I always thought it was slightly morbid that my mother read obituaries so eagerly. “I love to see what people did with their lives,” she liked to say. “The big picture, the final statement, the failures, successes, and quirks.”
Now that I’ve reached a certain age, I find myself trolling the obituary page myself, like Benjamin Franklin, who said he checked those listings first thing every morning: “If my name is not on it, I get up.”
During this long, painful period of sobering coronavirus losses, I’ve lingered over the tributes to people I know and those I don’t know, but I’ve read none more carefully than the ones for long-lasting writers. What secrets are buried between these farewell lines to the literary icons we’ve recently lost? What takeaways are hidden in these distilled and carefully crafted portraits to inspire future writers? Studying their life stories in miniature provides a chance to view their lengthy, productive, shape-shifting careers from start to finish and try to figure out what helped them endure, how they kept writing in spite of inevitable setbacks, and how they were able to create a long shelf of books that will outlive them.
For example, I found a gem in the 2019 New York Times obit for the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning poet Marie Ponsot. I learned how this single mother managed to keep writing while raising seven children on her own. “I wrote 10 minutes a day. I did it as if it were Commandment No. 1,” she said, adding, “There is always time to write one line of poetry.” This queen of getting-things-done heeded her own advice through troubles and triumphs: Her final poetry collection was published when she was 96, two years before she died.
Fitting writing into available nooks and crannies is a lesson many parents learn from the moment they rock a sleeping baby’s carriage with one hand while scribbling in a notebook with the other. Keeping that habit going through seven children, seven books of poetry, and dozens of translations, as Ponsot managed to do, is inspiration of another magnitude.
Here are a host of other literary hacks for long-lasting creativity from the recent obituaries of nine other acclaimed authors:
Use your last 10,000 hours as wisely as your first 10,000
On the front end, talent plus 10,000 hours of practice may set creative mastery in motion, a theory popularized by Malcolm Gladwell (and adapted from Swedish psychologist K. Anders Ericsson). But many of the long-lived writers profiled in recent obituaries sustained their energy and focus up to the end, publishing books into their 80s, 90s, and beyond. They used their last years as productively as their early ones. These prolific authors figured out how to fight apathy, ageism, and bad reviews, and resist temptations and diversions over decades. They kept their creative spark burning like those trick birthday cake candles that can’t be snuffed out.
Two standouts who died this year published books as centenarians. A.E. Hotchner made his name writing about his legendary friendship with Ernest Hemingway in his bestseller Papa Hemingway. After a successful career producing biographies (of Sophia Loren, Doris Day, and others), novels, and plays, Hotchner wrote a kind of autofiction for what turned out to be his last book: The Amazing Adventures of Aaron Broom. The novel about a 12-year-old boy growing up in St. Louis, as Hotchner himself had done, was published in 2018, just after he turned 101.
“I wanted to make it a jolly affair,” Hotchner said of Aaron Broom in an interview with the New York Times, quoted in his 2020 obit, “something that would celebrate the fact that you could get as old as I had gotten and, to my vast surprise, still have some of my pebbles on the beach.”
Another centenarian who kept his pebbles shining on the beach until his death in 2021 at 101 was the San Francisco poet, publisher, photographer, political gadfly, and godfather of the Beat movement, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. In 1953, he and a friend opened the City Lights Bookstore in the city’s bohemian North Beach. It became as much an iconic gathering place for Bay Area literati as Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company was for Parisians and as much a San Francisco landmark as sourdough and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Poetry was the air Ferlinghetti breathed. He wrote it, published it, and embraced it as “an insurgent art.” He was arrested for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” in 1956, a so-called “indecent” work, but he was later acquitted; the notoriety helped make “Howl” one of the 20th century’s best-known poems. Ferlinghetti’s own early collection, A Coney Island of the Mind, also stirred up controversy in 1958, and its whimsical wordplay, humor, and emotional accessibility turned it into one of the bestselling poetry collections of all time: more than a million copies in print.
In 2019, approaching the century mark, Ferlinghetti published his fictionalized memoir, Little Boy, a book he’d been working on for two decades about “an imaginary me.” Like Hotchner, he playfully mined his childhood as an old man. A reviewer in the Washington Post called it “a volcanic explosion of personal memories, political rants, social commentary, environmental jeremiads and cultural analysis.” It was a fitting capstone to his irreverent career.
