“As you grow old, you lose your interest in sex, your friends drift away, your children ignore you. There are many other advantages, of course, but these would seem to me to be the outstanding ones.” (Richard Needham, Toronto Globe columnist)
I was young once; I remember it distinctly. What I read and wrote then was vastly different from what I write and read now. A whole other person has taken over my brain and, unfortunately, my body. Don’t laugh – it will happen to you.
It must be November that brings this to mind – a sad, declining month. Normally I don’t think much about age. In my head I’m about eight years old. But the dark evenings and cold mornings, bringing just a twinge or arthritis, make it harder to ignore what I like to call anno domino. (A feeble joke, but better than nothing).
For a writer, the worst thing about growing older is losing touch with the young. This can happen invisibly, as your readers age with you. It’s easier to spot the change if you are a teacher, as I was until recently. It slowly dawned on me, over a period of years, that my college age students and I were inhabiting quite different planets. Their world of music, video and teenage celebrity was a mystery to me, and my world of music, books and ideas was equally a mystery to them. The apparent collapse of the school system seems to have left them with zero knowledge of history, geography, and languages, which made it even harder for an old-fashioned teacher to bridge the gap. There’s nothing wrong with these young people. They are bright and usually interesting. But I found we were simply not communicating, which is very bad news for a teacher.
Fortunately I have retired from college teaching. But I continue to write, and I have an uneasy feeling that my communication skills are letting me down there also. When I pick up novels by young authors, or read their blogs, their language seems almost unintelligible to me, their preoccupations alien, and their emotional world unreadable. They have shifted into a different mode, perhaps an electronic mode. Electronics are at the center of their world. Walking through Florence last year I came upon an unusually large crowd of young people pushing through a small doorway. Was this the Massacio Museum, I wondered, or Dante’s House, or the Pitti, or the Uffizi? No, it was the Internet Café. We can’t stop progress, although I think sometimes we should try.
Well, this is nothing new. My grandmother, born in 1884, was as archaic to me as I obviously am to a modern teenager. She refused to have radio in her house because she thought the invisible waves would kill her. Without a radio she lived to be ninety-nine, so she may have had a point.
But my point is that an out of touch older writer is missing the chance to communicate with the most important people in the world – the young. It’s hard to admit this in America, because there is a sort of national pretense that we are all young forever (this is what leads so many foreigners to refer to Americans as “big children.”) Nobody wants to turn into a curmudgeonly old person (“Too late!” I hear my friends cry).
In a very practical sense an older writer’s markets may be limited. Most magazine editors now seem to be about twenty years old, and book editors are not much older. Their outlook is not my outlook. They want to find the younger audience, not a bunch of seniors who won’t be around for long. You may remember that, a few years ago, some Hollywood studios began to bar any writers over the age of forty. The lawsuits are ongoing, but it shows the direction of the wind.
But what’s an oldie to do? Are we supposed to take up rap music and video games, so we can “relate” to the younger generations? Or are we supposed to stick with our own age group, and finally just fade gracefully away?