2015: another year passed and no published novel was spawned from my household. The biological clock has been replaced with a literary alarm bell. It tolls like something out of Dickens, echoing through the house in the wee hours. I picture myself as Miss Havisham hunched over a cob-webbed MacBook, its cold light deepening my frown lines as I torture myself online; a Booker winner aged 28, Granta’s Best Young Novelists, all those literary wunderkinder.
Why do we get so obsessed with youthfulness among writers? We’re not performing K-Pop! The lusciousness of our eyelashes is not the point.
As it happens, writers often pick up speed once they’ve got over the hill. Bram Stoker, Lee Child and Ian Fleming were all in their 40s before they published a decent novel. Mary Wesley was in her 70s. Nirad Chaudhuri wrote his first novel aged 50+ and saw his final book in print when he was 100.
The Singaporean writer Verena Tay harnesses the energy of late bloomers on memoir-writing workshops that are run exclusively for the over-50s at the National Library. Jo Furniss asked her what makes older writers pick up the pen.
VT: When you’re young you might not have the life experience or the drive to record your story. When I last ran this workshop, we had a few people who had written before, but also some who were naturally gifted and some who needed to develop their writing skills. But they all felt compelled to start.
SWAG: I always find that it’s very difficult to workshop with memoirists because the subject matter is so intimate – digging into their own memories – that it’s hard to critique without feeling like it’s personal.
VT: I like to stress from the start that a memoir is not necessarily a factual history about yourself. You have to structure what happened into some kind of themed story – a narrative so that the piece has some thematic centre to hold everything. Also, there are different motivations for why you might want to write a memoir. It may be purely personal, but if you want to write for bigger reasons, if you want to get it published, then you must craft the piece and refine the piece so it’s of a fair standard.
SWAG: Is it easier for people who’ve previously written fiction?
VT: Not necessarily, but some people have a better sense of how to convey a story. The better essays, the ones we chose for publication the last time I ran this course, tend to be more coherent with a theme that links everything together.
SWAG: When people pick up the pen later in life, are they bursting with stories?
VT: Some people have a lot of things stored up in them, because they’ve been busy with other events in their lives. They hear the clock ticking. And some people are also compelled to relate stories about events or family members that have been significant, in order to honour them.
SWAG: Is this urge to honour the past particularly strong in Singapore, which is such a rapidly changing country? As we saw during SG50, the lifestyle and landscape of anyone aged over 50 has altered so dramatically during their lifespan.
VT: I was asked to teach this workshop because previously I worked on the Balik Kampung series, which was a personal reaction to such changes. Even if you’re young – you don’t have to be 50 – you see the changes. If you’re fortunate enough to stay in one area for ten years, you would have some emotional responses to write creatively about. We made Balik Kampung – “return to the kampong” – so that we could get those feelings into the recorded history of Singapore.
SWAG: In our society, we seem to hero-worship youth. Are older writers stuck in a cultural blind spot?
VT: Yes and no. Mature people tend to win the major literary prizes. They’ve lived the life and gained the craft as well. Modern society is youth-orientated and it’s great to be noticed early, but will they stand scrutiny in the long run?
VERENA TAY (www.verenatay.com) is a Singapore-based writer, editor, storyteller and theatre practitioner. She has published three collections of plays and a first collection of short stories, entitled Spectre: Stories from Dark to Light (Math Paper Press, 2012). She has also edited several short story anthologies: Balik Kampung, Balik Kampung 2A: People and Places and Balik Kampung 2B: Contemplations (Math Paper Press), Dark Tales and My Life, My Story (National Library Board), and A Monsoon Feast (DFP Productions/Monsoon Books).
Her Memoir Workshop takes place at the National Library in February: http://www.swaglit.com/event/my-life-my-story-memoir-workshop-for-over-50s/2016-02-22/