Writing advice: Anne Lamott and Toni Morrison

This past Saturday, I watched Anne Lamott on a webinar sponsored by Book Passage. She spoke from her home for three hours, sharing her wisdom on writing.

She shared titles of books that might help with writing:

She shared books that gave her confidence that she could write using their structures, multiple points of view, etc:

She shared many tips, some from other writers. She told her us that we can use all that she shared. She cautioned, however, to give credit to the original source of her advice when appropriate. For example, E. L. Doctorow said: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” In other words, Anne stressed, that we should start to write in short increments. We don’t need to have the whole picture before we begin.

She shared the following writing tips:

  1. Stop NOT Writing.
  2. Don’t be pressured to write well. Write badly. ( remember in Bird by Bird, Anne coined: write a shitty first draft?)
  3. Trust you are loaded with stories to be told.
  4. Don’t try to “think” the story—just be available and let it happen.
  5. If you feel blocked, just write about it.
  6. Don’t tell us—start with the action. Describe. It’s a movie behind your eyes.
  7. Don’t force humor.
  8. If you are too close to the story, pretend you are Margaret Mead studying the aboriginal tribes.
  9. Tape record dialogue. Edit when it’s played back.
  10. Spend the most time at the beginning of your work paying attention to structure.


In closing, Anne instructed us to google writing advice from various writers.

Here is a shorten version of an article in Lit Hub written by Emily Temple, August 6, 2019. I “sifted through her interviews and speeches to find out what she thinks about writing.”

Temple has highlighted some of her (Toni’s) wisdom below:

“You Don’t Know Anything.” And Other Writing Advice from Toni Morrison

I don’t want to hear about your true love and your mama and your papa and your friends.

By Emily Temple

August 6, 2019

I can’t think of another writer who is quite so universally beloved as Toni Morrison. Her work is magnificent, her legacy is unimpeachable, and she reveals her brilliance at every opportunity. She also taught for many years at Princeton, and I think it’s safe to assume she knows a thing or two about nurturing young minds. So, using the relatively flimsy excuse of her birthday—Morrison turns 88 on Monday, which is also Presidents’ Day (is this a sign?)—I sifted through her interviews and speeches to find out what she thinks about writing. I’ve highlighted some of her wisdom below.

Write what you want to read.

I wrote the first book because I wanted to read it. I thought that kind of book, with that subject—those most vulnerable, most undescribed, not taken seriously little black girls—had never existed seriously in literature. No one had ever written about them except as props. Since I couldn’t find a book that did that, I thought, “Well, I’ll write it and then I’ll read it.” It was really the reading impulse that got me into the writing thing.

–from a 2014 interview with NEA Arts Magazine

Figure out how you work best.

I tell my students one of the most important things they need to know is when they are their best, creatively. They need to ask themselves, What does the ideal room look like? Is there music? Is there silence? Is there chaos outside or is there serenity outside? What do I need in order to release my imagination?

–from a 1993 interview with Elissa Schappell in The Paris Review

Use the world around you.

Everything I see or do, the weather and the water, buildings . . . everything actual is an advantage when I am writing. It is like a menu, or a giant tool box, and I can pick and choose what I want. When I am not writing, or more important, when I have nothing on my mind for a book, then I see chaos, confusion, disorder.

–from a 2009 interview with Pam Houston in O Magazine

Let characters speak for themselves.

I try really hard, even if there’s a minor character, to hear their memorable lines. They really do float over your head when you’re writing them, like ghosts or living people. I don’t describe them very much, just broad strokes. You don’t know necessarily how tall they are, because I don’t want to force the reader into seeing what I see. It’s like listening to the radio as a kid. I had to help, as a listener, put in all of the details. It said “blue,” and I had to figure out what shade. Or if they said it was one way, I had to see it. It’s a participatory thing.

–from a 2014 interview with NEA Arts Magazine

Be open.

It’s that being open—not scratching for it, not digging for it, not constructing something but being open to the situation and trusting that what you don’t know will be available to you. It is bigger than your overt consciousness or your intelligence or even your gifts; it is out there somewhere and you have to let it in.

–from a 2009 interview with Pam Houston in O Magazine

Don’t read your work out loud until it’s finished.

I don’t trust a performance. I could get a response that might make me think it was successful when it wasn’t at all. The difficulty for me in writing—among the difficulties—is to write language that can work quietly on a page for a reader who doesn’t hear anything. Now for that, one has to work very carefully with what is in between the words. What is not said. Which is measure, which is rhythm, and so on. So, it is what you don’t write that frequently gives what you do write its power.

–from a 1993 interview with Elissa Schappell in The Paris Review

Don’t complain.

I think some aspects of writing can be taught. Obviously, you can’t expect to teach vision or talent. But you can help with comfort. . . . [Confidence] I can’t do much about. I’m very brutal about that. I just tell them: You have to do this, I don’t want to hear whining about how it’s so difficult. Oh, I don’t tolerate any of that because most of the people who’ve ever written are under enormous duress, myself being one them. So whining about how they can’t get it is ridiculous. What I can do very well is what I used to do, which is edit. I can follow their train of thought, see where their language is going, suggest other avenues. I can do that, and I can do that very well. I like to get in the manuscript.

–from a 1998 interview with Zia Jaffrey in Salon

Beware of overworking.

