Wednesday, December 7, 2011


SALVADOR DALI would have fit right in to today's world of personal branding. He wasn't a late bloomer, but his writing -- yes, he was a writer as well as a painter -- encourages people of all ages to mine their creative selves.  Here are some favorite quotes:

BE ORIGINAL: "The first man to compare the cheeks of a young woman to a rose was obviously a poet; the first to repeat it was possibly an idiot."

DON'T BE A SLAVE TO ORIGINALITY: "Those who don't want to imitate anything, produce nothing."

BE YOUR OWN BIGGEST FAN: "Every morning upon awakening, I experience a supreme pleasure: that of being Salvador Dali, and I ask myself, wonderstruck, what prodigious thing will he do today, this Salvador Dali."

DON'T THINK SO HIGHLY OF YOURSELF: "Have no fear of perfection -- you'll never reach it."

DREAM BIG: "At the age of six I wanted to be a cook. At seven I wanted to be Napoleon. And my ambition has been growing steadily ever since.        

JUST DO IT: "If you play at being a genius, you become one.

Monday, August 1, 2011


         For the past year I have been conducting memoir writing workshops -- encouraging late bloomers (and some not-so-late bloomers) to write. The classes (, held in a tearoom in St. Petersburg, have been popular and I love giving them.  
Original site of Shakespeare & Company/Photo by Maureen Hammond
          I even was invited to give my workshop this summer at Shakespeare and Company, a funky bookstore in Paris, named after the English-language bookstore frequented by Hemingway and other members of the Lost Generation in the Twenties.  (It's where founder Sylvia Beach published James Joyce's "Ulysses" in 1922.)
         But, as they say, life happens when you're planning something else.
         In April, I traveled to my hometown of Kenosha, Wisconsin and gave the workshop at Andrea's, a gift shop/cafe that has been on that spot for the past 100 years (fudge ripple ice cream was invented there). During that workshop, I even joined in with participants and wrote my own personal essay in class and read it aloud -- along with everyone else. A first for me. 
          On that trip to Wisconsin, however, I also had scheduled a workshop at the Senior Center in Shorewood (, located, appropriately, right across the street from where my mother had lived. My mother's late-in-life writing career was the inspiration for my workshops in the first place.  LaVerne Hammond wrote her first column for the St. Petersburg Times at age 86 and wrote monthly until her death at age 92.  The columns are gathered in a volume entitled "Post Scripts: A Writing Life After 80."  

         But that second workshop in Shorewood never took place. While in Wisconsin, I landed in the hospital with a heart ailment. I had to cancel the Shorewood class and also the summer workshop at Shakespeare & Company in Paris. How do you say bummer in French? 
         But late bloomers, of course, are not easily discouraged. I still took the trip to France (although a much abbreviated one than planned and one where I relied greatly on the kindness of strangers, friends and relatives to see that I didn't overly exert my heart). And I even managed to write a travel memoir about my stay in Paris for the Washington Post travel section  Being in Paris, it turns out, did wonders for my heart.

      The Washington Post piece was about my

search for Paris of the Twenties, inspired by

Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris." But like Gil

Pender, the movie's wannabe novelist who

magically is transported back to his favorite era,

I discovered that the best time to be in Paris is now.

In my article, I conjure up my own quirky Paris,

something that everyone who visits the City of

Lights inevitably does -- whether he or she writes it down or not.

       So what's next for me and my ever-growing-stronger heart?  Next April, I am planning to reschedule the class at Shakespeare and Company in Paris to encourage others to write of their own moveable feasts. That month, I also will be holding a weekend writing workshop at the Chateau des Sablons, a beautifully restored 18th century castle in the Loire Valley 
France awaits you/Photo by Maureen Hammond
       I'd love to have you join me. If you are interested, contact me at  My mother’s late-in-life writing career has convinced me that it’s never too late to fulfill your dreams. But the time to begin is now

Sunday, April 3, 2011

This Creative Late Bloomer Just Keeps Plodding On

     I'll bet there are a lot of women -- especially those now in their seventies, eighties and nineties -- who will relate to the London Guardian's story of Rose Hilton who has an art show at London's Messum's Gallery, on view now until April 16.

      At first glance, Rose Hilton would appear to be a classic Late Starter: Someone who always wanted to create but was held back by family or work obligations.

Rose Hilton. Photograph: Jim Wileman for the Guardian
    Or in her case, held back by an overbearing husband who already was a celebrated artist.

    "I'm the painter in this set-up," Roger Hilton told Rose when they were married in the Sixties.

     This, despite the fact that Rose had attended the Royal College of Art and graduated with honors, despite the fact that she had won life drawing and painting prizes and a scholarship to Rome, despite the fact that she had taught at England's Sidcup Art College (where one of her students was Rolling Stone Keith Richards), despite the fact that she had had her work included at a gallery show in London. Now married to a famous artist, Rose's job became raising the Hiltons' two sons, Bo and Fergus, and putting up with Roger.

      An alcoholic who was at times downright mean (he would read her diary entries and leave nasty comments, such as "balls" and "fucking lie"), Roger Hilton was a handful, but he also was a brilliant painter. And he eventually did come around. In the last years of their stormy marriage when Rose tentatively started painting again, he even offered her some constructive criticism. In turn, Rose took care of her husband when he fell desperately sick.

     But wait. Roger died in 1975. Rose was only 43 years old. She no longer had the excuse of a husband holding her back. Her children, who both became artists themselves, were supportive. Why did it take her decades to finally earn a living from her art work? 

"Something to Keep the Balance," by Andrew Lambirth
      "I suppose I have been a slow developer," she told a Western Morning News interviewer two years ago when, at 78, she had a solo exhibition at the Messum (her first there was in 1991 when she was 60),

      Okay, now I'm thinking Rose Hilton is more accurately categorized, in my lexicon of late bloomers, as a Plodder: an artist who needed time to hone her skills to get good.

     Yes, her marriage interrupted her art career. For nearly ten years, she was unable to paint full time. But even those years were not entirely lost ones for her development as an artist. While with Roger, she took notes when he made comments about his art and observed his process to gain insight into her own. Then for three decades after his death, she worked diligently to find her own creative voice. Thirty-three years after Roger's death, she had a retrospective at the Tate St. Ives.  

