I Didn’t Say You Shouldn’t Write About Yourself As You Get Older
Last week I wrote about feeling like I was too old to write about my life. It was kind of a toss-off post, a last minute effort to come up with something to say as my deadline neared. I didn’t expect much to come of it, but it seemed to touch a nerve, making it all the way to Medium’s Human Parts magazine as well as the regular blog.
Several people messaged me or left comments saying they were sorry to hear I wouldn’t be writing about myself anymore and hoped I would change my mind (which was very nice — thank you.) But even more people said they were dispirited by my words because, in middle age or even older, they’d found they finally had something to say.
To those points, let me say the following.
First: Don’t worry, it’s highly unlikely that I’ll stop writing about myself, if only because I’ve also declared I’m not writing opinion articles or cultural analysis and, as it stands, I’m obliged to produce a certain number of words in this space once a week.
Second: Those of you who feel compelled to write about your lives now that you’re retired or the kids are out of the house or you finally feel like you have something to say: please do! You’re the ones who should be writing about your lives!
I didn’t say no one should write about themselves as they get older. I said I shouldn’t. And, to be clear, I wasn’t suggesting this was entirely a matter of being not so young anymore. I just meant that I seem to have slipped into a phase where, for a variety of reasons, I can’t bear to share the granular details of my mostly-boring life. It’s not just that the indignities of aging, much of which have to to with bodily decay, aren’t quite as charming as the indignities of youth, which tend to be animated by a kind of endearing cluelessness. It’s that writing about your experiences requires a belief, however tenuous, that whatever you’re going through is new or somehow unique to you. Young people, by virtue of being young, experience just about everything as new. By virtue of everything being new, just about everything is also interesting. When I was in my twenties, I could find a trip to the DMV to be revelatory. Now that I’m fifty, even an unprecedented global pandemic leaves me wondering what I could possibly add to what’s already been said.
It’s worth noting that the responses to my remarks were split along some pretty clear lines. Professional writers who’d been mining their lives for material for years, if not decades, told me they deeply related to what I was saying. “I feel seen,” said one (maybe partly in jest, but still). Like me, they’d noticed a loss of interest in themselves over the years. The bloom of their self-regard — and in many cases their self-scrutiny — was off the rose.
This leads me to the question of self-scrutiny, which I’ve always considered my speciality. Once upon a time, beating yourself up a little on the page was the best way to head off criticism. Now it just invites more beatings. Instead of disparaging or mocking yourself on your own terms, the crowd does it for you. Back in the primeval 1990s, when my career in navel gazing began, it was up to me to tell readers what a dolt I was, how preening, how lonely, how dismally (dare I say?) human this narrator was as she stood before them. The arrangement between me and readers was this: I wrote and they read. Then we both went our merry ways.
Today, the self-critique is crowdsourced. In any given personal essay, there is no amount of artful self-deprecation that won’t be drowned out by Twitter scolds who are determined to beat the writer at her own game.
Nora Ephron, who I mentioned in that last post as someone who wrote much less candidly about herself as she got older, frequently talked about being the hero of your own story. “When you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you,” Ephron said famously. “But when you tell people you slip on a banana peel, it’s your laugh.”
The problem today is that social media sets the banana peel down for you. And if even if you slip and try to tell a funny anecdote about it later, the story won’t be about falling on the ground. It will be about falling into the merciless — yet utterly predictable — jaws of Twitter. And believe me, that’s never an entertaining story. If there’s anything less entertaining than hearing someone talk about being dragged on Twitter, I can’t think of it right now. I’d rather hear someone recount their dream of being late to the SAT than listen to someone complain about being excoriated on Twitter.
Nonetheless, I share that Ephron quote with writing students all the time. When I teach workshops, people tend to come in with raw material that they’re trying to shape into something publishable. Sometimes the material is still so raw that you almost want to read it through your fingers while covering your face. It needs revision, sure, but more than that the feeling is that it needs to be placed gently in an oven and baked. As a general rule (though there are countless exceptions) the younger the writer, the more the ingredients need to be paired down in order for the material to bake properly. They need to say less in order to say more.
For older writers, the opposite is true. Give us more!, I tend to say. I say it especially to writers who don’t consider themselves writers, or won’t allow themselves to identity as such. I say it to writers who’ve been waiting all their lives to write, who have a lot to tell us but have been putting it off, who know they’re not telling us anything that hasn’t been told a million times but are ready to say it anyway, in their own way, whatever that means. I say it to writers who, unlike me, haven’t already cannibalized their pasts into everything from behemoth essays to glossy magazine copy to blog posts in places like this. I say it to people who stand before their would-be readers with a tower of banana peels they’ve slipped on and saved over the years. Now that’s material you can work with.
In other words: Don’t read too much into it when I say I’m too old to talk about myself. I wasn’t talking about you. I was talking about me. Because there I go again.