And I don’t mean me! This is something I am stealing from an old person, or at least someone older than me.
Here it is: You can start over at any age.
Today I met an 81-year-old man named Nick. He is a writer. However, he does not call himself a writer. But a few years ago he started over and started writing. So, he is a writer.
We crossed paths because he was looking for an editor, a role I have played more than a few times in my life. We spoke briefly on the phone and settled on meeting at Starbucks (I know, not very original! But to those who have read my earlier post on Starbucks, you will be proud of me because I did NOT order a Medium Mocha Frappachinno with whipped cream! Yay me!).
I knew nothing about him other than he would be wearing a white hat.
You’re a Writer
I was grateful for know that he would be wearing a white hat so as to avoid the awkwardness of meeting someone you don’t know in a crowded Starbucks. I confidently walked right up to him. He stood up, shook my hand, and was the sweetest mixture of excitement and nervousness.
But first, he felt it necessary to appropriately set up my low expectations.
He left high school after freshman year. Eventually, he did earn his GED, but he considers himself uneducated. I hear lots of descriptions that people provide of themselves start just like this:
- “I am bad at writing.”
- “English is my second language.”
- “I have a learning disability.”
- “I went to a really bad high school.”
- “My parents don’t speak English.”
- “My parents didn’t read to me.”
- “I am a math person. My sister is the writer.”
They are endless. But they often are also self-fulfilling prophecies. In fact, sometimes, the best writers in my classes are those who share the most excuses about why they can’t write. I just don’t listen anymore.
Trying to distract him from his perceived weaknesses, I asked him to tell me about his writing.
“I can’t stop writing, and I don’t know what to do with these stories.”
He brought with him two notebooks: one a collection of short stories and one a novel. And this man who is not a writer told me that he left his second novel at home.
A few years ago, he had an idea, so he started writing a story. That story turned into nine short stories. But the part I love is that he did not even understand how the whole thing happened. He had never written before. He had never had the urge to write. But now he couldn’t stop. An object sitting on the desk, a dream in the middle of the night, a conversation with a grandchild – suddenly all of these were triggering stories that propelled him to get out of bed in the middle of the night and write.
He really wanted me to read one of his stories while we were there together to see if I thought they were junk or if he really might have something, as his family and friends keep telling him.
This made me nervous. But I agreed. I read while he sipped coffee and stared at me from the other side of the table. I have done enough of my own writing to know the shear terror he must have been feeling as I opened the notebook containing the cherished product of his imagination.
After reading a paragraph, my first thought was, “Thank goodness!” He had spent so much effort emphasizing his lack of education and knowledge of grammar and punctuation that I feared I would be reading an incoherent stream of consciousness. But no! He had great control of the language. He isn’t the first to let his insecurities lead.
And I would be lying if I said I never felt like that. Often, especially with this screenplay, I find myself worrying that I am delusional in thinking I can do this. Then I have to remind myself that indeed, I am a good writer. People like my work. That is where I have to start.
Now that I knew he could put together sentences, I could concentrate on the story. He couldn’t wait though. He stopped me before I was finished. He was eager to get a feel for what I was thinking.
“This is great!” Those three words lit his dream on fire. Three simple words.
His reaction reminded me of my stint teaching middle school (don’t ask!). I began my English classes with ten minutes of creative writing. Sometimes I would write the first sentence of a story on the board and have them finish it, and other times they could write whatever they wanted. This ended up connecting me to more students than anything else I did in those classes.
Students spent lunch periods and time after school sharing their stories with me. One day, a colleague was having lunch with me when a 6th grader brought me a story she had been writing. I read it and told her how much I loved her story. She beamed. My colleague was so shocked that a 6th grader could write something so impressive that she asked if she could also read it. When she finished, the little girl ran out to meet her friends.
My colleague turned to me and asked, “Did you seriously think that was a great story? Because I just didn’t see it.”
This little girl was 11 years old. She was excited to write! She was full of imagination. She took a risk! What do I care if the characters were not fully developed, if a theme did not jump off the page, if the dialogue fell flat.
“Go, go, go!” was all I wanted to tell her. Keep writing. I would never risk discouraging her.
Not surprisingly, those short stories unleashed something in him. He could not stop the ideas from flowing.
One summer, he said, he spent six to seven hours a day at the pool writing his novel. On paper. In long hand. At one point, he had to visit the doctor because of circulation problems in his legs – he wasn’t getting enough exercise!
“Can I tell you about my novel?”
Of course! What followed was a tale of intrigue, foreign dictators, government secrets, abandoned children, crime, and a variety of characters trying to make sense of their twisted lives. And it was told with a passion I rarely see in the classroom.
He paused at one point and asked, “Is this ok? That I am telling you the story?” I hope I did not look uninterested. But I was so captivated by his telling of the story that sometimes I forgot to actually listen to the story – I hope that makes sense.
And believe it or not, he is now working on his next novel. Unfortunately, like any practicing writer, he has come to a point where he is stuck and doesn’t know where the story should go.
But also like any practicing writer, he knows that this too shall end. “I’ll figure it out. I don’t know when. But the ideas will come to me and the problem will be solved,” he explained assuredly.
I am sure too.
What a Gift!
“What do you want to do with these?” I asked him.
He had no idea. That’s why he was talking to me. He just knew his granddaughter loved the story I read, and I can see why. It was clearly written for her.
These stories would be an amazing gift for his family.
I can’t overemphasize the significance of the written word, of the creative spirit so often unleashed on paper. Just write something – even just a paragraph – and show it to someone. You will immediately understand the vulnerability required not only to write but to share your writing with others.
There is so much that I loved about today: having the opportunity to meet with and maybe work with another writer, bearing witness to the passion of a story that inexplicably must be told, and being reminded of the fact that we have to keep living – until we aren’t living anymore. We have to keep reinventing ourselves and challenging ourselves. Even at 81!
I can’t help but think of my own father, also in his 80s, as he battles cancer. My sister and I have asked him for years to write down the stories of his life growing up on a farm in Minnesota and of his family suffering through the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. Recently, he started writing down some of these stories. And I cannot wait to get my hands on them. What a gift to not only my sister and me but also to his grandchildren. And an added benefit is the insight about his own life that he has gotten from retelling these stories.
Originally, I was worried this would be a project that I regretted getting involved with. But this gentleman painted a vision that got me excited too. I want to help him package his legacy.
We should all encourage each other to leave written legacies. For me, this screenplay and what it represents is one of the most important things I want to leave to my family. I would love to hear what written legacies have been left in some of your families.