SALT LAKE CITY — When author and poet Judith Viorst began her writing career around the age of 7, she was shocked to discover that the magazines she queried were not interested in what she considered poetic masterpieces.
"My first poem was an ode to my dead parents — they were both alive and they were really irritated," the now-88-year-old said in a recent phone interview. "Every poem I sent out and every poem I wrote in my young years (was about death). There was a dead soldier, a dead dog, a whole dead family. There was a corpse in every poem."
It took the budding writer a few years to realize that death didn't sell. By the time she was married to journalist Milton Viorst and raising three boys in Washington, D.C., she had "started writing less grim, mortal poems. … I guess as a survival mechanism I developed a sense of humor," she said.
The sense of humor helped Judith Viorst not only in writing but also with her family, and it wasn't long before aging, raising kids and the trials of marriage found their way into her work. She wrote a regular column for Redbook magazine, mined her children's lives for picture books, wrote nonfiction for adults and kept writing poetry.
In 1968 she released a poetry collection titled "It's Hard to Be Hip Over 30 and Other Tragedies of Married Life," containing gems like "Where Is It Written?" and "The Honeymoon Is Over." Going forward, she found that she had witty, poetic things to say about each phase of her life, and without really meaning to, Viorst had written a collection of poetry marking each of her decades.
Now at 88, her most recent collection comes out in time for National Poetry Month. "Nearing 90 And Other Comedies of Late Life" is a funny, thoughtful and tender exploration of Viorst's later years. Life is slower these days — "You really do get to stop and look at what's going on right here, right now, right this minute and drink it in," she said — but for a woman who has lived most of her life at a breakneck speed, slow has been nice.
"As I get older now, it's become an absolute cliché, but my capacity for gratitude for the good things in my life has dramatically, dramatically increased," Viorst said.
This is a good time, too, as Viorst approaches 90, for the writer to look back on her life and assess all that she's done — from writing books and poetry, to raising kids, to studying Freudian psychology at Washington Psychoanalytic Institute, plus all of the living in between. But when asked what decade of her life was the most challenging, the writer didn't hesitate.
"I thought the 40s were hard because … all those potentialities — (that) I could be anything — are changing into doors closing," she said. " … You have to deal with a lot of things that you're never going to do and never be, and it's a blow. It's a shock because, I think, when we're younger, we feel that everything's open-ended and everything's possible. So there's a lot of gulping and processing to do."
Viorst was in her early 40s when her she wrote her most famous book. It's a picture book that tells of her youngest son Alexander's terrible — perhaps even horrible, no good and very bad — day. But the person least amused by the now-beloved book was the title character himself.
"(Alexander) said, 'Why are you giving me a bad day? Why don't you give that bad day to Nick? Or Tony?'" Viorst recalled her son saying about his older brothers. "He was absolutely furious. I actually said to him, 'Honey, you know, the book isn't published yet, we don't have to call it 'Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible,' we can call it 'Walter' or 'Stanley.' And then in my most manipulative mommy way said, 'But, of course, your name won't be on the cover in great big letters.' So he said, 'Keep it Alexander.'
Viorst wrote two more books about her youngest son, but it's "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day" that captured the reading public and has been adapted into a TV show, a live action Disney film, a musical staged at the Kennedy Center and a play.
Viorst's body of work may not, at first glance, seem to have much in common. Alongside her picture books and poetry collections, one also finds adult nonfiction works such as "Love and Guilt and the Meaning of Life, Etc.," "Necessary Losses" and "Grown-Up Marriage." But Viorst sees similarities in all of her books, no matter who she writes them for.
"I would say that the through line (in my work) is that my interests have always been what's going on inside of us, and what's going on between us and our relationships with others, and trying to identify and understand what that is all about," she said. "I love other people's stories."1 comment on this story
Her appreciation for what makes us human, coupled with that sense of humor she developed as a young woman, has made Viorst one of our most insightful and funny commentators on day-to-day life for the past 50 years. In "Nearing 90," she has a poem titled "I Should Be Over This By Now," which includes the lines: "My stomach tends to obscure a clear view of my knees, which it wouldn't if I weighed what I wanted to weigh. I definitely should be over this by now."
It's a sentiment people ages 30 or 80 can relate to, and a good example of the topics Viorst breathes life into — even if they are seemingly a long way from other poetic musings.
"The poems in my book do not resemble the poets I revere: Yeats and Emily Dickenson, T.S. Elliot, Auden and Gerard Manley Hopkins," Viorst said. "But somebody's got to write about Metamucil and achy knee caps and it might as well be me."