Saturday, November 3, 2012

Looking at the Edge of the Cliff

by Jean Roberta

(Note: November 2 was my day to post. Please excuse me for showing up a day late. Yesterday I was giving a presentation called Ripe Fruit: Queer Sex on the Page to a small, select audience in the university where I teach. It was the first presentation in a series run by the "Queer Initiative" (faculty group) on all sorts of gay/lesbian/bi/trans topics. I made myself a kind of loose script for my talk, so I can post parts of it here when relevant to the current topic.)


To retire or not to retire? That is the question.

Well, not really. Much as I like to imagine myself just as I am now when I turn 65 (in 4 years), then 70, then 80, then 85, then – common sense tells me that I’m not immortal, and I won’t be able to teach forever.

The very cool thing about a writing career, however, is that it can last until death. When the playwright George Bernard Shaw left this earth in 1950, at age 94 (and I’m sure this event surprised his many fans and enemies who thought he would never shut up), he left an unfinished play in his desk. I like to imagine him haunting his former digs, trying to find a way to write the final act without fingers.

So I don’t ever really have to retire, if retirement means not working at all. However, I definitely see my teaching phase as having a final act followed by (I hope) a fabulous lunch, catered by the University Club, on a warm spring day in the outdoor space outside the university library with the fountain splashing between two long, groaning tables. (I attended a retirement lunch like that for one of my former profs, who was then my colleague. Retirement events, like weddings, are inspiring.)

Then what? No more garbled student essays to grade! No more plagiarists to deal with! No more students who skip half the classes in a semester, then show up on the last day, asking, “What did I miss?” No endless department meetings. No administration that expects the department to keep doing more with less. No government cutbacks to cope with.

No more fresh young faces, full of curiosity. No more interesting grammatical challenges. (Why do so many first-year students write almost entirely in past-perfect tense, and how can I persuade them not to?) No more amazing, unexpected compliments on the anonymous evaluation forms that all students are asked to fill in on the last day of class. (Last spring, someone wrote, “I hate English, but I love Jean.”)

Full days of “writing,” staring at a computer screen for eight hours at a stretch. (Or cleaning house, walking the dogs, going out for coffee to avoid self-imposed writing assignments.)

One of my former colleagues, a British-born Canadian writer named Joan Givnor (whose apparently effortless style I’ve always admired) wrote an essay on her experience of early retirement (at age 55), followed by a move to the West Coast with her husband. She sat in front of the computer screen in a room with windows that showed a different landscape than she was used to – and her old friends were too far away to visit on a whim. She realized, too late, how intellectually stimulating it was to have fellow-teachers (many of whom were also fellow-writers) available for conversation at almost any time during a working day.

Eventually, Joan adjusted to the big change in her life, cultivated local friends, and launched her post-retirement writing career. Since then, she has written a critically-acclaimed series of YA novels. (This surprised me, since she was formerly best known for short stories and book-length biographies of other writers, but I’ve read enough about other writers myself to know that a change of genre can give a writer a fresh start.)

I dread the transition from one phase of life to another. Much as I sometimes think (like other writers) that I could enjoy being in solitary confinement with a stack of paper and a box of pencils, I know there are reasons why prisoners in serious lockups (Alcatraz or your typical medieval dungeon) were known to go stark raving mad, sooner or later. And it wasn’t because of the rats, who might have seemed like welcome company.

So I don’t plan to leave the well-populated Ivory Tower exactly at “normal retirement age” (65), since I now have the legal freedom to stay awhile longer. Among other things, I want to make sure I will have enough money to live on, assuming I will live to 110, give or take a few years. (A future as an arthritic bag lady trying to sleep on cold cement doesn’t seem appealing.) I don’t have a clear plan yet.

But I would like a fabulous farewell lunch. :)


  1. Great post, Jean! If this is a sample of your talk, I'm sure it was amazing.

    I don't think I'll ever retire. First, I can't afford to. But even if I could, I'd miss the intellectual stimulation. I doubt that writing full time could ever completely replace that.

  2. It's too bad the fabulous lunch has to be connected to a farewell. I always wonder if could write while retired form my day job. As you mentioned, I think I'd miss the intellectual stimulation.

  3. If we ever manage to be in the same place at the same time (those of us who write this blog & any friends/admirers who show up), we could have a fabulous lunch which wouldn't have to be a farewell. :)


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