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.


1 comment:

  1. Thank you for a very stimulating writing seminar last Thursday at the Faith in Angels Tearoom Margo. I'm busily jotting down essays and outlines. I hope to attend future sessions that you hold to keep me pumped up! Marilyn Miller