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.