     We can't always blame outside forces for our inability to create -- or on our lack of creative success. Sometimes the person holding us back the most is ourselves. Rose has painted now for more than 50 years, intermittently at times, more ferociously at others.  But most importantly, she's kept at it, despite the interruptions, despite her doubts. And she has learned well to use the time when she is unable to create.

    A painting in Rose's current exhibit at the Messum's is a great illustration of both her perseverance and constant openness to inspiration. Depicting the time when she was waiting hand and foot on her bedridden husband, it's called "Taking Things to Roger." 

   In 2009, Andrew Lambirth published a book about Rose Hilton; "Something to Keep The Balance" is about Rose's life, her loves (including Roger) and her struggle to find her own artistic identity. The "something" of the title is art. As Rose puts it, "It's all about how I carried on painting."

   I'm reminded of that saying by Samuel Beckett: "I can't go on. I go on." It's all about plodding on.



Friday, March 11, 2011


     This week on HuffPost Zoe Tristka posted 10 of her favorite late bloomers -- Literary Late Bloomers: Great Authors Who Took A Little Longer  -- and asked readers to vote for their favorites. I have always been a sucker for these lists of late-in-life successes (usually hoping to see someone on them who is a little older than I am, of course). I imagine many readers will weigh in on which johnny-come-lately (or joannie-come-lately) inspires them the most. I know I am not alone in loving to hear about late bloomers.

     But I always crave to hear the backstories of these successes.

     Among the writers Zoe has chosen as her favorite late bloomers are four who were first published in their late thirties -- Wallace Stevens, Joseph Conrad, William Burroughs and Anthony Burgess. Some may not consider the late thirties to be late at all for literary success, but if you are in your twenties, it does seem a long way off. Three more men on the list -- Charles Bukowski, Henry Miller and Raymond Chandler -- all had to wait until their forties to hit the big time. None of them would have made the New Yorker's infamous 20 under 40 list.

       The three women on Zoe's list are all late late bloomers: Laura Ingalls Wilder, who  published her Little House on the Prairie series in her 50s; Harriet Doerr who published a prize-winning first novel at age 74, and Toyo Shibata who at 99 is on Japan's bestseller list, thanks to her first book of poetry, appropriately entitled "Don't Lose Heart" (see "Grandma next door" poet a Japan bestseller at 99).

Toyo Shibata, 99-year-old poet

     All these are interesting choices. But the members of this motley group took such very different routes to their late-in-life success I'm thinking that labeling them late bloomers need some refining.

     Some do fall into the classic late bloomer mold: They succeeded later in life because they were busy doing other things before they finally could turn to writing in earnest.  Let's call this group LATE STARTERS. Harriet Doerr was raising a family. Anthony Burgess worked as a teacher. Wallace Stevens was a lawyer.  Charles Bukowski worked in a post office. Raymond Chandler worked as a bookkeeper. Joseph Conrad was sailing on ships around the world.

     But some of these late bloomers weren't late to start -- they were writing all along. They just needed time to get good (or at least time to get sober).  William Burroughs and Bukowski come to mind. I'll call them the  PLODDERS.

      Henry Miller also was not really a late starter, but he wasn't a plodder either. Instead he falls into the classic LATE-TO-BE-RECOGNIZED bloomer category. He didn't need more time. It was the world that needed to catch up to him. His sexually explicit prose seems tame today, but it took him years to get his work published. When Tropic of Cancer was finally published in France in 1934,  it was banned in the U.S. as pornography and had to be smuggled into the country for years. Its 1961 U.S. publication triggered a series of obscenity trials until the book was finally declared a work of literature in 1964. Miller was by then 73.

      And then there are the ACCIDENTAL LATE BLOOMERS whose dabbling in a creative pursuit  pays off big time like a UTube video gone viral. Like Grandma Moses, they are not high brow artists, but their work touches a chord in masses of people. An unsuccessful journalist, Chandler only turned to writing pulp fiction as a means to make money when he lost his bookkeeping job. His phenomenally popular fiction led him to a screenwriting career. Laura Ingalls Wilder didn't begin write until her forties when she was inspired by her daughter Rose's career as an editor and ghostwriter to try her hand at it, also hoping to make a little money on the side. It was Rose who is said to have encouraged her to write down the stories of her childhood that make up the wildly successful Little House on the Prairie series.

       Tayo Shibata also is an accidental late bloomer. For years Tayo Shibata had been enjoying a beloved hobby: classical Japanese dancing. When her son urged her to find a pasttime that wouldn't be so hard on her back, she started to write poetry. Her first collection is reportedly written in a down-to-earth style (it hasn't yet been translated into English) to which the average Japanese can relate. Overnight, it hit the bestseller list, selling over  1.5 million copies.

     Here are my own favorite CREATIVE LATE BLOOMERS,  each representing a different category of late bloomers. Faithful readers of this site will note that I have discovered two more varieties since my earlier post, The Many Varieties of Creative Late Bloomers ):

ACCIDENTAL BLOOMERS, those who take up a creative activity as a hobby but are discovered to have great talent.
      Toyo Shibata. "A flower bloomed from a century-old tree," the 99-year-old told her fans after her first book of poetry hit the bestseller list in Japan, "and it's all because of your support. Now I have a souvenir to bring to the after-world and boast about to my husband and my mother there."

LATE STARTERS, those who dreamed of a literary career all their lives, but who were sidetracked by work or by family.
     Harriet Doerr. On a dare from her son, Harriet Doerr returned to finish her creative writing degree at Stanford University and won the National Book Award for her first novel, written for her class thesis, Stones for Ibarra. She was  74. She went on to write two more books, a second novel (at left), Consider this, Senora, published in 1993 when she was 83 and a collection of short stories and essays, Tiger in the Grass: Stories and other Inventions, when she was 85.

PLODDERS, those who needed time to get good.
     Ben Fountain, immortalized in Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker piece, Late Bloomers, took years to finish his first short story collection, Brief Encounters With Che Guevara. It was published to great acclaim in 2007 when Fountain was in his late forties. "Sometimes genius is anything but rarified; sometimes it's just the thing that emerges after twenty years of working at your kitchen table," wrote Gladwell. Fountain's novel, scheduled to be published in 2009, has yet to appear.

