Joan Frank: The Late Work Bylaws

As we grow older, do we really become wiser?

Posted Oct 07, 2020

Reenie Raschke, used with permission
Joan Frank
Source: Reenie Raschke, used with permission

Contributed by Joan Frank, author of The Outlook for Earthlings          

Much is often made, in art, of what people call "The Late Work."

That definite article announcing this solemn designation—the "The"—is important. It heralds a category: a section of a set trajectory. Think Rembrandt, Beethoven, or Edna O'Brien.

Our attitudes toward this category tend to blur it over with reverence—like some shrouding, numinous mist.

We assume that if an artist is older, by natural accrual and assimilation of experience she'll be likely to understand more. In short, she's had more time to get smart. We assume age gives wisdom, and also (say with literature, music, sculpture, theater, or film) the ability to convey that wisdom with a more distilled quality of beauty.

Burnished is a favorite descriptor for that beauty—also handy for evoking autumn, the color of expensive liquor and furniture, or the dull glow from ancient magic lanterns when you summon their resident genie.

As to wisdom? One of its most vaunted symptoms (I'm old enough to speak for the population) may be an urge to downsize. We aging types feel driven, almost animalistically, to drop or cut away everything unuseful: emotional, physical, even intellectual baggage.

A sudden awareness of shrinking time has a striking way of clearing the mind. We move with speed to preserve what's working and toss the rest—never mind politeness and social noise. It means actively cleaning out the immediate house of the daily, choosing what we still need, and dumping the rest—whatever's irrelevant, or just bums us out.

Of course, this includes people.

One phenomenon that stands out for surviving this ruthless process, I think, is a particular kind of friendship—if we're lucky, more than one. These we protect and tend like a kitchen garden: They're nourishment we need to live, different from spousal and partner relations.

Seldom, of course, do these friendships show up at the door fully formed. Like everything else, they evolve: often improbably or weirdly. I've made a couple of golden friends because one of us wrote the other a fan letter. (Letter-writing, via e-mail, turns out to be my favorite expression of friendship. A good thing, too—during our COVID era, e-mail letters have given me something close to psychic salvation.)

The caveat about the care and feeding of late-life friendships?


No friendship offers some wholesome, polished model. In fact, most could be judged by any reasonable observer as somewhat strange, even eccentric. Each requires its special, secret recipe: attention must be paid but in a fine-tuned way. Some friends touch base cheerfully every five or 10 years, taking right up where they left off. Others feel wounded if they've not heard back from you after more than a day. Writers are introverts by nature, who also live and die by language. When we actually want to reach out, every syllable exchanged, every nuance of every line, counts uber-heavily—during the Late Work, more so. On loyalty, we rely. An abrupt change of tone from an adored correspondent can feel to a writer like getting shot—at very least like a pulled gun. Ask around.

But losing touch, too, consciously or not, has its advantages; a natural attrition that simplifies. Reviewing a biography of the late poet Louise Bogan (one of her greatest poems is "Song for the Last Act") the ever-wise William Maxwell noted:

"...[Bogan's] friendships were important to her, but as she grew older she felt less and less need for human company. People who wanted to see her for one reason or another—because they loved her or admired her or in some important way felt forever indebted to her—were usually put off with postponements or 'visits to the dentist' too consistent to be plausible."

At this stage, you keep a friendship for something it gives: comfort, support, stimulation, shared history, laughs. (Some may enjoy sparring and bickering; that's a separate camp.) Why does this fascinate me? Because it's so purely chosen. Like growing flowers. Nobody requires it. Status doesn't depend on it. What's gained is real but not exactly palpable. During the Late Work, friendship's rarely about money, possessions, sex, or fame. It can certainly feel romantic, even erotic in terms of exuberance and wit—a rush; a heightened state; what a friend calls heated agreement. But the connections we keep—people we still want to bother spending time with—deliver. Knowing and being known, seeing and being seen; those are the prizes, the grail. True, ego's woven in: who doesn't love hearing "you're terrific." But overall, these late attachments seem more defined by—a certain understanding.

At the same time, each friendship always carries its own seeds of self-destruction: boredom, irreconcilable viewpoints; sore issues. Some late friendships lose steam, roll off into a ditch, and die. Some burst into flame (ignited by a remark or act) and never recover. Some manage to resume but in a cautious, tiptoeing mode, relinquishing the original closeness and intensity, creating a surface detente.       

These shifts can occur wordlessly and often carry a deep, unspoken sadness. Both people know what happened. Both know the issues are too raw to be discussed. Yet both grieve the lost intensity. Love abides, but the daily adventure has been forfeited.

