Doris Grumbach on Thinking, Writing, and the Mind of an Old Person

Doris Grumbach is a novelist, memoirist, biographer, and literary critic. She taught at the College of Saint Rose in New York, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and American University in Washington, D.C. and was literary editor of the New Republic. For two decades, she and her partner, Sybil Pike, operated a bookstore, Wayward Books, in Sargentville, Maine. In 2009 they moved to a retirement home in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.

In 1977, while living in Washington, she did author interviews—including Larry McMurtry, Abigail McCarthy, Rod McLeish, and Gilbert Harrison—for the Washingtonian.

In 1993, she published a memoir, Extra Innings, described as continuing “the intense, sometimes funny, sometimes tart, and sometimes very moving account of a closely examined life.” In that book, she often used quotations from other authors. Here, from Extra Innings, are some of her favorite quotations plus three of her observations about life and writing.
The best things I’ve done come from way below thought. You have to wait and wait, like teasing a wild animal, get yourself ready. You do bad work, you throw it away. And suddenly it’s there. It’s a surprise, always. I don’t have it happen often.
—Agnes de Mille

For me, fiction always has a strong component of fact, and fact, used successfully in fiction, extends and legitimizes the imaginary.
—Doris Grumbach

If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of expression—for, if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and everything like totality is at once destroyed.
—Edgar Allan Poe in “The Philosophy of Composition”

People think that talking is a sign of thinking. It isn’t, for the most part; on the contrary, it’s a mechanical dodge of the body to relieve oneself of the strain of thinking.
—Aleister Crowley

When a man tries himself, the verdict is in his favor.
—Thomas Williams

I have come to believe that the best history is fiction, the impressionistic, egocentric views of the past that have all the validity of acknowledged selection, formulation into ‘good’ style, and conscious omissions. Read War and Peace, The Red Badge of Courage, The Naked and the Dead, and Going After Cacciato for the true histories of the Napoleonic invasion of Russia in 1812, the Civil War, World War II, and the Vietnam War.
—Doris Grumbach

George Burns liked living into his nineties because ‘I don’t have to worry about peer pressure.”

We work so consistently to disguise ourselves that we end up by being disguised to ourselves.
—La Rochefoucauld

Life can only be understood backward.—Kierkegaard

My suspicion is that the richer the compost heap that is the mind of an old person, the greener the hoard of examined experiences, tag-ends of ideas, conversations, stories heard and overheard, dreams, memories, places seen and lived in, and persons known, loved and unloved, the more chanced there is for something useful to be there when it is needed.
—Doris Grumbach
Grumbach will be 100 on July 12, 2018.



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