What Am I Doing? A Writer at Eighty
March 30, 2022 § 55 Comments
By Abigail Thomas
I’ve always been curious about why one chooses fiction for one story and nonfiction for another. For me it’s pretty simple—some stories need to be served straight up. That’s nonfiction. Others need more architecture, that’s fiction. It’s a decision best left to the gut.
It has been a long time since I wrote fiction, it felt like flying when it went well, but then so does everything; it was thrilling to go chasing some bright scrap of cloth, or a pregnant Dalmatian, or a wild goose, but sooner or later, once I’d had my fun, I’d have to put a roof over its head, give it a place to live and a reason for existing.
Nonfiction comes easily. When something catches my eye, or keeps cropping up, I write. I’ve been at this long enough to know the next interesting thing often shows up in disguise, a bug, say, or a certain shade of blue, or a joke someone told that wasn’t funny. These bits and pieces don’t have to get dressed up for the occasion. I am distilling, not decorating. All I have to do is get it down and get it right. Get in and get out. It’s when I’m not quite hitting the bullseye that I am flummoxed. There are any number of fragments I have brooded over for days, trying to find that elusive missing bit, needing to get rid of the unsatisfied feeling when I read it aloud to myself. I’m better at cutting. My friend Chuck used to call me the samurai editor.
I love the word, “fragment.” It has a jagged quality. I looked it up in my “Dictionary of Indo-European Roots” and found it’s a straight shot back to the beginning, because its ancestor, bhreg, meant “to break.” I’m not sure writing is our way of fixing what’s broken, although that’s often a by-product of writing. Sometimes the word fragment could be more accurately defined as shrapnel, and the trick is to determine where the pain originates, remove the foreign object with surgical precision, and see what it is. Painful, but it’s part of the deal.
I never know if what I’m writing will add up to anything but I’m always curious to see where my mind goes when it’s off-leash. What does it stop to inspect, what does it return to? What the hell am I doing? What are all these memories doing in here? Then there’s a physical rush, like falling in love, when what I’m doing begins to reveal itself. I had my 80th birthday in 2021. What am I up to? I’m an old woman picking up the pieces of her day, wondering where they might lead, loving the journey.
Abigail Thomas is eighty years old. A new book of her essays will be published by The Golden Notebook later this year.
Love, love, love this. I, too, am better at cutting.
Oh I love this: “…it felt like flying when it went well, but then so does everything.” Thank you Abigail (and Brevity staff) for bringing these thoughts into my day.
I’m a huge fan of yours. It is so interesting and inspiring to hear about your writing process. “I’m distilling not decorating”. Thanks for writing this. I look forward to reading your new essays.
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“What the hell am I doing?” So relatable:) Thank you! Abigail Thomas is the best! Her words make me smile. I can’t wait to read the next book.
Looking suspiciously towards 72 soon, you make looking towards 80 a lot more delicious and I love you for that. Can’t wait for our Writers as Artist day with Beth Kephart! I adore every work of this essay.
This is beautiful and succinct and I will share it with my students. “Safekeeping” is one of my favorite books.
Enjoyed this essay immensely. What a wonderful attitude and view of craft! I’m pushing 80 myself and teetering on the brink of starting a new novel. I well know that writing both fiction and non requires research, but find “distilling” reality takes more energy than “decorating” it. I’d rather be sculpting plots and polishing words than chasing down sources. Cheers, Abigail!
So pleased to see you’re entering the 80s strong, and that there are other older writers among us. My debut novel came out when I turned 75. Write on! (I love Safekeeping, too, and use it in my memoirs class)
Thank you, Abigail! My mother turned 80 last week and I’m encouraging her to keep writing. You have always been an inspiration (I use some of your work as a case study in my Creative Nonfiction class (CNF.org) and I can’t wait for your new book of essays!
Thank you. And hooray for your mother!
Sorry to say, I was not familiar with you Abigail until this morning when I read this wonderful essay! Absolutely LOVED it – for SO many reasons, not the least of which is the bright ray of hope it gave this 64 year old who’s always dabbled in writing, but has finally decided it’s NOW or never to begin taking this calling seriously.
Can’t wait to read more of your work – including your latest book of essays soon to be published.
THANK YOU for making my day!
I’m so happy to see you on Brevity Blog. Your work was inspirational and supportive for me as wrote my memoir-turned-novel because the story did require structure and a bit of time/place manipulation to avoid antfarm-style tangents. The decision to drop the claim non-fiction or memoir wad difficult because I consider myself a nonfiction writer and the spines of Safekeeping and What Comes Next and How to Like It were front and center in my inspirational reading shelf. I admire your style, grace, and wit on the page and your willingness to own your life without apology. Reading your work was like knowing you and that is the highest achievement of memoir in my mind.
Love this! I’m 84, write constantly, have only been published in college literary magazines, and sometimes wonder why I’m still doing this. I mostly write poetry, which are fragments of my experience that hopefully will come together in someone else’s mind. Given that their context is not my context, it may or may not resonate. I just provide the opportunity.
Thank you. Don’t stop!
Absolutely LOVED this! Thank you.
I love that you’re loving the journey, and I love that you’re sharing your journey with your readers! ✨🌟💖🙏😘
Such radiant words! Brava, the bones of your text seems to be ‘…get it down and get it right. Get in and get out.’ Fabulous!
Thank you all, so very nice, all of you.
Wonderful! A trip I’m glad to have moseyed through–as I am always with your writing.
Please keep on writing essays. As a doctor, I was a big fan of your father’s. As a would-be memoirist, I always turn to you.
Beautifully said. It makes me want to be 80 so I might become so wise.
Thank you. And eighty is a great age!
I’m 76 and in declining health. Heavy chronic pain makes every day difficult whether I write or not. So I might as well write if I can… and if the meds allow me. Thanks, Abigail, for every word you put here. A real inspiration.
Absolutely, do write. Please do. And thank you.
Just LOVED this piece! It sounds like you just never stand still with your writing — following your eyes, your gut or an idea. Allowing your imagination and muse to flesh it out in your own unapologetically direct way. You have nothing to prove to anyone — you’re alive and you’re doing it! This is a whirlwind of a piece and makes me want to look up your other writings. I just had the courage to publish my own memoir, and at times it felt like giving blood. To me, it feels like you left all of that in the dust eons ago. If I’m lucky enough to still be alive at 80 (11 years from now), I hope I’m as sharp and enjoying the writing process as you very much seem to!
Thank you. Eighty is a lot simpler than youth!
Well, I needed to read this today. At 64 and still working on a novel I started 12 years ago, I can only say, thank you for reminding me why I keep at it.
Thank you, so glad it helped. Keep going.
Now this is the essence of the writing life! And living that life at 80 offers a depth to the work that is only available through having celebrated so many birthdays. Rock on. I can’t wait to read what you write at 100.
What an amazing essay! I’ve just sat down at my writing desk, feeling fragmented. So glad I began my writing day by reading this piece! Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Thank you. Fragmented? Yes, good, write them down.
I really loved this!
Thank you so much. I love your work, and I this essay. I just turned 70 and plan to follow your example.
I just wrote my first fiction book and I loved every minute of it. My blog is all of my “fragments” too. Thank you for being an inspiration.
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“..picking up the pieces of her day.” Perfect ending to a point well made. Always a pleasure to read your thoughts. Looking forward to your next book. Hey, that wouldn’t be a bad title ‘Picking up the pieces to her day’.
Absolutely loved reading.. looking forward for more of your writings. ❤️