I was 72 when I decided to write my first novel.
I am now 83.
How are you liking it so far?
I had what I thought was a most provocative opening sentence. It read: Jerry thanked God for the cancer. The paragraph went on to reveal the lead character—Jerry age 72—on his boat off the coast of Florida, philosophizing about the terminal diagnosis he had only recently received, and realizing that for the first time ever, he truly had some control over events revolving around his life. There was now no need to fear there would be too much life at the end of the money, and no longer any reason to be concerned about the application of sunblock.
My fictional alter-ego was 72 since that was my age when this would-be tome began. Having Jerry be the age with which I was most familiar saved any heavy research on my part; it also meant, like me, Jerry would have been too young to have served in Korea, and too old to have been drafted for Viet Nam.
Electing to make Jerry just a few years older or younger would have presented the possibility/probability of scar tissue for the lead character because he would have either been a part of, or somehow would have had to avoid, one of those conflicts. These were emotions I did not have easy access to and would, I thought, probably have difficulty creating on the page.
Like me, Jerry was a Bonafide member of the “f-ing lucky club.” Both of us, were born into “the luckiest generation.” The heavy price that was paid for fighting for one’s country was not paid by us. Men who were fortunate enough to be born in the late 1930s and early 1940s reaped all the economic benefits of an economy in high gear, both during and after wars, without really having to pay any “dues” at all. Really lucky.
So that’s how Jerry got to be 72. “Write what you know.” That has been taught to budding writers for as long as I can remember (there probably is a date certain where that was first said, but… well, that too, would require research). Having made the decision that “my guy” would be called Jerry and that he would be 72, and fairly beaming over that provocative opening sentence, I sailed through the first 11,000 words.
In no time at all I had created what was to me an interesting character, had given him a heavy problem with which to deal, put him in the fertile locale of the sub-tropics…on a boat… metaphorically adrift… and then…
The writing stalled. My intention was to follow “Jerry” wherever he would lead. Because he was terminally ill he could luxuriate in reflecting on his life, his career, his triumphs, his failings, the women he had known… and, sometimes, loved. Because he was on some heavy pain medication, I didn’t need to worry too much about any time frame as Jerry would access memory as it came to him. That all seemed to work great for just over those 11,000 words… enough for about 1/10th of the average sized novel (I did take the time to research that).
Several things dawned on me all at once. The first was that I really did not know what I was doing. Sure, I had written a book before (here a pause in the narrative to point out that my memoir, Cagney & Lacey… and Me is still available through Amazon, iTunes, or with autograph by checking with the official Cagney & Lacey website: www.cagneyandlacey.com) but as stated, that was a memoir… NOT a novel.
I quickly realized two important things: the first was that I rarely read novels. In fact, I had hardly read them as a kid either. We were between wars (remember) and I was into girls and poetry and some powerful plays by Clifford Odets, Eugene O’Neill… writers of my parents’ youth… along with an interesting crop of newbies who came along later in my adolescence such as Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Edward Albee. It made me a slow reader as I would mostly read aloud…. delighting over rhyme schemes or trying to emulate how the then young Marlon Brando would perform the written scene I had before me. I do remember reading Mailer’s Naked and the Dead, but the way I read it took F*O*R*E*V*E*R.
I came to discover that if you don’t read novels, it is tough to write them. In fact, it just may be true that you must read in order to write at all. The number two thing I realized… just over 1/10th of the way to my 100,000-word goal… was that a plot just might help…. a lot.
I had made Jerry a political animal and a fervent fan of the national public radio. But whenever PBS got into its fund-raising mode, as they all too often do, my hero would switch to AM radio which in Florida is either in Spanish, is about the very under achieving Miami Dolphins, or is ultra-right wing and mostly Rush Limbaugh all the time.
Obama was then President and Rush Limbaugh was ostensibly healthy. Very fertile ground, I thought. Events kept ahead of me. I kept trying to keep up, changing the piece repeatedly to stay current with the political gyrations in Obama’s America. The pace was simply too fast; I had to bring this story to a close. I did a word count… now just under 25,000 words. There was no way this was going to make it to the 100,000 it would take to make a novel. I reached out to Google for research. Turns out what I had was about right for a novella and way too long for a short story. “Novella” had a nice ring to it, I thought. I mean, wasn’t that how Philip Roth started?
I sent it to some friends: Too much sex, my male friends responded. That surprised me. The women on my list, including my spouse, all wanted more sex… in the novella. Exhausted, I put it aside only to pick it up again almost a year ago. Trump was by then President, I inserted an occasional reference to The Donald but, having learned my lesson about trying to keep up with constantly breaking news, I referenced the occupant of the White House less than I had before. I was by then 82; so was Jerry.
I think I pretty much look the same as I did at 72. Overall, pretty much feel the same. But for a lot of folks who read the updated version, 82 simply was not working. Not sexy… or even all that interesting as a lead character, they said. I tried not to take it too personally. Still, 82, I learned, is perceived by almost everyone as just plain old. The story’s lead character had changed little for me but for the reader, an old guy like that just was not all that compelling.
I began to see myself as other’s were seeing Jerry. This was not a pretty picture. I projected that my intended, almost always sure-fire, flirtatious grin was now being received as a lecherous leer. The “dirty old man” syndrome came to the forefront of my mind in a way it never had before.
There are, they say, three stages of a man’s life: infancy, middle age, and “hey, you look good.” It has been a while since anyone has been surprised when I reveal how old I am. It was not that long ago (was it?) when I would mention my age and the response was incredulity. What happened? Does 15 extra pandemic pounds really make that much of a difference? Are those sun scarred blotches on my skin really that noticeable? Is my slightly bent spine all that visible? I began to feel that someone (me?) had let the sexual energy out of the room. My self-esteem dropped several percentage points (to a place perhaps only 20-30% above normal). I went back to the book… novella…short story… whatever.
Making Jerry 5… even 10… years younger than me… well, he would be quite a different guy, with very different experiences and there would then be all that attendant, and dreaded, research. Better I should begin yet another diet, tie on my tennis shoes, get myself out on the courts, regain some of that lost sense of self, and just let Jerry be Jerry and have him die in peace.
Follow Barney at:
To purchase “Cagney & Lacey and Me” click or go to:
As a fan of Barney’s prose, I believe he does have a great novel just waiting to be written. But in the meantime, Barney’s Blog certainly has the potential of being a book of short stories. So, get to it, Barney. It’s almost ready for publication. Hey, if I can do it, Barney Rosenzweig, certainly can. … and thank you Barney for your beautifully written review on the back cover of my book. Dena Stewart