this quote from Alice Munro: [...]

  31. Talking About Books . . . | Book Notes Plus
    at 6:50 am on March 4, 2013

    [...] whether or not a writer can ever – or should ever – really retire.  The Millions presents an article about six authors who have followed different [...]

  32. Reynolds Price: If you can NOT write, then don’t « North Carolina Miscellany
    at 5:19 am on June 8, 2013

    [...] From “Can Writers Retire? Let Us Count the Ways” by Bill Morris at themillions.com (Feb. 7, [...]

  33. Dejar de escribir, dejar de sufrir | Justa, lectura y conversación
    at 4:55 am on July 8, 2013

    [...] otro articulo muy bueno sobre este tema en el sitio The Millions, el escritor Bill Morris cuenta una anécdota sobre un taller literario de Reynolds Price (un [...]

  34. Dejar de escribir para dejar de sufrir | Culturamas, la revista de información cultural
    at 9:11 am on October 23, 2013

    […] otro articulo muy bueno sobre este tema en el sitio The Millions, el escritor Bill Morris cuenta una anécdota sobre un taller literario de Reynolds Price (un […]

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