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.”