Whenever somebody needs a reminder that you can switch gears and try something new late in life, the inevitable example is Anna Mary Robertson Moses, better known as Grandma Moses. She famously took up painting at the age of 78 and turned out to be very good at it. Her paintings found their way into museums around the world, got printed on greeting cards and other merchandise, and eventually sold for north of $1 million. Her work even ended up on a postage stamp – the true mark that you’ve arrived. It helped that she lived another 23 years.
What you may not know is that Grandma Moses had been a hobby artist for a long, long time. She always had an interest in art – and did a lot of quilting and decorating around the house as an adult – but was so busy as a farmer, money earner, wife and mother that she couldn’t pursue it as a vocation until much later in life. She only took up painting as an elderly woman because her arthritis hampered her from doing much else.
There are probably numerous other examples of people who found a new calling late in life, and ended up being successful at it. But Grandma Moses is the one who always gets trotted out, so she’s become the beacon everyone grasps onto whenever they get an epiphany that they are destined to be motocross racers after 40 years in the accounting business.
I mention this for two reasons.
One, the Covid-19 lockdown has left a lot of people with a lot of time on their hands, and so they’re thinking about finally trying something they’ve always wanted to do but never had the time. Maybe they’re taking up a musical instrument, learning how to build furniture, or trying to make the perfect tamale.
Two, I’ve personally spent the last couple of years taking a dive at writing fiction after decades of doing other things. It’s not exactly a huge departure. I was a newspaper and magazine writer and editor for most of my adult life, so I’ve always been a writer of sorts. I majored in English in college and took the requisite number of creative writing courses. This is not new territory for me.
The results of my latter-day fiction career have been mixed. I self-published a book of short stories that got into a couple of bookstores and sells on Amazon, but frankly, anyone with a word processing program and money to spend can do that. There is literally nothing magical about it. And if I were to depend on sales of that book to eat, I could eat at Denny’s for a couple of weeks as long as I ordered the lunch special and drank ice water instead of anything else.
I wrote a novel a couple years ago that has not found a publisher and probably never will. I got one rave review after entering it in a contest, and for a hot minute I had visions of grandeur. But the final judges were not quite as enthused, so now I’m left with a sense of accomplishment – the memory of actually completing the damn thing, and actually enjoying the process – and not much else. I did my duty by pitching it around to lots of agents and publishers and there are no regrets. I’ll try to learn from the feedback I’ve gotten and take another shot at it.
On the bright side, I have won a couple of short story prizes and had stories published in a book by a publisher here in the UK. Those accomplishments are enough to keep me going, and what the hell, it’s fun sometimes. I’ll keep doing it, even though I know the odds of me ever taking this to a higher level are so slim you need a microscope to see them. You just don’t find a lot of successful authors who start past their 50th birthdays. What’s more, writers don’t necessarily get better with age. Many of the successful ones hit the high notes in their 20s, 30s or 40s, and then live off their reputations after that. You tend to take more risks as a younger person and have less fear. Risk is one of the keys to creativity, and fear is one of the killers. Still, there’s always the chance…..
But even if I didn’t have aspirations as a fiction writer, I’d still be determined to enjoy new things late in life. Being a husband and father is one of them. Living abroad and traveling around is another. Then you just discover new passions, sometimes by accident.
A few years ago I started listening to a lot of jazz after spending most of my life as an avid fan of rock, R&B and pop. I’d always been a casual jazz fan, but never got too terribly deep into it. Then I started listening to it as background music while working from home. I began noticing things I didn’t notice before. The improvisation. The sudden shifts in tempo and scale. The way a drummer plays off the trumpet and the bass leads the piano and then the piano leads the bass.
I heard things I’d never heard before. The way Miles Davis mutes his playing in such a way that his instrument is almost breathing on its own. How John Coltrane sprints up and down the keys so that it should sound chaotic but comes out making perfect sense, in an almost algebraic way. The way Thelonious Monk finds notes that shouldn’t even exist. I just bought a CD from trumpeter Art Farmer that has opened my eyes and ears to a whole other sound. It keeps evolving, and that’s the beauty of it. Here in London I go see live jazz regularly, which opens up even more doors.
Lately I’ve become more than a little infatuated with Japanese literature, mostly crime fiction but not exclusively. I have no idea if it’s a matter of translation, but there is an addictive economy to Japanese writers. They don’t waste words. They don’t overindulge in language. They can tingle your skin with a phrase or an afterthought. They can write a nine-word sentence that has more power and magic than anything you’ll find in those 50-word ramblings you find in some of the English classics.
I’ve tried to get hooked on soccer living over here in London, but it’s still a work in progress.
On the other hand, I am now a convert to European lagers.
I look forward to the next passion, because there will certainly be one. Arabic music? Some cuisine I never tried before? Maybe I’ll finally learn how to repair and tune up my own bicycle after all these years of telling myself I would. Or, maybe not.
The point is, you never stop learning, growing and trying new things. And the COVID-19 pandemic is the perfect time to do so. Go forth and prosper.