Let’s hope we’re all still writing when we’re old and grey

“Tall and agile at 97, with a neatly trimmed gray beard and oval tortoise shell glasses that magnified his glassy blue eyes, Mr. Ferlinghetti could pass for a man in his 70s. He still writes almost every day — ‘When an idea springs airborne into my head.’”

– Alexandra Alter, “A Literary Bromance, Now in Its Sixth Decade,” in The New York Times

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose poems I feel like I’ve been reading for several lifetimes, is polishing up a memoir/novel after years of badgering by his 96-year-old literary agent Sterling Lord. Their ages give me hope.

Wikipedia photo
Wikipedia photo

Hope. because it’s nice to live that long. It’s nice to still have words and a voice at that age and keep on writing. It’s nice to see that it’s possible to have a friend and colleague you’ve known since the beat-poet era of the 1950s. It’s nice and its hopeful to think that when one has a lot of ideas s/he wants to put into writing, it just might be possible to do it.

Not that I think I can equal Ferlinghetti’s 50 volumes of poetry by writing 50 novels. I’m realistic. Unlike Stephen King, who writes most of his novels in a couple of months,

I’m a lot slower. Ferlinghetti is, like Herman Wouk, (now 101) in that group of writers about whom people say, “Gosh, I thought he probably died years ago.” I don’t know how Ferlinghetti, Lord and Wouk react to those sentiments.

Doesn’t matter, really. It’s nice to know that if they ever hear people say that, they’re still around to say “I’m not only alive and kicking, I’m also alive and writing.” (There’s an interesting Herman Would article here.)

Photo from Herman Wouk's web site.
Photo from Herman Wouk’s web site.

Writing, I think, is one of those occupations that not only keeps people alive and kicking, it wards off the morbid maybe I should cash in my chips feelings a lot of people seem to get when they become senior citizens. Fortunately, writing doesn’t require heavy lifting or many other kinds of physical stamina that are usually gone by the time people each 96, 97 and 101. In fact, reading and writing are said to help develop people’s brains and minds when they’re young and keep brains and minds more facile and creative when they’re old.

What’s not to like?

Perhaps some of us will say everything we want to say before we’re old and grey. We’ll spend our years traveling. Tending our bees or our roses. Reading as much as we can. Enjoying family and friends and everything else with agile minds (due to the reading).

It’s hard to imagine not writing, even if we write only for ourselves and stash all those poems, novels and essays into basement file cabinets. When I was young, I once visited my 100-year-old aunt who not only remembered dozens of stories from crossing the country in a covered wagon, but also knew everything about current day books, politics and culture. I wondered how it felt to be 100. Mainly, I wondered if I’d be a totally different person. I’m not a hundred,  but as the years pass, my greatest surprise has been that age doesn’t change who one basically is–yes, we might have put away many of the thoughts and hobbies of youth, but still, we begin our days with hopes, many of which are similar to the hope felt when we were kids and beginning our first jobs and seeing our children born.

The writing gets better with age. Mostly, that’s just practice and experience. If you write for 60 years, you’re bound to get better. Most writers look forward to getting better even if they have great success when they’re young. We want to get better because no matter how well a book or a poem turns out, we see that it never quite matches the dreams we had for it when we wrote the first draft.

Like opera singers, we may lose some of the raw, unbridled power of our youth. There’s always more to be said, though. The fates are kind to give us time to say it.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Sarabande” and “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” both of which are available in paperback, e-book, and audiobook editions.