CRUSADERS, those who launch a creative career late in life in order to advance a cause or promote an area of interest
    Helen Prejean was 54 when she wrote Dead Man Walking, a book that inspired an Oscar-winning movie and turned Prejean, a Catholic nun, into sought after speaker on the subject of capital punishment.

LATE-TO-BE RECOGNIZED, those who are discovered late.
     Carmen Herrera sold her first painting at age 89, and now is considered a master of abstract art. Herrera wasn't slow to succeed; it was the world that was slow to recognize her.

REPEAT BLOOMERS, those successful creative artists who fade away from the public eye only to stage a spectacular comeback late in life and bloom all over again.
     Debbie Reynolds. "Most people think I've died," she recently said during a lively appearance on The Talk. Nearly 80, for the past few years the unsinkable Hollywood legend has been crossing the country with a one-woman show. In June she will be auctioning off pieces of her vast collection of Hollywood memorabilia, including the headdress that once rival in love Elizabeth Taylor wore for her triumphal march into Rome as Cleopatra. If you can't be Elizabeth Taylor, at least you can own her clothes.

HYBRIDS, those who are successful early in life in one creative area and then, late in life, turn to a totally different creative field and succeed in that, too.
     Patti Smith. The Godmother of Punk is both in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and, at 64, a winner of the National Book Award for her memoir Just Kids. 

Monday, February 28, 2011


     "My father always said to me I would be a late bloomer," said screenwriter David Seidler, accepting the Academy award last night for best original screenplay.  The line got one of the biggest laughs of the night (not that there was much competition). At 73, he had aced his first appearance as a nominee, winning for "The King's Speech" and entered Oscar history: He's the oldest person ever to win that award.
     Seidler's acceptance speech was one of the classiest of the evening (okay, still not much competition). It was also the most touching.

     Seidler not only gave voice to those who, like him and the King of England, have had to struggle with a profound stammer. The silver-haired award winner for best original screenplay also gave hope to late-to-be recognized bloomers everywhere. "I believe I am the oldest person to win that particular award," he said, adding graciously. "I hope that record is broken quickly and often."

Movie poster for the "The King's Speech": Screenplay credit goes to award-winning late bloomer David Seidler

     Seidler wasn't the only late bloomer to show up on the Oscar stage last night.

     Director Kathryn Bigelow returned to hand out the best director award. Last year, at age 58, she, too, had aced her first nomination. Recognition had been a long time comin'.

     Bigelow originally wanted to be a painter. The daughter of a paint factory manager and a librarian, early on, she imitated the Masters, painting giant segments from their works. She studied at the San Francisco Art Institute and won a scholarship for the Independent Study Program at the Whitney Museum in New York, where her work was critiqued by Richard Serra.

    Moving to New York, she did a stint as a model, posing for a Gap ad. With towering good looks, she still looks the part.
     Her film career began when she saw a violent western called "The Wild Bunch" by Sam Peckinpah. "It was visceral," she told an interviewer. "Very, very were just enraptured by this material." She enrolled in Columbia University's graduate film program where a professor gave her the word for what she had felt: scopophilia. Unlike painting, a film could make you physically feel what the characters were feeling. She was hooked.

     Her first film was a 20-minute experimental short she wrote, produced and directed as a Columbia student project. "Set-Up," which featured two men fighting as a voiceover discussed the nature of violence, set the tone for her future films. Moving to Los Angeles, she directed an art movie that introduced William Dafoe, made another movie starring Jamie Lee Curtis, dabbled in acting and married director James Cameron. The marriage was brief, but the two filmmakers collaborated on Bigelow's first financial hit, "Point Break," which introduced Keanu Reeves and starred Patrick Swayze. She continued to make feature films, one which was produced by her now ex-husband, and began to write and direct for television, working with such as heavy hitters Ralph Fiennes, Luc Besson, Lou Diamond Phillips, Sean Penn, Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson. But despite all these big name connections, few outside of the Hollywood inner circle knew her name.

   Until "The Hurt Locker." After 30 years of filmmaking, the world finally took notice. With "The Hurt Locker," a film starring relatively unknown actors, she returned to the subject of the nature of violence. The story of the Army's elite Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit during the Iraq war capped her the Director's Guild Award for Best Director, the first time a female director was honored by that group. A few days later, the film won Best Picture and Bigelow took home the Oscar for Best Achievement in Directing, the fourth woman to be nominated for that prize and only the second woman to win it. Only the Golden Globe directing award eluded her. That was won by her ex-husband.

     "There's really no difference between what I do and what a male filmmaker might do. I mean we all try to make our days, we all try to give the best performances we can, we try to make our budget, we try to make the best movie we possibly can. So in that sense it's very similar. On the other hand, I think the journey for women, no matter what venue it is -- politics, business, film -- it's a long journey,"
she told an interviewer.

     But Bigelow doesn't by a long shot hold the record for the oldest director to win the Oscar. That triumph goes to Clint Eastwood. In 2004, he took home the award for Best Achievement in Directing for "Million Dollar Baby."  He was 74. He had already won the award in 1992 for "Unforgiven" when he was a mere 62.

