Are You Planning to Write When You Retire?
As an experienced writing instructor and as one who loves to talk about writing, I sometimes hear people say, “When I retire, I am going to write a book.”
When I hear this sentiment, I have mixed reactions. The optimistic and extroverted side of me wants to encourage these aspiring writers to pursue their goal, but the pessimistic and introverted side doubts that these individuals can succeed.
Generally speaking, of course, anything is possible, and people should chase their goals and dreams, but realistically, I often wonder, what are the chances?
Most likely, that person has already spent 30 to 40 years in one general field performing various tasks and chores connected to that field. Then, he or she is going to switch fields altogether and try to excel in another field, a field where only a small percentage of writers can find a publisher for their work.
“So, what do you think, Jim? Is it possible?”
If this hopeful writer puts me on the spot and really wants to know what I am thinking, I generally ask three questions:
How much reading have you done through the years?
How much writing have you done during your career?
Do you have a story worth telling?
As they answer these questions, I also try to share with them the fascinating writing journey of Civil War general and former two-term president, Ulysses S. Grant. For he is, indeed, one individual who retired and wrote a best-selling book — during a self-imposed quarantine, no less.
How much reading have you done through the years? When I am teaching, I always tell my students that if they want to be great writers, they have to be great readers. Why is that? Generally speaking, those who read voraciously gradually absorb the methods and styles that successful writers use to put their words and their sentences together. Bottom line: If you have not read religiously throughout your career, you will struggle to write well when you begin.
In Grant’s case, he was an insatiable reader, and he inherited that habit from his father. In his Memoirs, Grant wrote about his father’s passion: “His thirst for education was intense. He learned rapidly and was a constant reader . . . Books were scarce in the Western Reserve during his youth, but he read every book he could borrow in the neighborhood where he lived. This scarcity gave him the early habit of studying everything he read, so that when he got through with a book, he knew everything in it. The habit continued through life” (21).
Thus influenced, Grant left his Ohio home to attend West Point, and again in his Memoirs, he reflected on his own reading habits while in school: “There is a fine library connected with the Academy from which cadets can get books to read in their quarters. I devoted more time to these, than to books relating to the course of studies. Much of the time, I am sorry to say, was devoted to novels” (37–38).
Finally, during his professional career, Grant continued to be an avid reader. While working as a farmer near St. Louis before the Civil War began, biographer Ron Chernow noted that Grant often read to his wife, Julia, “for hours each evening, and they plowed through hundreds of books” (96). In addition, Grant’s nearby friends observed that Grant “was an assiduous newspaper reader” (100), and one friend in particular said of Grant, regarding the issue of slavery, that “no man was better informed than he on every phase of the controversy” (100). Obviously, based on his reading history, Grant was fully qualified to write a book about his life and his military exploits.
How much writing have you done during your career? Like any other skill, strong writing is acquired through practice. Yet in today’s modern world, very few people write seriously and regularly. Sure we write emails, and we send text messages, and we even post short notes about our favorite pictures on Facebook and Instagram, but how many people tell stories in their missives, stories that show attention to detail and keep readers in suspense?
As an officer in the Army, both before and during the Civil War, Grant wrote extensively; he spent over a decade writing to both his superiors and subordinates. When writing to his superiors, he often had to write persuasively to convince President Lincoln and others to back a particular plan of action, and, once approved, he then had to clearly communicate that plan to others who would help execute it. In fact, toward the end of his life, Grant reflected on his writing experience when another writer challenged Grant’s ability: “for the last twenty-four years I have been very much employed in writing. As a soldier I wrote my own orders, directions and reports. They were not edited nor assistance rendered. As President I wrote every official document, I believe, bearing my name” (Chernow 944).
Others verified Grant’s writing skills. After his first year as President in 1869, Grant wrote his first address to the nation, and one congressman observed that Grant wrote it “without pause or correction, and as rapidly as his pen could fly over the paper” (Chernow 690). Much later, one of America’s most famous writers, Mark Twain — who served as Grant’s publisher (along with Twain’s nephew-in-law, Charles Webster) and editor — noted that “there was not one literary man in one hundred who furnished as clear a copy as Grant” (939). So, again, based on his writing experience, Grant appeared to be extremely competent and more than capable to pen his autobiography.
Do you have a story worth telling? Personally, I think we all have a story, and every story is important. However, not every last detail of every story is important. If you have ever been seated next to a long-winded narrator at a formal banquet, you have experienced the pain of listening to a story that has no point or message. If you are thinking about writing a story, you will have to ask yourself who will want to read it and why? If you are simply sharing your personal history, so your children and grandchildren will know their origins, that is a limited audience. If, on the other hand, your story involves a universal lesson about love or loss or perseverance or tragedy, your story may have a broader appeal, a story that everyone may want to read.
Ulysses S. Grant definitely had a story worth telling. He rose from humble beginnings in Ohio to become one of the pivotal characters in the greatest internal struggle the United States has ever experienced. Then, he served two terms as president and followed that up with an almost two-and-a-half-year journey around the world, visiting numerous foreign leaders as he traveled. Yet, despite all these great experiences, Grant was extremely humble and had no desire to write about his life. In the preface to his Memoirs, Grant admitted: “Although frequently urged by friends to write my memoirs I had determined never to do so, nor to write anything for publication” (7). Only the combination of a personal financial disaster and a terminal illness prodded this great American to share his story.
During his military career and during his time as president, Grant thrived as he served his country. Outside that service, however, he struggled to make a living, and when he did accumulate some wealth, he struggled to keep it because he was often too trusting of those around him, swindling souls who took advantage of his good nature. Thus, after a trusted associate defrauded him of all his wealth, Grant found himself at age 62, suffering from cancer, and with no way to provide financial security for his wife, Julia, and his heirs. Only at that desperate point in his life did Grant agree to write his Memoirs, and during the following year, a quarantine of sorts for the former president, he proved once and for all to be one of those rare individuals, one who could switch careers near the end of his life and write a bestseller.
Knowing he had only a short time to live, Grant, who was also in extreme pain during that time, began writing diligently, first at a cottage in Long Branch, New Jersey, then at his home in Manhattan, and, finally, at a cottage north of Saratoga in upstate New York. According to biographer Chernow, Grant typically wrote from four to six hours every day and often during the nights as well when he could not sleep (xix). A close, former political associate observed Grant’s diligence and said Grant “wanted to take advantage of every moment to hasten the work that will probably be the last labor of his life” (939). Chernow described Grant’s style in this way: “As seen in his wartime orders, he had patented a lean, supple writing style, and a crisp narrative now flowed in polished sentences, honed by the habits of a lifetime” (xviii-xix). Within a year, he wrote 336,000 words, and he died one week after he finished writing (952).
Though Grant’s Memoirs only cover his life up until the end of the Civil War and not his presidential years or his world travels, his completed work was a huge success. With Twain’s publishing experience and marketing skills, the two-volume set sold over 300,000 copies: “Seven months after Grant’s death, Julia received a whopping $200,000 check from Twain and $450,000 in the end — an astonishing sum for book royalties at the time. No previous book had ever sold so many copies in such a short period of time” (Chernow 953).
Ulysses S. Grant obviously had the reading and writing experience necessary and he had a story worth telling. If you are currently thinking about writing a book, do not wait. Start now. In fact, if you are currently sheltering in the midst of the Coronavirus, now may be the perfect time to begin. Read voraciously. Write daily. And live your life so that you have a story worth telling.
Chernow, Ron. Grant. Penguin, 2017.
Grant, Ulysses S. Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. Charles L. Webster & Co., 1885.