When I turned 63, I didn’t feel old, but I knew time was beginning to run out and, having always meant to write a great literary novel, I started working at it as if I were 20. Mostly, no one paid much attention, which was just as well since I needed practice. Now, at 70, I’m still writing but it’s getting harder for people to take me seriously, even though I’m getting better. I mean, it does seem to be the case that most successful writers started years earlier than I did. If they’re still doing it at 70, people marvel.
But, at the same time, being old has left me no choice but to write. As if the day-to-day facade of me were a garden gate and the lifetime of memories and feelings behind it a lush jungle of a garden that can no longer be contained. As if the objects and events of my past are souled and beg to be resuscitated and let loose from my muddled brain. You know. Something like that.
Still, the most extraordinary thing about old age is its closeness to death. It takes guts to be old. Does the nearness of death inform everything the aging artist does? On some level, are we all like Ferdinand Cheval, the French outsider artist, who, refused official permission to be buried in the vault he’d prepared in his Palais idéal, the magnificent product of 33 years of labor, spent eight more years building another, a burying place for himself? Two years after he finished his Tomb of Silence and Endless Rest, at the age of 88, he died and was entombed there.
A fine ending to an artist’s life—to find rest in his work. Or, for those of us who aren’t actually making tombs, consider this from poet May Sarton:
I have always looked forward to old age, and the reason, as the poems make clear, is that I have known so many great old people. Well, I looked forward to old age wrongly because I imagined it would be serene and uncluttered, and rightly because it would make it possible for me to grow and to create poems and books that have growth in them. I am convinced that we are on earth to make our souls. And to that extent old age, of course, is the most thrilling time of all. Because we are coming close to an end, this conviction, that the making of a soul is of paramount importance, is very much with us.