The Art of Aging Gracefully

The June issue of Harper’s includes a lovely 2002 essay by the late Barry Hannah titled “Why I Write” (sub. req’d), in which he catalogues the experiences that inspired him to become a writer. The piece moves chronologically, and in writing about a breakup in his early 20s he muses on the comfort and sense of maturity that comes with being 30 years separated from that young man. Especially as a writer:

I think of those moments in Faulkner, Beckett, and Holy Scripture when the words seem absolutely final, bodiless, disattached, as out of a cloud of huge necessity. My desire is to come even close to that team—to be that luck, to be touched by such grace. I do believe that as you write more and age, the arrogance and most of the vanity go. It is a vanity met with vast gratitude: that you were hit by something as you stood in the way of it, that anybody is listening. When you are ashamed and revising your comments to old girlfriends of thirty years ago, you might be shocked to find out you really have nothing much better now than what you said in the first place.

Bret Easton Ellis hits on a similar theme in an interview with Vice magazine about his new novel, Imperial Bedrooms—a sequel to his career-defining 1985 novel, Less Than Zero. “You can’t repeat that,” he says of that book’s success, “and there’s no sense in wringing your hands, pacing around feeling worried about it. You just have to do what you want to do.” But he seems eager to discover what he could bring to those characters with a couple decades’ of maturity of a writer, and he talks about killing off a central character as kind of symbol of his own growth, a way to escape the bad-boy reputation that’s clung to him:

What happens to the writer looking back on his work? Does he become a destroying artist at a certain point in his career? You know? I think there was another impetus behind Imperial Bedrooms and it was one that I was surprised to see emerge and that I kind of wrestled with. And that’s the idea of… I don’t know how to put this. There’s a sentimental view of Less Than Zero. It’s something that has taken shape around that book. It’s kind of “beloved.” And I think it’s also heavily misread by about half of its readers. I’ve met many people in the last three or four years since I’ve moved back to LA who tell me, “Oh man, I moved to LA after reading Less Than Zero.”… And it definitely seems to be almost like an artifact of the rah-rah 80s. It is up there with John Hughes movies and Ray-Bans and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. As dark as I felt the book was when I was writing it, as serious as I was about it when I was a student working on it, it was very surprising to see it be read in a certain way and to take on this reputation. So I think there was a feeling of wanting to fuck with it a little bit when I was working on Imperial Bedrooms.

3 thoughts on “The Art of Aging Gracefully

  1. You can listen to Barry Hannah read the piece here (I’m not sure if it’s only an excerpt, since I haven’t seen the printed version):

    [audio src="http://wiredforbooks.org/mp3/BarryHannah1993.mp3" /]

    (You may have to grit your teeth through the first five minutes or so of introduction:)

    1. Thanks for the link! I haven’t installed RealAudio on my laptop, but now I have an excuse to….

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