I have often thought about this day and what it would mean for me. I have given up a lot of things with age: cricket, tennis, jogging, rock bands, jet-setting, corporate game-playing, even gym. I have hung onto home exercises, walking, golf and writing, and I know that eventually I will have to give up these too. The last one will be the hardest to cut loose, for it crystallises where all the divergent roads taken in life have led me to.
And yet, there comes a time when one has to stop writing, at least, writing for public consumption. I list below criteria that could activate this big STOP sign:
1) When eyesight and brain function start to wane, and you end up repeating yourself.
2) When the audience has moved on to other interests that you do not share in anymore, and no one wants to publish you or read you.
3) When no one is listening, even though you are still making sense.
4) When your contemporaries have gone silent or dead, and you have become an anachronism.
5) When the need to share your thoughts is not such a compulsion anymore, like the loss of libido that makes sex a memory.
6) When you do not feel the need to strongly engage with the world anymore and you start detaching towards the other world, if there is indeed one.
7) When you feel that you can actually squander the unforgiving minute without 60 seconds of distance being run and enjoy the experience of staring into space instead.
8) When you realize that no matter what you say or write, it won’t make an iota of difference to the world. We already suspect this, but deceive ourselves that we can still make an impact.
9) When you experience a “Road to Damascus” moment and have a spiritual epiphany, and when all that has mattered prior to that point, including writing, doesn’t matter anymore.
10) When a natural disaster, disease, or war strikes, and you have to slide down Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to Survival above Self-Actualization.
There you are, a ten commandments of a kind of when to stop writing. On scanning this list, I find that although I have skirted a few of the items in my own writing, on more than a few occasions, I haven’t hit any of them in a major way, yet. Certainly the epiphany in #9 hasn’t happened, although it would be devoutly wished for, and #10 has been fervently prayed for not to happen—what a drag, if it did!
Many famous writers suddenly went silent in mid-career, J.D. Salinger being one of the most notable. What did he write during those final silent years, work that has still to be shared with the world? Will it be his best writing, or more of the same, about the child characters he couldn’t seem to outgrow? Will it be a sensation or a flop? What work did other famous writers lapse into at the end of their lives that remain unpublished after their deaths, and is probably archived through donation in some obscure library, never to be shared broadly with the world? I wish I could be a fly on the wall of those libraries, or a booklouse crawling over the forgotten text, to find out.
On the other hand, I have seen the works of writers, some who were winners of awards like the Nobel Prize for Literature, who kept writing well past their prime and ended up crude caricatures of what they were at the height of their powers. A writer’s last book is often his most memorable legacy, why not have gone out on a high, rather than at low tide?
And so we continue, pushing off this inevitable date with fate, keeping those writing muscles exercised and nimble, squeezing out writing that we think will contribute to the evolution of literature and the world. I frequently assess—and that may be by feedback from trusted readers or from my own intuition—whether my next work is better than my previous one. It has to be, for that would indicate continuing growth and development and a reason to keep publishing. The day my work goes into reverse will be the day to call it quits. And the first warning of that reversal is likely to come more from trusted readers than from my egotistic intuition. My pride would have a hard time accepting it, but accept it, I must, for the world is awash with content and ideas today. Why add obsolete and useless ones to an already overflowing pot?
There is one bright spot in all this, however. Should the writing for public consumption cease, for one or more of the above reasons, that does not mean we could not continue to write for ourselves, even if it is to clarify our thoughts, or to act as prayers that we can unleash upon the page for the benefit of our own salvation. I hope this final stage, when it comes, does not stop until the hand lies still upon the page.