Faye Rapoport DesPres

Writers in the Trenches: Octogenarian Faye Snider Says “No” to Ageism

Faye Snider stole my first name. It’s an unusual one, and to meet someone else with the same name is always cause for raised eyebrows (never mind confusion among associates and friends).

I guess it’s more accurate to say I stole her name, however, because Ms. Snider is in her eighties, and I am a generation behind. That’s one reason I asked her to participate in the “Writers in the Trenches” series. Two interviews ago I talked to a 23-year-old writer, Kelly Esposito, who is finding a way to incorporate writing into her life in the years just out of college. But what it is like to switch gears in your seventies, earn an MFA in creative writing after a lengthy career as a therapist, and develop a popular blog while pursuing publication well past your 80th birthday?

Faye Snider

Let’s find out by talking to Faye Snider.

FRD: A recent article about Philip Roth in The New York Times started one sentence by saying, “In his 60s, a time of life when many writers are winding down…”. How do you respond to that, having started your creative writing life relatively late in your career?

FS: The gift of writing poetry arrived as I began to wind down from my long career as a clinical social worker/ psychotherapist. Writing in the compressed poetic form offered both a creative challenge and balance in the transition from an identity I had known all my adult life.

Thus, unlike Philip Roth in his 60s, I was at the dawn of a new beginning. To achieve competence as a therapist, I had earned an MSW. To maintain my license, I attended seminars for thirty hours every two years. Learning informed my mastery.

After taking multiple poetry and memoir workshops, I decided to focus on craft and mastery in much the same way I had as a social worker. In my 70s, I enrolled in Pine Manor’s Solstice Creative Writing Program and received my MFA in creative nonfiction in January of 2009.

FRD: Do you think it might actually be an advantage to write in the creative non-fiction genre later in life?

FS: Having lived through many life stages and events and worked in a field in which I was submerged in a wide variety of intimate stories, I have a storehouse of experiences and reflections. I would say that as an octogenarian, I do have an advantage, particularly in writing non-fiction and poems, where my long practiced reflective, inner voice often guides and expands my narrative voice.

FRD: When I published my personal essay collection, a lot of people marveled at my decision to be honest about things that were at times uncomfortable or even deeply personal. It wasn’t easy. Do you find that difficult in your own writing?

FS: The timing of your question is salient. In the past month, after much soul searching, I submitted an essay about a family secret that I revised multiple times and held back from submitting for at least twenty years. I was raised “to keep things within the family” and as a therapist, I practiced absolute confidentiality. To submit work of a personal nature, I had to come to a place where I could be true to my own version of the story as well as to respect “the other,” be it a family member or client. So much depends on the writer’s intention, point of view and focus as we frame our narratives.

FRD: Are there any boundaries you won’t cross in relation to family or even clients?

FS: Yes, with regard to family and clients, I strive not to write of situations and events in a way that might cause hurt or disrespect. If I have doubt about how I have framed the situation, I share my intent and sometimes, the completed piece. In only one instance have I held back. The relationship took precedence over publishing.

FRD: Shock us. Say something no one would expect an octogenarian to say.

An image from Faye Snider’s gratitude blog

FS: Oi Vey! You are a tough interviewer. “F— ageism.” The trend to warehousing seniors in communities bugs me. I believe that it’s possible to maintain a balanced and creative life if given respect and emotional space. I want to age at home, garden, write poems and essays, post my gratitude blog, socialize, and remain active in my community for as long as possible. I believe we need to honor, use and practice our capacities, both physical and mental, or risk losing them.

Early on in my writing, I was drawn to Stanley Kunitz’s voice and adopted him as my “poetry grandfather,” a model for creativity as one aged. He died at 100 and wrote near to the end of his life. On my eighty-fifth birthday, a writing friend gave me the poet, Donald Hall’s book“ Essays After Eighty.” Don lived at home and continued to write until his recent death at 90.

As a writer, there is always possibility. Even Roth, as an Octogenarian, was contributing political essays. I attended an MFA program that embraced diversity and cross genre learning. Thus, while I focused on creative non-fiction, I was well aware of the lessons of poem-making and the importance of attention to word choice, rhythms, metaphor, and context.  I am grateful to have the facility to move from poem-making to non-fiction, both long and short form. Recently, I wrote my first short story. I find the variety of options stimulating and energizing. I’m now working on a family collection of essays and poems.

FRD: What words of wisdom can you offer to the writers out there who are reading about the latest 20-something literary phenom and debating tossing their pens (or computers) into the garbage bin?

FS: Be patient and persistent. Keep writing and growing, and your time may come! Thirty years ago, when I began to submit poetry, it was a tough marketplace. Now, thanks to the Internet and small presses, poetry publishing abounds! Each and every one of us—old and young—has a story worth telling. There are so many forms and possibilities. Surviving and growing in the writing life depends of staying true to the self and one’s own creative bent. Mine your craft. Stay current with new forms and publishing possibilities, nourish your creative self, and submit your best work over time.

FRD: Great advice. Thank you. Readers, Ms. Snider’s weekly blog talks about how to incorporate gratitude into your daily life, and it can be found online at http://fayewriter.com/. (There she goes, stealing my name again. I give up; she had it first.)