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.

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