Two years ago, soon after the release of her novel The Maytrees, Annie Dillard said — it wasn’t a formal announcement, just a comment, but apparently a thoroughly considered one — that she was retiring from writing, and from all the . . . stuff that accompanies the life of a writer: book tours, public readings, and so on. “I’m tired,” she said. “I worked so hard all my life, and all I want to do now is read.”
I’ve thought about this often, and my considered position is: Good for her. I’m going to miss her writing, but she’s earned a break. Writing well is really, really hard — it demands a great deal from one’s whole being — so much so that it’s rather surprising that more writers don’t call it quits. And yet it seems that as people (people in the Western world, anyway) live longer and longer, so writers write longer and longer. John Updike wrote right up to the end; Philip Roth is clearly going to do the same. Maybe I’ve missed something, but I don’t know that any other major (or at least celebrated) writers of the same generation — Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Tom Stoppard, William Trevor (to pick a few names from the air) — are planning to call it a career. And Dillard is about a decade younger than those figures.
So why aren’t there more writerly retirements? The obvious answer is that “being a writer” is an especially intense form of identity, and that writers who don’t write anymore feel like ciphers. (Writer – writing = zero.) But it seems to me that there’s an old belief that applies to the writer just as much as to the carpenter or cabinetmaker or nurse: after decades of hard work, you deserve a break, a period, in the last years of your life, of rest and contemplation. Dillard is obviously of that mind, and again, good for her. I wish her happy reading, and decades of it.