Those [paragraphs] that need reworking I do as long as I can. I mean I’ve revised six times, seven times, thirteen times. But there’s a line between revision and fretting, just working it to death. It is important to know when you are fretting it; when you are fretting it because it is not working, it needs to be scrapped.

–from a 1993 interview with Elissa Schappell in The Paris Review

Embrace failure.

As a writer, a failure is just information. It’s something that I’ve done wrong in writing, or is inaccurate or unclear. I recognize failure—which is important; some people don’t—and fix it, because it is data, it is information, knowledge of what does not work. That’s rewriting and editing.

With physical failures like liver, kidneys, heart, something else has to be done, something fixable that’s not in one’s own hands. But if it’s in your hands, then you have to pay very close attention to it, rather than get depressed or unnerved or feel ashamed. None of that is useful. It’s as though you’re in a laboratory and you’re working on an experiment with chemicals or with rats, and it doesn’t work. It doesn’t mix. You don’t throw up your hands and run out of the lab. What you do is you identify the procedure and what went wrong and then correct it. If you think of [writing] simply as information, you can get closer to success.

–from a 2014 interview with NEA Arts Magazine

Learn how to read—and critique—your own work.

People say, I write for myself, and it sounds so awful and so narcissistic, but in a sense if you know how to read your own work—that is, with the necessary critical distance—it makes you a better writer and editor. When I teach creative writing, I always speak about how you have to learn how to read your work; I don’t mean enjoy it because you wrote it. I mean, go away from it, and read it as though it is the first time you’ve ever seen it. Critique it that way. Don’t get all involved in your thrilling sentences and all that . . .

–from a 1993 interview with Elissa Schappell in The Paris Review

Seek holiness.

What I’m going to say is going to sound so pompous, but I think an artist, whether it’s a painter or a writer, it’s almost holy. There’s something about the vision, the wisdom. You can be a nobody, but seeing that way, it’s holy, it’s godlike. It’s above the normal life and perception of all of us, normally. You step up. And as long as you’re up there, even if you’re a terrible person—especially if you’re a terrible person—you see things that come together, and shake you, or move you, or clarify something for you that outside of your art you would not have known. It really is a vision above, or beyond.

–from a 2017 interview with Granta


Emily Temple

Emily Temple is the managing editor at Lit Hub. Her first novel, The Lightness, was published by William Morrow/HarperCollins in June 2020. You can buy it here.


One day before this was published, Toni Morrison died from pneumonia.

Handpicked by BookBub

My Ebook, Stories from the Tenth-Floor Clinic: A Nurse Remembers, has been handpicked by BookBub from thousands of titles to be featured Tuesday, as one of their .99 EBook deals!



Click here to order from Amazon.

Wonderland Book Club

QR bookclubLast Friday I discussed my book, Stories from the Tenth-Floor Clinic: A Nurse Practitioner Remembers at the Wonderland Book Club, which was held at a local independent bookstore. The audience was quite engaged and we shared discussions not only of my book but of the status of nurses, problems within the health care industry in general and in North Carolina in particular.

Here are some of the questions/comments:

  1. How do you deal with the stress of caring for patients? Do you take these problems home with you?

Me:  I have always taken home patient problems as evidenced by what I wrote in my journals. Journaling was a way I dealt with problems at work. The more difficult the patient issues, the more time I spent writing in my journal. A lot of the stories from the book have been documented in my journal. In fact, the last chapter, Playing Sheriff, was written before I found the journal from that time period. I was surprised to find the story closely paralleled the journal entry.

  1. How brave you were to write about your mother. (I’ve had this comment before. The first time, I really didn’t understand what the person was talking about)

Me:  It was difficult to write about my mother. We didn’t get along. It was especially disturbing that I was a gerontological specialist and couldn’t get along with my own elderly mother. But it was truth and I felt it was part of my story. (At another reading, I was asked what happened to my mother when she had a place of her own. I told how my mother found a boyfriend. Wish I had thought to add that to my response.)

  1. How do you deal with writing about yourself? (Asked by someone who doesn’t write non-fiction)

Me:  I look at this book as a story about someone I know. I tried to dissociate from myself so it was easier to be honest about my actions.

  1. Who was your most memorable patient?

Me:  Helen Stoltz. She lived in the apartment next door to the clinic. When I wasn’t busy, she would drop-in and sit a few minutes beside my desk and teach me about aging. Of course, she didn’t know that what’s she was doing. She talked about getting older and eventually dying, which showed me that older folks aren’t afraid of talking about death. She was ready to die. However, she was cheerful and upbeat and accepting of her life until her time came.

  1. What was the most memorable line your wrote in your book?

Me: I didn’t write it but it came verbatim from my notes at the time. The funeral director told me how to go about purchasing a grave site for the Pigeon Lady: The Greeks are tight but the Catholics will give you a break. (page 96). I’m thankful that I wrote down what he said. He was such a character—embodied with Chicago smarts and a big heart.

What I didn’t say was that “I killed all my darlings.” Therefore, there are no “precious” sentences that have survived my editing, thank goodness.

Besides the Q & A, I was happy to be able to drop some facts about nursing, such as nurses have been voted the most respected of professions for the past 18 years. And that the World Health Organization designated 2020 the Year of the nurse and midwife.

I was grateful for such an enthusiastic and supportive turnout.














