This week I’m confronted by a topic that doesn’t bear much relationship to what I write: food. Unlike Jennifer’s MODERN GIRLS, with its evocative descriptions of traditional shabbat meals, or the baked goods Louise’s protagonist makes that are so rich you can taste them if you lick the page, THE LOST GIRLS doesn’t feature food in its storytelling. At all. I agree it’s a powerful tool, but it’s one I left in the toolbox this time around.
So instead, I’ll talk about the relationship I had with food while I was writing it.
When I turned 40, I had a panic attack about leaving my youth behind. My kids were 7 and 8, in school for six hours every day, and time was flying. It seemed that in moments I would turn 50, then 60, then 70, then curl up and die. I was consumed by a visceral need to ward off the inevitable as best I could. I joined a gym, joined a tennis team, and started biking, riding up to 30-40 miles several times a week. By the time I was 43, I was in the best shape of my life, charging into middle age in defiance of all that might portend, proud of my flat stomach and my taut legs, the figure of a woman twenty years younger.
Then I decided to write. Tentatively at first, unsure if I could pull it off, spending an hour or two a week noodling a story around. But soon the writing bug bit hard, and it began to swallow my time in day-long chunks. First I quit the tennis team. “I’m working on a personal project,” I told the team captain evasively. Next I gave up biking. I never quite gave up the gym, and I did manage to replace the four-hour bike rides with 45-minute runs, but my new, sedentary lifestyle (feet up on the couch for hours at a time, computer on my lap) quickly softened the strong body of which I’d been so proud.
When I went back to school for an MFA it got worse, because now there were deadlines. The last week of each month started to look like exam week when I was in college: Diet Coke by the sixpack, bags of Doritos, bars of chocolate, late night pizza deliveries. I bought new jeans in a bigger size. Then I bought even newer jeans in an even bigger size. Food was my fuel, it was my comfort, it was my reward, and a salad or an apple simply would not do.
After the MFA program ended I managed to lose some of the weight, but I’m 51 now, and at this age fat clings like mud. It doesn’t help that I still give myself that small reward when I slog to the end of a difficult chapter — a chocolate or a handful of chips, maybe a cookie if we’ve got any in the pantry. By now it seems both earned and necessary, a good-luck ritual I’m superstitiously afraid to stop.
But here’s the thing: when I turned 50, I didn’t have a panic attack. Unlike that ominous birthday ten years before, I didn’t see old age and death careening toward me and start pedaling as fast as I could. The difference, I realized, was this: at 40, what I was really scared of wasn’t getting old. I was afraid my most productive and rewarding years were over, and what I had left was nothing but a slow decay that could only be stemmed by harnessing the power I had left in my body. This sounds melodramatic, I know. But at 40 I’d been out of the workforce for seven years, my law degree was gathering dust, and my children needed me less every day. I believed I was fighting a losing battle — “I’m just trying to slow the decline,” I told a friend — but I fought it anyway, by exercising.
By contrast, when I turned 50, I had a finished book and an agent. I had a new career and a new purpose that depended not on the fitness of my body but on the fertility of my mind, something that — barring some sort of dementia — is ageless. For every article that celebrates the bright literary talents under 30, I see a hundred vital, creative writers in their 60s and 70s who are undeterred by life’s endgame. I know people (my husband is one) for whom exercise and fitness do far more than stave off the inexorable decline, they feed the mind and the spirit. But for me, they were never anything but a fight-or-flight response to a mortality that writing allows me to ignore and — maybe — overcome.
So here I am, about to be a published novelist. I’m 15 pounds heavier than I was when I started writing, and I guess I’m going to stay that way. My tennis backhand is gone for good, my bike is rusting in the garage, and sometimes my knee acts up when I walk downstairs. But none of those things matter. Only the first thing matters. The published novelist part.
I think I’ll go have a cookie.
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