Monday, February 21, 2011


     A creative career can be a lonely affair. The painter works solo and so, for the most part, does the writer. Even when works are co-written, there are long hours of solitary work to be done. Music is often collaborative, but only after many, many hours of practicing alone.
     A supportive husband or wife can make all the difference.
Harriet Beecher Stowe and her supportive husband, Calvin.
     The classic story of the consequences of an unsupportive husband is Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper."  A woman, suffering from depression after the birth of her daughter, is told by a physician to concentrate on domestic affairs and "never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live." Her husband enforces the doctor's orders, locking his wife in a room when he goes off to work. The "rest cure" drives her mad, as she imagines herself trapped in the hideous wallpaper of the room.
      Denying your creativity can drive you crazy.
      Ironically, Gilman was the grand niece of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who had one of the most supportive husbands in literary history. In 1840, Calvin Stowe wrote to Harriet, "my dear, you must be a literary woman. It is so written in the book of fate...Make all your calculations accordingly." Lucky for him he did push her to write. Harriet helped support her family with her writing even before her phenomenal success with "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Continually goaded by her husband, she wrote well into her nineties.
     The Stowes' progressive ideas about marriage -- and women succeeding in a creative career -- certainly were not in vogue during the pre-feminist Fifties and Sixties when I was growing up. A woman's place was in the home and not off pursuing a creative career. I was told I should learn to play the piano to soothe my husband's nerves when he came home for work -- not to embark on a concert tour.
     Still, even in unenlightened times, there have been mates around who supported the creative careers of their partners.
     When Julia Child's late-in-life career as an author and TV personality took off in the early Sixties -- her book was pubished when she was 49, her TV show, launched when she was 51 -- her husband, who was then nearing 60 himself, happily let her bathe in the limelight. More than just providing emotional support, he became her manager, supplying the photographs and illustrations for her books, testing and tweaking her recipes, proof-reading her manuscripts, hauling equipment, washing dishes, running errands, handling her fan mail, writing her books' dedications and shoring her up during her publicity tours and speaking engagements. He was often seen walking just steps behind his towering wife.
     I loved food critic Gael Greene's description of the Childs' marriage in her memoir Insatiable: Tales from a Life of Delicious Excess. She repeated the story on her Insatiable Critic blog when the movie Julie and Julia came out
       "Julia swept into the lobby of La Tr√©moille, my hotel in Paris. And as she swept, she knocked against the bouquet of flowers on the tall pedestal at the door.  It tipped.  I gasped.  Behind her, Paul Child caught it mid-topple and set it straight.  What a team, I thought.  Not only did they adore each other, but Paul was always there, seemingly content to swim in her wake, picking up whatever she might bowl over in her exuberant passage through life."
     Abstract painter Carmen Herrera also benefited from a supportive mate. For years her husband, Jesse Loewenthal (he's mentioned as a fellow teacher in Frank McCourt's memoirs) financially supported her life as a painter.  He moved to neighborhoods that were cheap and sometimes dangerous, "so I could have room to paint," says Herrera. He talked to her about her work. But most importantly, he gave her the emotional strength to continue to create. "It's not always easy being an artist," she says in the uTube interview below, recalling her husband's support.
     She painted for almost seven decades. She had a few exhibitions, but her work fell under the radar. She had three strikes against her. She was Cuban, a woman and a minimalist painter in the competitive New York art world. But her husband never lost faith in her work.
     He didn't live to see her phenomenal success. Six years ago, at 89, she finally sold her first painting. Recognized as a master of abstract minimalism, her paintings hang at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Hirshhorn in Washington and Tate Modern in London. They sell for up to $50,000. And at 95, she's still at work.
     In a recent interview with Helena de Bertodano for the Telegraph of London at her New York apartment/studio, she remembered her biggest fan:
    "Jesse was a saint and I’m thinking back and I never even thanked him for all he did for me. He was the only one I ever spoke to about my paintings. He understood what I was doing and he was always supportive...We could think without talking. He died right here in this room with me holding his hand. Lately I miss him a lot.’


CARMEN HERRERA-Artist in Exile part 1

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

It's Never Too Late -- Well, Almost Never: Cautionary Tales for Those Putting Off Writing

     It's never too late to begin a literary career. But that's not to say that you should act as if you have all the time in the world. If you are thinking about writing, don't delay. It may be later than you think.

     Anna Sewell was interested in writing a story about a horse for years, but she waited until she was sick and dying before dictating the tale -- Black Beauty -- to her mother. It was to be her first and only book. She died just five months after its publication, living long enough to see its initial early success, but not long enough to know that she had written a children's classic.

     Swedish writer Helena Henschen enjoyed her late-in-life success a bit longer.

     A designer, founder of a clothing company and children's book illustrator, Henschen launched her literary career at the age of 64 in 2004 with a bang: Her first adult novel, "I skuggan av ett brott" (In the Shadow of a Crime) was awarded one of the 12 European Prizes for Literature just created by the European Union. The Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter heralded the success of a  "grandmother."

     The novel arose out of research Henschen had been doing about an infamous crime that took place eight years before she was born. An 18-year-old son brutally had murdered his father and two maids in the family's Stockholm apartment, then fled with his wife, only to kill her, too, and then himself in an Uppsala restaurant. The bloody tale held a particular interest for Henschen. The sister of the murderer was her mother. Henschen's mother, who was 15 at the time, had been the one to discover the bodies of her brother's first victims. Obviously traumatized by the grisly affair, her mother never talked about her family with her daughter.

     Henschen went on to write "Hon √§lskade" (She Loved), this time based on her rebellious paternal grandmother. It became a Swedish bestseller. Her third book was going to be a sequel, also based on true events, set during World War II. That manuscript was never finished. Last month Helena Henschen died of a stroke at age 70.

     "She became a writer so late, but she was so ready with that first book," said her publisher, quoted in her obituary 

Photo of Helena Henschen by Magnus Hallgren for Dagens Nyheter
     Luckily, Henschen did begin to write down the stories that had been bottled up within her for years. And luckily before her death, she was able to enjoy the enthusiastic reception of her work, albeit only for a few years.

      Fellow Swedish author Stieg Larsson was not so fortunate. He died before his phenomenally popular Millenium-series was even published.

     A Swedish newspaperman and a political activist, Larsson had written a few science fiction short stories when he began to write crime novels in 1997.  In 2003, with two books finished and work started on a third, he finally contacted a publisher. Extraordinary for a first-time author, he landed a three-book contract with the Swedish publisher Nordstedts. The first in the series, featuring hacker Lisbeth Salander, was scheduled to be published in early 2005.

      Then in November, 2004, a few months before the book's debut, Larsson died of a heart attack. He was 50.

     Larsson missed out on the phenomenal success of the Millenium-series, translated in English as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl That Played With Fire and The Girl That Kicked the Hornet's Nest. Last year the gripping tales of the world's most famous fictional hacker had sold 27 million copies in more than 40 countries. 

     But perhaps the saddest of all are the books that remain unfinished. 

    Helena Henschen's published work is too "sparse," lamented Carin Stahlberg in a tribute to the author in Dagens Nyheter.  "It feels sad to not have read the third part of her interesting family history."




Monday, January 31, 2011


     What will life be like when we are really old? Old old? Will our productive days be over? Or can our creativity last or even flourish into our eighties and nineties? Two recently published books ask those questions and come up with very different pictures.