Pollyanna No More

I’m calling myself out for being, or trying to be, so positive about aging. I have written often in my Blog about the favorable aspects of aging. I jump on anything that smacks of an older person challenging the stereotypes: the 80-year-old male model that struts down the runway, biceps rippling; old women in New York City dressed flamboyantly, looking spiffy and attracting approval; writers who have best sellers in their 80s and 90s; older couples finding their soul mates along with good sex, and aging stars in TV programs engaging in “youthful” endeavors. I am nothing if not Pollyanna.

Ever since I read Old News by Arthur Krystal in the October 28, 2019 New Yorker, I have questioned my intent on down playing the negative side of aging.

Arthur Krystal’s essay is thought provoking. He starts out by saying that with people living longer, there is an increase in interest in the trajectory of aging. Hence, there are many books published about aging. Most have a decidedly positive bent. “Our senior years are evidently a time to celebrate ourselves and the wonderful things to come: traveling, volunteering, canoodling, acquiring new skill, and so on. No one , it seems, wants to disparage old age.” He goes on to argue that “the optimistic narrative of pro-aging writers doesn’t line up with the dark story told by the human body.”

I can see that we avoid speaking of the dark side of aging when we have little control to stop the inevitable. I guess that’s why I choose to focus on the positive. Since there is no one way to confront aging, in the future, I will lean toward Krystal’s conclusion: “. . . just about every book on the subject (of aging) advocates a ‘positive’ attitude toward aging in order to maintain a sense of satisfaction and to achieve a measure of wisdom. And yet it seems to me that a person can be both wise and unhappy, wise and regretful, and even wise and dubious about the wisdom of growing old.”




A long life is a gift. But will we really be grateful for it?

By Arthur Krystal

October 28, 2019

In days of old, when most people didn’t live to be old, there were very few notable works about old age, and those were penned by writers who were themselves not very old. Chaucer was around fifty when “The Merchant’s Tale” was conceived; Shakespeare either forty-one or forty-two when he wrote “King Lear,” Swift fifty-five or so when gleefully depicting the immortal but ailing Struldbruggs, and Tennyson a mere twenty-four when he began “Tithonus” and completed “Ulysses,” his great anthem to an aging but “hungry heart.”

One might think that forty was not so young in Shakespeare’s day, but if you survived birth, infections, wars, and pestilence you stood a decent chance of reaching an advanced age no matter when you were born. Average life expectancy was indeed a sorry number for the greater part of history (for Americans born as late as 1900, it wasn’t even fifty), which may be one reason that people didn’t write books about aging: there weren’t enough old folks around to sample them. But now that more people on the planet are over sixty-five than under five, an army of readers stands waiting to learn what old age has in store.

Reading through a recent spate of books that deal with aging, one might forget that, half a century ago, the elderly were, as V. S. Pritchett noted in his 1964 introduction to Muriel Spark’s novel “Memento Mori,” “the great suppressed and censored subject of contemporary society, the one we do not care to face.” Not only are we facing it today; we’re also putting the best face on it that we possibly can. Our senior years are evidently a time to celebrate ourselves and the wonderful things to come: travelling, volunteering, canoodling, acquiring new skills, and so on. No one, it seems, wants to disparage old age. Nora Ephron’s “I Feel Bad About My Neck” tries, but is too wittily mournful to have real angst. Instead, we get such cheerful tidings as Mary Pipher’s “Women Rowing North: Navigating Life’s Currents and Flourishing as We Age,” Marc E. Agronin’s “The End of Old Age: Living a Longer, More Purposeful Life,” Alan D. Castel’s “Better with Age: The Psychology of Successful Aging,” Ashton Applewhite’s “This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism,” and Carl Honoré’s “Bolder: Making the Most of Our Longer Lives”—five chatty accounts meant to reassure us that getting old just means that we have to work harder at staying young.

Pipher is a clinical psychologist who is attentive to women over sixty, whose minds and bodies, she asserts, are steadily being devalued. She is sometimes tiresomely trite, urging women to “conceptualize all experiences in positive ways,” but invariably sympathetic. Agronin, described perhaps confusingly as “a geriatric psychiatrist” (he’s in his mid-fifties), believes that aging not only “brings strength” but is also “the most profound thing we accomplish in life.” Castel, a professor of psychology at U.C.L.A., believes in “successful aging” and seeks to show us how it can be achieved. And Applewhite, who calls herself an “author and activist,” doesn’t just inveigh against stereotypes; she wants to nuke them, replacing terms like “seniors” and “the elderly” with “olders.” Olders, she believes, can get down with the best of them. Retirement homes “are hotbeds of lust and romance,” she writes. “Sex and arousal do change, but often for the better.” Could be, though I’ve never heard anyone testify to this. Perhaps the epicurean philosopher Rodney Dangerfield (who died a month short of his eighty-third birthday), having studied the relationship between sexuality and longevity, said it best: “I’m at the age where food has taken the place of sex in my life. In fact, I’ve just had a mirror put over my kitchen table.”

Applewhite makes an appearance in Honoré’s book. She tells Honoré, a Canadian journalist who is now fifty-one, that aging is “like falling in love or motherhood.” Honoré reminds us that “history is full of folks smashing it in later life.” Smashers include Sophocles, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Bach, and Edison, who filed patents into his eighties. Perhaps because Honoré isn’t an American, he omits Satchel Paige, who pitched in the majors until he was fifty-nine. Like Applewhite, who claims that the older brain works “in a more synchronized way,” Honoré contends that aging may “alter the structure of the brain in ways that boost creativity.

