While marketing in America glorifies youth, many cultures venerate elders, believing that with age comes wisdom.
Writing provides the opportunity to share that wisdom, and three Philadelphia-area writers have seized the opportunity—longtime broadcaster Larry Kane (71), Rabbi Robert Alper (66) and crime writer Seymour Shubin (92).
For some, age can bring freedom. In her poem, “Warning,” Jenny Joseph sees age as a chance to break free of social expectations:
But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.
For writers, this freedom brings with it a freeing of the voice.
Kane, for example, said that “when you’re younger, you tend to be more polite.” The legendary local broadcaster observes that he can be “more honest” now.
Author of five books, the autobiographical Larry Kane’s Philadelphia; a murder mystery, Death by Deadline; as well as three about the Beatles — Ticket to Ride, Lennon Revealed, and, most recently, When They Were Boys — Kane sees himself as “more incisive, more investigative” than in the past.
“I’ve been writing for 14 years,” Kane reflected, and now, “I consider myself a better writer.”
Of course, the task becomes more complicated as time passes and the collection of material from which to choose expands. And sorting out the “liars” and the “truth tellers” offers its own challenges. Yet the rewards increase as well. He has amassed “the largest collection of audio interviews” of the Beatles, some “very powerful,” especially the early recordings, which he sees as the best.
For Rabbi Bob Alper, author and stand-up comedian, whose experience also provides him with a growing choice of material, the benefit is that he can “pick and choose from many events and experiences.”
In his book, Thanks, I Needed That, these experiences go back to his childhood, with chapters organized by quotations from the famous Ecclesiastes reading that begins, “To everything there is a season” (3:8) — an insight that may deepen as seasons pass.
“When you live long enough,” Alper observed, “you have a perspective on what really matters.”
Although he conducts High Holiday services every year and “a wedding every couple of years,” he still sees himself as “a full-time rabbi,” for whom, as he says in his book, “making people laugh” is a “passion” as well as a “profession.”
A longtime resident of Dresher who now lives with his family in Vermont — and still visits this area on a frequent basis — he said the book’s title comes from a comment by a hotel clerk after seeing Alper’s license photo, for which Alper had posed imitating Macaulay Culkin in the film Home Alone. “Man, it’s been a tough night here,” the clerk said upon seeing the picture of Alper, hands applied to an exasperated face. “Thanks. I needed that!”
Alpert sees laughter as a way to bring diverse groups together. A recent performance at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, titled “Laugh in Peace,” was an interfaith comedy act, in which Alper shared the stage with Muslim comic Mo Amer and the Rev. Susan Sparks.
One way to obtain wisdom through experience is to be able to learn from mistakes. Seymour Shubin, a crime novelist, offers his background as proof.
He reported that he “was about 14, maybe a little younger, when I first wanted to be a writer. I began writing stories on an old typewriter and even began sending them out to the biggest magazines in the country, such as the Saturday Evening Post. They were all rejected, of course.”
Fortunately, he persevered, entering Temple University’s journalism school, where he contributed stories to and eventually became editor of the school’s literary magazine, The Owl. After graduating in the 1940s, he found a job as an editor for the magazine, Official Detective Stories, published by the Philadelphia Inquirer — a job which sparked his interest in writing crime fiction. “After about a year,” he recalled, “I began to write stories of my own for the magazine in addition to editing stories.”
Eventually, he became a free-lance writer, selling two or three stories per month, when he hit upon an idea for a novel. “How would my cop-buddies treat me if I committed a crime? And there I had my novel. A true detective story writer commits a murder, and he finds he is treated like any other killer. By that time I had an agent, and the next thing that happened was that the editor of Simon & Schuster liked the book and wanted to see me in New York.”
While the publisher wanted to put it out immediately, Shubin was not so sure it was ready for prime time. “I asked if I could have the book back, that I wanted to go over it again,” he recalled.
However, after spending a year adding more material to the book, he learned that Simon & Schuster would not publish the new version. “The editor, when he read it, didn’t like it,” Shubin said, “and so I deleted everything new I’d put into it. The novel, called Anyone’s My Name, made the New York Times best seller list and has also been used in a number of college classes.”
With that, his career as a novelist in full swing, he had learned a valuable lesson from his experience. “I‘ve often thought of what would have happened if the extra material had been left in. I had been young enough to look on a book as almost sacred and that it should have almost everything you knew,” he said.
The editor “didn’t want anything in it that would take away the readers’ interest. How right he was.”
That novel, published in 1953, launched a career in fiction writing that lasts to the present and includes a book of poetry. Currently, says Shubin, “a lot of good things have been happening. My publisher in England has been a great force.” He cited his publications, including a new novel, The Hunch; a book of short stories called Lonely No More; and a book of poetry, most of which were written specifically for the book, Why Me?
His passion for the written word supplies him with the energy to pursue it. “I’ve been asked where I get the energy to keep writing. My quick answer would be that it takes more of my energy not to,” he said.
Perhaps therein lies the key to the endurance of these writers in their senior years: To receive energy, continue to do what gives energy. Learn from experience.
And cherish the freedom age gives you to speak the truth.
Diane McManus is an adjunct professor at Community College of Philadelphia. This article originally appeared in the special section, "The Good Life."