What’s your excuse? Thoughts on P.D. James, old age, and making time to write

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.

Old age?

No time?

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.

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13 thoughts on “What’s your excuse? Thoughts on P.D. James, old age, and making time to write

  1. Thanks for the inspiring description of a remarkable woman and the reminder that the best time for anything is now. It seems that her imaginary world was a great break from her trevails.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What was interesting is how much she used her knowledge from her day jobs to inform her novels. She worked in civil service and learned about forensics, police procedures, etc., and applied that to her realistic portrayal of murder investigations. That’s a good inspiration for anyone toiling away at a day job and longing to write; that time isn’t wasted, it’s great fodder for stories. Thanks for reading, Frances!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. After reading this post on ye olde eliptical, I was SO inspired to write a long comment! (You know I can’t do that or else I’d keel over on the thing.) Anyway, I loved reading this post! But now, after dealing with two kid meltdowns, dinner, and more, I’m tuckered so my comment isn’t what I hoped it would be. Forgive me.

    What I will mention is that I did feel like a bit of a loser after reading about James’ accomplishments in spite of her many challenges, but I got over that really quick! 😉 I did! She reminded me of…..get ready for it, Laura…..Madeleine L’Engle in some ways, ha ha!

    L’Engle wrote virtually anywhere with any distraction – i.e. trains, in hotel lobbies, traveling all over the place when she worked in the theater, you-name-it. Like James, she was incredibly prolific and she wrote into her old age, although she died much younger than James did.

    This was fascinating to read, and ultimately I was truly inspired. Thank you for sharing this remarkable writer’s life with us!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No need to apologize. We’re not strangers to kid meltdowns in this house, either.

      It’s inspirational for me, too. I try to write wherever I can, though certain environments feel impossible. Probably while driving a car isn’t a good time . . . though if I had voice recognition software, it might work. Then again, I might get mad at a character and drive off the road! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This is the second post today I have read about getting that novel written… I am hearing very loud and clear, I need to write!! Thanks for the encouragement!!

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  4. How lucky she was to be 94 and still perfectly lucid! My dear granny, who also died at 94, had been in a care home for more than a decade before her death, with increasing dementia. Towards the end she was just like a child, though always smiling, bless her. My mother-in-law has also been in a care home nearby since last year. It is hard to watch someone slowly turn from an adult whom you admired and respected into a child-like state. But I find that kindness and gentleness always help and the ‘essence’ of the person is still there, just the same.

    I needed to read this today, Laura. THANK YOU. I always wanted to be a writer, from the age of about 6 I never said ‘nurse’ or ‘teacher’ like the other children when asked ‘what do you want to be when you grow-up?’. I always said ‘writer’. Then life happened. Lately I find myself imagining characters. I have been arguing with myself over how to make time for writing, but I am going to do it. Even if it’s just half an hour every day. Because something is better than nothing. The best thing about writing children’s stories is that you get to be a kid again – in a world where anything can happen 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dementia is so hard to handle emotionally, isn’t it? My mother-in-law has Alzheimer’s and, while she seems happy now (after years of worrying about getting the disease), it’s hard to see her repeat herself and forget. You’re right: kindness and gentleness help. That’s how I would want to be treated if I were in that child-like state of dependence.

      Writing children’s stories? Wow. I’ve always been too intimidated by the prospect of writing for children to do it! So good for you! Take a few minutes a day to write . . . it adds up. And I think about my novel and my characters constantly, trying to work through questions I have; so even if I don’t “write,” I’m still writing. I’m still in writer mode, being creative. I try to get the ideas down as soon as possible afterward in my writer’s journal. Otherwise they might get lost!

      Liked by 1 person

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