Monday, January 03, 2011


Tharn: Stupefied, distraught, hypnotized by fear. But can also, in certain contexts, mean "looking foolish," or again "heartbroken" or "forlorn."Watership Down

Turning 50 didn't just kick my ass. It kicked my ass, hit it with a tire iron, dumped it into the trunk of a Chevy Impala, drove it out to the desert, made it get out and dig its own grave, then pulled a gun, grinned and said, "Hey, just screwin' wit' ya."
Maybe you could have deduced my midlife malaise from the utter lack of entries following my birthday in January. Wait, there was one, a rumination on the death of Kage Baker, one of my favorite writers, who died of a brain tumor in her mid-fifties. After that, I kind of threw in the towel, blogging-wise.
What was up? Well, the details don't really matter. Let's just say that I've worked nearly my entire adult life in an industry currently undergoing cataclysmic change. I've got aging parents and kids in college and high school. I've got gout and I've got a mortgage. Sometimes I feel like I've got plenty of nothing, but nothing is definitely not plenty for me.
It got to the point, almost exactly midway through the year, when I simply "went tharn," as Mr. Richard Adams might put it. Like a bunny caught in the headlights, I froze – creatively, emotionally and nearly physically. At least inside my own head, I couldn't move forward, and I definitely couldn't move backwards. I just stayed still and hoped that nothing would run me over or swoop down on me from a great height.
I started re-reading "Watership Down" this summer, partly spurred by Sawyer's fondness for it on "Lost" and partly because it was a book from a time when I pretty much only read for pleasure, when there were few deadlines, when I took the adventures of Hazel, Fiver and Bigwig at face value. I bought a used copy of the mass-market paperback, my preferred reading format, and reacquainted myself with the rabbits and their quest for a safe home.
Did you know that Richard Adams was 52 when "Watership Down" was published in 1972? He was civil servant for most of his private career and created the story as an entertainment for his daughters on long drives. The "Watership Down" manuscript was rejected by seven publishers before the small firm Rex Collings took it on, but it soon sold more than a million copies worldwide. It won the Carnegie Medal, and now its sales total more than 50 million copies.Adams went on to write "Shardik," "The Plague Dogs" and other well-regarded, best-selling books.
Adams turned 90 in May of 2010. He published a new story, "The Knife," just this year, in "Stories," edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio.
I haven't quite finished "Watership Down" this second time around. I don't particularly feel like rushing it. I can pick it up and put it down without losing the thread of the tale. In a lot of ways, it's simple story, but it says some important things: about perseverance, about friendship, about self-reliance.
I've begun to feel a lot better since this summer, and I've started to write more. It wasn't just Richard Adams and "Watership Down" that gave me a renewed sense of perspective about myself and my career at age 50. There were definitely other, more important factors. But the novel helped, not only through the wisdom of its story but by the example of its author.

Novelists can start their careers after 50. They can publish into their 90s. The Black Rabbit won't ever stop chasing you, but you can still give it a run for its money.
Move. Run blindly, if you have to. But move.
Don't go tharn.


Thomas Burchfield said...

Take heart, Michael. Henry Miller didn't get going until he was 44. There was a woman writer named Helen Hoover Santmeyer (sp?) who, I understand, didn't publish her first successful novel until she was around 70. There are others, I'm sure. Me, I'm 56, feel time's shadow kiss my heels, but on I go, as we all should, in hope and faith that it means something after all.

Anonymous said...

Carol Emshwiller, author of the fabulous novel THE MOUNT, will have her 90th birthday this April 12th. She was 53 when her first book was published by Harper & Row.

Michael Berry said...

Miller and Emshwiller are good examples of literary late bloomers. camillealexa, did you receive the same e-mail from Gavin Grant as I did, or is this just a coincidence?