Even at the end of his life, Ferlinghetti continued doing what sustained him best: composing poetry, at least “in flashes, nothing sustained,” he told the New York Times in 2018. Reads the last line of his obit: “My newest poems are always my favorite poems.” What a testament to a creative spirit that stayed forever young.
Read, read, read (and write the books you can’t find)
Reading is name-checked as the first love of many of the writers profiled in this past year or two of remembrances. Books are comfort, companionship, delight, amusement, psyche-benders, and horizon-stretchers, and often a refuge for many a youthful soul who doesn’t quite fit in elsewhere.
Beverly Cleary, the prolific children’s author adored for such beloved characters as Beezus, Ramona, Henry Huggins, and his dog, Ribsy, is a case in point. Looking back on her life, she credited the inspiration for all her work to the “rather odd, serious little girl” she once was. Because that little girl, “who sat in a child’s rocking chair with her feet over the hot air outlet of the furnace, reading for hours,” hadn’t been able to find literary heroines like herself, she wrote them into being. Her books set on Klickitat Street in Portland, Oregon, bring to life young people with everyday problems, in and out of mischief, squabbling with siblings, and mystified by adults. She never talked down to her readers because she considered herself one of them.
When she died at 104 in 2021, she’d forever put her mark on children’s literature and left a legacy of 85 million books in print.
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman author and MacArthur Fellow Ernest J. Gaines, who died at 86 in 2019, found his literary roots in a library as well. But growing up in segregated Louisiana, this future chronicler of the lives of those in his African-American community didn’t enter his first public collection of books until he moved to Vallejo, California, to join his mother and stepfather. He was fifteen. There, he started to discover classic novels by Ivan Turgenev and other Russian greats. But, no surprise, he couldn’t always identify with their heroes.
“Many left me with the feeling of disappointment,” he told the Times-Picayune of New Orleans in 1999, as quoted in his New York Times obituary. “They were not describing my people, my aunt, my brothers or my friends whom I played ball and marbles with. I did not see me.”
Like Cleary, he wrote the books that would best reflect himself, his brothers, and sisters: Of Love and Dust, A Lesson Before Dying, and, most famously, Pittman, which traced its heroine from slavery to the civil rights movement and who was memorably embodied by Cicely Tyson in the TV movie. He took to heart the encouraging words of Toni Morrison: “If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.”
Reject your rejections
When Mary Higgins Clark died at 92 in 2021, her New York Times obit dubbed her “The Best-Selling Queen of Suspense.” According to her daughter Carol, Higgins Clark had published her latest book just two months before her death (Kiss the Girls and Make Them Cry, for the record), was working on a new one, and had sold 100 million copies of her previous bestselling thrillers in the United States alone.
Although she had begun pitching her first short stories to confession magazines at the tender age of 16, it’s heartening to note, as her obit does, that Higgins Clark “endured a rain of rejection slips for the next several years before she sold her first story, ‘Stowaway,’ to Extension magazine in 1956.”
It would take another two decades, five children, the death of her first husband, a career in advertising during which she rose at dawn to write before work, and a couple of novels that flopped until she produced her first successful novel, Where Are the Children, published in 1975. All 50 books she wrote after that one were bestsellers.
Despite a path to publication that was paved with turndowns, dead-ends, U-turns, and rabbit holes of all sizes, she rose above her rejections. She had the grit to turn those inevitable early no’s into a gold-plated career of yeses and, in 1988, reputedly became the first single author to snag an eight-figure deal for a multi-book contract.
Go where the action is
Gail Sheehy, who died at 83 in 2020, was the Lois Lane of New Journalism, and her superpower was spotting and unspooling this country’s most important social trends. Gimlet-eyed and daring, she published her groundbreaking nonfiction book, Passages, about life transitions in adulthood, in 1976. It dominated the bestseller list for more than three years, and the Library of Congress called it one of the 10 most influential books of modern times.
Sheehy turned the model into a franchise and followed it with The Silent Passage (1992), about menopause, New Passages: Mapping Your Life Across Time (1995), Understanding Men’s Passages (1998), Passages in Caregiving (2010), and a memoir, Daring: My Passages (2014). When she died, she was working on a book about millennials, who, she said, were inventing “radically new passages.”
From the outset of her illustrious career in journalism, she had her finger on society’s pulse. Her strategy was simple: Go where the action is. “Whenever you hear about a great cultural phenomenon – a revolution, an assassination, a notorious trial, an attack on the country – drop everything,” she said in a commencement address at the University of Vermont, as quoted in her New York Times obit. “Get on a bus or train or plane and go there, stand at the edge of the abyss, and look down into it,” she advised. “You will see a culture turned inside out and revealed in a raw state.”
