Alice Munro is retiring. She has made that claim before, telling this paper in 2006 that her days as the world’s most formidable working short-story writer were numbered. That cry proved boy-and-wolf-ish, and she published Dear Life in 2012, a collection that accrued her yet another shelf of rave reviews and awards. Now, according to an interview in The New York Times, Canada’s best known literary export really, truly is retiring. “I feel a bit tired now – pleasantly tired,” she said. “There is a nice feeling about being just like everyone else now.”
Why is it harder to accept that Alice Munro will retire from writing than it is to accept that Steve in accounting is taking that buyout and heading to Florida? When a revered artist announces retirement – Philip Roth and Steven Soderbergh recently did so, too – we’re forced to examine why we believe in two related myths: One is that an artist’s output is romantic and unending (surely Alice Munro isn’t really “just like everyone else”?), and the other is that retirement is a rite of passage available to anyone. Both ideas are false.
Munro said that she is taking the lead of Roth, who, at 80, has declared he’s through with writing. At only 50, Oscar-winning director Soderbergh recently announced the end of his filmmaking career. He’ll shift focus from movies to painting, but the medium that defined him will be left behind.
Willfully exiting the creative life goes against our conception of the quixotic, sacrificing artist. It’s not just that the optics are weird – it’s hard to imagine Francis Bacon at the early bird seating or Frida Kahlo taking up golf – but it seems somehow morally wrong for an artist to turn off the faucet by choice. It’s unappreciative, almost selfish; if you’re lucky enough to get the gift, how can you squander it with such a pedestrian enterprise as retirement? An artist is supposed to be moved by the muse, forever channelling from some otherworldly plain. That production can’t stop – and won’t, if it’s authentic – until breath does. We expect our artists to go out creating, like Michelangelo, who died at 88 still making plans for St. Peter’s, or George Orwell, writing and rewriting 1984 while deathly ill in northern Scotland. More sacrifice; less pension.
For most of us, art is what comes later. The creative life starts when work stops (even George W. Bush has taken up painting). Art is the reward for the life lived straight – a hobby in the last stage of life, commencing at retirement.
But when is that, again? Even many of those well-buffered boomers saw their nest eggs shrink with the financial crisis and are now digging in their heels, resisting retirement. My cohort, Generation X, suffered severe declines in net worth and has seen the least recovery of any generation in the years since. Burdened by debt, the underemployed members of Gen Y can’t start thinking about retirement until they get actual jobs. The slackening, or eradication, of mandatory retirement laws in most provinces means that many of us will work long past 65. In an age of contract work and self-employment, the gold watch and farewell handshake seem sepia-toned and retro, another thing previous generations experienced that we will never understand, like Woodstock, or the Second World War. My parents retired in their 50s. With tiny interest rates on my tiny freelance savings, I’ll be closer to 70 when I can pack it in.
Many of us know that we’ll never get the retirement ceremony, and that’s a loss. Be it in a banquet hall or next to the microwave in the staff kitchen, the ritual goodbye to work life is inherently poignant (especially when not optional, but forced, like so many retirements these days). The boss rattles off the list of accomplishments that are now behind the retiree, and we pay tribute respectfully, hoping that a new start is waiting. It’s murky, though: There’s liberation in retirement, but loss of identity, too.
A successful artist is bound to identity even more intensely: What is Alice Munro, if not a writer? For an artist, the career path is rarely one achievement after the next, but a series of swerving successes and failures (probably mostly failures). Yet it is, above all, work. Munro said that she is tired, which is how most people feel at the end of a career. Perhaps the takeaway of the retiring artist trend is that art is labour. It’s not luck. It’s ass-in-seat. It’s toil. It’s what the sculptor Constantin Brancusi said: “Create like a god, command like a king, work like a slave.” An artist as successful as Munro has the option to stop slaving, and step away gracefully. The artist is always living the life that we can’t, and now, she’s living the retirement we probably won’t get.
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