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.

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