These authors aren’t blind to the perils of aging; they just prefer to see the upside. All maintain that seniors are more comfortable in their own skins, experiencing, Applewhite says, “less social anxiety, and fewer social phobias.” There’s some evidence for this. The connection between happiness and aging—following the success of books like Jonathan Rauch’s “The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50” and John Leland’s “Happiness Is a Choice You Make: Lessons from a Year Among the Oldest Old,” both published last year—has very nearly come to be accepted as fact. According to a 2011 Gallup survey, happiness follows the U-shaped curve first proposed in a 2008 study by the economists David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald. They found that people’s sense of well-being was highest in childhood and old age, with a perceptible dip around midlife.

Lately, however, the curve has invited skepticism. Apparently, its trajectory holds true mainly in countries where the median wage is high and people tend to live longer or, alternatively, where the poor feel resentment more keenly during middle age and don’t mind saying so. But there may be a simpler explanation: perhaps the people who participate in such surveys are those whose lives tend to follow the curve, while people who feel miserable at seventy or eighty, whose ennui is offset only by brooding over unrealized expectations, don’t even bother to open such questionnaires.

One strategy of these books is to emphasize that aging is natural and therefore good, an idea that harks back to Plato, who lived to be around eighty and thought philosophy best suited to men of more mature years (women, no matter their age, could not think metaphysically). His most famous student, Aristotle, had a different opinion; his “Ars Rhetorica” contains long passages denouncing old men as miserly, cowardly, cynical, loquacious, and temperamentally chilly. (Aristotle thought that the body lost heat as it aged.) These gruff views were formed during the first part of Aristotle’s life, and we don’t know if they changed before he died, at the age of sixty-two. The nature-is-always-right argument found its most eloquent spokesperson in the Roman statesman Cicero, who was sixty-two when he wrote “De Senectute,” liberally translated as “How to Grow Old,” a valiant performance that both John Adams (dead at ninety) and Benjamin Franklin (dead at eighty-four) thought highly of.

Montaigne took a more measured view. Writing around 1580, he considered the end of a long life to be “rare, extraordinary, and singular . . . ’tis the last and extremest sort of dying: and the more remote, the less to be hoped for.” Montaigne, who never reached sixty, might have changed his mind upon learning that, in the twenty-first century, people routinely live into their seventies and eighties. But I suspect that he’d still say, “Whoever saw old age, that did not applaud the past, and condemn the present times?” No happiness curve for him.

There is, of course, a chance that you may be happier at eighty than you were at twenty or forty, but you’re going to feel much worse. I know this because two recent books provide a sobering look at what happens to the human body as the years pile up. Elizabeth Blackburn and Elissa Epel’s “The Telomere Effect: Living Younger, Healthier, Longer” and Sue Armstrong’s “Borrowed Time: The Science of How and Why We Age” describe what is essentially a messy business. Armstrong, a British science and health writer, presents, in crack Michael Lewis style, the high points of aging research along with capsule biographies of the main players, while Blackburn, one of three recipients of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology, focusses on the shortening of telomeres, those tiny aglets of DNA attached to our chromosomes, whose length is a measure of cellular health. Basically, most cells divide and replicate some fifty-plus times before becoming senescent. Not nearly as inactive as the name suggests, senescent cells contribute to chronic inflammation and interfere with protective collagens. Meanwhile, telomeres shorten with each cell division, even as life style affects the degree of shrinkage—data now suggest that “married people, or people living with a partner, have longer telomeres.”

Walt Whitman, who never married, made it to seventy-two, and offered a lyric case for aging. “youth, large, lusty, loving—youth full of grace, force, fascination,” he intoned. “Do you know that Old Age may come after you with equal grace, force, fascination?” It’s pretty to think so, but the biology suggests otherwise. The so-called epigenetic clock shows our DNA getting gummed up, age-related mitochondrial mutations reducing the cells’ ability to generate energy, and our immune system slowly growing less efficient. Bones weaken, eyes strain, hearts flag. Bladders empty too often, bowels not often enough, and toxic proteins build up in the brain to form the plaque and the spaghetti-like tangles that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Not surprisingly, sixty-eight per cent of Medicare beneficiaries today have multiple chronic conditions. Not a lot of grace, force, or fascination in that.

In short, the optimistic narrative of pro-aging writers doesn’t line up with the dark story told by the human body. But maybe that’s not the point. “There is only one solution if old age is not to be an absurd parody of our former life,” Simone de Beauvoir wrote in her expansive 1970 study “The Coming of Age,” “and that is to go on pursuing ends that give our existence a meaning—devotion to individuals, to groups, or to causes—social, political, intellectual, or creative work.” But such meaning is not easily gained. In 1975, Robert Neil Butler, who had previously coined the term “ageism,” published “Why Survive? Being Old in America,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning study of society’s dereliction toward the nation’s aging population. “For many elderly Americans old age is a tragedy, a period of quiet despair, deprivation, desolation and muted rage,” he concluded.