     Susan Jacoby in Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age says we have not been honest with ourselves about what lies ahead for those of us who survive into ninth and tenth decades of our lives. Jacoby, who is 63, thinks we are wrong to imagine that at 65, the best years of our lives may still ahead of us. She wants us to look more realistically at what the old old have to face.

       "Harry R. Moody, the author of numerous books on the psychology and ethics of of aging," she writes, "came up with the terms 'wellderly' to describe the healthy old, as opposed to 'illderly.' What such distinctions do not acknowledge is that nearly all of the wellderly, if they live as long as my grandmother did, will turn into the illderly." Anyone who lives beyond eighty-five, she reports, has a 50-50 chance of ending up spending some time in a nursing home and close to a 50 percent chance of developing dementia. 

     "We cannot continue to base our image of old age on the extraordinary person, blessed by a combination of affluence and physiological hardiness, who remains 'as sharp as a tack' and takes up a new, youthful hobby -- say, skydiving -- in her nineties," she writes. "We cannot idealize the remarkable accomplishments of a few people who maintain their creative abilities and mental acuity into advanced old age as if those accomplishments were the norm."

     The norm, she says, is more like the case of her grandmother, "an ordinary person with serious health problems and ordinary financial resources" who had to live out her life in a nursing home where she was "one of only a handful of residents who still had a working brain."

      In Lastingness: The Art of Old Age, Nicholas Delbanco focuses on those extraordinary persons that Jacoby says are not the norm in order to figure out why some people do manage to stay productive into old age. He's interested in the artists -- writers, painters and musicians -- who not only continued to be creative in their old age but also did some of their best work in their "twilight years."  He concentrates on artists working past age 70 (Delbanco is 68) and comes up with some fascinating stories about late-in-life achievers such as William Butler, who wrote some of his best work late in life; Claude Monet, who painted well into his 80s, even though his eyes were covered by cataracts; and Pablo Casals, who could barely make it to the podium but was transformed when he began to play his cello.

     Delbanco makes no sweeping judgments about creativity and old age. In fact, he never really comes up with an answer to his question of why some artists do last and some don't. But that doesn't stop him from reveling in the stories of those who do.

    I understand the impulses of both of these authors. Jacoby is concerned that in our rush to battle the stereotypes of ageism we are forgetting the real, material needs of many of the very old. She sees the glass of old age as half empty -- and thinks that those of us who look at it as half full do at our own peril. I agree that you can carry the idea of defying age too far -- although I was surprised to learn that half of the people who make it into their eighties and nineties never see the inside of a nursing home and more than half never experience dementia.  But, no, we're not going to "beat this thing" and Jacoby is right to denounce such baby boomer delusions. Aging successfully is not for sissies.

     Delbanco, on the other hand,  is addressing the more intangible needs we have as we grow old. The need to feel productive. The need to feel creative. The need to have hope.  He doesn't exactly see the glass half full -- he admits that lasting creativity among the old old is rare --  but he prefers to examine those who defy the norm and to take from them his own inspiration.

     As Delbanco says, there is no intrinsic reason why people cannot continue to create late in life. They are not aspiring to be baseball players or ballerinas, professions that do have a restricted shelf life.

      But are Delbanco's examples of famous artists too extraordinary, as Jacoby contends, to be of value in considering what happens to "ordinary people" who survive into their eighties and nineties? Well, consider this: My mother was an ordinary woman with ordinary financial resources. She faced many serious health problems, from cancer to a stroke. Yet in her eighties she began to write with a burst of creative energy, fearless in her drive to create in the last years of her life. She began by writing her memoirs and then, at age 86, launched a monthly column in the Seniority section of a Florida newspaper. Her last column, written when she was in hospice, was a letter to her first great-grandchild whom she knew she would never see grow old. That column was filed on the day she died. She was 92.

     My mother knew, of course, that her writing wasn't going to forestall the inevitable. There were days when writing didn't ward off her aches and pains, both physical and spiritual. But writing gave her a renewed energy that was unmistakable.

     Watching my mother grow strong stronger as she tapped into her creative soul at such a late stage in her life has drawn me into these ruminations on creativity and aging.  I, too, want to address questions even more puzzling than Delbanco's inquiry into the lastingness of artists. It's one thing to continue to create, but what about those who start to create late in life? Why did my mother have such a burst of creative energy so late in life? What can these creative late bloomers tell us about the quality of aging? Should everyone be encouraged to be creative late in life, the wellderly and illderly alike?






Saturday, January 22, 2011


     Not every creative late bloomer has been dreaming all her life of becoming a successful writer or an artist. For some, a successful late-in-life creative career comes as much of a surprise to them as to their audience.

     They are the Crusading Late Bloomers, proselytizing experts and activists who turn to creativity late in life to spread the gospel about their pet concerns, either subjects in which they have an expertise, usually honed over a lifetime, or causes for which they feel a burning passion.


       Gardening. Manners. Dogs. Birds. Sex. All these subjects have been the catalyst for successful late-in-life writing careers.

       Gertrude Jekyll, born 1843, launched a creative career late in life because, like Grandma Moses, poor eyesight forced her to abandoned embroidery, the acceptable creative outlet for women of the day. Instead of naive painting though, Jekyll (who also painted watercolors) turned to another colorful outlet: gardening. Meeting up with a young 20-year-old architect, at 46 she began to designed Impressionist-style gardens for his houses -- over 400 of them --  that were considered works of art in themselves. None of the gardens remain, but the 15 books she wrote about gardening, including Colour in the Flower Garden, often dubbed the Bible of gardening.

     Emily Post's cause -- and area of expertise -- was Society with a capital S. In her Forties, her friends urged her to write down what she knew down. Her book on etiquette, published when she was 50, became a bestseller and led her, at age 74, to found the Emily Post Institute which has made her name synonymous with manners.

     A dog trainer for years, Barbara Woodhouse wrote No Bad Dogs: The Woodhouse Way in her 80s and launched a TV series to promote her "no-bad-dogs" philosophy. Erma J. Fisk, a lifelong birdwatcher, never thought of writing a book. Then at 73, with her husband gone and her children grown, she went to live alone for five months in a cabin in the foothills of Arizona's Baboquivari Peak, recording and banding birds for The Nature Conservancy. Her notes because the basis for her first book, Peacocks of Baboquivari, published when she was 78. She went on to write three more books about birds.

