Still Writing at 90: So Many Questions

The creative richness and energy of the unconscious mind doesn't care how old we are. We are as young and as old as the characters we make up.
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Although I've been writing and publishing for 50 years, I'm always thrilled when a new book is launched. The Red Scarf, published recently, is the sequel to The Hat, , and its sequel, The Necklace, is in process on my computer, and should be finished soon. The three novels follow Kate Brady from the age of 18 to 80 and reflect my keen interest in the lives of women.

I'm asked often about why I continue to write, especially now that I am in my nineties. Writers will understand my response: because I can't not do it.

The terrific response to the Huffington Post series "My Left Breast" has also brought many other questions, and I thought I'd just take some time to answer the ones most asked of me.

When did you know that writing was something you loved and had a talent for?
I wrote my first story when I was 12 years old. But I think my writing actually began much earlier -- in fantasy. Raised by a widowed mother who went to work every day I was a lonely, daydreaming, latchkey kid. My guess is that many writers are shaped by out-of-the- ordinary childhoods, and like me, are given the unexpected gift of creativity.

When you had your first nationally published article in the Saturday Review way back in 1963, could you imagine yourself writing and doing perhaps your best work in your nineties?
The creative richness and energy of the unconscious mind doesn't care how old we are. We are as young and as old as the characters we make up. Of course, I was thrilled in 1963 to be published for the first time in a prestigious magazine, but what I love is that Confessions Of An Unpublished Writer is as relevant today as it was 50 years ago -- namely, that it is the writing itself that gives us pleasure -- not publication. Which is why we write. And by writing how we get to be better writers. Getting published is the icing on the cake.

What is your secret to longevity and still being creative?
You know, life comes in a bundle. The good, the bad, the disappointing and even the tragedies are all of a piece. It's all or nothing. When we accept the whole bundle with a quality of moral nerve and a certain toughness, we choose life. When we choose life, it chooses us. In other words, accepting the lot instead of the chair and the TV makes us emotionally and spiritually better able to survive the hits that life can dish out, including old age.

Judith Viorst has written that age is not a disability, it is an intense and varied experience that can call forth new ideas and strengths that weren't available in our youth. There can be more freedom, more wisdom, more perspective and self-honesty.

Talk about the main characters in your novels. Where did they come from? What is the genesis of each?
My father, a bootlegger who was murdered by the Mafia in a turf war, inspired the character of Ben in The Hat and Solly in The Red Scarf. But those are the exceptions. The other characters just spring on the page as I work, fueled by the richness of the unconscious. All of which makes fiction writing not only difficult, but mysterious and interesting.

How do you write a novel? Do you just start writing? Or, do you have a road map, an outline of some kind that you follow?Some writers work from an outline, but I don't. I try to develop the plot organically instead of from the top down. In other words, if I can get my characters to come alive on the page I'll just follow them along as they tell me their stories.

What are one or two lessons (if any) do you hope your readers take away from your novels?
I would hope they take away some sense of how fascinating and complicated it is to be alive. And that the truth about the human condition resides in fiction.

You wrote a memoir a few years ago. Was that difficult, to relive your life in a way and then write about even the most difficult parts?
Although my bootlegging father was murdered when I was only 2 years old, my mother told me when I was old enough to ask that he died of the flu. So, after growing up in a family of lies it felt very freeing and honest and cathartic to finally tell the truth in Lost And Found. And when people would come up to me after readings to share their family secrets, it was like opening a window of fresh air from the universe.

What one thing would you say to aspiring writers out there?
If I have to name one thing it would be to write and write. Without judgment. Every day. Whether you feel like it or not. Whether you're inspired or not. Because buried in all those words on the page is where you'll find the fabulous sentence or paragraph. (Many
novelists keep only ten percent of what they write.)


By Jennie Joseph

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple

With a red hat which doesn't go and doesn't suit me,

And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves

And satin sandals, and say we've no money for butter.

I shall sit down on the pavement when I'm tired

And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells

And run my stick along the public railings

And make up for the sobriety of my youth.

I shall go out in my slippers in the rain

And pick the flowers in other people's gardens

And learn to spit.

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