Four years later, the British journalist Ronald Blythe, who must be one of the few living writers to have spoken to the last Victorians (he’s now just shy of ninety-seven), had a more sanguine perspective. His “The View in Winter,” containing oral histories of men and women at the end of their lives, is a lovely, sometimes personal, sometimes scholarly testament that reaches “no single conclusion. . . . Old age is full of death and full of life. It is a tolerable achievement and it is a disaster. It transcends desire and it taunts it. It is long enough and it is far from being long enough.” Some years after that, the great Chicago radio host Studs Terkel, who died at ninety-six, issued an American version of Blythe’s wintry landscape; in “Coming of Age” (1995), Terkel interrogated seventy-four “graybeards” (men and women over the age of seventy) for their thoughts on aging, politics, and the American way of life.

Now that we’re living longer, we have the time to write books about living longer—so many, in fact, that the Canadian critic Constance Rooke, in 1992, coined the term “Vollendungsroman,” a somewhat awkward complement to “Bildungsroman,” to describe novels about the end of life, such as Barbara Pym’s “Quartet in Autumn,” Kingsley Amis’s “The Old Devils,” and Wallace Stegner’s “The Spectator Bird.” Since then, plenty of elderly protagonists have shown up in novels by Louis Begley (“About Schmidt”), Sue Miller (“The Distinguished Guest”), Saul Bellow (“Ravelstein”), Philip Roth (“Everyman”), and Margaret Drabble (“The Dark Flood Rises”). The realm of nonfiction has more than kept pace. Today, there’s a Web site that lists the top fifty books on aging, which, alas, omits William Ian Miller’s eccentric “Losing It: In Which an Aging Professor Laments His Shrinking Brain”(2011); Lynne Segal’s judicious but tough-minded “Out of Time: The Pleasures and the Perils of Ageing” (2013); and Martha C. Nussbaum and Saul Levmore’s smart, provocative “Aging Thoughtfully: Conversations About Retirement, Romance, Wrinkles, & Regret” (2017), in which a philosopher and a law professor discuss everything from “Lear” to the transmission of assets. And, as was bound to happen, gerontology meets the Internet in “Aging and the Digital Life Course,” a collection of essays edited by David Prendergast and Chiara Garattini (2017). The library on old age has grown so voluminous that the fifty million Americans over the age of sixty-five could spend the rest of their lives reading such books, even as lusty retirees and power-lifting septuagenarians turn out new ones.

The most recent grand philosophical overview of aging is also by a woman, and lighting upon Helen Small’s “The Long Life” (2007) is like entering the University of Old Age after matriculating at a perfectly good college. Small, an Oxford don (and just forty-two when the book came out), wants to integrate old age into how we think about life. Pondering what it means to be someone who has completed a life cycle that Montaigne thought unnatural, she considers old age to be “connected into larger philosophical considerations,” whose depiction, whether literary or scientific, both drives and reflects emotional and ethical attitudes. And, echoing the philosopher Bernard Williams, she suggests that our lives accrue meaning over time, and therefore the story of the self is not complete until it experiences old age—the stage of life that helps us grasp who we are and what our life has meant.

Not everyone wants to find out if Small’s equation between old age and self-knowledge holds up. In 2014, The Atlantic ran an essay by the oncologist and bioethicist Ezekiel J. Emanuel, then fifty-seven, whose title alone, “Why I Hope to Die at 75,” caused uneasy shuffling among seventy-year-olds. Emanuel believes that, by the time he hits this milestone, he will have lived a full life. He argues that by seventy-five “creativity, originality, and productivity are pretty much gone for the vast, vast majority of us.” Unlike Honoré and Applewhite, Emanuel thinks that “it is difficult, if not impossible, to generate new, creative thoughts, because we don’t develop a new set of neural connections that can supersede the existing network.” Although he doesn’t plan on suicide, he won’t actively prolong his life: no more cancer-screening tests (colonoscopies and the like); no pacemaker or stents. He wants to get out while the getting is good.

It’s an unselfish outlook, but not quite credible to unevolved people like me. Having entered my seventies, I don’t care that I may not have much to contribute after I’m seventy-five. I’m not sure I’ll have had that much to contribute before turning seventy-five. Also, Emanuel seems to be talking about artists, intellectuals, and scientists who will be pained by the prospect that their brain power and creativity may ebb in their twilight years, and not about your average working stiff who, after years of toiling in factories or offices, may want to spend more time golfing or reading books about golf. A grudging admiration for the good doctor ultimately gives way to disappointment when he reserves the right to change his mind, thereby confirming Montaigne’s gloomy projection that “our desires incessantly grow young again; we are always re-beginning to live.”

Let’s grant that there are as many ways to grow old as there are people going about it, especially since more of us keep chugging along despite our aches and ailments. “If I’d known I was going to live this long,” said Mickey Mantle (or possibly Mae West or Eubie Blake), “I would have taken better care of myself.” Mantle was only sixty-three when he died, but the truth is that many of us are going to be physically better off at eighty than Shakespeare’s Jaques could have imagined—avec teeth, avec sight, and avec hearing (which is to say: dental implants, glasses, and hearing aids). A long life is a gift. But I’m not sure we’re going to be grateful for it.

Normal aging is bad enough, but things become dire if dementia develops, the chances of which double every five years past the age of sixty-five. Applewhite, however, citing recent research, no longer thinks that dementia is “inevitable, or even likely.” May she live long and prosper, but, for those of us who have cared for spouses or parents with dementia, it’s not always a simple matter to know on whom the burden falls the heaviest. (One in three caregivers is sixty-five or older.)

