Becoming a Writer: Calibrating the Work Against the Pleasure

From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

I met Jacomena van Huizen Maybeck when I was thirty-three and she was seventy-seven. I’d hoped to rent her cottage, and found her tarring the roof, dressed in a halter top and shorts. I’d never met anyone like her. She knew how to throw a pot, wield an ax or a sickle, and make plum jam. She took relationships seriously and had many longstanding friends.

She introduced me to her friends, mostly women educated during the 1920s and now thriving in their winter years. I was a photographer at the time, making a living as a dental hygienist. I was intrigued with these older women and began doing formal portraits of them. Because we’re used to seeing ourselves in movement, the women were surprised but proud to see their wrinkles in stark black and white. 

After entering a few shows and competitions, the photo collection went into the closet. I became obsessed with this problem—what do you do with your completed work? Jacomena suggested making a book and offered to come along with me on many interviews.  While talking with the women, a different view of aging and what was possible began to coalesce.

After another year or so, the book was finally ready for my agent to present to publishers. In summary, they loved the idea and praised the photos but felt that my writing was weak. I still have all the rejection letters!  A local writer gently suggested that I team up with a seasoned writer, Charlotte Painter, and together we re-interviewed the women. Charlotte’s short portrayals were elegant; Chronicle Books offered us a contract. Gifts of Age: Portraits and Essays of 32 Remarkable Women sold over 125,000 copies. 

Jacomena continued her long and creative life into her mid-nineties. She’d become a well-known ceramicist and declared that a privilege of old age was that she could make things just for herself—she no longer felt obliged to compete and make things that would look good in an exhibition. “These days, I calibrate the work against the pleasure. When you’re doing it for yourself, you make the greatest picture or pot.” We were close friends and she helped me through my child-rearing years, always encouraging me to continue with photography. 

Eight years ago, my husband and I bought Jacomena’s home. I realized that I knew little about her early life—what had shaped and supported her in preparation for her later years? I began the research and interviews that would keep me busy as I moved into my own winter years. Jacomena’s grandchildren searched drawers and closets and found invaluable diaries and photos which excited me.

I learned who she was in her thirties and forties, and how those experiences created her self-confidence and flexibility as she reared twins while longing for “creative work.” Jacomena married her childhood sweetheart who left her a widow at age sixty-one. Her approach to life in her winter years inspire me now in my current season. 

But would I dare write again, after my experience with Gifts of Age?  I took several memoir writing classes, studied Charlotte’s and others’ writing styles, and began to write Jacomena’s story. Finally satisfied with the first draft, I asked a writer friend to read it and she advised me to “put more of myself into it.” I was disappointed with her comments, and unsure that I could make more changes. 

I was then in my mid-seventies, forgetting old friends’ names, and misplacing my car keys. Could I re-write this story? And then what—would it too sit in a closet? Why was I writing it, and who will read it? I thought of Jacomena’s words—perhaps I’ll just do it for myself and for the pleasure of honoring her life. 

For many of us, the beauty of being in our winter years is that we do not have to rush through our days. I often think about how Jacomena organized her days. She kept a daily journal throughout her seventies and eighties which helped me understand her challenges. She was adamant about doing “outside work” daily—clearing brush, trimming trees, or making a railing out of branches for her “wobbly friends.”

. . . .

Having a serious project to look forward to every day, has brought me great joy. Some days it was like solving a puzzle – finding the right piece for the space. 

Link to the rest at Women Writers, Women’s Books

1 thought on “Becoming a Writer: Calibrating the Work Against the Pleasure”

  1. Having a serious project to look forward to every day, has brought me great joy. Some days it was like solving a puzzle – finding the right piece for the space.

    When I started the WIP, my goal was to have the book I wanted to read, for putting on the single shelf in my eventual room in a nursing home – where I could read it any time.

    It turned into a big fat trilogy, but my aim is the same every time I write: to be able to re-read ad infinitum.

    I was already chronically ill when I began the project, and the eventual half-million words will incorporate that, too, as well as almost everything I believe in. It is an odd feeling to be immersed in that goal from the beginning. But it’s still true. And it makes me very slow for many reasons in addition to physical ones, one of which is that it has to be right. I hope I get to finish it.

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