Keep on Clacking Till Your Soul Goes Packing

by James Scott Bell

We writers have a great gig, don’t we?

We get to play in our imagination every day. We bring characters to life or—even better—watch as characters come to life while we write. We dream. We create plots and scenes and twists and turns.

Some of us have day jobs (or, as Brother Gilstrap used to put it, “my big-boy job”) and write when we can. Others do this for a living. Still others occupy a middle position where they have some days they can dedicate to clacking away at the keyboard. (As a Southern California boy, I have to admit I love being able to “go to work” in shorts, flip flops and a Hawaiian shirt. I enjoyed practicing law but didn’t like having to wear a suit and tie every day!)

But maybe the thing I love most about the writing life is this: I can write as long as I’m a sentient being. I never have to quit. And I can effortlessly slide into the role of crusty but benign eccentric who mumbles aphorisms—even to other people—and still hits the keyboard each day.

In fact, I know how I want to look when that time comes. Like this:

Donald Hall, photo by Gary Knight, Used by permission

That’s writer Donald Hall as posted by The Paris Review. In the accompanying essay, Hall (now deceased) reflects on the approach of his 90th birthday. There he is in comfy pants and T-shirt, a favorite chair, hair a bit mussed, surrounded by books, some of which are on the floor as his active reads. Perfect! (I’ll have to check with Mrs. B about the beard, and I’ll probably be barefoot much of the time.)

On Hall’s wall is a print of the famous Andy Warhol painting of Elizabeth Taylor, which got me wondering what one picture or painting I would like to have hanging over me as I approach 90. Something noir-ish, I suspect. Heck, I already have it—a movie poster from the 1953 re-issue of Out of the Past starring Robert Mitchum.

Trivia note: The original poster for Out of the Past from 1947 has Mitchum with a cigarette. So why not in the re-issue poster? Because 1953 was after Mitchum’s infamous bust for smoking reefer. He did two months in the jug for that, and most people thought his career was over. But Howard Hughes, who owned Mitchum’s contract, figured out Mitchum’s “bad boy” image was catnip for the bobby-soxers. Mitchum became more popular than ever. But when Out of the Past was re-issued, there was no need to remind people of the arrest by sticking what could have been a joint in his mouth!

Back to Donald Hall. He ruefully compares his earlier writing life with his present:

Back then, I wrote all day getting up at five. By this time, I rise scratchy at six or twitch in bed until seven. I drink coffee before I pick up a pen. I look through the newspaper. I try to write all morning, but exhaustion shuts me down by ten o’clock. I dictate a letter. I nap. I rise to a lunch of crackers and peanut butter, followed by further exhaustion. At night I watch baseball on television, and between innings run through the New York Times Book Review. I roll over all night. Breakfast. Coffee.

Of course an octogenarian scribbler is going to be a tad slower than his thirty-year-old former self. But Hall did something each day, and that’s the point—not stopping.

Printed newspapers will probably be gone by the time I’m 90, but coffee will remain. Coffee is forever. And so is storytelling.

So, TKZ friends, imagine your ninety-year-old self. How do you look? What are you doing? What picture is hanging on your wall?

37 thoughts on “Keep on Clacking Till Your Soul Goes Packing

  1. Good post, and thanks for referencing the Donald Hall excerpt. Very few essayists attain his level of gracious, eloquent humor.

    I read the same Paris Review article and recently purchased both A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety (hardcover) from Amazon and Essays After Eighty (paperback) from Amazon.

  2. I will still be wearing shorts and tees and sporting bare feet. My writing desk will be the same: uncluttered. I’ll entice myself to hit my daily word count with whatever latest genre read awaits me. I’ll hang one of my own paintings (I dabble in watercolor) on the wall. It’ll be a serene painting, not too busy, because I want the busyness to be at the keyboard.

    Coffee is forever, amen.

    • That sounds lovely, Priscilla. And while I admire those with uncluttered desks, I can’t seem to make mine stay that way. A paper form of kudzu is attracted to its surface. Slowly, creepingly … yet I somehow remember the note under the pad under the paperback that I “filed” there months ago.