Obviously, I’m not a candidate for the Old Person’s Hall of Fame. In fact, I plan to be a tattered coat upon a stick, nervously awaiting the second oblivion, which I’m reasonably certain will not have the same outcome as the first. Nonetheless, I like to think that I have some objectivity about what it’s like to grow old. My father lived to be almost a hundred and three, and most of my friends are now in their seventies. It may be risky to impugn the worthiness of old age, but I’ll take my cane to anyone who tries to stop me. At the moment, we seem to be compensating for past transgressions: far from devaluing old age, we assign it value it may not possess. Yes, we should live as long as possible, barring illness and infirmity, but, when it comes to the depredations of age, let’s not lose candor along with muscle tone. The goal, you could say, is to live long enough to think: I’ve lived long enough.

One would, of course, like to approach old age with grace and fortitude, but old age makes it difficult. Those who feel that it’s a welcome respite from the passions, anxieties, and troubles of youth or middle age are either very lucky or toweringly reasonable. Why rail against the inevitable—what good will it do? None at all. Complaining is both pointless and unseemly. Existence itself may be pointless and unseemly. No wonder we wonder at the meaning of it all. “At first we want life to be romantic; later, to be bearable; finally, to be understandable,” Louise Bogan wrote. Professor Small would agree, and though I am a fan of her book, I have my doubts about whether the piling on of years really does add to our understanding of life. Doesn’t Regan say of her raging royal father, “Tis the infirmity of his age: yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself”? The years may broaden experience and tint perspective, but is wisdom or contentment certain to follow?

A contented old age probably depends on what we were like before we became old. Vain, self-centered people will likely find aging less tolerable than those who seek meaning in life by helping others. And those fortunate enough to have lived a full and productive life may exit without undue regret. But if you’re someone who—oh, for the sake of argument—is unpleasantly surprised that people in their forties or fifties give you a seat on the bus, or that your doctors are forty years younger than you are, you just might resent time’s insistent drumbeat. Sure, there’s life in the old boy yet, but certain restrictions apply. The body—tired, aching, shrinking—now quite often embarrasses us. Many older men have to pee right after they pee, and many older women pee whenever they sneeze. Pipher and company might simply say “Gesundheit” and urge us on. Life, they insist, doesn’t necessarily get worse after seventy or eighty. But it does, you know. I don’t care how many seniors are loosening their bedsprings every night; something is missing.

It’s not just energy or sexual prowess but the thrill of anticipation. Even if you’re single, can you ever feel again the rush of excitement that comes with the first brush of the lips, the first moment when clothes drop to the floor? Who the hell wants to tear his or her clothes off at seventy-five? Now we dim the lights and fold our slacks and hope we don’t look too soft, too wrinkled, too old. Yes, mature love allows for physical imperfections, but wouldn’t we rather be desired for our beauty than forgiven for our flaws? These may seem like shallow regrets, and yet the loss of pleasure in one’s own body, the loss of pleasure in knowing that one’s body pleases others, is a real one.

I can already hear the objections: If my children are grown and happy; if my grandchildren light up when they see me; if I’m healthy and financially secure; if I’m reasonably satisfied with what I’ve accomplished; if I feel more comfortable now that I no longer have to prove myself—why, then, the loss of youth is a fair trade-off. Those are a lot of “if”s, but never mind. We should all make peace with aging. And so my hat is off to Dr. Oliver Sacks, who chose to regard old age as “a time of leisure and freedom, freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together.” At eighty-two, he rediscovered the joy of gefilte fish, which, as he noted, would usher him out of life as it had ushered him into it.

“No wise man ever wished to be younger,” Swift asserted, never having met me. But this doesn’t mean that we have to see old age as something other than what it is. It may complete us, but in doing so it defeats us. “Life is slow dying,” Philip Larkin wrote before he stopped dying, at sixty-three—a truth that young people, who are too busy living, cavalierly ignore. Should it give them pause, they’ll discover that just about every book on the subject advocates a “positive” attitude toward aging in order to maintain a sense of satisfaction and to achieve a measure of wisdom. And yet it seems to me that a person can be both wise and unhappy, wise and regretful, and even wise and dubious about the wisdom of growing old.

When Socrates declared that philosophy is the practice of dying, he was saying that thought itself is shaped by mortality, and it’s because our existence is limited that we’re able to think past those limits. Time has us in its grip, and so we devise stories of an afterlife in which we exist unshackled by days and years and the decay they represent. But where does that get us, beyond the vague suspicion that immortality—at least in the shape of the vengeful Yahweh or the spiteful Greek and Roman gods—is no guarantee of wisdom? Then again, if you’re the sort of person who sees the glass as one-eighth full rather than seven-eighths empty, you might not worry about such matters. Instead, you’ll greet each new day with gratitude, despite coughing up phlegm and tossing down a dozen pills.

But what do I know? I’m just one person, who at seventy-one doesn’t feel as good as he did at sixty-one, and who is fairly certain that he’s going to feel even worse at eighty-one. I simply know what men and women have always known: “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth forever.” If only the writer had stopped there. Unfortunately, he went on to add, “In much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. . . . The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise? This too is meaningless.” No young person could have written that. ♦

Published in the print edition of the November 4, 2019, issue, with the headline “Old News.”