I have written a novel about one such friendship, between two women who are antithetical in type—like mirror-opposite sisters in a fairy tale—begun in high school and lasting for decades (The Outlook for Earthlings). Their oppositeness manifests, while each matures and makes choices, as a constant hurdle. They try their best to work around it. But like any human interaction, it can't stand still. Stakes are high. We want our best friends to want what we want—at least want it for us, right?

Clashing needs and values can hijack love between friends, as it does in Earthlings. That impasse isn't always age-related. But the pain of it bears special sharpness with age because, again, of the ticking clock. How much longer have we got each other? How do we want to see it out?

You won't hear me offering smart, snappy solutions to this, any more than you'd expect to hear solutions to weather (solutions to normal weather, that is, which may not, indeed, be a frequent visitor anymore). Fiction's job is never to "solve" but rather to show us ourselves. We may feel trapped, hogtied by a complicated friend. We may feel stabbed by that friend—or believe the friend is stabbing herself, as in Earthlings, when one woman can't fathom—or endorse—the near-masochistic thrall the other stubbornly maintains for a married lover:

            To loathe someone precisely for their goodness—blinkered, archaic, even pathological—was like stoning a gentle animal. How could anyone sustain such a stance?

            But was it really, at its heart, goodness? Or was it a choice to manifest the best possible facsimile of goodness? And what did that hide? And how honest was such hiding?

            All of this, inarticulable.

            Easy to say I am glad you are happy. Harder by far, it seemed, to cheer the apparatus of happiness.

            Mel insisted she was happy. Scarlet didn’t buy it. Some fat lie lay coiled like a python in the engine room of that story.

Here is where the "keep or dump" standard falls off a cliff.     

According to the Late Work bylaws, we should be sidestepping anguish, dusting our hands of ordeals; cutting losses. Time's a-wastin'! Yet some bonds do beg to transcend that. Some friendships wind up being "grandfathered in," as my husband puts it, simply because they've been around that damned long. Like Robert Frost's definition of home, "when you go there, they have to take you in." Though these can cost us, sometimes quite badly, they've somehow become part of us, beyond judgment. No doubt I'm myself the beneficiary of somebody's grandfather clause (just as surely, my name's been quietly cut from someone's active contacts list). One unforgettable account of such a bond is Ann Patchett's Truth and Beauty, chronicling her punishing yet devoted friendship with the late, tormented writer Lucy Grealy.

We're forced, ultimately, to rethink the rules of Late Work. Who gets to stay in the ring with us during what precious time remains? How do we make sense of that?

Here's a thought. We can behave, finally, like one of those Google Earth cameras.

We can pan back—far, far back, far as you like—say to some spot out in the galaxy which affords a nice, vast view: the planets and stars but also (however you envision this) the infinite surge of time, and pinpointed somewhere along it, the hair-slender bandwidth we humans take up along its spectrum.

With this breathtaking vista before the mind's eye we must, I believe—almost as a commandment—try to forgive everybody.

Parents, children, friends, enemies. Monsters, saints—as best we can, even if all we can manage is a quiet awareness of our own struggle to do this.

First and last we must try to forgive ourselves, singly and collectively.

Agreed: Hella hard. Full disclosure: I fail at it regularly. I've behaved badly, in ways I'm still trying to grasp. Few humans can forgive anybody, or even want to. Plenty of deceased artists, old or not at the hour of departure, have gone straight into that good night bitterly raging—less against the night than against some petty insult or slight.

We are free to elect to be an idiot or a jerk until the last breath.

And mental travel into deep space may require some strenuous practice.

But: tick-tock.

Recall Raymond Carver's famous "Late Fragment":

                        And did you get what
                        you wanted from this life, even so?
                        I did.
                        And what did you want?
                        To call myself beloved, to feel myself
                        beloved on the earth.

"The quality of mercy is not strained." It's a line I've always loved, with its analogy to rain. Rain. Why not resolve to (eventually) let it wash through us, through the Late Work's enterprises, to include our bizarre, beloved friends? This need not mean sticky sentiment, but maybe instead a way of seeing that denies no worst thing. (Look into Rembrandt's eyes in those last self-portraits, if you doubt this.) Why not let mercy be the lens, the call and response we sing, however softly, somewhere toward the end?

Joan Frank is the author of 10 books of literary fiction and nonfiction. Her new novel, The Outlook for Earthlings appears this month from Regal House Publishing. Recent books include Where You're All Going: Four Novellas (Sarabande Books), which won the Mary McCarthy Prize for Short Fiction, and Try to Get Lost: Essays on Travel and Place (University of New Mexico Press), which won the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize . She lives in Northern California.


p. 117, "Louise Bogan's Story," The Outermost Dream: Literary Sketches, William Maxwell, Graywolf Press, 1997