Always remember: What you are doing is important.
Forty years ago, embarking on what I hoped would be a successful career as a freelance writer, I recall those words taped to a shelf above the typewriter of a fellow freelancer, who also happened to be a former college roommate, Gary Diedrichs. Good words to keep at heart, I thought, as story ideas after story ideas were rejected by editors who had something more important on their agendas. It was up to struggling young writers such as Diedrichs and me to create our own sense of worth.
Fast forward 40 years. After a dozen years of beating my head against editors’ transoms, I altered course and started my own newspaper. After a quarter century of running U.S. 1 and steering straight into the sunset, I just recently found myself distracted slightly when a savvy business guy asked me if I would be interested in selling the paper.
At the time I thought of the offer as an interesting economic exercise: If this knowledgeable guy were making an offer on a media company, what does it say about the market? Maybe that it’s about as low as it can go, I theorized in a column on November 3. Still, I thought, it might be fun to see what someone else thought my little venture was worth, and I began to look for the financial records that inevitably would be needed for review by the potential buyer.
Inexplicably, I couldn’t follow through, as much fun as I thought it might be. I procrastinated, bought some time with an excuse or two, and finally just said thanks, but no thanks.
What caused the hesitation? Was my identity so wedded to my business that I couldn’t imagine life without it? Was I so set in my ways at age 63 that I was now intimidated by the prospect of changing course, unlike the way I was back when I started the paper?
Another explanation presented itself just a few weeks ago, when I sat on a panel with Mary Catherine Bateson, author of “Composing a Further Life,” a thoughtful examination of how mature adults can thrive in an era of dramatically increased longevity. To put it in perspective, the baby boom generation to which Diedrichs and I belong has a life expectancy about 20 years longer than our grandparents’ generation at the end of World War II. Because of longer life expectancy, a lot of people are getting a chance to start over in life, doing so this time with some wisdom to complement the brazen ambition. It’s now “The Age of Active Wisdom,” as Bateson has subtitled her book.
It seems reasonable to assume that Bateson, the daughter of famed anthropologist Margaret Mead, has been studying the social structure all her life. Maybe that’s why I was so impressed by Bateson’s words, when she opened her remarks with the reading of a brief excerpt from her book:
“I like to think of men and women as artists of their own lives, working with what comes to hand through accident or talent to compose and re-compose a pattern in time that expresses who they are and what they believe in — making meaning even as they are studying and working and raising children, creating and re-creating themselves.” As Bateson read her excerpt at the panel discussion I mentally rewrote that sentiment — making meaning even as they spell check and copyfit freelancers’ writing, cope with cranky advertisers, struggle with bundles of papers in the parking lot, and all the other gritty details of publishing.
Bateson continued: “If this is indeed a helpful way of looking at lives — if lives are composed somewhat like works of art, partly planned and partly improvised — then it is not enough to study what people do in retirement but essential also to study the relationship between what they do in retirement and what they did before — a relationship which, as in an artistic composition, may contrast or complete or reframe what came earlier, may be both profoundly surprising and surprisingly apt. Like the faces of wise and loving elders, lives so composed may be beautiful.”
Twenty years ago I might have viewed the sale of the paper as a financial transaction — how much is the business worth to you and how much do I need to walk away from it. But, as Bateson points out in her book, “many remembered events of youth” turn out “to have new meanings with the passage of the years.”
Now the view is different. I’m a little too modest to call this profession an art, but it is certainly a craft. After a while you begin to appreciate the interaction with your materials, and you also appreciate the audience who support your work. Am I willing to concede that this endeavor is like any other piece of property?
Bateson had a similar dilemma in writing her book: She wanted to interview Jane Fonda about the actress’s “further life” and discovered that Fonda was writing a book of her own on a similar subject. Friends urged Bateson not to “hand over all my best ideas and anecdotes” to Fonda. After considering that idea, Bateson decided to follow her instincts and enter into a free-wheeling set of discussions. “At some level,” Bateson writes, “I do not believe that ideas are property. I believe they are bread to be cast upon waters.”
One hallmark of this new generation, Bateson believes, is that it will not simply strive to be “independent,” in the old-fashioned American pioneer spirit. Rather it will seek “interdependence,” and not be reluctant to accept help or to give it. In that spirit I reached back to my former roommate, Diedrichs, who in his own further life is running an online travel guide for eco-conscious world travelers, greentravelerguides.com.
Did I remember the mantra of 40 years ago correctly?
Diedrichs replied: “That was what I had taped above my typewriter. Thanks for reminding me. And I applaud your realization, not that there wouldn’t be other things that would give you a similar feeling. I think one hallmark of our generation is that we will keep reinventing ourselves (if only our sense of importance) to the very end. Better than giving in to macrame classes, I think.”
Nothing wrong with macrame classes at the senior center. But as 2011 rolls around I am looking forward to another year of spell checking and copyfitting, cranky advertisers, and bundles of papers in the parking lot. It’s not always such a beautiful life, but it is important, at least to me.