Three nights ago I read an essay in The Atlantic (April, 2016) that explored the dynamics of self re-invention in later life. The article is by Barbara Bradley Hagerty (recognize the name? She was an NPR on-air reporter for years.) She quit her job recently to become a full-time writer.
Self-reinvention is a common fantasy, particularly as people age.
During my 40s, I hit a period of depression that became quite severe. What caused it? I’m not really sure. At the time, I was a technical writer for a software company in Santa Rosa; I hated the work. But it paid well, its own kind of Catch-22. How do you leave a strong salary and embark on something new?
I had already reinvented myself… multiple times. I was a freelance writer for four years after having spent 15 years in the corporate world in Dallas and San Francisco.
Around this time (2002, 2003) I came across a new translation of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (Gregory Hays, translator; Modern Library / Random House, 2002.)
I read it, cover to cover. Then I turned back to the first page and read it again slowly. I liked the wide-ranging nature of his concerns, and his idea (influenced by the philosophy of the Stoics) that we are ruled by our mind’s landscape.
Though there is a melancholy undertone to the work, it’s kept in balance by his belief in self-mastery. I was drawn to Aurelius’ continual admonishments to himself. Clearly, he understood the difficulty of controlling our runaway thoughts.
“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” ― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
And so I reinvented myself. I returned to graduate school and for the next year I wrote my thesis while working the tech writer job. I received my MFA, Creative Writing in 2003 and started teaching English as adjunct faculty at Mendocino College. The following year I quit the tech writer job, and a mere five years later I was hired full-time in 2009 as an Associate Professor. I received tenure in 2013.
Am I remaking myself again? It doesn’t feel that way. Yes, I’m writing a lot — sometimes eight hours/day. But I have these nagging questions: why am I doing this? Why embark on publishing a book in middle-age, unquestionably an uphill battle?
No one likes rejection. But I’ve been submitting work to magazine editors for years. I apply for fellowships, for artist residencies… rejection, rejection, rejection.
But then an acceptance — the Finland residency, say, or from an editor. And every time I have the same experience: elation that lasts about three days, then my Daily Life returns to normal.
Lead-time for publication is long; months pass before the magazine arrives. I flip the pages to find my work; I look at my name and bio at the back. I read the other writers then slip a copy in a gallon freezer bag and put it into my box of publications.
I don’t know how much I’ve published (or sold, in the case of clients.) When I last counted, maybe seven or eight years ago, the total was about 250 pieces.
And this is the thing: no one truly writes for publication. It’s too ephemeral, too fleeting. (Unpublished writers — and young writers in my Creative Writing classes — talk about getting published as if it’s the Holy Grail. I gently explain — yeah, it’s rewarding — but the pleasure passes quickly.)
Then you face another blank page, and start again. I’ve learned you have to feel pleasure in the time spent writing — the creating process — or it isn’t worth it.
Our inward power, when it obeys nature, reacts to events by accommodating itself to what it faces – to what is possible. It needs no specific material. It pursues its own aims as circumstances allow; it turns obstacles into fuel. As a fire overwhelms what would have quenched a lamp. What’s thrown on top of the conflagration is absorbed, consumed by it – and makes it burn still higher. — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
I have read Meditations many times. I carry it when I travel; a copy is near my bedside. Aurelius was born in 121 and died at the age of 58 in the year 180. His words still speak to me 1800 years later… am I seeking this kind of immortality?
That doesn’t ring true. I don’t daydream about people in the future reading my writing.
It’s not for money. One of the sad secrets of publishing is that only a hand-full of writers support themselves from their book sales.
Could reinvention be going on that I’m not fully conscious of?
I spoke to my dad on the phone a few days ago. He had questions about my travels in the Amazon; we chatted about this and that. Then dad told me he may have found another rental house to buy. My parents don’t need the money, or the headache. I asked him to explain and he said, I want to feel productive.
He’s 84 years old; he turns 85 in a couple of weeks. He still looks to the future, makes plans and sets goals for himself. Like dad, I enjoy accomplishing difficult tasks. The anticipation is important; that’s where my thoughts go sometime when I turn out the light at night.
Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.”
― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
It’s inspiring that dad thinks it’s natural to Dream Dreams at his age. When I was growing up, he used to say, “If you can’t find the way, then make a way.”
And I suppose that’s what I’m doing: feeling my way down a path I can’t see clearly. I like teaching and don’t plan to give that up. But despite many hours figuring out my motivations, I’m at a loss.
That’s part of life, too — living with questions that remain (so far) unanswered.