  3. Long gray hair, probably braided or tied up in a messy ponytail. Still in comfy clothes and barefoot in a recliner with the laptop. My back won’t be able to hunch over a keyboard by then. My teeth in a glass beside my keyboard. Hahahahaha. *kidding* I’m way to vein for that. My nails still painted black, my eyes outlined in the same color (have to have my “eyes on” till the day I stop breathing), and my tattoos stretching from loose, transparent skin. On the wall above my head would hang a nicely-framed photograph of Edgar Allan Poe, with a note that reads, “Looking forward to meeting you!”

    • Hilarious, Sue. You are a master of the vivid description. We should plan to have coffee then. BTW, my grandmother had a FULL SET of dentures, so it won’t freak me out if you do!

  4. At 90 I’ll be 12 years older than I am today. I hope I’ll still be running 2 miles after rising at 5:30. I’ll have my Mt. Hood Jazz 08 Festival poster on one wall and on the other a photo of Valentino the Cat from a Coeur d’Alene B&B stay 24 years ago. My writing will not take priority over breathing and Earl Grey. And I hope to Heaven I’ve finally kicked the 1000 First Chapters syndrome. Thanks for your ode to venerability.

    • You’re an inspiration, Dan! 5:30 and running at …. your age. I approve of the jazz poster, and though I’m not a cat person, yours sounds personal so it fits.

      And nothing is wasted in the writing life. Maybe those 1000 first chapters can be turned into 1000 short stories!

  5. Writing at my beach house early in the morning and in time for the sunset. Shorts, t-shirt, flip flops (Florida girl). A couple of dogs at my feet ready for late morning and early evening walks. A cat or two keeping the veranda snake and lizard-free. Maybe a sunset horseback ride along the beach and swim (though I’ll have to go back home to south Alabama for that – Florida people are so stuffy).

    • I’m liking this whole shorts and flip flops theme. Beach house sounds good, but I’ll take SoCal…fewer, um, snakes. I tend not to write as well if there’s a snake in the house.

      • No worries, Jim. The snakes know to stay out and between the cats and dogs, they stay away. We have 2 black racers in the yard who keep the poisonous ones away. We have an agreement – they can stay as long as I don’t see them. For the most part, they oblige.

  6. Jim, I’m much closer than you to that 90-year mark, but I’m heartened by your attitude. I’m slowing a bit (because I now set my own deadlines), yet perhaps I’ll “keep on clacking ’till my soul goes packing” as well.

    • Doc, you hit on something crucial for those of us doing indie–SIDs (self-imposed deadlines). I’ve found it absolutely necessary to set a date and tape it to my office door. Otherwise, it’s too easy to skirt! I don’t want to live the famous Douglas Adams quote: “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

  7. Fifteen years from now I’m lying in a nursing home facility, connected to tubes and machines. A candy striper comes in and puts the headpiece on me, a cap-like apparatus somewhat like an oversized yarmulke.

    I start to hear an interesting story. I wonder silently who wrote it. The voice tells me, you did, yesterday. Would you like to continue the story?

    I think yes.

    The voice says, tell me when you’re ready to start.

    I work my way back into the story. Eloise has just escaped the clutches of the evil monster, but it’s hot on her heels.

    I start thinking the next part of the story. After about a half-hour, I stop and think, OK, what have I got?

    The voice, starting a bit before where today’s segment started, runs the story through my consciousness. At the point where I had stopped, the voice asks, would you like to continue?

    I’m thinking I’m too tired to go on today.

    The voice says, OK. I’ll be here.

    The candy striper somehow knows to come in and remove the headpiece.

  8. I’ll be sitting in my recliner with my laptop – like Sue – my back feels better and allows me to avoid interruptions for stretching. Gray hair disappearing on top, where Rogaine is losing the battle. My favorite worn blue jeans and white pullover. Barefoot in the summer, house slippers and a lap blanket in the winter. Coffee in my favorite mug, retrieved from the reject pile of my favorite potter (imperfect glaze job – celebrate the brokenness), staying hot on the mug warmer.

    Beside me, a large window provides a view out through the woods to the valley beyond and the old farm house and barn. The same scene, done in oil by a long-gone family friend, hangs on one wall. On the opposite wall hangs a Navajo weaving depicting the yeibichai healing dance.

    And my desk is covered with clutter.