That reporting technique was then brought to life on the page by advice from her editor at the New York Herald Tribune, Clay Felker. He liked her ideas but told her to “write them as scenes.” She adopted that mantra, using novelists’ tools – characters, dialogue, and scene-setting – to create striking narratives. The practice turned into the cornerstone of New Journalism, and along with Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, and others, she turned into one of its leading pioneers. Felker became Sheehy’s editor at New York magazine, which he co-founded, and later became her husband as well.
Turn pain into prose
Writers with unhappy childhoods may be unhappy in a tangled web of ways, but they have a distinct advantage over non-literary types: they can turn their pain into prose. When Cold War thriller author extraordinaire John le Carré died in 2020 at age 89 in Cornwall, England, his New York Times obituary reported that he “knew deception intimately because he was born into it.” His father was an “amoral, flamboyant, silver-tongued con man” whose epic scams landed him in and out of prison. Le Carré once described him as “manipulative, powerful, charismatic, clever, untrustworthy.” Such a family history must have been painful for a son, but it was later literary fodder for a novelist whose plots were driven by deception. Sixteen years as a spy for Britain’s MI6 and MI5 provided further grist. Le Carré turned out elegant espionage novels for 60 years, including many that have been made into movies and TV adaptations like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; and The Night Manager.
In later years, the obituary reported, Le Carré reveled in his extended family and found a new domestic happiness. On his office wall, he displayed a gift from his children, a poster perhaps hinting of his inner peace. It said, “Keep Calm and le Carré on.”
Shape-shift between media
Playing around with other genres besides writing lights up a different part of the brain and allows creative people more freedom to roam, synapses firing. Ferlinghetti, for example, tried his hand at poetry, plays, prose, photography, and painting. Al Young, another esteemed West Coast poet who also died this year at 81, pivoted between poetry and jazz, often blending the two in readings backed up by a musician; occasionally, Young broke into song himself. He’d made an early start on a career as a folk singer and worked as a disc jockey as well, but instead, he became a poet who drew on his road-not-taken life as a musician. California’s poet laureate from 2005-2008, he made a “top-to bottom” tour of the state, 40 stops in 11 days, giving readings jazzed up by music.
His epitaph could be his poem, “Walk Who I Am In Twilight,” inscribed on a walkway in Berkeley, California, where he lived in his later years: “…like Yosemite National Park, like beans &/cornbread, like rest & recreation, like love/ & like, I know we last. I know our bleeding stops.” His legacy will certainly last in eight poetry collections, a handful of novels, and five “musical memoirs,” among them the jazzily titled Kinds of Blue and Bodies and Soul.
Develop a side-hustle
Larry McMurtry, who died this year at 84 in Archer City, Texas, was a prolific and entertaining novelist and screenwriter of the American West with a gift for storytelling and a knack for memorable titles, like his first, Horseman, Pass By (made into the classic movie Hud with Paul Newman); Lonesome Dove, which busted the cowboy myth and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1986; Terms of Endearment, turned into a 1983 movie that snagged the Academy Award for Best Picture; and my personal favorite, All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers, about a young writer with three girlfriends on his mind.
But writing was not McMurtry’s only gig. For some 50 years, he was also a dedicated antiquarian bookseller. He first opened his bookstore, Booked Up, in Washington, D.C., then moved it when he did to the Texas Panhandle. It’s one of the country’s largest, once sprawling over six buildings and containing some 400,000 volumes. McMurtry auctioned off two-thirds of the collection in 2012, hoping to make the business more manageable for his heirs.
Meanwhile, his private library held some 30,000 books and was sheltered in three houses. He called compiling it a life’s work, his obituary reported, “an achievement equal to if not better than my writings themselves.” Between writing new books and selling old ones, it’s no surprise that his 2008 memoir was called Books.
But that title could be a fitting epitaph for all the authors who died these past few years whose works provide their immortality. These words from Jorge Luis Borges provide the best send-off: “When writers die, they become books, which is, after all, not too bad an incarnation.”
—Elizabeth Fishel is the author of five nonfiction books, including Sisters, Reunion, and Getting To 30: A Parent’s Guide to the 20-Something Years (with Jeffrey Arnett).