This week's Creative Late Bloomer is Jane Juska whom I met in 2010 in Berkeley, CA while doing research for a book on creativity and aging (still a work in progress). When Juska was in her late 60s, she boldly addressed the subject of late-blooming sex in her delightful memoir A Round-Heeled Woman. It was an instant success. Now 80, she still is serving us up juicy writing.
-- Margo Hammond, The Creative Late Bloomer blog
CREATIVE LATE BLOOMER: JANE JUSKA
LATEST ACCOMPLISHMENTS: "Lady Chats," the story of the frank talks about aging and death Juska had on walks with her granddaughter Chancey when she was 5, published in Good Housekeeping, April 2013.
"A Round-Heeled Woman," the stage play based on Jane Juska's memoir, finished its run at the Aldwych Theatre in London's West End in 2012.
HER LATE-BLOOMING SUCCESS STORY: In 1999 Jane Juska placed this ad in the New York Review of Books: "Before I turn 67 -- next March -- I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like. If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me." Six years earlier, "enough being enough," she had retired after more than three decades teaching high school composition and English for the California school system. Living on a small pension in a tiny rented cottage in the back of an old house in Berkeley, she had found some peace in her life. She had reconciled with her son, once a runaway teenager, now a successful forest ranger with a college degree. She had shed more than 100 pounds and was trim and as buff as a 66-year-old could be, running and working out daily. She had completed five years of therapy. All she was lacking was sex. She thought the ad might work. To her surprise, she received dozens of replies. Answering the most promising, she hooked up with several (including a 62-year-old and a 32-year-old), had lots of sex, fell in love and had her heart broken. Then she wrote about her experiences in A Round-Heeled Woman: My Late-Life Adventures in Sex and Romance, published in 2003. It was her first book. She was 70. She followed up that memoir with another, Unaccompanied Women: Late-Life Adventures in Love, Sex and Real Estate, published in 2006. In 2009, A Round-Heeled Woman was turned into a stage play, with productions in Richmond, San Francisco, Miami and London.
NO ONE EVER SAID IT WOULD BE EASY: Juska began writing poetry in secret at age 12 in Archbold, Ohio. One day she slipped one of her poems to Miss Mabel Noszinger, her 8th grade teacher. To her horror, Miss Noszinger announced out loud that Jane had written a poem and she was certain she would like to read it to the class. Tall, gawky and more developed than her classmates, Juska wasn't ready for that kind of attention. She was mortified. At that time she also was writing in a diary until her jerky brother got a hold of it. She swore she'd never write down her thoughts again. Years later in her early 40s, struggling as a single mom to raise a particularly difficult teenager, she bought a journal. She managed to write down two sentences. She only remembers one of them: "What if Jane Austen saw this?" She didn't open the journal for another 10 years. By age 51 she had been teaching writing to students for some 20 years, but she wasn't writing herself. She was just the kind of non-writing writing teacher that Jim Gray, founder of The Bay Area Writing Project, was seeking. Gray sent Juska an offer she couldn't refuse: Get paid for five weeks to come to the Berkeley campus and write. Her assignment: Choose an incident that was important to you and write about it in three different ways. Juska began to write obsessively about a student who had killed himself. She called him Louise Renfrew, her sister's married name. She never finished the program's assignments, but Gray loved her stories of Louise and urged her to continue writing. Juska did begin to write regularly, meeting with a small group of writers she had met in the program for more than a decade. But it wasn't until her late 60s -- after posting an unorthodox ad in the New York Review of Books soliciting sex partners -- that she finally found the subject matter that touched off her writing passion: late-in-life love, romance and sex. Unfortunately, her writing group couldn't handle the new material. "I think it was the subject matter," said Juska. "They really couldn't assimilate it." She tried writing on different topics, but her heart wasn't in it. One day, one of her fellow writers took her aside: "You write what you have to, Jane." She dropped the writing group. She was on her own.
ON HER LATE-LIFE WRITING CAREER: When she was a teacher, people used to ask Jane Juska what she taught. "Sustained ambiguity," she told them. Now her writing life allows her to live that lesson. "Literature does not allow you, nor does your own writing allow you, certainty. You have to learn to live with ambiguity." She admits that the success of her first book put a lot of pressure on her, not only because it gave her a desire for more success, but because it gave her a desire for more security. "Once you get accustomed to a little bit of money on top of your pension, well, it's over. Writing is just hell on earth, especially if you are going to make a living at it," she said, adding, "but I can't stop writing."
ON HER BRIEF FORAYS INTO FICTION: Jane Juska wrote a novel called The Ladies about three 70-year-old neighbors who decide to kill their odious Neighbor. She also penned a Jane-Austen-inspired novel -- Mrs. Bennett Has Her Say. Neither works found a publisher. But she doesn't consider writing fiction a waste of time. "Now I know I'll never be lonely again. I have all these people I can make up."
WHY YOU SHOULD NEVER GIVE UP: When Jane Juska was writing A Round-Heeled Woman, it never even occurred to her to get an agent. She wasn't even thinking about publishing the material. She simply was trying to make sense of the experiences, both exhilarating and gut-wrenching, that she had when she sought out sex and love later in life. When she finished, she went to the library and picked out an agent at random from Literary Marketplace. Several publishers ended up vying for the title. Now two published memoirs later, Juska keeps on keeping on. Her book reviews and essays have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Vogue, Self, Madison, Good Housekeeping and on byliner.com and in anthologies Single Woman of a Certain Age, Mommy Wars and Behind the Bedroom Door.
ON AGING: "(My granddaughter Chancey) is the only person I know in the whole of my world for whom old age is not a big deal, but just is. So I can say to her, without fear of contradiction, 'I don't remember names very well anymore,' and she will say, 'That's OK, Grandma -- you're old'...With my granddaughter, I need not worry when my medium-to-poor balance causes me to stumble: 'Don't tip over, Grandma -- you'd make a big crash.' With her parents, it's "Same here. I'm not as steady as I used to be." Forty is young, I want to tell them. If you need symptoms, get some of your own.
"Not very nice, am I? Chancey would understand, though. I'm going to teach her the word 'curmudgeon.'" ("Lady Chats" by Jane Juska, Good Housekeeping, April 2013)