Writing in retirement is such a cliche. Even my flatmate teases me about writing my memoirs, and my flatmate likes me. I walk the dog and feed the cat.
I reached 65, normal retirement age for men of my generation, just under three years ago. A few months before the small local charity I was working for lost the contract that funded my post.
I hadn’t assumed that I would retire. I thought I would continue working, at least part-time, till I was seventy. I applied for a few jobs in my field and got a couple of interviews. I came second.
Coming second in a job interview is a bit like coming fourth in the Olympics. You don’t get anything.
After about eighteen months I realised I liked not being tired and stressed the whole time. I think that is the point at which I accepted that I had retired.
I started In the Night the Men Come a few months before I left the job. At that stage I wasn’t writing in retirement, and I wasn’t expecting to retire.
I had been doing a lot of personal writing, off and on, for a long time. I had got to the point where I wanted either to finish it, or stop.
I was trying to write about childhood sexual abuse. I was worried about narcissism, and there was quite a difficult technical problem. There appeared to be two timescales, one for the events and the other for the memories. It was difficult to reconcile them.
I had done an edit. I was trying to force myself to read it over, so I could make a decision.
I couldn’t do it. At that point I knew I had abandoned the project.
I asked myself if I would ever write again. The answer was, ‘Yes, probably.’
I asked myself if I would ever write fiction again. I was in the office at work. The answer was, ‘If I had a story’.
I realised at that moment that I did have a story. A client of mine had been gang-raped in prison in her country of origin by the security forces. They were trying to get her to denounce a close family member as a spy.
The young woman was still traumatised. She had had a very difficult time before she got ‘indefinite leave to remain’ in the United Kingdom. She was still struggling in some ways.
I had done what I could. I would have liked to do more. I was angry.
Within twenty-four hours I had a complete outline. The next morning I went to my local Ryman’s and bought an imitation Moleskin notebook.
I thought that was really weird. There I was. I was sixty-four years of age. I was on my local high street buying a writer’s notebook.
I struggled with the book. I stopped writing for a while before I left the job. I was just too tired.
I took time off and did something else between drafts. The ‘something else’ was usually a draft of an essay. I haven’t yet completed them.
I did a lot of revision. I did each version in a different colour. By the end the manuscript looked wonderful. It was also completely illegible.
I did ‘substantive editing’. I kicked whole chapters out and wrote new ones.
That made me nervous. I have never liked writing to order. It gave me a lot of confidence to find that I could imagine something new when I needed to.
In the Night the Men Come took about two years, off and on. The City that Walked Away took six months, and Survivor took four weeks.
I didn’t do a lot of revision on either The City that Walked Away or Survivor, and I didn’t do any substantive editing. I had found a technique and a style. The first draft was pretty good and the writing was easy.
Writing in retirement clearly allowed me to be more productive. I wouldn’t have written nearly so much if I had been working, even part-time.
I had a security I hadn’t had before. My old age pension is almost like a citizen’s income. Day to day I don’t need to worry.
I also in an almost ideal environment. I had to move about the same time I lost the job, which was a little nerve racking. In my new home I have room for a desk, I have four bookcases and I have a balcony. It’s perfect.
Clearly if I hadn’t realised I had a story I wouldn’t be writing, or at least I wouldn’t be writing fiction. I would probably be volunteering.
There are other processes involved. They are longer-term.
In 1993 I self-published an offset-litho paperback novel. It was a disaster. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I did it anyway. I was manic.
That was bruising. I solemnly abjured fiction. I had in fact already become very sceptical about fiction. I wrote the novel anyway.
I decided that if I wanted good mental health, I needed to do the same things that everyone else did. I didn’t need to be special and different. That was essential to mental health recovery.
I also dismissed my conviction that I was a writer as a narcissistic adolescent fantasy. That was going too far.
I didn’t read fiction again until 2003. I was really angry with Tony Blair. I wanted find out more about the Arab world.
I stumbled across Naguib Mahfouz. Mahfouz restored my faith. I collected his novels avidly. I am not usually a collector.
I realised it wasn’t fiction I had a problem with. It was contemporary Euro-American fiction, and more generally ‘bourgeois realism’.
When I moved and retired, I had the leisure to develop my new-found interest. I discovered contemporary Chinese fiction. I am not just writing in retirement. I am reading in retirement as well.
Writing in retirement gives me the leisure to write and frees me from distraction. Retirement is a necessary condition for productivity.
It isn’t a sufficient condition. I had to regain my faith in fiction, and I needed good mental health. And I needed a story.