Wednesday, May 29, 2013
Retire? I'm just getting started!
by Sandra Parshall
A neighbor who just turned 100 asked me what I expect to be doing when I’m 100.
My answer? Writing, of course. At whatever age I reach ultimately, I hope I’ll still be killing people on the page and sending villains to a just punishment.
Novelists don’t retire in any conventional sense. We don’t decide that on a certain date we will walk away from our jobs forever. Nobody holds parties for retiring novelists and presents them with gold watches.
We may be involuntarily retired by illness, but only afterward do we look back and realize that A Particular Novel was our last. We’re likely to wish desperately that we’d known, so we could have made it better, more worthy of the honor of being a swan song.
The same is true for most creative people, who continue to paint or sculpt or create music into advanced old age, as long as their general health and mental state permit. Studies have shown that keeping our minds active and having work to do helps us live longer and more satisfying lives. Furthermore, the non-creative public expects artists of all stripes to go on producing their art, whatever it is, until they slam into that immovable object called death. Admirers are mystified when somebody simply stops for no discernable reason and drops out of sight.
I started thinking about all this while reading an article about Billy Joel in the May 26 issue of The New York Times Magazine. Maybe you saw Joel perform during the Hurricane Sandy relief concert, but you haven’t seen him on any other stage recently. At 64, he’s retired. After finishing a 2010 tour with Elton John that left him literally crippled by pain, Joel had double hip replacement surgery, and he feels fine now, but he has no desire to return to an active performing career. He gave up recording long ago: he hasn’t released an album in 20 years. He lives a quiet life in Sag Harbor with his dogs, his motorcycles, and his current girlfriend.
A lot of people seem puzzled when a celebrity chooses to give up the glamorous trappings of life in the spotlight. But if you read what Joel says about it, that life will seem much less desirable. He couldn’t enjoy an evening out with the woman in his life because he was constantly approached by fans. He couldn’t take his daughter to an amusement park or do any number of other ordinary things most people take for granted. Now he’s “an oldies act” who isn’t popular with today’s kids, and the longer he stays away from performing, the closer to normal his life becomes. He still writes music because he still has the creative urge, but it’s not rock music anymore. His term for the Rolling Stones, Pete Townsend, Paul McCartney, and others in their 60s and 70s who still perform is “rocking-chair rockers.”
Writing is an easier career than popular music for older people, as long as our minds stay sharp. We’re encouraged to get out and about and meet readers, but public appearances aren’t strictly necessary. Our publishers want us to do Facebook and Goodreads, but no one expects us to dance around a stage and destroy our hip joints by leaping off pianos. Only super-famous authors are recognized in public and treated like celebrities. Most writers can live perfectly ordinary lives while thousands of people are reading what we write.
Some authors don’t even begin their writing careers until they get the kids out of the house or retire from other jobs and, at last, have time to follow their hearts’ desire. Many – like myself – write for years before we finally get a toehold in the publishing world. Others my age may be settling into a life of leisure, but don’t talk to me about retiring – I’m just getting started!
What are you planning to do with your golden years? Relax – or pursue a long-deferred dream?
(And be honest: do you think it’s time for Mick Jagger, who will turn 70 in July, to hang it up?)