Arthur Krystal is the author of four books of essays, including “This Thing We Call Literature.” He began writing for The New Yorker in 1998.

NCWN Fall Conference

I attended the North Carolina Writers Network Fall Conference in Asheville this past weekend.

The Keynote Speaker was Charles Frazier (Cold Mountain)

Q & A with Charles Frazier

Frazier spoke of how he came to be published. His wife’s good friend was an agent. How lucky can you get?


Sessions I attended:

I.  Screenplay: Fake vs Fiction with Maryedith Burrell

Me & Maryedith Burrell

To Do: Adapt my book to a screenplay-optional.

2.  Power Up the Truth You Tell with Christine Hale

Make situation significant for the reader

To Do: Create a compelling protagonist for my next book.


3.  The Limits of Perception with Tessa Fontaine

Writing Practice

To Do: Try this prompt at home– and others.

4.  The Ins & Outs of Small Press Publishing with Luke Hankins

To Do: Appreciate the fact I worked with She Writes Press.

5.  Creative Ways to Promote Your Book (& Yourself) with Anne Fitten Glenn

To Do:  Pat myself on the back for doing lots that Anne suggested. Plus look into Audio Books and begin to use Instagram.


*   *   *


vets reading
Luncheon with Joseph Bathanti and Brother Like These.


Brothers Like These is a program at the local VA hospital to help veterans from the Vietnam War who suffer with PTSD heal through writing. Moving. Good thing I had tissues in my tote.


cover w:awards
My book with award stickers on the cover


I sold 4 out of the 5 books we authors were allowed to place on the conference sales table. Last year I sold only one book. Did the award stickers make a difference or the discussions of my book with other attendees?


I bought a fellow author’s, Charley Pearson, medical thriller at the NCWN Fall Conference. 

To Do: Read. Enjoy. Write a comment on Amazon.












Learning the hard way about book promotion

My son-in-law and daughter left for a weekend in Chicago so he could run the marathon. I stayed at their home, watching three grandkids and the two dogs. It was good timing. My life, up to now, has mostly centered on promoting my first and only book. I have been doing little else.

Stories from the Tenth-Floor Clinic: A Nurse Practitioner Remembers, came out a year ago. Initially, I had a publicist but for the past few months I have been driving the marketing train by fits and starts.

UnknownMy recent effort at marketing has been to hop aboard the lecture circuit. I chose a topic, Empowering the Patient, that would attract an audience both interested in my talk, and additionally, would buy my book. I knew about this subject. I am a nurse practitioner, after all. Never mind that I haven’t practiced for twelve years. I have been a volunteer at a local hospital and exposed to the advances in practice and management. Besides, I have experienced the health care system as a caregiver and patient. And I have read lots of books and used online sources to educate myself. I put together an outline, did a Power Point presentation, and developed a reference list to hand out. My audience, I decided, would be impressed with my knowledge and engaging manner and purchase my book.

The lecture sites I choose had restrictions on overtly selling my book. However, I could say I authored a book and leave my promotional literature near the sign-in sheets.

I didn’t sell one book!

While I enjoyed giving the lectures and especially liked interacting with my audience, what became clear was that I didn’t enjoy the time and commitment it took. I was always on the lookout for updated information and the latest health interventions, which took up more time from family, pursuing my other creative endeavors like painting, and time away from writing my second book.

Besides, I found that I was stepping back into my previous nursing role to help out members of my audience. I felt their frustration in dealing with the complicated health care system. I didn’t stop at giving them needed tools. The nurse in me wanted to help by telling them what to do. Could I get sued for giving inaccurate information? Was all this worth the time and effort when it didn’t seem anyone was interested in my book.

What surprised me most of all was how I let myself get so obsessed with book promotion. I am usually sensitive to keeping a balance in my life, protective of my personal space and set limits on getting overly engaged.

Spending time with the grandchildren provided a change of scenery that took me away from my self-imposed author responsibilities. I have come to realize that while I am proud to have authored a book and want to see it sell well, it is after all, only a book

Nurses Give Their Expert Advice on Understanding the Broken Health Care System

I have been on the lecture circuit. My topic is Empowering the Patient: How to Navigate the Health Care System. Two presentations down and two to go with another in the negotiating stage.

I’m fine-tuning the presentation based on the feedback I have received from my audience each time I give the talk. Sana Goldberg’s recently released book: How to be a Patient: The Essential Guide to Navigating the World of Modern Medicine has added an extra layer of emphasis on the importance of nurses’ influence in the health care system.

She writes:


I believe nurses are best poised to change the future of healthcare.

Today, registered nurses spend more time physically present with patients than any other healthcare professional, and as a consequence we see and hear a lot. We maintain a vantage point markedly different from that of the MD, the scholar, the journalist, and the policy maker. We are intimately familiar with the complexity and multiplicity of the patient experience, as well as the systems in health care that fail to acknowledge it. We witness the system’s barriers regularly, and in turn we come up with creative solutions to side step its most vexing realities.

(Sana Goldberg, How to be a Patient: The Essential Guide to Navigating the World of Modern Medicine, page XXIV)

Doesn’t that last sentence remind you of Teresa Brown’s New York Times Op Ed essay that I posted just last week? Side stepping vexing realities is another way of describing the “workarounds” that Brown described.

