The thing about another year rolling around is that everything’s a year older. In the span of the cosmos, this is nothing. For human beings, it’s a sobering reminder that time is running out. (If you think it’s bad being a human, try being a dog. Or a fruit fly.) So it’s not unusual for people to think, “I wish I’d done that, but it’s too late now.” No, it’s not. Jeez.
I’ve lost some weight, and as I looked in the mirror the other day, I thought, “Too bad I’m too old to wear a bikini; about ten more pounds and I could rock one again.” And then I thought, “That’s dumb. I can wear a bikini now if I want. I can wear anything I want.” (It helps tremendously that Helen Mirren looks great in a bikini and she’s four years older than I am.) Along the same lines, I’ve been struggling to finish a book, and I actually had the thought, “Maybe I’m too old to write.” Then I remembered I’m Jennifer Crusie, so fuck that. Age is not a barrier unless you want to be the youngest in something. No thank you, I’m good where I am.
I think any time after mid-life is the perfect time to try something new and daring. You’ve got a lot of experience under your belt and you have a pretty good grasp on what you like and don’t like. You’ve probably made peace with most of the stuff that made you crazy before forty, and if you’re smart, you’ve offloaded the people who were garbaging up your life to concentrate on the people you want to share it with. You’re in prime creative territory. You should go for it.
! decided to be a writer when I was 40. I’d dabbled in it before, but never took it seriously. I went to a couple of writer’s conferences because a friend, Sandy Focht, wanted to go, but I couldn’t quite connect. Maybe later, I thought. I got a masters in feminist criticism because I was more interested in talking about what somebody had written than in writing myself, and a dual concentration in technical writing because the tech writing prof, Mary Beth Pringle, was my mentor. (She once suggested that I try fiction and I said, “Me? Not possible.”) And then in 1990, I thought, Huh. I think I’ll write a book, and I sat down and started to write. I sold my first book in 1991 and then my career ate my life, but it’s been an amazing second act.
Turns out, I’m not unusual. There’s something about the midlife-and-after that opens up possibilities. Take the people in this Cracked.com essay: 5 Famous People Who Succeeded Long After They Should’ve Quit. According to Cracked:
• Alan Rickman got his first movie role at 46. (In Die Hard.)
• Roget invented the thesaurus at 73.
• Joseph Conrad was a sailor, drifter and part-time criminal until 37.
• Kathryn Joosten got her first acting role at 56. (She won two Emmys.)
• Colonel Sanders started Kentucky Fried Chicken at 65.
Wallace Stevens was in his forties when he finished his first book of poetry; he won the Pulitzer twice (and my heart with “A Jar in Tennessee), and he punched Hemingway in the jaw when he was 47. But my particular fave is Anna Mary Robertson Moses who started painting at 76 when her arthritis made embroidery too painful. Whenever I think about my lost art career, I remember Grandma Moses. Plenty of time.
Malcolm Gladwell had an interesting essay called Late Bloomers in The New Yorker. In it he cites the research of economist David Galenson who argued that the difference between prodigies (those whippersnappers like Mozart) and late bloomers is in the difference between their approaches. Prodigies are conceptual, according to Galenson: “They start out with a clear idea of where they want to go and then they execute it.”
But late bloomers work the other way around. (In this context a late bloomer may have started young but only achieves greatness later in life, after many years.) Galen calls them “experimental innovators,” people who have to research and understand and hone their skills in order to figure out what they want to do. They don’t start knowing, they search and learn in order to find out what they want to do. As Gladwell puts it, “The Cézannes of the world bloom late not as a result of some defect in character, or distraction, or lack of ambition, but because the kind of creativity that proceeds through trial and error necessarily takes a long time to come to fruition.”
I’d thought of myself as a late bloomer because I didn’t start writing seriously until I was 40, but put in the context of experimental innovation, I could see that I’d been unconsciously researching story from the time I could read. My music collection as I was growing up was show tunes (STORY!), the strict librarian at our small town library let me go into the adult stacks early because I’d read everything in the kids’ library, I wrote satirical stories about my high school that my best friend passed around during classes. My big dream was to be a journalist, but my mother put paid to that when she insisted I become a teacher so I’d always have a good job and then when I got married and had kids, I could quit. (The old “my mother didn’t understand me” is glaringly true in my case.) So I became an art teacher because art is telling a story, insisting that my students be able to explain the art they made, tell me the story of making it. And when I went back for my masters and became an English teacher, I taught by telling stories. “This is what the writer was trying to do, this is how it can be read, what story do you read into this, what does it mean to you?” My whole life was about story, and I had to spend the first part of my life doing what I did to understand it so that I could begin to write at 40.
I think that’s the most important thing about living a full life: embracing what’s happening to you, learning new things, doing new things, thinking about things, not so that you’ll acquire a skill or achieve a success, but so that you’ll understand how the things that are important to you work. It’s a liberal arts education spread out over a lifetime. I could never have looked back over my life at 40 and said, “Of course, I’ve been preparing all my life to be a writer of fiction.” I just needed to have lived that life in order to grow into what I needed to be. And it’s entirely possible that I’m growing into a different life now, that everything that has gone before is coalescing into something new. That’s incredibly exciting. Thank god I’m old enough to have so much to draw on.
So it’s a new year, and you’re standing on top of a collection of life experiences, some more extensive than others (whippersnappers). You don’t know where you’re going and you’re not sure of everywhere you’ve been, but you’re relentlessly moving toward where you need to be. Enjoy the trip, accept that everything will become part of you and who you’re going to be, and for the love of god, don’t tell yourself you’re too old to go where you need to go. It’s time to bloom.
(I don’t want this to depress anybody under thirty. This is your time to gather experience, and I’m sure you can do great things, too.)
Happy New Year, Argh People! Embrace the future, it’s coming at you anyway.