The Desire Not to Write

Phillip Roth recently retired from writing. His career, started in 1959, has spanned five decades and included thirty-one novels. Nearing 80 (next March), Roth has had enough of writing.

“The struggle with writing is over.” That’s what he wrote on the note attached to his refrigerator. He no longer has to face the daily creative struggle.

What is a loss for his readers is a relief for him. As he says, “I look at that note every morning, and it gives me strength.”

The desire not to do something can be very powerful. Creativity is a wonder on the best days, a misery on the worst, and a struggle on almost every day. What creative person hasn’t thought at one time or another that it would be a blessing to stop. To simply say, “No more,” and turn one’s back on the demands of the psyche.

It will be interesting to see if Phillip Roth really can retire. In a way, I’m rooting for him to succeed. Isn’t five decades long enough to devote to any career? Hasn’t he accomplished more than enough?

“I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration,” Roth observes. “Writing is a frustration—it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time.” And that’s if you’re one of the best hitters in the game.

To allow for the cessation of an activity that has received so much of one’s life energy is a brave attempt to create the new. What shape will the new take in the case of Phillip Roth or any of us who dare to allow space and time for the unfamiliar to enter our lives? Roth suggests that friendships, entertaining company, will be more part of his life. For the rest of us, if we ever face a similar challenge and opportunity, the answer is unknown, unfathomable, and worthy of at least a bit of speculation.

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