I’m using another book written by a nurse for my talk. Finish Strong: Putting Your Priorities First at Life’s End by Barbara Coombs Lee, who besides being a nurse is a lawyer and President of Compassion and Choices.

Both books are well written and easy to read and full of great information that older readers will find helpful. And, of course, I am pleased that they are written from a nursing perspective.

How Mindfulness Can Be an Act of Self-Care for Nurses

I recently came across a new, to me, Blog: Nightingale. A 2017 post by Teresa Brown describes her initial exposure and reservations about mindfulness—I am not giving away the ending. Given I had just spotlighted Julia Sarazine, a qualified mindfulness instructor, I decided to reblog Teresa’s essay.
The Nightingale website looks interesting and promising, however, I didn’t notice any recent activity. Sara Goldberg, founder of Nightingale, may have been busy with her new book: How to be a Patient: The Essential Guide to Navigating the World of Modern Medicine, which was recently released. I read her book and will review it in a future post.


Nurse Burnout Won’t go Away Until the Industry Changes. But in the Meantime, Mindfulness can Help Nurses Prioritize Their Well-Being.


This past November I attended a workshop on nurse burnout at the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread in Racine, Wisconsin. Clinical nurses, administrators, and researchers came together for three days to discuss this pressing issue that is epidemic in nursing. One survey found that almost half of nurses are burned out, meaning they’re so overwhelmed by the job that they’ve lost the capacity to really care about it or their patients.

I tend to be suspicious of talk about mindfulness in health care because it seems to place the onus for change on individuals instead of the overall system.

Several of the workshop presenters discussed “Mindfulness” as a way to alleviate burnout. I tend to be suspicious of talk about mindfulness in health care because it seems to place the onus…

View original post 927 more words

Murder Building

I am reviewing posts that I will consider for inclusion in my second book, which focuses on home visits I have made in Chicago, Washington DC, and Durham, NC. I came upon Murder Building that was originally posted on February 19, 2012. It’s a keeper.


When I visited a patient in my caseload that lived in an “unsafe” part of the city, I went in the morning. Right after the pimps and drug dealers had called it a night and before the shop keepers pulled up the bars over the store windows and the women came out to sweep the sidewalk litter into the streets.

One day Pearl, the social worker, asked to come with me to see a patient. She had a meeting in the morning so we left after lunch against my better judgment.  If I were going to go to an iffy part of the city, this was the last place I would want to visit. The Chicago Tribune ran a story a few weeks previously about the  “Murder Building.” I knew by the address it was next door to my patient’s apartment.

Everyone knows it simply as “the murder building.“

“They call it `the murder building` because people have been known to go into that building and not come out,“ said one young man standing on a nearby street. “You got to stay away from that place. Things go on in them halls you don`t want to see.“

What does that say about the neighborhood we drove through and the scattering of young men gathered on the stoops, some leaning against the parked cars, all seeming to be without a sense of purpose? I felt their eyes following us.

My patient lived on the second floor with his common law wife and various other relatives. The front door was locked and since there wasn’t a bell, I had to stand under the window and yell the patient’s name. The patient’s wife would come to the window before she sent one of the grandchildren down to let me in. This was before cell phones.

I dreaded leaving the safety of the car. Did any of the men think we carried drugs? I scooted out and quickly grabbed my nursing bag from the trunk along with a white bathroom scale. The patient was on tube feedings. It remained unclear if his wife was able to manage the procedure and give the feedings on schedule. I was monitoring his weight as evidence of success.

When Pearl and I completed our visit, we took quick, long steps to the car, avoiding eye contact with anyone near-by. As I stuffed my bag and scale into the trunk, I felt someone tap me on the shoulder. I waited for the command to hand over my nursing bag. Instead a soft voice asked, “Before you put that scale away, would you weigh me?”

I turned to see an older man with short gray whiskers on his chin and a pleasant smile. He moved aside as I slammed the trunk closed and carried the scale to the sidewalk. He took his shoes off and stepped on the scale. “I can’t see the numbers,” he said. I read them off to him, he stepped down, retrieved his shoes and said, “thank you.” Behind him stood a young man with dreadlocks. “Can I get weighed too?” He slipped out of his high tops. I called out his weight and he left with a “thank you.”

Behind him a line of men snaked along the sidewalk. Pearl emerged from the car and began joking with the men, young and old, as they waited their turn at the scale.

Back in the car, the scale packed away in the trunk, Pearl and I drove to the corner. As we pasted the Murder Building, ominous and frightening with smashed windows and debris scattered around its foundation, I realized a building doesn’t define a neighborhood.


Wishes, Dreams and Hopes for My Book: Stories from the Tenth-Floor Clinic



I imagine Oprah Winfrey being told by one of her many assistants about a book she should read that is set in Chicago, that focuses on a female protagonist and deals with the disenfranchised on the West Side. Oprah, immediately after reading my book, writes a glowing review in O, the Oprah magazine. Great Summer Read!

My other fantasy is that an older woman who lives in Los Angeles, reads my book, which has been recommended to her by her nurse daughter or nurse son. She loves it so much that she passes it on to her best friend. Her best friend also loves it, and just so happens to be married to a well-connected TV producer, and soon my book is slated to premier as a new Netflix series.

And then reality sets in as I read the following quote.

“I did not get there by wishing for it, or dreaming about it, or hoping for it. I got there by working for it.” –Estée Lauder




%d bloggers like this: