P. D. James died on Thursday morning. For those of you who are unfamiliar with her work, she was the British author of mystery novels. She’s credited with bringing a new level of realism to the police procedural, and was honored for her work.
But she wasn’t only an author. In her ninety-four years, she dealt with numerous hardships. Her mother was committed to an asylum when James was a teenager, leaving her to care for her young siblings. She left school at sixteen; her father didn’t believe in higher education for girls.
During WWII, her husband suffered a mental breakdown from the traumas of war; he, too, ended up in an institution, leaving her with their children. He eventually died, possibly from an overdose.
She worked for decades in civil service. Though she had always wanted to write, she had to work to make a living to provide for herself and her children. At some point, she decided that there would never be an ideal time to write.
So she made now the ideal time. She found the time to plot her novel: her commute.
If you don’t mind being jostled around and the smells and sounds of fellow passengers and the hand cramps from writing on actual paper, then, yeah, that’s ideal. Paradise. (I wonder if any particularly nasty fellow passenger turned into an equally nasty character in a James novel?)
She wrote. And wrote. And wrote. Did I mention that she was also taking evening classes, working full time, and caring for her husband and children? And she wrote anyway.
She published her first book when she was forty-two.
As of last November, she was still writing, working on another book.
Depending on how you view it, this is either an inspiration or a guilt trip. Here’s this old woman, writing long-hand, plotting complex mysteries with multiple subplots, crafting characters with backgrounds and some uncomfortably familiar traits, and creating prose that sounds beautiful and books that are smart and nuanced.
And I’m gulping down fear of writing a fourth novel?
A few years ago, there was a group of extremely fit mothers who posted selfies of their trim and muscular pregnant or postpartum bodies, holding their infant children, with the caption, “What’s your excuse?”
Snarky and philosophically problematic rhetoric, sure, but they had a good point. Sometimes, it’s not that we don’t have enough time to work out; it’s that we choose not to have time.
We fill our days with other things—some important, some practical, and some worthless—and don’t have time for what we say we “want” to do. I want to write a book, I’ve heard other people say, but I just don’t have the time. If I had the time, I’d write one. Maybe someday. Later. When I have time.
Then later comes, and they say, oh, but it’s too hard to start now. If only I were younger. Publishing is such a young person’s game.
P. D. James published that first novel at age 42. She wrote on her morning commute, worked all day, wrote on her evening commute, and did all the other family and school related things afterward. And kept writing for the next fifty-four years.
I think P. D. James needs an Extreme(ly) Old Writer photo. The great writer sitting at her desk, writing, surrounded by her books, and the caption, “I’m 94. I write. What’s your excuse?”
Sure, some of those later books aren’t quite as tight and vigorous as her earlier work. But—
In a time when the old are marginalized, packed out of sight in nursing homes and treated like infants . . .
When too many of the retirees of the middle and upper classes decide to take things easy, coast through those final decades, and leave the most difficult work—of reconciliation, of justice, of investing in others—to younger people . . .
When the young think the old can’t do anything of consequence and dismiss their ideas . . .
When the young fear age, and the middle aged will do anything to look younger . . .
When “you look so young!” is a compliment and “it makes me look old” is a criticism . . .
It’s good to read about someone who looked old, was old, and didn’t let a silly little adjective like “old” to keep her from working hard and producing enjoyable books.
So what’s my excuse?
If you’ll excuse me, I need to go plot my next novel.