“When I Retire, I’m Going to Be a Brain Surgeon”

file0001532482557 - stethoscope

By drummerboy, morguefile, http://mrg.bz/U6R17F

In his book, Here Be Dragons: Telling Tales of People, Passion and Power, Peter C. Newman relates a well-known story about author Margaret Laurence. “The magnificent Ms. Laurence was a proud professional, offended by anyone who didn’t adequately respect her craft,” he writes. “Once at a Montreal reception, a distinguished gentleman came up to her and gushed, ‘Oh, I’m so glad to meet you. I’ve read everything you’ve written. I’m a brain surgeon, and when I retire, I’m going to do novels, too!’ She looked at him with pretend enthusiasm, grabbed him by the elbow, and bellowed, ‘What a coincidence! When I retire, I’m going to be a brain surgeon.’”

I saw this on Facebook the other day and, as a writer of 30 years myself, I immediately nodded in recognition. I try not to get annoyed when I’m at some sort of social gathering where someone asks me what I do and I say, “I’m a writer,” to which they respond, “I’m a writer, too. I write in my journal every day.” No, I’m sorry, that doesn’t make you a writer any more than my balancing my cheque book or doing my own taxes makes me an accountant. It makes you literate. There’s a difference.

At the same time, though, it occurred to me when I reread that Margaret Laurence anecdote that, although I understand the sentiment, the reality in the early third millennium is not the same as it was when she made that statement. In this era, it is feasible for people to retire from whatever they’ve been doing all their lives and become writers. Numerous current students and alumni of the MFA program in Creative Nonfiction Writing at University of King’s college fall into that category. Some of them are likely to finish and publish at least one book, if not more.

Self-publishing makes it even more possible for people to retire and become published writers. It’s easy to say that’s just vanity publishing, but I edit a lot of authors who hope to be traditionally published but are willing self-publish, as well as many who choose a self-publishing model from the start, and I’m often impressed with the quality of writing and the story ideas that come my way, regardless of which publishing model the authors are pursuing.

My point is that, particularly in an era in which people are living much longer and often remaining productive until close to the end of their lives, the notion that one might retire from one profession, move on to another, and attain some degree of success—sometimes a considerable degree—is not unrealistic.

Look at Claire Sower, whom I’ve written about here—a successful writer for many years who is now thriving as a visual artist. And Guenther Krueger—another successful writer who earned his PhD in his late fifties/early sixties and worked at his dream job for the last three years before he retired. Clark Elliott, who wrote The Ghost in My Brain, is a gifted professor of artificial intelligence, not a writer, yet he published a book last year.

The whole point of this Start Now blog is to tell readers that it’s never too late to start something new. There are writers who not only did that but became very well-known and widely admired for their writing: although both Charles Bukowski and Laura Ingalls Wilder started writing earlier in life, neither were published until they were in their fifties, and Frank McCourt didn’t publish Angela’s Ashes until he was 66.

It’s also not unusual for doctors to become writers. Think Oliver Sacks, Norman Doidge, and Peter D. Kramer. (Is it a coincidence they’re all psychiatrists?) On the other hand, my son and daughter-in-law are both in medical school and I can’t imagine anyone retiring and becoming a doctor, never mind a neurosurgeon. I can imagine a person starting in medicine perhaps as late as 40, but it’s at least a nine-year process (after completing a four-year undergraduate degree, usually in the sciences) from starting basic sciences to completing a residency, comprising long, stressful hours every step of the way. So, no, I can’t see a person retiring and becoming a physician.

That’s not to say I don’t see Laurence’s point. I work hard at my writing. I’ve been told I have a gift, which I think is horseshit. I’ve spent over 30 years learning my craft, most recently in a master’s program that had me working harder than I have in years. I have as little patience for people who think writers have a gift and writing comes easily to them as I do for people who refer to themselves as writers just because they’re literate. (I have even less patience for people who use these wrong-headed perceptions as excuses not to pay writers adequately.)

So right after I read that old Margaret Laurence anecdote and nodded my head in agreement, I had to think twice about what she’d actually said and whether it still applies. The spirit of it? Yes, unfortunately, it still applies. But the letter of it? No. It’s increasingly apparent that it is possible to retire from a career, take up writing, be serious about it, finish one or more books, find one or more publishers, build an audience, and maybe even win awards.

I’m glad about that, because it gives me and a lot of other people an opportunity to believe that if we work hard at it, we will be able to achieve what we’ve always wanted to but never before had the time or opportunity to do so directly. But I’d also like it if people would get the message beneath Laurence’s quip, which is as valid today as it was when she said it: writing is hard work and deserves to be taken as seriously as any other craft, art, or profession.

If you’re not a professional writer but you aspire to become one, more power to you. But before you say “I’m a writer, too” or “I plan to become a writer when I retire” to someone who’s already been doing the work and paying the dues for decades, ask yourself if you’d say the same thing to an accountant just because you balance your cheque book every month and do your own taxes every year. And maybe then consider saying something a little more appropriate, like “I write in my journal every day, and I often think I’d like to write more when the kids are grown and I have more time. Tell me what it’s like to be a professional writer.”

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