    Perhaps the best known expert late bloomer is Karola Ruth Siegel Westheimer. Never heard of her? You probably know her better as Dr. Ruth, the therapist who still is crusading for better sex lives. Married three times and after raising two children, she turned her passion and information about sex into an international career that has included a popular radio show (Sexually Speaking launched in 1982),  over 30 books and countless personal appearances. Her first book, Dr. Ruth's Guide to Good Sex, was published in her mid-fifties.


     "Writing for me has always come from being bugged -- agitated by a life, a speaking voice, an idea," wrote a 68-year-old Grace Paley, a political activist who published her first collection of short stories in 1959 at age 37.  For some, that fire in the belly comes later.

     When she was in her Forties, Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun, started up a pen pal relationship with a prison inmate. She went to visit him and ended up witnessing his execution on April 5, 1984. "Like a sacrament, the execution left an indelible make on my soul," she says.  She began to counsel those on Death Row and pray the rosary with their families.

     She felt, however, that she needed to do something more public. So she sat down to write about her experiences on death row. The result was Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States, which Prejean describes as a "sustained meditation on love, criminal violence, and capital punishment." She was 54. Based on two capital punishment cases, the book decries the unfair impact the death penalty has on African Americans and the poor and criticizes Louisiana prosecuters for displaying a "Big Prick" award, featuring the state bird holding a hypodermic needle used in executions in its talons. Dead Man Walking inspired the Oscar-winning film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn and launched Prejean as an anti-death penalty advocate.

     Activism also led Doris "Granny D" Haddock to turn to writing late in life. Very late in life. After walking across the country at age 90 to make people aware of the need for political finance reform, Haddock wrote two books, ran for political office (she lost) and posted regularly on her MySpace page until her death at age 100.


Sunday, January 16, 2011


     In Silences Tillie Olsen underlines a sobering fact: Prior to the late 20th century, all the great women writers in Western literature either had no children or had full-time housekeepers to raise the kids. Olsen, born in 1913, famously blamed the delay of her own writing career on the demands of domestic life.  "I know that I haven't powers enough to divide myself into one who earns and one who creates," she lamented.

     My home work ate my doggerel.

      Helen Hooven Santmyer, born the same year as Olsen, didn't have children, but the necessity to earn a living and support her aging parents during hard economic times put her nascent creative career on the back burner for decades.  Ever since she read Little Women at the age of nine, Helen wanted to be a writer. She even managed to publish a novel in her twenties. But when the Depression and World War II made life difficult for her parents, she returned to Ohio to take care of them. She moved in with her partner (a daring move in those non-gay liberation times) and worked as a librarian.  Only after a half a century did she finally find the time to turn back to writing. By then, she was living in a nursing home. When her  novel, ... And Ladies of the Club, written to celebrate the joys of small-town living,  hit the bestseller list, she was quoted as saying, "Ninety percent of the hoopla is because I'm such an old lady."  She was 88.

     Throughout the 20th century, women continued to be similarly sidetracked.

     Ellen Gilchrist, who was born in 1935, went through four divorces and bore three children before going back to school and taking up writing. On the eve of her 50th birthday, she won the American Book Award.
      Jean Auel, who was born in 1936 and had five children before she was 25, didn't start writing her epic novels until she experienced empty nest syndrome in her mid-forties.

     Poet Ruth Stone's first book of poetry was published when she was 49 in 1959. That same year her husband Walter committed suicide, thrusting the support of the family on her shoulders. Getting only temporary teaching jobs, she shuttled her three children from university to university, finally getting tenure -- at age 72 -- at the State University of New York at Binghamton. She retired in 2001 and only then was able to devote herself full time to poetry. In 2002, her collection In the Next Galaxy won the National Book Award. She was 87. Her latest collection, What Love Comes to: New and Selected Poems, was a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize.

     So, has the situation changed for women in the 21st century?

     In the U.S., women still are the primary caregivers for parents -- and in-laws -- in need of help. Men do take a more active role in child raising (although I suspect women still carry most of the water), but the time spent by both parents on their children has increased (for better or worse). It still is hard for women to find rooms of their own.

     Both men and women have, however, more time to fulfill their dreams of writing a book, painting a masterpiece or becoming a rock star. In 1913, a male child in the U.S. had a life expectancy of 50.3; a girl was expected only to live until age 55. According to the United Nations, today a boy in the U.S. has a life expectancy of 75.6; baby girls are expected to live just over 80 years (80.8).  We rank, by the way, 36th in world life expectancy, just better than Portugal and worse than Cuba.  Japan heads the list at 78 years for males; 86.1 for females.


Friday, January 14, 2011



Cezanne: The Plodder
     Like the flowers of the metaphor, there are many varieties of late bloomers. While most people think of late bloomers simply as late starters, many actually have been working away at their art for decades. Some just are late-to-be recognized. The world needed time to discover them. Or rediscover them. In some cases, of course, it was the artists themselves who needed time -- to get good. It's the latter kind of late bloomer  that Malcolm Gladwell describes in a 2008 New Yorker article on Late Bloomers (one of the magazine's most emailed pieces in its history). Inspired by a study by economist David Galenson entitled "Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity," which compares the incandescent rise of Picasso with the slogging career of Cezanne, Gladwell contrasts the writing life and habits of Ben Fountain, who achieved success late in life, with the much younger Jonathan Safran Foer whose rise to fame was meteoric.

      I like to think of Cezanne and Ben Fountain as Plodders (and I mean that in the kindest of way). They are among the five varieties of late bloomers I've discovered:
     Some late starters have had a lifelong desire to be a writer, painter or musician, but have been sidetracked by family duties, work obligations and/or fear of failure. Late in life, these classic late bloomers are finally able to realize their dreams.
     EXAMPLE: Working as a nurse and raising children (including the future writer Ann Patchett), Jeanne Ray couldn't indulge in what she called her "little joy time" activity. When the kids were raised though, she completed her first novel, Julie and Romeo, about two aging lovers. She was 60.
     Not everyone dreams of creative pursuits, but some crusading late bloomers are drawn to launch creative careers to champion a cause or to share a lifetime of expertise.
     EXAMPLES: Helen Prejean was 54 when she wrote "Dead Man Walking," a book that inspired an Oscar-winning movie (and a national debate) on capital punishment. Dr. Ruth was 55 when she wrote "Dr. Ruth's Guide to Good Sex" and launched her sex advice radio program.