  9. I’m only ten years from 90 and I can see myself doing as I do every morning. I come into my office after breakfast and sit down at the computer and start my iTunes playlist, then open Scrivener. I’m writing a PI series that could go on and on. Books 1-3 will be indie published before the end of the year, if all goes well. If it’s cooler weather, I’m wearing comfy sweats. In summer it’s lighter weight clothes, usually a flannel shirt over a t-shirt. At 11:30 I head for the treadmill in my living room for a 30 minute walk before lunch. I don’t walk on our dusty or muddy gravel road. My hair is long and slowly turning gray. It should have more gray in it by the time I’m 90.

    • I love your schedule, Barbara Rae. Congrats on the series! May it go for 20 books…

      …oh yes, and Scrivener, along with coffee and storytellers, is also forever.

  10. I hope to channel Betty White, age 96, who said “I’ll keep working until they stop asking.” For me, of course, the “they” are those characters in my head…

    As for my desk, sometimes the only reason I know it’s still there is that something must be holding the clutter up.

    • Love Betty White! Such an amazing talent and longevity. Ditto the late, great George Burns. When he turned 90 an interviewer asked him what his doctor thought about his cigar and martini habit. Burns replied, “My doctor died.”

  11. I’ll look much as I look now: shorts, white T, white socks, and sneaks, listening to Doo Wop music and reading what’s current, and re-reading DeMille, Van Lustbader, Wouk, Michener, Bell, Clancy, webb, Uris, Wallace (but not Wallechinsky or his lists), Silva, and the other 20th and 21st Century great action and thriller novelists. I’ll forgo Chaucer, and other Brits who wrote only for Brit ears, Guv’ner. Also would like to see if I can crack the darkness of the Scandinavian novelists. (And I’ll remember and re-read Larsson, and regret his passing and that he didn’t get to share all of his stories with us.)

    I won’t defy my physicians (except for the ones who say I should give up popcorn and stay away from red meat). And I’ll continue to sip the black drink (Diet Pepsi) and eat Hot Tamales. (I am, I admit, a Tamalesholic; I hide them in the recesses of my recliner.)

    And, for a couple to a few hours every day, I will slip to the computer–and my Neo word processor if I can still find machines that work by then–and type out pages of new work and quite possibly continue to wonder why my publisher STILL hasn’t put out that novel.

    I will continue to boycott the NFL and wonder why anyone ever thought professional football, not baseball, was the national pastime.

    My days with my wife will be wonderful, and I will ever be grateful that the muse remembered my address and waited for me long enough. And I will continue to outline my new work. Aye–that would be sweetest of all.

    • Right on, Jim. And yes to baseball. Remember when you could afford to go to a game? I’ve always thought about living in a town with a good AA team. Maybe I could try out for mascot.

  12. I doubt I’ll live that long, so I’m trying to live my best imaginings. I have a painting of two refugees, small boys, walking arm in arm along a dirt road in Rwanda, on the wall by my writing desk, and it reminds me every day that I am fortunate to have a roof over my head, food to eat, and the time to loaf, spend time with friends and family, and read and write. (And time for activism.)

    Speaking of activism in these times, where fascism seems to be taking over the world, I’m not sad about the probability of not living into my 90s–means that I won’t live long enough to see the worst of it.

    • Well, Sheryl, we storytellers have a part to play. I recall Ray Bradbury when he said he wasn’t writing to predict the future…he was trying to prevent it. Whatever one’s vision, make it a story that reaches the heart.

  13. I’ll be at my desk, in jeans and a T-shirt, writing. At least two cats will be lounging around the house. If I’m very lucky, I’ll be able to write until the end of my life.

  14. At 90, I see myself…
    Wearing sweaty pickleball clothes from the morning workout, Morning Goat’s Tallahassee Morning coffee at my elbow, and behind me on the wall, a big poster from the Maigret movie “Le Chien Jaune.”

    I’d kill to have that poster. Even a copy.

  15. At 90, I’ll be pushing up Linaria arvensis. I don’t expect to live that long, not because I have an illness – unless writing is? – but because I am struggling to find a ‘big boy job’ after losing my career. I live on the edge now. My writing keeps me sane. But if I do by some miracle manage to reach 90, you won’t catch me in lip-flops and a beer t-shirt. I’m not that kinda guy. I suspect the poster on the wall of wherever I hang my fedora will be Abram & Wyman’s “Almost Human”.

  16. Sixty years sits between me and ninety….And I’m wearing a towel right now. Make of that what yo will.

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