First, there was the article in Sunday’s paper on Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett. Then today I heard that Barbara Streisand’s latest album made it to #1 on iTunes.
Bennett is 88, Streisand 72. These are the better known old people who are still making hay with their creative gifts, and we are all the more grateful for it. Then there’s the truly awesome Helen Mirren, who at 69, keeps taking creative risks both on stage and screen.
And the writers—my people—who keep cranking away: P.D. James, 94; Joyce Carol Oates, 76; Julian Barnes, 68; Martin Amis, 65; Paul Auster, 67. And Philip Roth, who hung in there until he was 79.
Endless: this list of creative people who keep being creative. And the research goes on: how long into our decrepitude can we hope to be creative? To stay creative?
It depends, sort of.
If we have made a life-long habit of being creative—in music, art, writing, science, math, or technology—it would seem that we have a slight advantage over those who come to creative endeavors at an advanced age.
Whatever “advanced” might mean. My father, a fairly good singer throughout his life, including as a member of several barbershop quartets, would often say, “We McCarthy’s are late bloomers.” My maiden name is McCarthy and I can say, as concerns my own experience, this is true.
I didn’t graduate college until I was 28, which, in 1971, was considered old. I didn’t get my master’s degree until I was 45 (pretty darn old for that kind of thing in 1988); didn’t get published or start my professional life as a teacher until shortly thereafter (closing in on 50); and didn’t become a published author* until I was damn near 65.
Which is why, I suppose, I like working with adults who are new to writing as a creative pursuit. It has been a hard won practice for me—and I remain an imperfect practitioner—so I enjoy sharing what I’ve learned with those who, like myself, have come late to this particular party.
Consider, then, LaChapelle’s Five Habits of Highly Effective Writers (especially Newbies of a Certain Age.)
1. We must honor the practice by consciously making space for it on our weekly calendars. Doesn’t matter how many hours a week we can realistically devote to writing, but we must write down those days and hours, than strictly adhere to them.
2. We must let everyone in our family, and among our friends and co-workers know of this weekly commitment. They must support our adherence to it.
3. We must read more than we write. Much more. And the really good stuff, except for the crap novels we get to read before falling asleep (at night).
4. We must join a community of writers who support our endeavors, especially by telling us the truth about our work. Their remarks should not be mean or ugly or green with envy. But they should react honestly—as readers—to what we have put on the page.
5. Finally, we must regularly submit our writing for publication. We do this by setting goals such as: I will send out my writing every two months. Or four. Or whatever is realistic given the truth of our non-writing life. I think it helps to set a modest goal, then raise the bar as we go along.
I recall Scott Turow once saying that at the beginning of his writing life—while he still toiling full time as a lawyer—that if he could get one story—not even an entire novel—but one story published a year, then he could call himself a writer.
I believe that those of us who write and submit our writing regularly can do likewise.
*Finding Your Voice, Telling Your Stories (Marion Street Press, 2008)