      Some writers, painters and musicians start working early on their art but they are plodders. They need time to get it right, only achieving their best late in life.
     EXAMPLE: Karl Marlantes took three decades and many rewrites to finally finish Matterhorn, his novel based on his experience as a Marine on combat tour during the Vietnam War. "Over the years, the book got better," he says. He finally published it, to critical acclaim, in 2010. He was 65.
     Some creative people who have been working at a high level of achievement for decades have had to wait a long time for the world to recognize their genius.
Susan Boyle's debut album.
     EXAMPLES: Susan Boyle, who had been singing all her life, was unemployed and never kissed when she appeared at age 48 on Britain's Got Talent and was turned into an international singing sensation. According to Guinness World Records, she is the oldest person to reach number one with a debut album in the UK. After decades of work, Carmen Herrera sold her first painting at age 89. Now at 95, she is one of the world's most collectible living artists (see post below).
     Some people achieve success early in life and then fade from view only to reappear stronger than ever.
     EXAMPLES: Comedian Betty White in her late eighties staged a heralded "comeback" in the field she never left. Oscar-winning actor Anthony Hopkins has been excelling in a completely different creative pursuit: In his seventies, he is touring as a concert pianist.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


     Whenever I mention that I am working on a book about creative late bloomers, someone inevitably says, "Oh, you mean Grandma Moses?"

     Now I have nothing against that sweet lady. But isn't it interesting -- and a bit irritating -- that so many of the more modern -- and bolder -- examples of creative late bloomers have not received the same attention that Grandma Moses has?

     It's as if there can only be an exception to the rule of young genius as long as that exception is a sweet old grandmother who paints pretty, completely non-threatening pictures.

     Yes, Anna Mary Robertson Moses turned to painting when arthritis made it impossible for her to embroider when she was 76. Yes, she continued to paint until her death at age 101. Yes, her paintings have hung in nine museums in the United States, Austria and France. All amazing facts. But she has always been presented as a sort of Sunday painter, a naive or primitive artists, terms used for those who are not to be taken too seriously. Certainly she was never considered to be an equal to her male counterparts in audacity and innovation.

Zeitgeist Films' documentary starring Louise Bourgeois, directed by Marion Cajor and Amei Wallach
     She was no Louise Bourgeois.

     Bourgeois, most known for her giant sculptures of spiders, was a fierce and daring sculptor who also achieved international recognition late in life. She did have some early success, but then was ignored by the art world for decades. It wasn't until her 70th birthday, when the Museum of Modern Art held a retrospective of her work, that she finally gained fame. When she died at age 98, still working in her studio, she was hailed as one of the world's greatest sculptors.

    Hererra is also a Late-To-Be-Recognized Late Bloomer. Unlike Grandma Moses, Herrera had been painting for years before being discovered. Sixty years. She sold her first artwork when she was 89  years, after almost six decades of persistence! Like Bourgeois, she always followed her own artistic impulses, even if that meant she had to wait for the world to catch up with her genius. She refused to give in to the artistic fads of the day, but continued to paint exquisite abstract work. She is now one of the world's most collectible living artists.

     Most of us first heard of the Cuban-born artist, thanks to an article in December, 2009 by Deborah Sontag in the New York Times who reported on the then 94-year-old whose abstract paintings have now entered the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Hirshhorn and the Tate. Sontag presented Herrera as a feisty woman who was thankful for her late husband's support of her work over the years (he was a Manhattan English teacher who taught with memoirist Frank McCourt) but who had enough self-esteem to take credit for her own success:

     "Everybody says Jesse must have orchestrated this from above," Herrera told Sontag. "Yeah, right, Jesse on a cloud...I worked really hard. Maybe it was me."

     Maria Niles includes that excerpt in her January 7 blog, "The Beauty of the Late Bloomer," at BlogHer Says Niles: 
     "I am happy that I have been introduced to Carmen Herrera while she is still alive and not after she has passed as too often is the case," writes Niles. "I have fallen in love with her paintings. But I have also been inspired by her story."

     Hererra, according to a recent interview by Helena de Bertodano in the Telegraph, is not thrilled with her new-found fame. "Really, fame is ridiculous. I didn't used to bother anyone and no one bothered me.Now I am paying because they are paying me."

     But at 95, she is still painting -- and grateful to be selling her work. "The money is useful because at the end of life, to my amazement, you need a lot of help. Otherwise I would end up in a nursing home. And I dread that," she told de Bertodano.

     Also grateful are those of us who are looking for more modern and challenging creative late bloomers than Grandma Moses.



Tuesday, January 11, 2011


“I think age is an advantage to a writer/artist because there is a great pool of living to draw from.”
-- Erma J. Fisk, a lifelong birdwatcher, who wrote her first book about birds at age 78
     Procrastination is not always a bad thing – if you time it right. When I was in college, I read a book on procrastination called “Procrastination Pays” that provided helpful advice on how long you could put off paying your electricity bill before you would get cut off for non-payment (beware when the little man shaking his finger at you disappears from the letterhead). Putting off a creative life also needs to be timed right. You can get too sick to dance, to make music or to paint or you may die before you get that book out. But age does give an artist one leg up on younger counterparts: Time gives you plenty of opportunity to accumulate great material for your work.  Life is a terrific research tool. 
     Harriet Doerr followed her husband to Mexico where he ran his family-owned copper mine. When her husband died, she returned to finish her degree at Stanford and, at age 74, tapped into those experiences in Mexico to write her first novel, Stones for Ibarra.  "The real events are like grains of sand on a huge beach of possible images," she  told an interviewer when asked if the novel was based on her life. "The stories are all made up; they're not autobiographical. But I have lived them.” Stones for Ibarra won the National Book Award. 
     Penelope Fitzgerald raised a family and worked in a bookshop before publishing her first book, a biography, when she was 58. Two years later, she published her first novel, a murder mystery that she had written to amuse her husband. Her next four novels were all based on her life experiences, including one called The BookShop.  
     In her columns, anthologized in Post Scripts: A Writing Life After 80, Laverne Hammond (my mom) liberally used her life as a mother and wife as fodder, telling stories about having her baby in a Florida hurricane and giving advice on how to keep romance alive in a marriage. 
      These women were all classic late bloomers: Each wanted to be a writer when they were young, but put aside that dream to raise a family or work for a living. When they did begin to write -- in their late fifties, seventies and eighties -- they had a lifetime of research at their fingertips.
     But even those who never dreamed of a creative career can tap into their lifetime of experiences and launch a creative career late in life. I like to think of them as "sudden late bloomers."
     Erma J. Fisk, for example, never thought of writing a book. But she was a lifelong birdwatcher.  When she was 73, with her husband gone and her children grown, she went to live alone for five months in a cabin in the foothills of Arizona's Baboquivari Peak, recording and banding birds for The Nature Conservancy.  Her notes became the basis for her first book, Peacocks of Baboquivari, published when she was 78. She went on to write three more books about birds. Diana Athill edited the works of other writers, but never got around to writing her own. It was only after years in publishing when someone convinced her to write about her exciting career. And when someone urged her to write about growing old, the result, Somewhere Near the End, won the lucrative Costa Award for autobiography and was nominated for the National Book Critics Award for autobiography. She was 91.
     So take heart. If you can't find enough time to write, paint or make music -- too busy with the kids or the job -- don't think you're wasting your time. You're doing research.

