the girlchild's question

This morning my daughter asked me what I was working on.

Now, the girlchild is a normal kid in that at almost seventeen, the world is very narrow. It’s mostly about surviving high school. Parents figure in only peripherally. Do you think about the cornerstone holding up your house? Only in case of earthquake. Almost seventeen = lotsa earthquakes. Otherwise, we’re invisible.

But once in a while she wakes up and notices me scribbling, as she did this morning. So I told her, and there followed a brief conversation on which books were finished and coming out this year, and what I was writing now and next. She got a thoughtful look on her face and asked me a big question. She wanted to know if I would be done writing when I finish the two books I’ve got contracts for.

My first reaction was to point out that I’m too young to retire, and anyway, we couldn’t afford for me to retire, not with college around the corner. But the question stuck in my head and I have been thinking ever since about the rest of my career. I have a grandmother and five aunts who all lived into their nineties. I could be around for a good while, after all. Will I just… keep on writing? Will I ever be able to retire, need to retire, want to retire?

I remember as a twenty-something working in an office. There were ten or so women who worked in the secretarial pool who were fifty or older, and who had been there for their whole working careers. You have to think about that. They started working out of high school and forty years later they were still there in the same cave-like office with no windows. I was fascinated and horrified. They seemed to be normal, most of them — they had families and grandkids and they bowled or sang in the church choir or collected teddy bears. I would guess that most of them had started in that typing pool with the understanding that if all went well, they’d be right there until retirement. My parents’ generation — raised in the depression and during the war — lectured about the importance of steady work. You had a decent job with benefits, you stayed with it.

Six years ago I left academia, where I had an established career, a good salary, excellent benefits. I left academia and I started writing full time, self employed — no benefits unless you count being able to go to work in a ratty bathrobe as a benefit. If I had stayed in academia there would have come a day to retire, and somebody would have organized a party, and I would have signed papers. An official end to a career, and a ticket to go out in the world and do something else.

The self employed have to provide such things for themselves. I could someday buy a baloon and a cake and a gold watch and wish myself well in my retirement.

But here’s the weird thing. I can’t imagine retiring. That is, I can’t imagine not needing to earn money. On the other hand, I can’t imagine not retiring. That is, I can’t see myself as a eighty year old agonizing over book twenty three or thirty three or whatever. I don’t want to be agonizing at age eighty. At this moment, if we magically won a huge lottery jackpot (and I say magically not so much because of the odds, but because I rarely buy a ticket) and I really didn’t have to work anymore, would I stop writing?

Sure. Sure I would. It would feel great, no deadlines, no pressures, no sales figures to worry about. I can imagine waking up in the morning and having the day to fiddle in the workshop and take drawing classes and go for walks. No need to open the computer or check email. The question is, how long I’d last before I felt compelled to start writing again, or if the urge would simply go away. The same way I wonder what it would be like to look at a bar of really expensive chocolate and think, really, chocolate is overrated. Or to be served eggs benedict and look at the hollandaise, all buttery and lemony and say, oh no, thanks. Not my thing. The same way I could never be anything but pleased and happy when my daughter notices me and sits down to talk.

Some things just can’t be imagined away.

9 Replies to “the girlchild's question”

  1. Perhaps what you might desire if and when you retire from writing is not so much to retire from telling stories but from the professional aspects of writing …. as you said, the pressures, the deadlines. Perhaps it would be more like writing for yourself again. Though I wonder whether you would still agonise over characters and plot developments. Probably, because I suppose that’s part of it, isn’t it? But at least you would have a deadline.

  2. At the office Christmas party last year I ended up talking to a couple of women like the ones you described, older ladies who spent their whole lives at the same job.

    They had a few drinks in them and started saying things like, “How long’ve you been with us now girlie? Only five years? You’re still a baby, we’ll have a talk in another ten years!” Worse than that, one of them said, “Don’t wish that on her, I blinked and twenty years had passed me by.”

    I wasn’t worried, I was still at a ‘temporary’ job, I could walk away any time, nothing was at stake. Then yesterday I got a letter from Human Resources saying I had been made permanent. This terrifies me more than I care to admit, this is like getting one more foot caught in the trap. It should be a relief, but its not–I suppose the trick is not to blink…

  3. Not to worry, Rosina. I’ve got it all figured out for you. Here’s what you do. Go ahead and retire. Take a break a for a couple of years or until you feel the urge to write again. After writing three or four books during your retirement period–taking as much time as you need, of course–no pressure here, publish a book. But you won’t have to worry about deadlines and such because you’ve got two or three books on the shelf ready to go. You’re ahead of the game. You’re set for the next three or four years, or until you’re ready to retire again.

  4. If Dorothy Dunnet had retired we would have had The Lymond Chronicles but not The House of Niccolo.

  5. Having been retired for a few years, I was intending to give you the Dunnett example, but have been preempted. I expected all the worries of corporate stuff to go away and volunteer into the rosy sunset. Tonight I’m teaching a 2-hour gardening class, with a person I don’t know translating into Spanish. My helper who would have translated is out with stomach poisoning. Oh, yeah, the new helper’s car won’t start. So, see, retirement doesn’t end all worries.

  6. My parents have both retired, and for them it has meant a lifestyle busier than ever, but doing things they have wanted to do for years. They were both teachers, and neither have stopped teaching really – they have just adjusted their techniques. Now my mother coaches pupils individually, and picks and chooses them. Now my father has learned to play the bagpipes, and helps teach other new players. In between these and many other activities they relax and enjoy each other’s company and that of their friends. Maybe retirement for you will mean that you continue to write, but with shorter sessions and longer breaks and less pressure. Maybe it will mean you experiment with different writing forms. I don’t really know, but I understand that creative artists don’t leave behind their creative impulses and compulsions when they get to retirement age.

  7. My dad retired a few years ago and mom never worked outside of the house, so now they are doing more than they’ve ever done before and wonder when they had the time to “work”. They redecorated every room of their house, re-did the basement and are making the furniture they need to do their hobbies. Retirement is what you make it, you can make money on the side by doing what you want to do….
    BUT only after Journey’s End is done! (Tee Hee!)

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