You May As Well Laugh: A Conversation With Judith Viorst
I've been a huge fan of Judith Viorst for ages. Her writings have continued to amuse, inform and delight audiences, especially her "decade" books. The latest is "Unexpectedly Eighty" – and the minute I heard it had been published I wanted to chat with my old friend about it.
Judith, your new book "Unexpectedly Eighty" continues a series you started with "When Did I Stop Being Twenty and Other Injustices." When you wrote that one, did you ever imagine you'd still be writing these so many years later?
I never actually planned to write decade books, but by the time I was writing about my 40s, I realized that I was, in fact, able to pinpoint certain experiences/challenges/qualities that seemed to characterize each decade for me -- and for other women of my generation, and even, to a surprising degree, for women of younger generations. In my 40s, however, it was still unimaginable that I'd ever be 80, still be writing at 80, and still finding things to laugh about at 80.
If you were to tell us a lesson you learned in each decade of your life, what would those be?
Wow! I can better describe the challenges of each decade.
- 30s: Dealing with the shocks of married life as romantic illusion collides with messy reality.
- 40s: Struggling to come to terms with the fact that there are limits – that I'll never be a ballerina or brain surgeon, and that I'm probably not going to be the first immortal.
- 50s: Becoming pretty clear on who I am and what I am and am not good at, and feeling really comfortable in my own skin.
- 60s: Except ... Just when I thought I finally had it all nailed down, I'm facing a whole new set of difficult truths, and preferring a good report on my next bone density test to a night of wild rapture with Denzel Washington.
- 70s: So here I've been expecting the worst, but despite the losses and limits of the 70s, everyone I know is busy working on staying fit, and trying to make the world a better place, and finding plenty to please both body and soul.
- 80s: Not the new 60s – no way. More and more of the people we care about succumb to awful illnesses; many of them die. But sharing Metamucil and grandchildren with the man I've loved for over 50 years is pretty damn sweet.
My favorite decade has been my 50s, when I felt at peace with my options, proud of my capabilities and no longer as self-absorbed, as self-pitying, as just plain dumb as I used to be. But what I didn't have in my 50s, and what is lighting up my life in the decades since, are Miranda, Brandeis, Olivia, Isaac, Toby, Nathaniel and Benjamin, my practically perfect – no, totally perfect – grandchildren.
These books are life stories, written in poetic verse. How did that concept of storytelling begin for you?
My first writings were poetry, which always felt to me like a quite natural way of expressing what was in my heart and my mind.
My Alexander books began when I noticed that my real-life Alexander seemed to be having more than his share of bad days. So to cheer him up I wrote about another (sort of fictional) Alexander's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. Though I never spell this out, of course, I see "bad day" as a helpful container concept-not limitless misery but a period of time that has a beginning and END. The book also makes the point (again, not explicitly) that all of us, not just my own Alexander, not just the unlucky hero of this book, are sometimes going to have some bad days.
How did your sons feel about being young boys that children around the world were reading about?
My kids were basically pleased to have their names mentioned in my books, but more interested in what I was making for dinner.
And, I imagine, your grandchildren grew up reading about their dad and their uncles! Did they know they were reading about their own family?
My grandchildren are not as impressed with reading about their dad and uncles in my books as I thought they'd be, though I do make yearly cameo appearances at each of their classes, and will do so until they grow old enough to ditch me and want their grandfather to come and talk about the Middle East.
Childhood issues don't really change, no matter what decade you're a child in, do they?
No, childhood issues don't change. Sibling rivalry, dreams of glory, envy, loneliness, needing someone to love, the longing for safety, the longing for independence, and on and on and on-all are part of our shared history.
You've also written some very important non-fiction books – "Necessary Losses," "Grown-up Marriage," "Imperfect Control," as well as "People and Other Aggravations." Before we talk about those, we have to discuss your decision to go back to school in your 40's, to study Freudian psychology. What prompted that move?
I went back to school to study psychoanalytic theory for six years not to become a therapist (though I did work as a therapist for a couple of years as part of my training) but to enrich my writing. Everything I write -- for kids and adults, in poetry and prose, serious and funny -- is about our inner lives and our relationships with others. Though by no means a perfect tool for understanding who we are and why we do what we do, I found-and still find-psychoanalytic theory a wonderful resource, a wonderful well to dip into.
Some women feel that life is over after they've sent their kids off to college. Yet, obviously, you never saw it that way. You just began a new chapter! What would you like to say to women out there, that think it's too late to pursue their dreams?
I really don't know anyone who felt their lives were over when they sent their kids off to college. Everyone I know found something exciting to learn, some meaningful way to help the world, a whole new career to pursue. To any woman who thinks that it's too late to pursue a dream, all I can say, to not coin a phrase, is Yes, you can.
Your training in psychology, of course, led to the books I mentioned earlier, which deal with important life issues. "Necessary Losses" was on the New York Times bestseller list for two years. Let's talk about some of the losses we need to accept in life, so that we can move forward.
The losses I wrote about in "Necessary Losses" begin with the loss of leaving the safety of our mother's arms and trying to make our separate way in the world and include: the loss of the dream of exclusive, indivisible love (instead of having to share love with our brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers); the loss of freedom that comes with the acquisition of a conscience and sense of guilt; the loss of the unrealistic expectations we lay on our families, on friendship, on marriage and on parenthood; the loss of our younger selves as we grow older and then old; and, of course, the inevitable loss-of others, of our selves-through death. My book's argument is that all of these losses can lead-if we consciously work at them-to hard-won but valuable gains.
You have maintained a very long and happy marriage. You've also written a book ("Grown-Up Marriage") on the subject! What's the secret?
The secret of a happy marriage above all else is hanging in there and seeing the marriage as a THIRD THING, as a creation a husband and wife keep building together and are willing to make certain sacrifices for -- sacrifices not to him, not to her, but to this third thing that we both value. I have a very long list of other things in my book "Grown-up Marriage" that I think go into making a marriage good. But hanging in there and hard work really help.
So many of your books are filled with humor. I'm guessing that you believe, as I do, that laughter is the best medicine?
I can't imagine life without humor. There are so many moments, especially in the course of marriage and motherhood, when the only two options seem to be laughter or homicide. You might as well laugh.
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.