Thursday, January 6, 2011


      Creativity matters. It is the key to brain health. Use it or lose it. Or, as Michael Patterson and Roger Anunsen like to say, "Use it and improve it." Being creative not only helps to maintain your cognitive abilities. Creative activities can actually improve our brains.
     That was the message of a free webinar that Patterson and Anunsen, co-founders of mindRAMP, gave yesterday entited Creativity Matters: The sciences of creativity and cognitive enhancement, sponsored by the National Center for Creative Aging (NCCA). That's the D.C.-based organization linked to the late Gene Cohen whose research at George Washington University on creativity and art have changed the way scientists are looking at the link between creative activities and brain functions.  
    Cohen launched his 2005 study to see if the decline of cognitive abilities in the elderly could be slowed by enrolling them in creative activities, such as writing, dancing, singing and painting, Patterson and Anunsen pointed out. Much to everyone's surprise (including Cohen), the study indicated that such activities under the supervision of professional artists not only stopped deterioration. It actually strengthened cognitive functions. The brain grew.
     Creative activities give your brain a "cross-training workout," engaging you mentally, physically and socially, say Patterson and Anunsen. The brain is plastic, but you have to do something to stimulate the plasticity. It's there but you have to activate it.
     Patterson and Anunsen's mindRAMP company helps people do just that by working to develop brain wellness education programs and services. During the webinar, they paid homage to several other programs working in the area of creativity and aging:

     The two also directed participants to the NCCA website's "Beautiful Minds" campaign, a national photo essay exhibit celebrating men and women 55 and older who are doing beautiful things with their mind regardless of age. During the seminar we took a couple of "Brain Breaks. The brain lags after 20 minutes, our hosts explained, and needs more blood to function at peak capacity. While participants were encouraged to get up and move around (or, if they were wheelchair-bound, to wave their arms and stretch), our hosts quoted from seniors from the Beautiful Mind project. Creativity is about doing something else, leaving the past for something new, our hosts pointed out. They were particularly struck by the words of Suzanne Knode, who lives at the Burbank Senior Artists Colony
      "I think it takes letting go of the past and letting go of what you did before you became a senior... Allow yourself not to be afraid."


Tuesday, January 4, 2011


 “For me, writing is the only valid medicine I have against the flue, old age, depression, and so on. So that is what I do every day." 
    - May Sarton, quoted in “Secrets of Becoming a Late Bloomer: Extraordinary Ordinary People on the Art of Staying Creative, Alive, and Aware in Midlife and Beyond"

     Poet May Sarton, famous for her prolific journaling, wasn't just inventing a clever metaphor when she spoke of writing as her proverbial shot in the arm. Writing is medicine.
    The connection between creativity and good mental health has had a long history. After Cicero finished “On Old Age,” the Roman scholar concluded that writing the book had “not only wiped away all the annoyances of old age, but rendered it easy and pleasing.” For years psychologists and psychiatrists have been urging their patients to start journals to write down their feelings, to sing, dance or take up painting, stressing the psychological and emotional benefits of creative activity.
     But more recently scientists are beginning to discover that it's not only mental health that's aided by creative pursuits. Engaging in creative activities actually improves our physical well-being as well. 
     Writing as a cure for the Big C?
      Don't laugh. In 1989 a pioneering study by psychologist James Pennebaker at the University of Texas may not have proven that writing could cure cancer, but it did record health improvements in those students who wrote down how they felt versus those who didn't. 
       Consider the power of music. As Oliver Sacks, author of “The Awakening,” told the 1991 hearings of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, music can have a remarkable effect on those who are ill:  “…one sees Parkinsonian patients unable to walk, but able to dance perfectly well, or  patients almost unable to talk, who can sing perfectly well.”  
      In 2008, Cohen, director of the Center on Aging, Health & Humanities at George Washington University, concluded a three-year national study of Creativity & Aging, tracking the impact that community-based art programs had on the mental and physical health of men and women age 65-103. The results were astonishing. The participants who took part in singing, writing and painting groups clocked in fewer visits to the doctor, complained of fewer ailments and reported a greater sense of well being than the control group which was not active in the arts. 
     The brain, once thought to be set in stone at an early age, turns out to be quite plastic and subject to change. Older brains might even be more adaptable than younger ones. Engaging in creative activity creates new neurological pathways that bolster our immune systems, which makes us able to fight off disease and deterioration. Our brain neurons are nudged into new patterns and, even more remarkably, are encouraged to grow entirely new connections. In other words, creativity is literally mind blowing (well, at least brain expanding).
     So who can afford NOT to be creative?


Monday, January 3, 2011


      The collection of my mother's newspaper columns, "Post Scripts: A Writing Life After 80," by LaVerne Hammond, is one of the selections offered in the Hillsborough Library's Book Club in a Bag program  Hopefully, the collection of essays, which my mother wrote from age 86-92, will encourage readers to write down their own stories.